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Twenty-First Century Poetry and Poetics
Poetry Salzburg Review 18

What does it mean to be a twenty-first century poet? We are still living with the traces of the twentieth century all around us; but the mounting importance of the Internet (and other, related technologies) is changing mass-consciousness (and with it, perhaps, the Collective Unconscious) with incredible speed and also, as far as the Internet is concerned, with a sense of permanence. The Net has altered most of our lives in ways none of us could have foreseen twenty (or even ten) years ago. The proliferation of blogs and online journals has signaled major changes in the way new poetry is disseminated— new poems are published with greater rapidity, and for wider audiences. It is no longer as drastically difficult for a poet to reach a wide audience as it has been in the past; however, gaining respect from the old guard is quite another issue. Academic institutions have generally been slow to recognize online publications; and, to the extent that the old guard is often affixed to academic posts, a battle of generations has erupted that calls into question what party holds the reins of power as regards the future of poetry and poetry dissemination. But the days and years tell us unequivocally that this is a new century; that what worked before might not necessarily work now; that currents and tides moving mass consciousness cannot be ignored; and that the evolution of poetry into an again-relevant cultural art-form may depend on what perceived relationships subsist between poetry and nascent mass consciousness. We can, thus, begin to examine in depth what constitutes Internet consciousness, as it relates to poetry and poets. Facebook is as good a place to start as any; a site dedicated to the development of individually based, collectively shaped communities. Many (though not all) poets have elected to maintain Facebook pages. On these pages, poets can, at any moment, posit a “status update” for themselves and their friends. These status updates can take many forms— adverts for new online publications (which might include links), quips, complaints, even gibberish or Jabberwocky-level nonsense. But with these updates, a younger poet is empowered to reach an audience of hundreds (or even, sometimes, thousands). Poets who are used to Facebook or take it for granted tend to forget what it represents (and what some online publications also represent)— the problem of geography solved, to a greater extent than was ever possible in the past. For centuries, poets have been limited by geographical constraints— unable to communicate with a wide audience at once. The level of empowerment that Facebook grants poets is substantial— a ready community, whenever one wants it. Poets can comment on one another’s status updates, “like” them or actually leave added comments, and all this can happen almost instantaneously. What Facebook amounts to is a perpetual stage— poetry, perhaps the least performative of the major art-forms, becomes performative online. Facebook, and the Internet in general, have created ferment and excitement around poetry that has no precise parallel in the history of English literature. They cut across boundaries of place, nationality, sex, age, religion and even genre; it is not surprising that dramas, intrigues, and wars are often engendered online. But, where the Internet is concerned, Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg. With so many online journals operative, it would be unfair to single out journals for praise and analysis (though Jacket would be an obvious choice); rather, it might be more profitable to gaze at another level of the Internet’s seminal influence on this generation’s poets: the demands of reading poetry online, and the skills poets have developed to cope with these new demands. This will also lead us to realizations as to why online formats are (in some ways) ideal for poetry consumption, in some advantages they confer over print. This is the most common complaint voiced by older poets about the Internet— that it is difficult to read poems online. While online consumption of poems is certainly an acquired skill, it is by no means unattainable, though it requires concentration. There are some distinct, unavoidable disadvantages to reading poems online— you cannot scribble in the margins (as poets are wont to do), and, unless you have a laptop (which many poets do), you cannot carry the poems around with you. Nevertheless, the compensations are more extreme than the disadvantages— the way one click can take a reader from one journal to another, from a link to a journal, from a blog to a journal, ad infinitum. This kind of mobility makes the lives of younger poets more fluid, exciting, and stimulating than they have been at almost any other juncture in poetry history. The excitement is largely specific to poetry— poems, because of their brevity and tendency towards compressed form, are ideal for the formats available online. Longer works of fiction and non-fiction require too much concentrated attention to make sustained online reading tenable (though as online reading skills and technologies, like Kindles, develop over the coming decades, this may change); online reading of poems is very tenable indeed. Because this is so, poetry has received a very welcome infusion of new, vital energy; this infusion has resulted (as has been said, but it bears repeating) in a feeling of empowerment among younger poets, and has killed off the terrible lethargy of the second half of the twentieth century, where poetry is concerned. All the lax movements, the dull rhetoric and the third-rate texts (often bandied about as treasures) may fade from vision; who survives in this century may be determined by who is able to woo this benevolent beast, the Internet, in the most artful, thoroughgoing fashion. Projecting these circumstances into the future, questions arise as to how memorable poems and poetry books will be preserved. Print libraries and archives remain the accepted channels; however, changing technologies may make these repositories more obsolescent than poets have ever imagined. Online archives like Pennsound have already developed, to collect, maintain, and preserve sound recordings of poets reading their texts. This makes sense for poems presented orally, wherein all the audience has to do is sit back and listen. Online archives for poetry texts have yet to be established on a wide, solid basis, though there are niches here and there where they exist. It seems likely that at a certain moment of time a balance will be struck between print resources and online ones; successful poets and poetry texts will be disseminated and preserved in print and online formats simultaneously. This creates a scenario that is already largely in place— that print poetry books, never big money-makers, will become even less successful when portions of these book, even entire portions of these books, are available online for free. The Net is, to some degree, an egalitarian phenomenon, that flouts (at least in the material sense) the rules that dictated prior monetary arrangements, where poetry is concerned. Poets will make less money than they ever have from poetry (though this is usually not much); but they will be read by far greater numbers of people than would have been possible in the past. Just as a wildly vast audience embraced Lord Byron in Regency England, vast audiences will be more attainable to gifted poets than has ever been the case before. This may not alter the material characteristics of poets’ lives, but it will buoy them up with the knowledge that they are being read, preserved, and treasured for the original works they spawn. This seems to me to be the ultimate goal: once the young generation has experienced the empowering influence of the Internet, they may translate these feelings of empowerment into poetry texts that can surpass the traces that their predecessors have left in their books. Without pointing fingers, it is worthwhile to note how little artists in other disciplines have been inspired by English-language poetry of the last fifty years. Poetry and poets have fallen out of circulation; contemporary poets are not referenced by contemporary painters, sculptors, dancers, serious musicians or architects with any frequency. Poets that do not feel empowered tend to create hermetic texts for small coteries; narrow in scope, limited in vision, minimally efficacious in reaching wide audiences. The Internet has the power, in this new twenty-first century, to open up that scope and widen that vision, so that poets may, in fact, make this an excellent century for English language poetry. In an America plagued by recession and never-ending political battles, this may not be the time for prophecy; but the Internet is its own New America, and can be taken seriously as one key to the fate of this art-form, poetry, that needs to be made new all over again. One facet of the Internet and of Internet poetry dissemination which needs to be investigated, is its ideological affinities and affiliations. If there is a centralized Internet ideology, and if it does fall under an aegis, is it European or American? It is arguable that the superficial aspects of Net consciousness are American ones— how fast, fluid, and without boundaries it is, but also how centered on quantification, and thus, potentially, juvenile competitiveness. American artists brag about their “banks” full of cultural capital. American Net ideology, in its most crass form, is just an extension of standardized American ideology— naïve belief in the desirability of infinite material gain. The problem American art ideologies have always run into is that the European imperative to “look before and after” is often ignored. Higher artists without deep roots are not higher artists. Americans sacrifice things on the altar of the present, always. European Net consciousness differentiates itself in websites crafted to appear as simple and stark as possible. The emphasis is on the long-term potential of works, especially works of poetry, meant to speak for themselves. Even so, the Net has engendered a literary atmosphere against classicism, in that having a vocal impact is possible for anyone. As Western society becomes more stratified against individual voices, a dose of the “ideal American” is a positive development. The Net, more than literature itself, creates a site for the combination and recombination of American and European impulses. This site emanates a composite ideology that is still in the process of defining itself. The future of all these developments is uncertain. What happens, for example, on the Net during a World War? Would a major international crisis slow things to a halt? Too much about the Net has not been “lived through” yet, so that looking before and after is very difficult. What is conjectured here is that there will be some kind of continuance, so that the movement of poetry and other forms of literature online will perpetuate itself into a future, however abrasive it may be. The very act of writing about the Internet in 2011 is inherently American— it amounts to shooting an arrow into empty space (many of its targets only exist in the future). Yet if one attempts to perpetuate an American ideology while looking before and after, one realizes at the same time the terrible incompleteness of the attempt. In 2011, it cannot be any other way. There is, in any defined moment, a singularity which in fact precludes definition. What cannot be denied is that, as a poetry century, the twenty-first is underway. If there seems to be an evident lack of nostalgia among poets in reference to the twentieth, it can only be a positive development. Adam Fieled