Poetry in a Digital Age

By Mary Beth Zeman

When the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who has been called the father of English literature,
wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s, manuscripts were handwritten and copied , and this epic poem was not available to the masses until nearly one hundred years later, after the invention of the printing press.

Today, thanks to an explosion of technology, distribution of the printed word is changing exponentially. From the Internet to social media plat forms such as Twitter and Facebook, poets and writers of all forms of literature have numerous outlets for their creativity, while the reading audience has vast and rich resources available right at their computer keyboards.

How is the digital age changing the culture of poets , and of the audience who reads them? WP Magazine asked Department of English facult y who write and teach poetry to weigh in on the topic —and to share a piece of poetry with our readers.

Charlotte Nekola, Professor of English
“My study of poetry began long before these media were born. Like William Carlos Williams, I typed out my poems on an old Royal typewriter, sometimes revising them almost fifty
times, enjoying the visual impact of rearranging the words and stanzas…enjoying the collage of papers on the floor, proof of my industry. And then there was the great moment of The Final Copy. All of this is to say, poetry, and the making of it, involves the passage of time. There is poetry in the process of making it. And time is often its subject. It is true that instant media could encourage compression of language, which is sought in poetry. But is it thoughtful compression? Is it good practice for poetry? I am not sure.”

Trapeze Song*
By Charlotte Nekola
Roscoe, Roscoe, I say, catch me,
but you say fly with your eyes closed,
and all the dogs in their Queen Elizabeth collars
will sit up and wave.
Suddenly, the bareback riders stop quarreling.
The citizens of Toledo gasp at once,
hold their hats and hems,
and see themselves in plumes
as they wheel their bodies again
and again across empty space and hope
that someone will catch their wrists.
Below, the beds of sawdust shift.
Roscoe, you caught me, I say afterward,
but you say no, you caught me,
and we toast each other with schnapps and pork chops,
still wrapped in our robes, shining like trouts,
as another solid town and city hall
wash past our window. Our breathing behind us,
our sleeves lift.

Timothy Liu, Professor of English
“While poetry remains poetry, technology is the delivery system. The printing press, the typewriter, the word processor, Facebook and Twitter— all have had a profound effect on culture and writing (not just poetry). In the twenty-first century, the way we consume poems continues to evolve… Most students now would never think of buying a book of poems (let
alone an audio CD or DVD film) when they can download whatever is free out there on the Web. Poems of my own are more likely to be translated into other languages when they are published online. Instead of licking envelopes and stamps to send work out for publication, you’re now just a few mouse clicks away. All that said, the hard work of writing a poem
remains, a poem not only for our own time but for times to come.”

THE ASSIGNATION
By Timothy Liu
You said: come outside—
all the planets are still in the sky.
I wanted to linger awhile

longer—dawn’s champagne light
drowning out whatever there was

to be seen: books that fell
off the shelves in the latest quake
lying face down on the floor.

We knew what thoughts to write
in the thought balloons floating

above our heads, only didn’t know
how to start on the animation
and get ourselves beyond

deadlines. A sprained ankle kept us
from a world that didn’t want

to wait. Couldn’t remember where
the car was parked, only fishnet
stockings dusted with glitter

left on those bucket seats reclined
back as far as they could go—

Christopher Salerno, Assistant Professor of English
“Poetry thrives in a world of high technology as long as its language doesn’t become as familiar as the language of technology. As long as readers aren’t competing with the pushed pace of technological transactions, the art will be fine. That said, the role of technology in our lives (to make life easier, smoother, more convenient) can undermine the role of poetry. Surprise is so important. Poetry must maintain its ability to startle. On the other hand, our lives are technological. Our poetry then should honor the times in which we are living. We cannot pretend to be living in the nineteenth century for the sake of the purity of art. Poetry can do its thing regardless of the bits and bytes that are used to present it to us on a screen. Why not take a cue from the high Modernists and use poetry to reflect the fragmented, sped up, technological state we live in?”

12:52PM | 9/30/12 | WTHDRWL
By Christopher Salerno

In line behind a lady, my automatic distance
(to her, the curb
behind me, the bank parking lot
full of cars)—
we are relearning arrangement
and remainder.
That all remaining choices are either physical
or financial—
the money inside the money alive.
I approach the ATM’s outer shell. Stand there.
It comes up
to my liver. The chambers of the heart
and lungs polish the breath.
I smell the wet wood chips off the path.
Here comes
my old supervisor with hail on his coat.
It’s warmer now, the planet.
We wait for the wonderful machine to cough
up my balance. I want to be
automatically the only one alive.
I notice a large robin
egg on the sidewalk.
Near the building, some tulips open
too wide to go on living.

John Parras, Professor of English
“There’s nothing like the threat of a new technology to spur artists to untold heights and depths. As photography gave a new impetus to painting—which needed to adapt in order to compete with the camera’s realistic images—perhaps the Internet and its various related media will, albeit unwittingly, encourage poets to revive the art of wordsmithing in ways we cannot yet imagine. To students, I often portray poetry, and literary reading in general, as an oasis from the lurid onslaught of electronic media in all its forms—television, video, Internet. It’s an oasis and a true contemplative experience that perhaps students have not yet had the pleasure of indulging in. I believe there is some potential for actually writing poetry on Facebook, Twitter, or similar mediums, but I don’t see that any serious poet has yet taken up the challenge in any serious manner. I believe it will be up to the next generation of poets to appropriate electronic mediums—to make them mediums of art rather than mediums of business or consumption, which is what they essentially are now.”

Mayakovsky in Baltimore
By John Parras

The song belongs in the pond, belongs
where you can’t see it
(as blindly a poet loves half
Moscow’s Bolshevik birds)

the song belongs before you can hear it, before
the cloud pulls on pants and knots its gray tie

before you pretend it, before you chew it over
hum up along derelict construction sites in razors of wind
looking for barbers and girls where none are

belongs the snow beneath the body of an old woman
before Mayakovsky’s hackney arrived
after the song of St. Petersburg tires
the hotel room window nervous with taxicabs

the song belongs with the smell of her, her
fruits and hairs pacing their cages behind

then a window stoops down to pick someone up
and the birds slow out of electricity and the moon
unplugs itself from the sky all because where

you stand belong knots of buffeting kisses
Tanik draws a red scarf around her Paris song
the carriage awaits words of war and apricots
stamping hooves on the cobblestones of philosophy

while inside warm rooms small animals in the blood
sing hotly of lust and pond-beds, sing how
this fervent wanting hurts the fevered throng.

*New Letters, Winter/Spring 1986, p. 244; Big Wednesday, Summer 1990;
Aired on National Public Radio, 1986; Reprinted in the anthology Eating Her
Wedding Dress (2010), and nominated by that publication for the Pushcart
Poetry Prize

04/26/13