Friday, December 10, 2010

Things continue in much the same way they have always done

I got a link, via Cam, to this New Scientist piece about digital poetry. It's one of those pieces that is about new developments in the poetry world, only the new developments that are talked about aren't exactly new, and were mostly developed years ago.

For instance:
“It's hard to pick any quality that is essential to digital poetry, but there is a set of things and interactivity is one"
Anybody who grew up reading Choose Your Own Adventure Books or their antecedents know that this idea has been around for a while. I've made my own modest contributions to 'interactive' poetry here. (And the existence of the html code for that is good evidence that lots of other people have been doing similar things, I don't want to make any claims of originality for myself.)

Oh, also:
If people don't want to read poetry books, maybe the answer is to send them text messages. That is the idea behind Cell Poems, a journal that publishes via text message. It may sound frivolous, but the journal publishes original works by well-known poets and was honoured with the National Book Foundation's 2010 Innovations in Reading award.
When I first came to Melbourne about six years ago I remember they were advertising on television a 'flirty-poem' service, whereby you would text in the message 'FLIRTY' to a certain number and get a poem back - I even had a few sent to my phone because I had the vague idea of doing a review of them (Yeah, right – Ed.*) Mel and the rest of the Is Not Magazine team had a regular text-message story in their publication, too. Just how many times do you have to innovate with an innovation before it stops being innovative anymore?

But anyway, it’s not just the supposedly-original ideas that are silly, it’s the claims too. They quote the Cell Poems website
Our goal is not to shrink attention spans... we hope to present work that has undergone the duress of revision and come out hard-boiled and striking...
and leave you wondering, how can something have undergone ‘duress’ and come out ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘striking’ at the same time? Why trust the literary judgment of someone who comes up with a clumsy mixed metaphor while talking about the importance of literary revision? I’m sure they publish some good material, but holding them up as exemplars of some fantastically original idea is self-defeating.

They also say, twice:
Digital poets and programs free verse from the page

But despite the criticisms, there is no doubt that digital poets are taking a first shot at answering an important question: what will poetry become now it is freed from the printed page?
Which kind of assumes poems have up until now been limited or imprisoned on the page, though they aren't now and haven't ever been - anymore than a Bach cello suite is trapped in Yo-Yo Ma's cello. Just ask blind poets like Milton or Homer, or listen to a few ballads sung by artists like Steeleye Span or Leonard Cohen. Poetry was first a spoken-and-sung art and has continued that way, so a more realistic claim might be that technology has freed poetry from nothing and done nothing in particular to make it new. Though try that headline out on the media: ‘things continue in much the same way they have always done’. It doesn’t sound quite so inspiring, does it?

People have been claiming their art is new and exciting ever since being new and exciting was the new and exciting thing. The western fondness for novelty has been around since the Enlightenment, I’d guess – but with that fondness comes an increasing susceptibility to claims that something is original when it’s actually not. The analogy we use for this nowadays is ‘reinventing the wheel’, but poetry was never a tool like the wheel and wasn’t invented in the first place. So I think a better analogy is a person saying that they’ve invented this marvellous substance called ‘water’ – you can drink it, you can place it in tubs and bathe in it, if you’ve got lots of it you can swim in it, you can even decorate it with sand and put it in front of your house and turn it (your house, I mean, not the water) into a beachside property! Though in fact water has been there all along.

And so has poetry.

*I’ve no idea who that Ed guy is, he pops up from time to time.

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