Postmodern Feelings: Poetry In The Digital Age


“I don’t wear brown and grey suits all the time, do I?,” writes Frank O’Hara in his poem, My Heart. He continues:

“No. I wear workshirts to the opera,

often. I want my feet to be bare,

I want my face to be shaven, and my heart—

you can’t plan on the heart, but

the better part of it, my poetry, is open.”

Ever since we have learned how to communicate, ever since we have been witness to the depth and complexity of speech and what it can do, we have been trying to speak and make connections. Whether it’s a desire to talk about one’s self and motivations, or a necessity to form rapport, words have been a significant asset to our daily lives.

From printed books to digital publications

What is the state of poetry these days? The emergence of new tools and technology has paved the way for major change in the world of publishing, especially printed books. It took a while, but finally a lot of writers have embraced the medium, and are now open to having their work distributed digitally. For poets though, the movement to acceptance is a bit slow—but it’s getting there.

Five years ago, the story was a bit different. Poetry was considered to be “the least adaptable to the growing e-book market,” primarily because of its form. Billy Collins, one of America’s most beloved contemporary poets and a former US poet laureate, further elaborates: “The critical difference between prose and poetry is that prose is kind of like water and will become the shape of any vessel you pour it into. Poetry is like a piece of sculpture and can easily break.”

Award-winning poet Edward Hirsch adds: “I have mixed feelings about poetry and e-books. I don’t think it’s the best way to read…but it also seems important to have poetry available wherever possible.” And so most poetry, at the time, shunning e-books, eventually found its comfort zone in the recesses of the internet, where websites and blogs could share various works but still be able to preserve the form.

It would be years before digital publishing eventually solves this problem. Jeff Shotts, executive editor of Graywolf Press, says: “The line is the unit in which poetry is communicated, and the technology of most e-books is unfriendly to that unit.” See, it’s not just the format per se but the instrument as well. Devices, too, have to make some progress and be ready for poetry.

Christopher Richards, an assistant editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux agrees: “The visual look of a poem is really important and can communicate a kind of meaning, and if it’s not preserved in the e-book, you really lose something.”

Today, digital poetry is now possible, and more accurate, albeit a heavy investment on e-book technology is a must for publishers.

From oral tradition to digital distribution

Another aspect of poetry undergoing a digital renaissance is the preservation of audio and video recordings. In this regard, PennSound, based out of the University of Pennsylvania, has been at the helm of building a massive online archive of free and downloadable content. These are of poets reading their own work, either done during a private recording session or during a lecture or public speaking engagement.

PennSound is one of the most important resources in the world of academia, but also a continuing cultural heritage. Its collection is a veritable who’s who of some of the most well-known literary circles of our time—combining both traditional and canonical, as well as postmodern and experimental poets.

Meanwhile, other online streaming repositories, such as Audioboom, also hosts notable literary podcasts, such as Poetry Off the Shelf, Poetry Magazine, BBC Radio’s Poetry Postcards, as well as Slate’s Poetry Podcast, among others. On YouTube, slam poetry is also a popular topic.

The great perhaps

Poets, whose relationship with meaning is as important as their relationship with language, are perchance more spiritually connected to the how and why of what we say. Words are function and economy, yes, but it is also art—a way of explaining things to ourselves and the world. It is a system of pointing and naming, as Gertrude Stein says. It is an enduring form of human connection that evolves as we evolve.

All of this to say – these permutations that have emerged over the years are perhaps proof that despite a seemingly inevitable move towards the digital, the unknown landscape is still very much a place where poets can learn to live and thrive. To echo O’Hara, once again, this time in his work, Autobiographia Literaria: “And here I am, the / center of all beauty! / writing these poems! / Imagine!”