In the seventh of his twelve lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, the late Geoffrey Hill took issue with the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, over her assertion in a Guardian interview that poetry was a form of texting. Hill, who was ‘policing his patch’, retorted that texting was no more than a truncated form of communication. In view of the internet’s increasing influence and capacity for mass communication, he could also have commented on the Poet Laureate’s opinion that ‘the Facebook generation is the future’…. and that ‘poetry is the perfect form for them.’
In America now, the Academy of American Poets attracts more than three hundred and fifty thousand readers daily with its digital Poem-a-Day series, boasting the most comprehensive and robust website in the world for poets, readers and educators, reaching more than twenty million Americans each year. Membership of the Academy is rewarded with a card, rather like a credit card, which authorises various benefits as well as serving as ‘a reminder of the critical role you play in nurturing the art of poetry.’ In England, the Poetry Society which has its own website and operates on Facebook and Twitter, uses the internet to publicise poetry events, features poetry by contemporary and past poets and covers poetry news in general.
There is, however, an essential difference between poetry (ancient and modern) that is accessible on the internet and poetry that is written specifically for the internet. The latter marks a complete break with what has gone before in relation to subject-matter and technique and uses the web as the basis for its work. The more light-hearted practitioners, such as exponents of Flarf, gather strange bits of language from Google searches and stick them together as poetry, while Spam poetry is composed primarily from the content of spam email messages. Alt Lit, another manifestation of internet poetry, has been described as ‘a kind of pointedly botched poetry whose writers cultivate bad spelling, weird punctuation and sincere statements of the obvious.’ More serious are the apologists for internet poetry, who believe that by abandoning anything that resembles traditional poetry, they are gaining freedom for poetry to be expressed in new ways, such as being allied to other art forms. But their use of screenshots (selected images of what can be seen on a computer screen) and image macros (pictures with overlaid texts) is just computer wizardry rather than original thought – a skill rather than a creative process and is one step away from programming a computer to ‘write poetry’, or what might be called robotic poetry. At the very least, this combining with other ‘host’ art forms in single images diminishes the nature of poetry to a fleeting impression. It is as if nothing of value is attributed to longevity or tradition, an attitude that is reflected in the use of instantaneous and simplistic ideograms as a form of criticism.
An association with another art form has, anyway, all been done before without diminishing the power of the text. William Blake’s illustrations to his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (1789) are an obvious example, where it is the text that is remembered, not the illustrations, however much they might be an attractive addition. The same goes for Edward Lear’s drawings for his nonsense poems or Stevie Smith’s sketches which accompany her poems.
It is unfortunate that the touch screen nature of computer use offers an easy platform for self-promotion in the field of poetry. But the writing of poetry is not an entitlement, although campaigns such as the Poetry Society’s 2015 National Poetry Day which featured the slogans ‘Love like a Poet, Speak like a Poet, Act like a Poet, Dream like a Poet, Live like a Poet, Think like a Poet’ might encourage one to think so. The internet can and does play an important part in the promotion of poetry both past and present. But what needs to be emphasised is the derivative nature of much of the poetry that is specifically written for the internet and its dependence on the web for material. Poetry should come from personal inspiration, not from an internet search engine.
By Paul Gittins
Paul Gittins: I was educated at Exeter College, Oxford where I read English Literature. My first book, a poetry anthology ‘Portraits in Verse’ was published in 1997 by The Perpetua Press, Oxford. In 2014, ‘Scratching Around’, a selection of my poems, was published by Editions Illador in English and bilingual English-French editions. Also in 2014, ‘On Track’, my biography of my grandfather, railway pioneer in Siam and Canada, was published by River Books (See review in Mail on Sunday 16/11/2014). Articles on poetry have been published in Oxford Today magazine (27/2/2015, 20/5/2015). I now live in Majorca, where I continue to write and give poetry recitals.