Poetry and Technology

Is Twitter or any kind of technology killing poetry? That was the argument I listened to yesterday afternoon at a local Meetup group.

I shake my head, silently, every time these arguments come up because they capture something real about our crazy modern life but also leave so much behind.

To me poetry is just another form of technology - a linguistic one - which we use to communicate with each other. Before the invention of the printing press poetry was one of the most reliable ways to communicate information over long distances because it was an aid to memory. Evidence: the troubadours described by James Burke in The Day the Universe Changed, Ong’s work on oral and written cultures, Yates and the cathedral of memory. Without poetry we’d know even less about the past than we do.

Poetry gives us a sense of presence, reminding us to pay attention to the world around us. But the present of the world is a “buzzing blooming confusion,” according to William James. Poetry does not give us direct access to this confusion, instead it distills that confusion into a unified work of art that gives the impression of spontaneity.

Technology provides certain affordances for poetry. How different would e.e. cummings poetry be without the invention of the typewriter? Will current or future poets write visual poems as easily or fluently as cummings now that the typewriter is disappearing from our normal lives? Consider the relation between the length of most lyric poetry and the size of the usual book page.

The core truth behind the fear of Twitter is real. There is a missing connection at the heart of modern life.

Technology, if it plays a major role in this change, affects us by distancing us from interactions with the world. According to Albert Borgmann’s device paradigm, technology acts as solely as a means to an end. So Twitter is a means to gossiping with friends, marketing yourself for a job, or increasing the celebrity of Ashton Kutcher. Poetry, through the distillation of experience, is an end.

A final irony - we all learned about the event through Meetup, a technology of world wide web.