Ideasroom

Poetry - but not as you know it

The University of Otago's Jacob Edmond discusses how poetry continues to play a vital role in modern society 

I’ve had to endure more than a few awkward silences when people ask me what I do. “I write about poetry” is not always a great conversation starter. For many people, poetry still conjures up Shakespeare, dusty books, and old-fashioned language—not everyone’s choice of small talk.

But although I love Shakespeare, that’s not poetry as I know it. Today’s poetry is often not found in a book but on Instagram or YouTube, or in an improvised performance. And even as the platforms and media of poetry multiply so do its languages, speech patterns, and cultural expressions. From where I sit poetry has never been so popular or so diverse. Poetry readings in Dunedin are packed, and students at the University of Otago, where I teach, are lining up to study and write poetry. And poets—online and in live performance—continue to play a vital role in social and political struggles around the world, including, close to home, in the battle for Ihumātao.

Poetry is arguably the oldest form of literature. Rhyme and rhythm—those basic building blocks of poetry—were key to remembering and passing on knowledge before the advent of written language. But why should poetry be popular now in an age in which we have no need for such aids to memory—in which we can effortlessly copy and share texts, images, and videos?

This question led me to write Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media. I began with a hunch. Maybe poetry’s most basic and ancient quality is also what makes it most relevant today: repetition.

Today’s poetry is very much a part of our contemporary culture in all its beauty and ugliness.

We live in a world of copies. The internet is made of billions of pages and files ceaselessly copied between machines, and many of those pages are themselves copies, the products of cut and paste, hardcopy scanning, or remixing. As the form of literature most associated with repetition, poetry is well suited to navigate our contemporary world of copies.

In Make It the Same, I explore how poets have exploited the new ease and ubiquity of copying to make strange and often beautiful works of poetic art. In the 1960s, for instance, Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite used the newly available medium of reel-to-reel tape to create mesmerising verbal performances, paving the way for the rise of dub and slam poetry. And in the Soviet Union, writers who had no access to publication used their only means of distributing their work, typescript and carbon-copy paper, not just to circulate their work in samizdat but also to create new works of word art.

Typescript and carbon-copy paper.

These playful uses of copying have only increased in our digital age. Taiwanese poet Hsia Yü, for instance, made her bilingual book Pink Noise entirely out of web cut and paste and machine translation. Pink Noise is printed on transparencies so that the overlaid texts blur into each other. The book offers an image for the confusion of copied texts and languages in our online world.

In the past, writers and artists from small countries like Barbados, Taiwan, or Aotearoa have often been seen as playing catchup to the cultural centres of London or New York. But seen through the art of copying, the history of recent art and literature looks quite different. In fact, it’s often writers and artists who sit outside these so-called centres who make the most powerful use of copying, in part because they are the ones who are most often accused of merely copying trends from somewhere else.

Pink Noise is printed on transparencies so that the overlaid texts blur into each other.

In Make It the Same, I wanted to showcase this cultural diversity of contemporary poetry and so get us away from narrow, Eurocentric, sometimes stuffy views of what poetry is or might be. As Make It the Same shows, exciting and influential poetic work can emerge from almost anywhere in the global cultural scene—from Taipei to Moscow, Barbados to Sydney.

But the effects of copying in poetry are not always beautiful or good and they do not always promote diversity. In Make It the Same, I also consider some of the troubling consequences of the “attention economy” produced by social media. In poetry, the desire for attention online can drive some to more and more outrageous and extreme statements and acts. In 2015, US poets Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place were at the centre of a controversy over their copying of highly charged racial material, which they presented as poetic texts. As a result, their work attracted huge attention, including from the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, the Huffington Post, and the New Yorker.

The same troubling effects of our attention economy are, of course, evident beyond the poetry world. For examples, we need only look at Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, or more troubling still, the copying and circulation of material from the massacre in Christchurch.

Like the world at large, poetry is not as we once knew it. Today’s poetry is very much a part of our contemporary culture in all its beauty and ugliness. And if we listen hard enough to poetry’s rhythms and repetitions, we can gain valuable lessons for negotiating our world of proliferating copies.

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