Poetry 2.0?

“Every word was once a poem”

In this so-called information age, we live among language more than ever before. For example, one of the latest fads drawing hype to itself faster than a black hole sucks light is Twitter: a web-based social networking site predicated on “tweets”–brief text messages uploaded to a web site that others subscribe to, follow and read. Thus, the blogging concept of writing for a perceived audience is accelerated to a dizzying pace.

All good poems, no matter their style, share this: an enforced attention to language, and some degree of innovation upon it.

I tried Twittering for a day, sending tweets when I changed my activity or mood. Between the web-based, software-based and cell-phone-based options, I was never disconnected from a sense that I could and perhaps should send an update in case someone out there might actually really care about the excruciatingly mundane details of my life. This is the fundamental promise of the internet, and social networking in particular: the audience that cares. It has been the impetus, since the beginning, for a mind-boggling number of words, from the early days of IRC and BBS systems to a shiny new rehash of the same fundamental drivers and mechanisms, which is now being called Web 2.0.
The trend here is toward quantity–the mythic and sometimes actual possibility of high volumes of reader traffic drives a proportionate amount of new content. This quantity-focused approach to generating textual content can actually change language itself. What, for example, does the word “friend” mean when you can have hundreds, even thousands of them by hustling links to your MySpace account? If the word friend was once a revelation signifying some meaningful connection, it has now, more than ever, become a kind of currency. None of this is unique to Web 2.0, however–such frenzy for words comes as a direct extrapolation from traditional media outlets, which push sound bytes and statistics at a likewise numbing pace.

When I wilfer the internet (new word, thanks Ceri) or channel surf TV, I am in a hyper-browsing mode–scanning and skimming. So, it comes as little surprise that on my own site, a fairly high volume of global daily traffic translates to only a micro-fractional number of comments. Like me, most visitors probably bounce off this site in a matter of seconds. (Especially if they are just looking for material for their next school essay.) This is the major obstacle online creative writing journals have to contend with, and why experiments like Twitter poetry will probably only ever remain as such.

We care about poetry precisely because it exists outside this frenetic word-space. We care about poetry because it represents a kind of necessary antidote to the soul-draining quantification and commoditization of language the information age has brought. All good poems, no matter their style, share this: an enforced attention to language, and some degree of innovation upon it. This runs contrary to the bigger/faster/more pervading everything from network news to the blogosphere. It also helps us to reclaim some of the erosion of nuance caused by the diction of, for example, mass-scale popularity contests (from American Idol to Facebook) which wear away our relationship to any kind of actual self and, in the process, any hope of connecting deeply with one another through words.

Poetry demands attention and subtlety in both reading and writing, and forges a necessarily intimate relationship between reader and author. At its best, it pushes our understanding of the most fundamental element of thought–language itself–in new directions. In this way, it can affect how we understand ourselves and help us to reclaim some awareness of the still small voice that tells what it means to be human. In a world echoing with tweets and stats and sound bytes, our need for poetry has never been greater.

That’s why there will never be a poetry 2.0. The first version still works fine. And when the new has finally worn off all our technobabble, poetry will still be around.