Poetry and the Information Age

Visual Cortex Diagram courtesy Wikipedia
Visual Cortex diagram courtesy Wikipedia

I have been questioning my preference for reading poetry on paper versus digital text for some time now, wondering what might underpin these instincts. It recently occurred to me that the difference in mental state I experience when reading a book versus surfing the web may actually have a basis in science. The advent of digital text has made a staggering amount of information available to us, and thereby altered forever how we learn. The further proliferation of digital text through the internet, and especially now with blogging and social networking, has made our ability to filter through words a survival skill. We must read faster than ever in the information age, skimming for nuggets of meaning or amusement.

Just how have we learned to read faster in the information age? Short of a research grant, an EEG machine, and plenty of literate volunteers, I have only a sample size of one, and my subjective methods of self-observation to guide me. But my theory is that we bias the visual processing centers of our brain, instead of the auditory centers, when surfing the web. This theory is supported by speed-reading courses that attempt to eliminate sub-vocalization and auditory processing to teach people to read faster. And yet, poetry has been an aural medium for centuries.

What are the implications for our poetics when readers stop listening to poetry in their head? Could this have a relationship to the advent of visual poetry, and language poetry, and to the false-starts of neo-formalism? Might the rise of free verse even go hand-in-hand with this explosion of the accessibility of written material? Surely, other factors, like the effects of the Second World War on postmodernism, play greatly into contemporary poetics. Yet this simple theory, with its potentially biological basis–that in an age glutted with words, we have stopped listening to their music–may have as much to say about contemporary poetry, and its decline from popular favor, as rock-n-roll has to say about the decline of classical music.

Furthermore, the volume of writing shows no signs of letting up. As Thomas Swick puts it in his essay, “Have Book, Will Travel”:

Tell a writer you write and depression sets in; tell a writer you read and gratitude blooms. Especially now, in the Blog Age, when it seems that more people want to write than to read (not realizing that you need to read in order to write anything that is worth reading, or that hasn’t already been written). But this is the inevitable result when a culture prizes self-expression over learning. It is the written equivalent of a room in which everyone is talking and nobody is listening, particularly to the dead.

Indeed, it seems to be an art that is increasingly fading in our cultural memory–the art of listening–to ourselves, each other, the music of our language, and the wisdom of the dead. Perhaps my relationship to books is not anachronistic, or fetishistic; perhaps it is not the smell of the binder’s glue, the feel of the page, the pleasures of a good font in dark ink, or anything else about the book itself that I love so much as that poems served up in this format literally change my head space, making me quiet, attentive, and able to hear–really hear–what the poem is saying to me.