There’s a very interesting piece at Danwei about popular mockery on the Chinese Web of a “poet” named Zhao Lihua whose poems are, well…
Well, some people think they’re not poetry at all. She sees them as part of an experimental stage in her past, and there’s an interesting debate about the whole topic going on around the web, but in Chinese, so I have no access to it, except via Danwei.
This is really interesting to me for two reasons:
1. This stuff reminds me of a lot of Kerouac’s attempts at poetry, which I don’t hold in very high regard. It’s poetry, but I don’t find much of his verse to be good poetry. (Hell, for all that I respect Ginsberg, I have a collection of his verse and a lot of it didn’t do much for me, either, the masterworks like Howl and Kaddish and America and the like aside). This argument about whether something is, or is not, poetry seems to me quite different from a debate over whether something is good poetry, or just dreck, or experimentation, or whatever. The latter debate seems more worthwhile to me, and more common in contemporary anglo letters, but it’s interesting to see that the line of attack in popular Chinese discourse is similar to the mainstream sense of visual arts in Western society. (Most people didn’t complain about the Canadian government’s purchase of Voice of Fire that it was a bad specimen of art, but that it wasn’t art at all.)
2. The last line of the poet’s response, as presented in the Danwei post linked above, and which is the title of this post, brought to mind an old essay I wrote for a contest in 1999 or 2000, about the future of poetry. Probably any section could be redeveloped into a short story setting, but anyway, one of the things I grappled with was this notion that too few people are interested in poetry “nowadays”, and how that notion was problematic… and how, maybe, we should be glad that not everyone attempts to read and write poetry, after all, that maybe this is a very good thing.
Since I don’t really intend on publishing that essay anywhere, and I have an hour to kill here in my office, during which I don’t intend to do any real work, I’m going to reformat it for the web and post it here.
By the way, the essay is somewhat dated — I’d probably assert different things now than I did when I wrote it, about six years ago — and there’s at least one reference I caught to a real-world person. The fellow to whom a dreck poem is attributed, Charlie Bell, is a real person, and in fact the friend I went to see get married in Australia earlier this year. The only reason I named the character in the essay after him was because of his habit of instant-messaging me dreadful haiku about things like football games or his lunch. It was a friendly jape. He did not have a wife who had left him (heaven forbid, now that he is in fact married) — in fact, that was probably referential to the breakup of my own marriage — and he wasn’t really depressed then. It was just a hab at his writing AWFUL haiku and showing them to me.
(Now that my office PC is online again, I can reinstall the OS and hopefully get his wedding pics posted sometime next week.)
And now, without further ado, for anyone interested, the old essay…
The Futures of Poetry: Reflections At the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century
by Gord A. Sellar, December 2000
. . . and all the poets in the world huddled in the one room, a small cell in the ghetto, holding close to one another for warmth, and wondered if it really was the end of their age. And those who walked past that place say that, day and night, they could be heard singing their poems, saying them with tears in every eye, that you could hear the weeping even from outside the walls. These poets stood, one by one, and said their finest verses to one another, to the few who still knew how to listen. They spoke their words, and their words — even their most frustrated, angry, futile and hopeless words — were bursting with their love for the world, for their species, for words and for love itself. And it’s said that when night fell on that place, they would huddle together and quietly wonder whether this would be the last night in a world where there was still poetry. And they would shiver, those beautiful few . . .
We live in a time like no other. We live in a time like every other.
Both of these statements are true, and the fundamental truth of each is what will shape our civilization and all of its contents (and discontents) in the future, just as in the past. These two fundamental truths echo throughout all of time, upon them are founded all our understanding of cosmology, evolution, art, history, and ourselves as individuals.
We are, many assure us, at the cusp of a massive transformation in Western civilization, perhaps even global civilization. The word in Silicon Valley is that networked computing is going to massively transform the way members of our species interact. The proclamations from researchers participating in the Human Genome Project is that we are only a few years from having fully mapped our own our genome, and someday after then we will perhaps learn to master it — to remake ourselves to our own liking. (“Oh what a piece of work is a man! . . . in apprehensions, how like a god . . .” Indeed; Shakespeare knew our species all too well.) For those of us who have no belief for any religion or gods, the mysteries of the brain (and consciousness) and quantum mechanics are no less enthralling. And the darknesses of the world’s nights are dotted with that blessed, eternal few who have always gazed up and known each star by name . . . although now their gaze reaches farther into the void, and they are perhaps more starry-eyed for having seen the watercolor ripples of the Big Bang that still resonate as cosmic background radiation.
But as we plunge into the future, ghosts of the past haunt us still: there has been a massive return to hodgepodge New-Ageism, superstition, cults and evangelism, passive consumerism, postmodernist cultism (with many fraudulent professors and self-styled avant-gardists chanting indecipherables in dissonant unison), and other all-too familiar nonsense. A great deal of this trash was due to recent millennial silliness, and we can hope for it to pass off into oblivion (though history suggests that much of it will not). For all the knowledge our researchers accumulate, few among the masses have no understanding or interest. Now that nobody believes in utopian/idealistic movements and the potential for radical change has disappeared from our culture’s imagination, we’ve been deluged by its opposite, the conservative superstition — a blind, wild eyed faith that somehow, the Market in its infinite, omniscient wisdom will work everything out for us, if only we consume as we are told (a wager on which some people are willing to bet our ecosystems and what liberty we actually have). The secrets of the brain are less interesting to most of us than the pill of Prozac that will get us through a day at work. And meanwhile, we are trashing our planet (not to mention our psyches), making the bed in which we will later, predictably, refuse to sleep.
What has this crazed yin-yang rollercoaster ride to do with poetry?
Indeed. What has technology and society to do with poetry, asks the reader who reads an essay on poetry which was typed (and edited, and printed) using a desktop computer, mailed and delivered by not only an airplane but also a truck running off an internal combustion engine, reset for publication on another computer, and printed using modern print technologies. On paper. In written words. Most likely read by electric light, in an insulated shelter. Technology is everywhere, but most of it invisible to us, because it is the bedrock of our society. The technology in your very hands, some of it ancient, profoundly influenced the history of poetry.
Alright, the reader will concede. Thank you, China, for paper. Thank you Mr. Gutenberg. Thank you CanadaPost, and thank you Bill Gates (you jerk). But, the astute reader will grin and add, what has society to do with poetry? And perhaps the reader is astute enough to realize that such a question cannot be regarded anymore as a joke.
Readership of poetry is down. This statement is a redundancy, no? And yet, at the same time, in terms of human history, it is a shocking understatement. There is a reason that Lord Byron could be termed the Brad Pitt of his time, despite his ugliness: he was a superstar. He was more than a man of letters, he was truly a celebrity. This was not because he was seen in projected images on screens by millions. This was not because he had a great ass or well-developed abs. This was because he wrote poetry. Unarguably, he also led a scandalous life: charges of incest; exile from England; fighting (and eventually dying) in glorious revolutions. But he was also a bestseller. People read Byron. Now, other than English Literature majors, vampire-wannabes, and poets (and in that order, as well), almost nobody reads Byron anymore. Now we go to films and raves and watch TV instead of attending readings. But that the Homeric tradition’s contemporary popularity outstrips that of almost every poet today, when the Greek culture was only at the beginnings of the globalization process (which has now blossomed into a global culture equipped with mass media, telecommunications, and the like) is perhaps is only a shock at first realization: after all, no classical poet had to compete for his audience’s attention against the likes of web-porn, televised sports, and Hollywood.
As with all things, the future of poetry is unknown and unknowable. But this does not mean that speculation, and extrapolation from the past and present, are futile or worthless. In fact, an awareness of the future’s inscrutability makes the practice of exploring multiple contingencies even more worthwhile, for it prepares us to face any number of possible scenarios when the real one emerges. Therefore I now humbly remove my dignified poetry-hat and don my jangling, glittery (aspiring) SF-geek-hat, to submit three interesting possibilities for the future of poetry. They vary in optimism and in aesthetic slant, and each responds to trends in mass culture and cutting-edge technology. The futures I present here could be respectively considered conservative, radically pessimistic, and radically optimistic. They are very likely all wrong. But it is nonetheless worth exploring a few of the more obvious possibilities.
Possibility #1: The Conservative Forecast: SNAFU
It is possible that what the future — especially the near future — holds in store for poetry is merely more of what we’ve seen in the recent past and present. Certainly, this seems to be the assumption of most of the poetic establishment and the majority of the arts community in general. While some experiments with new technologies are inevitable in each art, and new media may supplant the old (just as nobody plays keyboards tuned in the mean-tone tuning system except as a history lesson or a curiosity), poetry itself will remain recognizable in the next century. As one of my professors once put it offhandedly, “short lines of text on a big empty-looking page.”
Media may indeed change: it may become more common to view poetry online, or via download into programmable paper tomes from either the internet or from chips purchased at a “bookstore” of the future. CD-recordings of spoken word poetry will be replaced with other audio (or audio-visual) media in the way that CDs have replaced LPs, and journals may disappear as new forms of organized distribution and “publication” arise in a decentralized network environment. Perhaps poets will be acclaimed by the number of viewers who favorably review their work.
Trends will come and go, waxing and waning as they always have. The avant-garde and the ultra-conservative factions may both be rendered obsolete or ossified by some third aesthetic trend, or by a synthesis of the two approaches. And all around the world, the emerging polyglot global cultures will exert an important impact on how poetry in any one place or culture will be written and read. But whatever trends — both in the poetry and in the society containing its audience — poetry will survive, because it is inextricably tied to language. It will always be the most compact, engaging, and important form of “high” cultural engagement with language.
This seems to be the most popular standpoint among poets I know. But while it is certainly possible, it is somewhat myopic and fails to take into account the fact that unforeseeable trends tend to arise and affect things massively. Cultures can be transformed, sometimes — and increasingly — through rapid shifts and collapses. So there are other, more interesting options which are worth exploring.
Possibility #2: A Pessimistic Forecast, or The New Mental Health Strategy
The Roots of the Poetic Revolution, by Peng-An Ni–Xikhosé, Ph.D. and professor of Poetic Sciences and Verse-Therapy Research at East Ontario State University. Toronto: State University of East Ontario Press, 2054. ($349.99 US)
This text is a priceless — and highly accessible — retrospective on the development of the Revolutionary Verse-Therapy Treatment Program and an assessment of its effects on the population of the United States of America (including what was once Canada). It begins with the origins of creativity-catharsis theory, with brief and engaging discussion of the Jungian paradigm, and continues on with a wealth of historical-contextual information regarding the late 2020s, about not only at the East Ontario Mental Health Research Unit but also the popular culture of the time. The discussion of the development of verse-therapy and catharsis-functionalist theory over the next 20+ years following the institution of the East Ontario Mental Health Verse Therapy Initiative is full of delightful details and analysis, more notably because Ni–Xikhosé one of the major figures of the field during that time. Its no-nonsense avoidance of academic jargon, abundant examples of popular poetic production and an appendix stuffed full of case histories, and abundant links to web-archives of public-property poetic-therapy records all supplement what is an endearing and exciting history of a movement in psychological treatment which has fundamentally altered our society. It is highly recommended for all readers.
It is not valid to assume that, if poetry enjoyed a massive renaissance, this would be good for poets — or poetry. Consider the following excerpt, which could be found in the case histories appendix of Dr. Ni–Xikhosé’s hypothetical book:
Employee # 465735-ag635 (Charles Bell)’s work-monitoring applications detected a decrease in productivity of 12% over the month of April 2039 (on April 3 his wife left him, it was later discovered by investigation). When prompted by his employer’s psych-evaluation program to write a sonnet about his home-life, after some reticence (and aided by a commercial con/form poetry composition application) he managed to express his emotions in poems like the following:
I guess she always was a rotten cow
I loved her anyway, I just don’t know
Exactly why I did, or even how.
I guess it just was time for her to go.
So anyway, I have to write this crap
So here at work I don’t get into shit
I wouldn’t want to get a nasty rap
Though now I think I’ve had enough of it.
I am depressed, a little, yes indeed
I’ve had it up to here, you know, I did!
And I should just admit now what I need:
Whatever that I can get free that’s good.
And now, if this shit-poem lets me pass,
I think I’ll go and sit back on my ass.
Ni–Xikhosé notes that this particular employee’s productivity rates increased at a mean rate of 8% more rapidly than the average productivity regain rate for employees in similar states of stress who went unaided by cathartic-release catalysts.
Poetry in such a world is no longer about art: it is the pressure valve of a society warped by so many internal stressors that its members cling to any method they can to externalize the pressure. Like traditional Chinese opera during the Cultural Revolution, “elitist” poetry — and this includes most of what we would agree is “good” poetry, including the bulk of what is contained in this particular volume — has no place in Ni–Xikhosé’s society. “Art” is a high-falutin’ concept that a chronically ill society cannot afford, and the beauty of language is not contained in the subtleties, the twists and turns of a poem, the refinement and polish of a piece like “The Four Quartets” or “In A Station of the Metro”. Such work is the masturbatory product of a decadent age. The real beauty of language is that it is accessible to practically everyone, and thus that any idiot can write a poem!
Poetry itself is fairly accessible to everyone. Anyone can learn what a sonnet is. Anyone can write a glosa or a ghazal. That a “snobbish elitist minority of people in the early part of the century” would have found these particular works “badly written” is irrelevant to the denizens of Ni–Xikhosé’s society. The people express themselves, their mental health is preserved and even bettered, and poems inform everyday life throughout dozens of venues in Western society.
By 2040, poems are scrawled on the walls of bathrooms, and line the subway station walls of America (and even some major cities in Europe and the autonomous — and Japanified — coastal cities of post-collapse China, quick to pick up on trends). Poem archives on the Net swell up beyond all reasonable parameters, and most of the world’s poetic output is sloughed off by servers as its ratings drop below a certain level cross-indexed to its age: poetry becomes as disposable as prophylactics or plastic wrap…but then again, people will realize that most poetry always was disposable. Poetry slams are televised online, complete with autotranslator software for those not broadcast in the listener’s mother tongue.
By mid-2041, the web address
is finally sold to a private corporation for twelve billion dollars, for development. That development is immediate. Netcast poetry slams, poetry readings, poetry contests, massive numbers of publications — some of them even on paper! — and other events pay for rights to appear at or be advertised at this web-node. And then expansion continues which becomes one hub on a wheel in a monstrous machine with many, many wheels.
By 2053, Oprah Winfrey (now as healthy as ever since her second life-extension treatment) is endorsing specific brands of poetry-composition-aiding software and when film-celebrities are guests on her show, they read their “works” aloud. The netcasts show how they are applauded by screaming audiences, and in their homes across the country, young women and men swoon to the trite verse of actors, politicians, financiers, and hockey players as their great-grandparents did in front of televised image of a gyrating Elvis Presley a century before.
By 2061, TS Eliot has been read by exactly five living people worldwide. Ezra Pound has been read by three. Nobody recalls ever having heard of Chaucer, or Pope. Shakespeare, of course, is known as a playwright — and occasionally his plays are put on, although of course the “crappy obsolete language” is modernized.
Everybody is writing. Everybody loves poetry, everybody lives poetry.
Nobody actually reads it, though.
Next time you feel tempted to complain that nobody cares about poetry or that poetry is marginalized, think carefully.
Possibility #3: An Optimistic Forecast: The End of Poetry As We Know It
Lhina’s neural feed is secure, and in she goes.
The glittering undernight of the network swarms before her like a street scene in an old TwenCen sci-fi flick, links and pathways through the datawaves flickering and dancing like neon signs come to life and jostling for her attention. She selects, with her mind, one connection that is quite familiar, and follows the link. After a quiet nanosecond of lag, she’s connected to the opening that she’s been planning to attend for weeks.
Tonight, The Loouvra is a dark, quiet room. The avatars of other attendees are present, full-sized but at the same time conceptually remote. Many of them are already sampling the works of Lhina’s mentor, Soko Hakashi. She turns in the soft digital silence, and gazes at the closest construct, which is designed to look like a piece of paper frozen in midair, hanging still before her. With the imaginary hands of her avatar, she reaches out to touch it. Her mind feels those hands move as if they were her real hands, and feels the paper — again, almost real — as the avatar-hands catch it.
The silence is unbroken, but with the hand under the page, Lhina feels the sheet press down, as if it were a sheet of steel…but still textured like paper. A single word — a clear word, but silent, unspoken, drifts into her mind: “koan.” She knows this is the title of the piece, and then she feels a flood of emotional and imagistic resonances flood her mind, but only translucently. She cannot be sure which resonances are her own, and which are programmed into the construct. She feels some strange combination of weariness and exaltation, and then — although her body, back in the physical realm has not been affected by the construct — her mind feels as if she were in a deep trance; she feels a circle of air flow continuously in her nose, down as a stream into her lungs and then circling back up and out of her mouth. Words tease her mind, half-formed and yet hidden by cognitive mist; like the answer to puzzling Zen koans, they exist by the virtue of verging continually on being almost present to her mind, but never within cognitive reach. And Lhina feels, strangely, a frustrated kind of peace. As soon as she feels this, the word “koan” ebbs from her mind, and gradually the sheet of paper loses all of its weight again. When Lhina removes her hand, the page stays in space, almost exactly where she found it.
Once again, Lhina thinks to herself, Soko has outdone both herself and everyone else before her. Lhina reminds herself to be patient, and study hard, and to be honest in her work. She’s still young, and there is plenty of time for her to create in her own fashion.
Lhina Sahuz is a brilliant, creative young woman. She is, in fact, one of the most creative young minds of her generation. She dials into the WorldNet from her Baghdad apartment everyday, without fail, except when she goes on holidays. Her favorite vacation spot is in Indonesia. The last time she travels to Jakarta — long since cleaned of its ecological damage and now an active participant in the global community, as well as a vibrant hub of Net activity — she returns predicting that she will be “inspired for months.” Her works on the Net indeed first appear to great acclaim soon after the trip, by mid-2073 and by 2078 she is one of the most active voices in the NuArts movement.
She isn’t ignorant. Although her public education was by no means perfect, it was complete enough to ensure she has read her share of poetry, both Arab Persian and foreign; she got to see many of the great canvas paintings and projection films of the past; she has visited many of the greatest surviving architectural feats in the Muslim world and the rest of Eurasia; she has listened to not only Bach and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan but also the Beatles and Balinese gamelan orchestras. Each of these arts, she realized as a child, was dependent on technology, and in many cases on cutting-edge technology. A harpsichord or a new type of paint may not seem revolutionary, but then again to a resident of the TwenCen neither did writing.
The fact is that — for the history of not only poetry but everything — no invention was more revolutionary than the invention of the written word (except perhaps plant and livestock domestication). Writing was directly relevant to poetry, in a way which may help us understand the relationship between the “constructs” created by Lhina’s mentor, and what we know as poetry.
Poetry as we know it is not the only definition of poetry. It would, to be blunt, be unrecognizable even to a practitioner of poetry from a time preceding the invention of the written word. If such a person could be snatched out of the past and brought to our time, it would be the most confusing experience possible, both for the ancient and for us. He or she lived in a world where language was solely oral, and orality was inherently powerful (from which we inherit the notion that “you should be careful what you ask for,” for example). The potential for written markings to carry an infinite number of possible meanings would be an almost completely alien concept, though the idea might be comprehensible as an extension of the notion of a few special religious signs and symbols with which the tribesperson would be familiar. Presented with a copy of Keats or Milton or Lilburn, he or she would be confused beyond all measure. It is almost certain that, unless it were carefully, slowly explained in the individual’s mother tongue (a now-dead dialect of Indo-European), there is no way that these strange objects would be linked with language or poetry the way that they are, quite unconsciously, for most of us.
And most striking, with this lesson staring us in the face, we blithely throw about the term “pre-recorded history” without once stopping to think that our time may be merely a vague blur in someone else’s “pre-_____ history.” (History will fill in the blank.)
While all of the raving about “new media” and the wonders of advanced computing may just be hype, it is difficult to know what might be achieved in a century of concentrated work, especially when a good chunk of the money in Silicon Valley is being thrown at the problem. Even after a few decades of improvement in computer technology at the pace we’re now used to, the barriers between us and Lhina’s world will be mostly in the area of neural interfacing and not hardware-speed. It is possible that computers, the Net, and advances in interface technology could, in the future, make the attendance of a “poetry event” a synaesthetic experience, just as the introduction of writing allowed poetry to pick up more techniques such as visual rhyme or concrete poetry. It is commonly known that Igor Stravinsky claimed to have sought in his ballet Le Sacre de Printemps (The Rite of Spring), “to free music from the tyranny of the bar-line”; perhaps some futuristic Net-jockey will “free poetry from the tyranny of the page”?
Certainly, what we would recognize as poetry would survive in some way — just as oral/performance-poetry survives and has recently resurfaced in some small way today — although it is likely that printed books in such a society would be more of an expensive, status-related luxury item.
But the fact that we would not recognize the future’s most cutting-edge or best work as poetry makes it no less poetry. Our claim on our descendants is no more than our ancestors’ claim on us. If reading itself dies out in the next millennium, this is not necessarily any more of a bad thing for poetry or humanity than was the invention of writing in the first place. For many of us, reading and writing have become ends in themselves, rather than the means to an end, which is what reading and writing always have been. Perhaps the end to which reading poetry is a means, is necessarily elusive: it is certainly not as easy to trace as the end for which one reads a newspaper, or a stop sign. But as Douglas Hofstadter writes, “Any two creative things I’ve done seem to be, at some deep level, isomorphic . . . [and] because I have this conviction that the core creativity behind all of these things is really the same (at least in my own case), I am trying like mad to get at, and to lay bare, that core.” Perhaps, then, the expressions of these analogous creative energies manifest themselves according to their age. Perhaps it is less a case of poetry being eternally bound to human creativity, and more a case of creativity being eternally bound to human minds. Perhaps history books of the future will contain a footnote as follows:
For a certain period, one of the ways in which this innate creativity manifested was in something called “poetry”: first, oral storytelling (or story-singing) that relied on meter and rhyme for mnemonic purposes; this was followed by a textual descendant of this form; later, these two forms were followed by an enriched, immersive virtual reality-based fusion and expansion of a pre- and post-verbal form of both.
Such seemingly massive changes are actually, to frank, less massive than a more fundamental change such as the evolution of language-capable brains, or the development of opposable thumbs, or the move from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian (or from agrarian to industrial). And massive though they might be nonetheless, such massive changes are bound to happen, if history is our guide.
It is difficult to make a feasible projection for any one institution or practice for the next century. For the next millennium, such extrapolations become impossible. Depending on everything from whether we save our ecosystems or are forced to save ourselves from them, on whether physics advances enough so that interstellar flight becomes possible (don’t hold your breath), whether we first encounter nonhuman intelligence in space or engineer it in computer systems, whether or not spoken and written language are replaced by wireless neuro-transmissions interfacing brain to brain, whether our economy survives to the point of rendering itself obsolete through the development of advanced enough technology or repressive corporate regimes eventually supplant the governments of the world and rule as a oligarchic collective over humanity (for a time) . . . depending on all of these contingencies, poetry could become a forgotten memory, a driving force in our society, or something else entirely. The safe bets are that poetry — whatever our descendants use that term to describe — will grow to some degree unrecognizable to us, and that regardless of external factors, that internal, creative core of which Hofstadter writes will continue to be engaged, expressed, and developed by individuals for as long as our descendants would be recognizable to us as human — and perhaps even when that age has passed, they will continue to sing their songs out into the expansiveness of the dark, silent universe.