Poetry in the Digital Age: Fail or Prevail?

With the world of publishing becoming increasingly digital, what will become of one of the most traditional forms of literature – poetry? Publishers are struggling to make money from publishing poetry using conventional methods, and even more so from attempts at publishing it in e-book format.  This means currently poets are unable to publish and make a profit from their work, creating a lack of faith in publishers. This friction has led many to voice their opinions online, whilst poets use platforms such as Youtube and Tumblr to create online poetry blogs and forums in which to share their work. Publishers in general aren’t recognising the opportunities that digital platforms create for poetry, but that hasn’t stopped some innovative groups and individuals from exploring this potential.

 What are the statistics saying?

 There is little evidence of research into poetry’s readership in the major studies undertaken by publishers and booksellers, probably due to the lack of major publishers that focus on poetry publishing. Despite this, some websites such as Statista have sourced and presented several studies and online surveys on the subject. One survey gives evidence of the declining interest in poetry by young people, showing the proportion of young people who read poetry outside the classroom in the UK from 2005 to 2013. It concludes that in 2005 31% of school children reported reading poetry; by 2012, this number had fallen to only 14.8%. Another survey asked mobile phone users what type of books they generally read on their phones in the UK during 2014. Poetry was one of the least popular genres included in this study, with only 6% of respondents reading poetry on their mobile phones. This suggests that reading written poetry is not a popular activity among young people using mobile devices, but it does not account for multiple platforms that poets are using.

 Industry Debates

 The debate surrounding digital poetry is present everywhere, even The New York Times. Alexandra Alter investigates how e-books are slowly becoming more suitable for poetry, and how the switch to digital effects the industry. She uses evidence from Bowker, which tracks releases on Kindles. It shows that the number of people reading poetry on e-readers is increasing, and publishers are creating more poetry e-books. She notices that ‘[m]ore than a decade into the e-book revolution, poetry publishers are scrambling to carve out a place in the digital market…Last year, e-books accounted for roughly 20 percent of the nearly 10,000 poetry books published, compared with around 10 percent in 2012.’ This is despite the fact that some clients have been unhappy with the results of e-book versions of their poetry.

 Alter claims that ‘poetry has proved the most resistant to digital technology, not for stodgy cultural reasons but for tricky mechanical ones. Most e-readers mangle the line breaks and stanzas that are so crucial to the appearance and rhythm of poetry.’ Programmers are being commissioned to hand code these poetry e-books to ensure that the formatting is kept correct. This process is expensive, but is utilised by some publishers despite high costs.

 Others have argued that it is not just the faithful reproduction of line breaks that can mean the failure of poetry in e-book format. This article from the White Cross School, entitled Poetry’s Slow Digital Revolution, points out that ‘[t]here’s also the “fetishistic” nature of many readers of poetry, who prefer to have a physical book in their hand.’ Although these opinions are valid, but they do not take into account the fact that the word ‘digital’ holds far more potential than e-books allow for.

 The Futurist magazine’s take on the digitisation of poetry was more open-minded. An article from 2008 encouraged poets to experiment with digital platforms in order to increase audience participation. The article quotes Maria Engberg, a Swedish literary scholar: ”The computer enables the artist (poet) to communicate with more than text, adding images, movement, and sound; this capability is affecting both writing and the reader’s experience…The way digital poetry experiments with language raises questions and challenges conceptions of literature that were formed by printed books”. She believes imaginative digital projects are the future for digital poetry, and the addition of multimedia greatly enhances the consumer’s experience.

 Digital Poetic Innovations

pageandscreen

Between Page and Screen

 There are some innovative and exciting new forms of poetry being created in digital formats. One of these is Between Page and Screen, ‘a letterpress-printed augmented reality chapbook of poetry’ created by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse. They describe their project as an ‘unlikely marriage of print and digital… The book has no words, only inscrutable black and white geometric patterns that, when coupled with a webcam, conjure the written word.’ Borsuk expanded on this in an interview with David Shook from Molossus, in which she emphasises the importance of making the reader feel they are interacting with the poetry. Readers must ‘visit the website and open the book in front of your webcam. Only then do the poems appear in this space between the page and the screen… The reader plays an essential role in making the book happen, which is why the reader sees him or herself holding it on-screen.’ This focus on interactivity is what separates digital projects like Between Page and Screen from their static print and e-book counterparts.

between page and screen

Between Page and Screen

 

There are other projects being hosted online challenging the notion that poetry is simply words on a page. One of these is Clickable Poems, a site which hosts a collection of ‘hyper poems’ which can be changed and re-written at will. Their home page states ‘[p]oetry has been freed… After centuries of silently reading static words on a printed page, readers and listeners are becoming re-acquainted with poetry’s ancient and flexible nature.’ The ancient nature of poetry being, of course, performance. The site also includes performance poetry videos of artists free-styling, rapping and slamming their poems.

 Performance Poetry

In cafés, bars, and bookshops across the country performance poetry events are taking place, and their popularity is growing. Many offer free entry to entice curious passers-by inside, although they can be a great way for the poets to make some money in tips. The main advantage of performance poetry events is the fact that they are open to the public and accessible. They create a taste for poetry in people who wouldn’t usually think twice about it. Even the Poetry Society has an event called Poetry at 3, which like most of these events is an open mic opportunity open to the public.  The high traffic of video sharing sites like Youtube also means that performance poets can reach wider audiences then ever before.

Performance poetry is particularly popular among university students who study literary subjects like creative writing. The events
can provide a basis for poets to trial their new poetry and share past work they feel proud of. Bath Spa University has its own performance poetry group, Rhyme and Reason.

Watch the videos below to see Chloe Douglas, the co co-ordinator of the group, chatting to me about performance poetry, and some clips from their open mic night at the SU on Tuesday 6th January.

Groups like Rhyme and Reason provide crucial outlets for student poets who are unlikely to get anything published elsewhere, and anyone else who wants to share their poetry.

Chloe performance

Chloe performing at Bath Spa’s SU

Chloe Douglas: ‘A lot of us [poets] don’t really publish our work, or get it published unless it’s on Youtube or social media sites.’

 

I really enjoyed the open mic night, and was surprised at the size of the crowd. If you haven’t already, why not look for a performance poetry event near you and try it out?

 

What does the future hold?

It’s clear that the future of poetry in the digital age lies not in costly e-books, but in creatively using new digital and technological platforms, and embracing the online community. The approach to producing poetry for mobile phones has been flawed, with few apps for poetry available. There have been some enhanced e-book versions of poems, such as T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland, but there isn’t much. However, successful independent poetry publishers such as Carcanet are focusing on improving their online presence. Their website features a free poem of the day to entice customers to visit the website and, if they enjoy the poems, possibly buy books.

 Performance is another platform thriving in the digital age, as smart phones allow for instant uploading and sharing of videos. Both open and ticketed poetry events raise interest and awareness of poetry, and could be put to use by publishers in the same way authors have book signings.

Although digital and performance platforms will surely change the way that poetry is consumed, I think publishers should continue to create beautiful print editions of poetry. I believe these will always be popular among lovers of literature, and they make brilliant gifts for literary friends. The popularity of bound poetry volumes is demonstrated in an article on the Guardian website which asserts that ‘there is an upsurge in the number of presses printing beautifully crafted books of poetry in limited editions.’

William Blake cover illustrations

Poets such as William Blake are famous for their beautiful illustrations and binding.

Although poetry has been resistant to the digitisation of literature, it seems unlikely that it will escape becoming a part of it. There is a strong community of poets who will ensure that poetry will survive, and adapt to the digital environment. But can the publishing industry keep up?

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