A Place for Poetry in the Digital Age

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Source: Wikimedia CommonsHenry Wadsworth Longfellow. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The power of words exists in their resonance; that is, their ability to be chained together into a product that is greater than the sum of its parts, encapsulating feelings previously intangible. The poetic titan Robert Frost accurately wrote “poetry is when an emotion has found its thought, and the thought has found words.”  As ever, my description is outdone by the poet’s.

However, in an era when we spend most of our time glued to our devices, it is not unreasonable to question where poetry might fit in with the ongoing technological revolution. Whilst we often hear of the impending demise of the printed page, poetry can, in fact, be seen to have benefited from going online. After all, the internet has served to dissolve the barriers of publishing, and the well-known difficulty faced by artists of getting their particular voice heard above the ever-growing crowd of ‘creators’. Now, literature is born straight away on social media, – after all, look at the fame of Rupi Kaur and her now oft-critiqued, but initially hugely popular ‘aesthetic poetry’. Additionally, canonical pieces from Shakespeare to Plath are available at the mere click of a button. This is a positive shift not only for authors, for whom exposure is amplified with every like, share and retweet, but for consumers of the written word: we are provided by welcome bursts of literary relief from the endless stream of disaster stories and dog memes.

Once we have access to these poems, we can delight in discovering that through simple verse, poetry provides accessible morsels of both art and placation for the soul. In fact, uniformly throughout time the words of poets can prove almost a source of therapy, struck by that Archimedes ‘Eureka!’ moment of finally finding someone who relates to that which we are feeling, but often cannot say. As such, in lives lived through Facebook, poetry is a new kind of social connection, and one that does not depend on how many pictures you’re tagged in together, or how many of their posts you’ve liked, but on the ties that ultimately most strongly bind humans together: shared emotions of love, pain, peace or melancholy that naturally invade our collective and individual existences.

Perhaps in times of suffering, over and above any other emotional state, poetry proves a tonic; much like meditation, it is a now instant passport to the present. Personally, I have kept in my mind for years the lines “I am the master of fate; I am the captain of my soul” from William Ernest Henley’s Invictus as my trusted companions whenever I have felt desperate, impotent or alone. They are a soundbite: easy to memorise, and easy to recall. With them in my arsenal, I can always take my dose of respite – if not cure – from any adversity I may be facing. In particular, the need to constantly work and produce is a key anxiety associated with my generation: in poetry, I find a breather. It is a clichéd, but essential reminder that each latest assignment is not the be-all-and-end-all of my existence, and that I can and do deserve to enjoy the simpler things in life.

Further, a significant part of why poetry is both impressive and impactful is its relatively restricted length; this is particularly true in the context of poems designed to fit Instagram posts and 140-word tweets. Herein, not only are words strung together in some of the most original and compelling of ways, but miraculously, this is achieved with concision. Whoever the author, from 200 years ago or 20 minutes, the fact that you can carry on your person hundreds of poems on Kindle, or even see them on social media platforms, and know that it will take only a few minutes to read one or more is part of the enduring appeal; particularly in a world that is, rightly or wrongly, run under a steely rhetoric of ‘every second counts’.

Indeed, this concept forms the crux of a more philosophical argument about the value of poetry. In the age-old argument about the type of life that is more conducive to happiness, the active versus the contemplative, the latter appears undeniably taken a back-seat over the past few centuries. This was followed by the utilitarianism, clock-time and ruthless efficiency in the factories. Today more than ever, we are obsessed by data, efficiency, and always being online and available. As Nietzsche summarised in 1882, without any knowledge of how correct he would be nearly 150 years later, “even now one is ashamed of resting and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in one’s hand even as one eats one’s lunch.” 

Poetry’s comeback is a contest to our universal workaholism, and an invitation to devote a little of our time to reflection. And whilst I would condone, for the sake of sanity, sometimes disengaging completely from the constant stream of information that barrages us through our smartphones and our media, the translation of poetry to an online forum is a wickedly clever trick: we can disconnect from the world in reading, whilst still conspicuously being connected. For those of us addicted to bright screens and scrolling, but in desperate need of reprieve, this carves out a happy medium.

Equally, if in reading poems we take steps to living more satisfactory lives, we can also be propelled forward in our paths by the wind of the contents of the poems themselves. Take, for example, ‘A Psalm of Life’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; the entirety of this nine-stanza poem – found by Google in 0.38 seconds, by the way – is a clarion call to the enactment of great acts, no matter how unimportant they may seem. The last three stanzas in particular suggest that acting for lofty purposes not only leads to a fulfilling life, but can help our fellow man;

“We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing,

Leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time; —

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.”

It is frankly a modern tragedy that this should have to be pointed out, but the reality is that any call to be kind to one another should be valued. We have been conditioned to compete, compelled to view violence as every day, and behind the safety of a computer, inspired to ‘troll’ and engage in online abuse. That poems can revive in us our capacity for empathy is only another reason to cherish them; in this context, it is no surprise that reading has time and again been found a useful tool for helping to develop an increased capacity for empathy.

Given the fast-paced, non-stop nature of our lives, I particularly enjoy – and admire – the lessons of the last stanza:

“Let us, then, be up and doing,  With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.”

It’s 2019, and technology isn’t going anywhere. But luckily, nor is poetry.