Growing up in rural Mid Ulster, I would drive with my family to Belfast once every couple of months to go shopping. I’d get dropped off at Waterstone’s, the large chain bookstore near CastleCourt Shopping Centre, and picked up a few hours later. I’d sit on the little round stool meant to let the book browsers reach the higher shelves, and read my way through the A–Z of the poetry section. I was—like Derek Mahon—”a strange child with a taste for verse.” When my family came back to get me I’d have picked a book to buy, usually an anthology, and would bear it back to Cookstown, my town, where there was no bookshop.
I had all the time in the world to read those books. When I got to university I’d maybe ten poetry books—The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, The New Younger Irish Poets, The Faber Book of Irish Verse, Louis MacNeice’s selected, the collected poems of Yeats, the collected poems of Kavanagh, etc.—and knew the work in them backwards, forwards, sideways. At Cambridge, my “access” to literature increased exponentially: I had a college library, a university library, and world-class bookstores. I bought individual volumes by poets, and began understanding poems as components in a collection, as making up a greater design, much as songs, say, might comprise a concept album.
When I graduated in 1997 poetry on the Internet was embryonic, but over the next decade it grew. Just as I used to browse the bookshelves of Waterstone’s, anyone, anywhere can now browse any of the hundreds of serious and well-maintained poetry sites, reading poems by dead or contemporary practitioners, following links to one poem after another. You can hear everyone from Browning and Tennyson to Frank O’Hara read their poems on YouTube. You can explore poetry by subject matter, by ethnicity, by geography—by any criterion except that of the format the poems were intended to be presented in: a collection with a running order. The days of having to sit in a bookstore or library to find poetry are over, but just as the CD, then Napster, and then Spotify destroyed the LP, so the Internet has re-established the terms of how poetry is apprehended—a poem is now the single shot, the 45. And those categories: the Poetry Foundation has dozens of sections and lets me pick poems from under, for example, headings like Other Religions, Pets, Time and Brevity, even, bizarrely, Indoor Activities. I know this is good in the abstract: it introduces readers to work, but it sells short something that should come as a surprise. Everything is signposted and domesticated and presented. Poetry should surprise—come at you like a slap in the face.
There is also the space in which it’s received. The poem needs blank space around it, and not just the literal white page. A good poem (something by, say, Wallace Stevens) works slowly—it needs space to let its meanings filter through, it needs repeated readings, time, and silence. It necessitates effort, and I think the Internet—with its endless choice, its banner ads, its IMs and gifs and vines—is a disastrous locale for this kind of poetry. For the poem to survive in this environment, does it have to be shouty and provide an instant sort of frisson? Does anything less than the immediately shocking or charming get attention? We read with an itchy mouse finger, ready to scurry on. We’re desensitized to language online, and trying to hear the tonally complex voice of a complicated poem is like trying to hear a moth in a hurricane—and all the time the hurricane is screaming that there are a billion other things you could be doing.
I always thought poetry was a way out of the market: there was no reward so there could be no market pressure. You didn’t have to be pleasant or pleasing or try to sell anything. But is the Internet, by warping our methods of reading, forcing modern poetry to bend itself in a certain shape? Is it possible to see in new writing a kind of deformation springing from the way the Internet deforms our own way of being in the world?
When I was a kid there were four TV channels and we watched them all at some point: now, in the hopelessly dated words of Springsteen, there’s fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on. When I had ten books I read them all. Now I have a thousand books—and a million articles or “long reads” and round-ups and subscriptions to journals, newspapers, reviews—and I find it difficult to finish anything, except if I unplug the Internet or go and sit in the municipal library where I don’t know the WiFi password. Poemland, a collection by Chelsey Minnis, a poet I admire very much, arrived this afternoon in the post and it’s hard not to see the Internet’s influence all over it. The poems are barely scraped-together postures of irony and despair—scrupulously angry—and they read like tweets from the hell of consciousness. I find she echoes my belief about poetry being free, or trying to be free:
Writing a poem is like trying to do something, isn’t it?
It’s like trying to have an ungroveling feeling….
Every line in the volume is disconnected by a line space from the next, and if a line doesn’t finish with a question mark it ends with an ellipsis. The idea of even making a stanza, never mind other connective tissue like rhyme and rhythm, appears impossible. The poems consist of these singular lines—brilliant as diamond—that seem formed under the great pressure of a completely contemporary culture: look how far the following moves in a short space, touching on the cult of self-presentation, of endless choice, of material success, of the necessity of life’s entailing failure if it is to be real:
Should one everlastingly seek to appear in a sympathetic way?
Or should one avoid committing bad deeds?
This is a giggling way to throw yourself into the pre-death timespan…
Is it a sin to fail to make any money?
If someone wants to exist then they must be contented to make some tragic moves…
The next revolution in technological innovation, I hope, will be a resistance to technological innovation, or a way around it. I feel more and more like a Luddite—not someone who doesn’t understand the new machines, but more in the original sense of someone who wants to smash them up. Time is short. I turn forty this year. I got rid of my smartphone a few years ago and have no social media presence, but I still find it difficult to do sustained imaginative work. Being connected all the time is paralyzing and misery-inducing. It instills a jittery anxiety. My two-year- old son is already a devotee of the new religion: he wanders round the house chanting IPAD, IPAD, IPAD. Still, maybe something revolutionary is brewing. Everyone can feel the pressure. Minnis writes:
If you open your mouth to start to complain I will fill it with whipped cream….
There is a floating sadness nearby….
Curtis was keen to chat but incredibly sleepy, having played poker and read a dense biography of Stalin into the wee hours. A cappuccino and a slice of custard melktert revived him.
To the casual reader of a casual page, the act of writing might seem pure intellect and thoughtfulness, but really it is saturated in fear and loneliness. You are in your pajamas and sweating, or swearing.