The Future of Poetry

(The following is a short essay based on my contributions to a panel of the same name, held at the Poetry Moon literary festival in Helsinki in August. The other panelists were the American poet Ron Silliman and the literary critic Maaria Ylikangas.)

At the most general level, the question – does poetry have a future – is absurd: almost like asking what the future of color will be, or the future of musical sound.

In this sense, there will undoubtedly be “poetry” in the future, and we will find the evening sky or the bend in the neck of a swan to be poetic, but as lines printed on paper in sequence, well, I don’t think that kind of poetry has had much of a future ever since the beginning of the 20th century, at least ever since Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés, other than to perpetuate its own half-life, the crisis of the line.

Ever since that fateful dice-throw, the word “poetry” has simply had too many conflicting usages. Poetry as the best of what is thought and said. Poetry as de-automatization of the senses. Poetry as an ideological value-judgment. Poetry as an absurd print convention. Poetry as code, a conceptual game. Poetry as autobiographical, confessional verse. Apples and oranges. Can we really talk about the future of “poetry” as such?

Obviously not. But then again, could we ever? One might argue that this crisis of poetry is as old as the separation between oral and written literature in the Ancient world, or the separation between sung song and written lyric in the Renaissance, and, although verse and voice lived, very briefly, in harmony on the stages of European theater, that time too has passed.

Today, performed, voiced poetry from spoken word to rap and stand-up to storytelling might at first appear to be bridging this age-old gap and bringing about a new reconciliation between voice and text, but one should seriously ask what the context of performance does, what the demands put on the text by performativity are doing to poetic texts.

The spoken word is not the written word: they exist differently in time, and they use different rhetorical methods to achieve their ends. One is dependent on the presence of a performer, one isn’t. Therefore, no matter how inclusive of genre or style or subject performance poetry may say it is, it will never be able to be inclusive enough: much of what is central to written poetry cannot be communicated in performance.

Another point of difference is that what constitutes the work in performance is not the text but the whole rhetorical staging of it, which itself achieves its different criteria of excellence by either strengthening and affirming or subverting and redrawing personal and intersubjective boundaries related to manifesting personality, racial, sexual or gender identity.

The written poem, on the other hand, works (especially in the Modernist/Avantgarde tradition) by re-coding the reading situation in order to produce something the reader has to decipher according to impersonal codes: typographical cues, generic or non-generic imagery, riddles and clues. With writing, there are always new rules we need to apply, and the success of a written poem is based on the ratio between complexity and familiarity. Too difficult, and the poem is unsolvable. Too easy, and it teaches us nothing.

A performance cannot present itself as something to decipher, though, because deciphering takes time. So, even when the text is “difficult”, a performance will only “work” if the performer’s charisma carries it through, justifies the complexity by an appearance of affability or the building of trust through other rhetorical means. Writing doesn’t work that way. Absence and presence, text and subject: the axis of contemporary poetry?

Perhaps, but while speech-based forms appear to be on the rise, the written poem is showing signs of declining, to be replaced by images and code. The tradition of Western modernism and its avantgarde movements draws attention to the material page, demanding that we read visually, alert for cues only typography can supply: reading, since the beginning of this tradition, became non-linear, hypertextual (long before the term became an early internet meme).

This non-linear visuality was itself, however, only a kind of design document, a prototype. Today, in poetic artworks utilizing and inspired by new media, the “poem” is not the text, but the code which, when run, produces an output, the readable instance. The actual written work is the program, which no one sees (or understands). This is much more than “conceptual poetry” (which itself is merely performance art masquerading as literature). This is something we have no name for, and so we fall back on the old word, and call it poetry.

This is what the word “poetry” has to bear today, this impossible load of irreconcilable meaning. And still we go on, because we need poetry: we need it to guarantee cultural distinction, to give our projects the veneer of linguistic excellence. To be poetic, to be a poet, to have written poetry, is to be a progressive, a pioneer, a vanguard of language and communication, of self-presentation: the best that has been thought and said, the best words in the best order.

Is the future of poetry then to be a kind of sign of quality, an advertising slogan? Perhaps, again, is all I can say; but such was always the case, was it not? To talk of what “our poetry” must be in order to be proper, is to talk about values, about religion, politics, beliefs: the best people in the best order, saying what is right and proper.

That is why critics, who pass judgment on poetry and either deny or affirm a work as good or bad poetry are at the same time also defining the communicative values we should uphold in our society: do we want to understand strangers, do we want to invent new ways of speaking about a changed world, or do we want everyone to agree with us, to believe in the same values, the same dogmas, the same cliches?

How can we agree in such situations, if and when the poets and the critics and the poetry in question are so wildly incommensurable as to reduce the whole discussion into farce? Is there anything to share, if we think in completely opposite ways?

We don’t usually come against such problems, because like-minded people group together and hardly mix with people of a different degree. We keep a friendly face, uphold social consensus by saying that diversity is great and all, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel that some poets are completely rubbish and others just fantastic.

Some might feel that we need a new revolution, a communal and aesthetic upheaval. But from the point of view of history, only failed revolutions are successful: only by integrating themselves with traditional institutions (or becoming institutions of their own) have rebels ever been able to change taste or thought. Revolutions, when they do succeed, lead to Terror and gulags.

Even from a more practical viewpoint, the problem with institutional reform today is that our institutions aren’t going to be around for much longer. The next ten years, I imagine, will still be spent adjusting to what has been called (by the futurologist and science fiction writer Bruce Sterling) the paradigm of atemporality, as our linear interfaces with recorded history continue to be replaced by the networked archive’s non-linear ones.

But some time in the near future, as material conditions change, minds will change. Signs of that change are already everywhere. For instance, since the nature of the archive is undifferentiated surface – uncategorized data – this abundance of information coupled with the scarcity of available time produces, in many of us, decision and valuation fatigue. Therefore, the recent trend of “curators”: critics without opinions or interpretations usurping authors by providing their readers with feeds of interestingness; headlines to skim instead of deep reading.

As minds change, reading habits – or the cognitive styles employed by readers – change, or have already changed, as many recent studies show. In place of the long read (and I don’t mean the “long read” of hip data journalism, but focused, interpretative reading of difficult texts, deep reading), there’s increased demand for “street food”: twitter weird, meme-bait, snapshot-alt-lit.

As reading changes, the work of writing will change. I suspect that in the near future a kind of precarious decanonization of literature and authorship will take place, mostly through forms of crowdfunded self-publishing. A new form of patronism (e.g. demanding a new kind of engagement between the author and the reader, where certain donors are eligible for extra content. The reader becomes a customer, the author provides a service.

At the same time, an increasing disintermediation will either destroy traditional publishers or force them to grow into behemoths: information wants to be free, and traditional institutions that used to thrive by holding information hostage and demanding a premium for access will no longer be able to do so. Legacy media will either die off or breed with new species.

This evolutionary future will probably belong to the impossibly large and quickly evolved (Amazon, Google) but also the ineffably small (bedroom web-publishing). There are going to be huge vertical differences but not much horizontal variety. At least, that is what it will look like from the point of view of the giants: the larger the outlet, the fewer its available points of view, entry or access will be, and the paradoxical thing is that this dwindling of viewpoints will not be because of a lack of resources but because of the fear of a lack of exposure. If you have to drive traffic, you don’t invest in byzantine labyrinths, unless you can tag them as a form of “alternative” click-bait. On the ground, under the canopy, mixing with the rotting litter, weird flora and fauna will exist, but who knows how they will survive?

Perhaps there will be no future at all: the media philosopher Vilem Flusser in his essay “Does Writing Have a Future” said, quite famously, no. Linear writing will be replaced by images and code. I don’t believe that, necessarily. But the truth is that poetry in verse is no longer commensurable at all with whatever else is called poetry out there. Therefore, like all the good little segregated communities of Western society, we, different sisters and brothers of the same mother, will shed these historical vestiges of social-democratic new-deal familiality and retreat inside the limits of our subcultures, there to inbreed our future mutants, whoever or whatever they will be.

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