In this essay I outline some broad structural and cultural aspects of the digital revolution which may contribute to the renewal of traditional form and narrative in Australian poetry as an expression of the millennial value of making. Firstly, that making traditional poetic forms is partly a response to the structural limitations of websites and e-readers, and culturally a response to the remediation of poetry to the perceived temporality and instability of the internet. I briefly associate Manovich’s argument that the database is the enemy of the narrative with the new ‘empirical turn’ in the humanities and suggest that strongly narrative poetry is reacting against the digital preference for the number. Finally I note the strategies of a smooth grammatical line and ‘bardic’ stance as a way for ‘professional’ authors to differentiate themselves from online amateurism.
‘One should choose whether to make tables or bake cakes
and not be a carpenter of cakes or a baker of tables.’
—Michael Paraskos, Part one of the new
aestheticism, the aphorisms of Irsee (2007)
From where does a cultural value emerge? One might say the value of making began with three zeroes: the conceptual boundary of the new millennium, which encouraged reflection, speculation and dissatisfaction with Western lived experience. In the arts, the value of making is a response to the disintegrating aspects of postmodern culture, the pressures of corporate capitalism, and the temporal, incomplete and amateur nature of many texts on the internet. Edward Docx, in his 2011 article Postmodernism is Dead, described the post-postmodern experience as ‘a universal yearning for some kind of offline authenticity. We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinising, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. We want to become reacquainted with the spellbinding narrative of expertise.’ The value of making encompasses a renewed respect for works that are whole, material, and require a highly-skilled maker, and the sincere emotional experience that responding to these works produces.
This value is evident in millennial Australian poetry. In his commentary for a 2011 anthology of the ‘next generation’ of poets, Thirty Australian poets, John Tranter noted ‘there is a surprising amount of rhyme and formality in this collection.’ It included several of the New Lyric poets, who do not necessarily use traditional forms, but who value traditional aspects of poetry-making, such as internalised rhyme and the musicality of the line. In his introduction to Best Australian poems 2012, Tranter noted his surprise that narrative continued to be a key element of contemporary Australian poetry, and cited our long history of bush ballads as a possible explanation. Roughly ten percent of the poems in recent editions of Best Australian poems make significant use of traditional form or rhyme. The modern sonnet and prose poem are the most popular forms, but the anthology has also published villanelles: Anne Elvey’s Between (2009) and Sarah Day’s Afterimage (2011), Gig Ryan’s sestina ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ (2011), Paul Kelly’s ballads ‘Thoughts in the Middle of the Night’ and ‘One More Tune’ (2009) and Michael Sharkey’s cento ‘Where the Bunyip Builds its Nest’ (2012). David McCooey even claimed in his essay, ‘Surviving Australian Poetry: the New Lyricism’, that the formal innovation of the verse novel has contributed to the economic survival of Australian poetry. This suggests that making narratives and traditional forms may be, in part, a millennial survival strategy.
In this essay, I outline some broad structural and cultural aspects of the digital revolution which may contribute to the return to traditional forms and narrative in Australian poetry as an expression of the millennial value of making. Firstly, that making traditional forms is structurally a response to the limitations of websites and e-readers, and culturally a response to the remediation of poetry to the perceived temporality and instability of the internet. I briefly associate Manovich’s argument that the database is the enemy of the narrative with the new ‘empirical turn’ in the humanities, and suggest that strongly narrative poetry is reacting against the digital preference for the number. Finally, I note the strategies of a smooth grammatical line and ‘bardic’ stance as a way for ‘professional’ authors to differentiate themselves from online amateurism.
Making traditional poetry as a structural response to digital instability
In 2012, Cordite’s Emily Stewart wrote an article entitled Australian Poetry e-books - Why Don’t They (really) Exist Yet? Stewart located the problem in the time and money required to digitise, concluding: ‘poetry readerships and writerships are already open to text beyond the page, countering the commonly-heard lament that digital reading offers a less authentic experience.’ Although time and money are certainly a problem, there is a more fundamental issue with the idea of ‘text beyond the page’. As of 2014, e-Pub does not support line breaks. Part of the appeal of an e-book is that it allows reflowable text; the e-Pub is not a static page, but is encoded so an e-reader such as a Kindle can change the text’s font-size and wrap the text to suit the individual’s preferred page display. For e-Pub, blocks of text are easy to work with and novel titles can be mass-outsourced to be encoded as e-books, but the variation of alignment, line length, gaps, and line breaks that poetry involves means that they must be individually encoded. This is time consuming and very costly, and for many publishers, reflowable text issues represent a serious structural hurdle. In Australia, the only poetry publication consistently available in e-Pub formats is Black Inc’s Best Australian Poems. American poetry publisher, David Teicher, says that even the big publishing houses have been holding out on digitising their poetry collections, hoping for a better technical solution. Since form and space are important parts of a poem, Teicher asks: ‘How can we maintain the intentionality of the poet on devices which by design strip out that intentionality?’ Ironically, the best answer to date is the PDF—which is essentially a static page. The app Ampersand makes use of PDF files to display poetry, but the text isn’t reflowable or resizeable, and it doesn’t make poetry available across all technologies—only smartphones and iPads can use the app. This has consequences not only for poetry in general, but specifically for making poetry that uses forms that are hard to format. Encoding a typically ‘postmodern’ poem which uses the page creatively would be more expensive than, for instance, encoding a prose poem.
Similar issues are faced by Australian online journals presenting poems on web pages. Poetic forms are, to a certain extent, restricted by the formats and typography supported by the content management system of each website. In an earlier Axon article, Elizabeth Webby (2012) outlined the laborious process of encoding poetry for the Australian Poetry Library: ‘The cost of digitising the collections, which all needed to be sourced, scanned and then sent to a firm in India for conversion to xml through a system of double-keying to locate input errors, turned out to be much more than originally budgeted ... They also needed to make sure that the finished product faithfully replicated the often very complex layout of the published versions of the poems.’ Webby also noted that the digital expectations of their commercial web designer, Hothouse, pressured them to change the name from ‘Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library’ to the more search-engine-optimised ‘Australian Poetry Library’ and that poems had to be individually tagged with themes. Webby’s team had originally wanted to have tags about poetic form ‘in order to allow readers to trace the use by Australian poets of forms such as the sonnet, ode or epic. But so far no one has had the time to tag any of the poems.’
Approaches to digitising poetry vary: Southerly’s Long Paddock uses Flashplayer to present static PDFs of the poems which preserve the sense of the page, while HTML is used to present poems on the screen at Cordite, Mascara and Meanjin online, which means the text is malleable. What HTML can support is genuinely an issue. As Toby Fitch blogged in 2013: ‘My deconstructed prose poem “The Living Daylights” was published recently by Black Rider Press in their Diamond and the thief online minizine. It’s an almost impossible poem to code with HTML because it disperses down the page like a building losing its foundations, but somehow Jeremy Balius, chief thief, has done it.’
The difference between the spaces of the page and the screen are significant, not only in preserving the intentionality of the poet through format and spatial distribution, but also in terms of the surrounding space or context of the poem. This space is arguably part of the poem’s interpretation. In her 2012 essay Making digital poetry: writing with and through spaces, American academic Mirona Magearu talks about lines of continuity from oral to print culture to new media culture as poems interact with the spaces in which they are performed. For oral culture, the poem emerged when the poem was spoken and heard, the space of the poem was bound up in sound devices which allowed for memory and transmission. With print culture, the word has a visual existence and forms and structure became important as the page is the space of the poem. Magearu proposes that poetry presented as new media is a trans-medial space, as the poem intended for the page is now represented on a screen, which is in reality a complex layered space involving executed code and the poem. ‘As a result, the trans-medial space is always in formation or on the point of becoming.’ For Magearu, this remediation makes a big difference: while the printed page of a poem creates immediacy, or a sense of immersion in the text because it is the space in which the poem is enacted, the screen creates hypermediacy, or an awareness of the medium. When one is viewing a poem online, they are also likely to be viewing the background noise of a website masthead and sidebar and the browser window, but beyond this background noise is the general din of the internet: a nexus of continually updated or incomplete texts. Potentially more than one version of a poem may be returned by an internet search, or there can be glitches, meaning that multiplicities and palimpsests can occur. The internet has a certain temporality, which means a poem may be hosted one day and gone the next. Thus, the nature of the internet as a remediated space for poetry creates a perception of instability. I suggest that the millennial value of making counters this instability with the use of more traditional, whole, complete forms. An example of the millennial poet’s experience of boundaries, layers, instability and uncertainty in remediated spaces is echoed in Brook Emery’s modern sonnet, ‘It Appears we are Machines’, reproduced online in 2014:
The poem can be read as a meditation on the act of writing a poem in the digital age. ‘It appears we are machines to manufacture words’ metaphorically invokes the idea that writing is a core human purpose. Water is introduced as the symbolic medium to support words in ‘weighted with deliberation or floating crosswise’ and the ‘interlocking edge’ and ‘surface-glued-to-surface’ connote boundaries of remediation. The binary nature of the ‘fish between their beaks or nothing’ and the diction ‘machines’ and ‘greyscale’ signal the digital context. The volta of the sonnet is reached when Emery swaps to second person: ‘Lie back, you say’. If ‘we machines’ are the humans making words, ‘you’ could be interpreted as the ‘other machines’ or the writing implements of the digital age. Wariness and distrust is established in the abstract nouns ‘uncertainty’ and especially ‘collusion’ —which is the title of Emery’s 2012 publication in which this sonnet appears—as we are encouraged to ‘trust the density of matter’, the objective reality held up against the changeable, malleable nature of ‘air and water’. If we are suspended between these two elements, and then ‘Words leave’ the poet may be experiencing true immersion in the medium, or a loss of human purpose, or obliteration, especially as air and water ‘rush to fill the space.’ Whether one chooses to read the ending as the poet acclimatising to the digital environment or as a loss of identity, the challenges of negotiating digital spaces as a poet are evident in the poem.
Making narrative poetry as a structural and cultural response to the database
Lev Manovich, the new media theorist, claims in his essay, Database as a Genre of New Media (2000), that the instability of the internet in terms of being incomplete, unbounded, overlaid and temporal, are all ways in which new media objects are oppositional to the narrative. Since the database, at the core of new media texts, works on the understanding of discrete packets of data and algorithms, it does not have a beginning or end, plot development or thematic organisation, thus ‘database and narrative are natural enemies’. Manovich suggests that the database and narrative are ‘Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning in our world’. Yet for Manovich, it appears that the database is winning. ‘Indeed, if after the death of God (Nietzsche) the end of grand Narratives of the Enlightenment (Lyotard) and the arrival of the Web (Tim Berners-Lee) the world appears to us an endless unstructured collection of images, texts and other data records, it is only appropriate that we will be moved to model it as a database.’
Here Manovich shifts the structural influence to a cultural one, and locates some of the instability of the digital revolution in postmodern theory. There is perhaps an interesting correlation between the anti-narrative nature of the digital revolution and the challenge to the place of postmodern theory in the humanities described as ‘an empirical turn’ by Australian academics Katherine Bode and Robert Dixon in Resourceful reading: a new empiricism in the digital age? According to Bode and Dixon, the appearance and convenience of literary databases such as AusLit and SETIS, and online projects such as the Australian Poetry Library, are changing the type of humanities research conducted, using databasing, data mining, geo-spatial mapping, computer visualisation, and generally pursuing ‘observation, experience and experiment, as opposed to theory, to access the presumed “facts” and “objects” of its inquiry’. Although Bode and Dixon use inverted commas, the rise of the database seems to signal a return to objective realism and a skimming over of the pluralism which hallmarked postmodernism. In Simon West’s 2012 blog The world is but a word (In answer to the question, what is your poetry about?) for the New Lyric poets of So Long Bulletin, he seems to confirm this aim in his poetry: ‘by focusing the gaze on Nature ... we are also further from our competing subjective points of view. Instead we are forced to see things as they are … The nature I have been invoking so imprecisely is that common or objective universe of things and facts.’
This potentially affects the value of making traditional forms and narrative in two ways: if it appears that the digital revolution is showing a cultural preference for the number and threatening the narrative, strongly narrative poetry may be made in opposition to this influence as part of the pursuit of offline authenticity. The reappearance of the philosophical mode of objective realism may also have affected form as poets more frequently opt for the ‘objective’ externalised stance rather than the personal ‘I’ stance in framing their poetry, and choose content such as nature and historical events which have a broader ‘objective’ appeal to their audiences, rather than personal content.
Making expertise known as a cultural response to online amateurism
The preference for an externalised or ‘bardic’ stance could be located in a number of different cultural turns—as I have suggested, a trend towards a philosophical mode of objective realism in the humanities and poetry is one of them. Likewise if, as millennial critique of postmodernism indicates, the humanist narrative is gaining favour, well, narratives need storytellers. There may even be some resonance between oral traditions of the pre-print and the post-print age. But the most pronounced motive for the adoption of the ‘bardic’ stance in making poetry is as a way of differentiating ‘professional’ authors from online ‘amateurs’. Since the digital revolution, readers of the internet are also writers, critics, and publishers via web pages, blogs and social media. This is positive in so much as it is a democratisation of voices, yet as British academics Simon Biggs and Penny Travlou joke in their 2012 essay Distributed authorship and creative communities: ‘We may almost be at a point where the author-type is, in a Being John Malkovich kind of way, culturally over-abundant.’ They refer to this phenomenon as the ‘deprofessionalisation of the author’ which leads into their discussion of group and communal authorship as opposed to the sole, privileged author. Yet for millennial Australian poets pursuing a sense of ‘offline authenticity’ through the making of their poetry, this phenomenon underlines a competitive pressure for authors who wish to be considered ‘professional’ to exist in online spaces, yet demarcate their cultural product from ‘amateur’ background noise.
This issue is especially relevant to emerging millennial poets. In her chapter of Republic of letters: literary communities in Australia Keri Glastonbury points out that emerging writers have no choice but to compete in online culture: ‘Social interaction both on and offline is undeniably an increasing aspect of being a writer and the emerging writers’ community operates as a participatory network of artist-run literary festivals, a proliferation of literary bloggers … and numerous other DIY literary initiatives that are both semi-autonomous and enmeshed in literary culture.’ A poet must therefore adopt a range of performative voices or personas across these media. Given the psychological effects of online writing which trend writers towards disinhibition, that is, performing more outrageous aspects of their nature due to the online illusion of privacy, and the possibility of distortion of the poet’s voice in response to the instantaneous feedback of peers, the offline authenticity sought through the value of making may also be the Romantic notion of the authentic, poetic self.
Structurally, the externalised ‘bardic’ stance favours a third person perspective or that of a first person observer, rather than the usual lyrical modes of ‘I’ and ‘you’. In terms of content, ‘bardic’ stance evokes oral traditions of the poet as a storyteller who narrates events of general importance to the audience. In a contemporary setting, a poem with a ‘bardic’ stance may consider natural phenomena as suggested earlier, or social or historical events, for example. Likewise, the content of such poetry will avoid the highly personal, subjective or fragmented content because it may alienate the reader, but also because such content is often accused of being amateur, unskilled or self-indulgent. Indeed, American academic Deirdre Dowling-Pierce notes in her dissertation, Blogs and the culture of confession, that blogging and other ‘over-sharing’ modes of online writing attract the same sorts of vehement criticism as did the confessionalist poets of the 1960s. Millennial poets may therefore use traditional modes such as an externalised stance in their poetry making to oppose and differentiate themselves and their writing from online amateurism. One obvious complaint that might be made of the ‘bardic’ stance is that it assumes a voice to speak for events and large groups of diverse people, constructing a universe for the narrative of the poem to inhabit which seemingly abides by a universalising, objective realism. While it has already been suggested that such a stance might be refreshing after the multiplicities and palimpsests of the internet, the pluralism that arose from postmodern theory is perhaps not, and should not be, so easily swept aside.
The ‘bardic’ stance and use of traditional forms are ultimately ways that a millennial poet may signal their professionalism and specialised knowledge of tools of the poetry trade. Another perhaps more trivial structural signal that Australian millennial poets are pursuing is the smooth line that is hyper-conscious of grammatical coherence. Such lines are important to both lyrical and narrative styles of poetry. This may also be viewed as oppositional to the ‘lazy’ language tactics of the digital revolution which favour the brevity of textspeak, and utilitarian purposes for language such as search-engine optimisation, which is designed to convey meaning to web crawlers rather than people. It’s debateable whether digital functions such as predictive text and autocorrect have degraded general users’ language skills, or whether we are simply more aware of poor language skills as they are now freely published online. The cultural perception of language degradation, however, has created its own internet meme: the ‘Grammar Nazi’. As American author Sean M. Chandler explains on his 2012 blog Requiem for a meme: ‘To many people who are not authors or aspiring authors, Grammar Nazis are notorious snobs who eavesdrop on conversations like linguistic vultures waiting to feed on the carrion of our 21st Century syntax.’ Chandler draws the cultural lines of the internet with the authors and aspiring authors as Grammar Nazis on the ‘high’ side of the cultural divide, and everyone else, resenting their efforts on the other. He jokes: ‘I absolutely believe that there is a dire need for those of us who are willing to help preserve the English language in an age of texting and Jersey Shore slang, because beautiful poetry like “parting is such sweet sorrow” written in text speak would be “PISSS” (gross).’
Whether or not one feels that getting hung up on grammatical rules is pedantic, there is fundamentally an opposition between utilitarian digital uses of ‘text’ for textspeak, search-engine optimisation and predictive text, and the poetic ‘word’ which makes meaning. The sense that textspeak abbreviations used in everyday life cannot support poetry is explored in Australian poet Jordie Albiston’s the sonnet according to ‘m’ (2009) where Albiston refigures Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ monologue as a textspeak sonnet entitled ‘methinx’:
On the surface, this poem is very much a product of postmodern play and pastiche, with allusions first to Macbeth, and then to Auden’s Funeral Blues with the imperative ‘Stop all the clocks!’ Both those works refer to meaninglessness in the wake of loss, and Albiston evokes them alongside Modernist complaints about life being ‘2 fast 2 liv’ and ‘2 short 4 a hero’ to explore the failure of everyday language to represent grand existential events as the classics do. Her use of textspeak underlines the role of contemporary uses of language in undermining culture and human experience, contrasting transference of meaning in oral communication versus text ‘cos we dont talk cos / text sez wot we got 2 say’. The concluding line ‘methinx it all means o’ is a palimpsest over Macbeth’s ‘Life … is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / signifying nothing.’ Even though it is playful, the poem does suggest an antagonistic relationship between the predominant utilitarian uses of ‘text’ since the digital revolution and the poetic ‘word’ that makes meaning.
The digital dream
Antagonism between the digital revolution and poetic forms, the narrative, the professional author and the word do create tensions for millennial Australian poetry. That is not to suggest that the digital revolution has only negative impacts on poetry or that expressions of the emerging value of making in pursuit of offline authenticity is the only response to those tensions. Poets and journals are finding ways around the difficulties, sinking their own time or money into e-Pubs, providing downloadable PDFs of their work, making screen-friendly forms of poetry, and even experimenting with new genres like multimedia digital poetry. Indeed, journal start-ups are perhaps cheaper and easier to contemplate than ever before with programs like Submittable to manage submissions, and literary blogging is a great new source of critique. It is just that, heedless of these tensions, Australian millennial poets are continually told that the internet is the answer to our problems of finding an audience, of avoiding publication and distribution costs. In a recent article in the Australian, Susan Hayes of the Australia Council noted that more entries and grants were piling in for digital poetry projects and that Australian poetry publishers needed to ‘digitise or lose the plot.’ Yet the dream of the internet as ‘utilitopianism’ as American academic Mathew Fuller terms it, needs some serious scrutiny. He reminds us: ‘The bulk of the infrastructure of the Internet—including its key bottlenecks—remains in the hands of a very few corporate individuals. Utilitopianism—utopia achieved by utilitarian means, as in that of the digital “commons”—works, it produces effects, but never unilaterally.’
It is also worth noting that a cultural value rarely emerges from just one source such as the digital revolution. As Fuller suggests, corporate capitalism is another big influence on the emerging value of making, and as Manovich and Docx indicated, a turn away from postmodern culture is another. But the digital revolution is perhaps the most saturating, confronting expression of the instabilities, multiplicities, palimpsests and incompleteness of millennial life—and in internet ‘text’ we find the utilitarian values of corporate capitalism made manifest. However, once we understand the various challenges and antagonisms that the digital age presents to Australian millennial poetry, the value of making may well see poets finding new ways to achieve authenticity—perhaps even taking a little of it online.
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