Digital Poetry: Boldly Going Where Most Poetry Has Gone Before

In his book Digital Poetics (2002), Loss Pequeno Glazier is on a mission to bring poetry into the discourse of contemporary digital culture: “For one not to see the connection between poetic practice and new technology seems to undervalue a literary genre that [has been] at the forefront of artistic investigations of the 20th century” (152). While he focuses on the traditions of modernist and postmodernist poetry, Glazier develops the claim that poetry in general—by its very essence or generic qualities—anticipated the advent of digital texts, long before digital texts were even conceivable. From Blake to Dickinson to Gertrude Stein to W.C. Williams to Jackson Mac Low, “post-typographic and non-linear disunion is no news to poetics” (35).

In the chapter “Hypertext/Hyperpoeisis/Hyperpoetics,” Glazier points out that within the critical discourse surrounding digital literature and writing, poetry has been overshadowed by prose. Although theorists and hypertext poets “often seem to evoke postmodern theory, postmodern poetry is surprisingly overlooked” (93). The problem with this, according to Glazier, is that assumptions and claims about new media prose would probably be refigured/revised if scholars were to consider concerns specific to poetry, concerns founded in poetic composing practices: interrogations into materiality, form, nonlinearity, semiotics, and sense of self. Glazier claims that what is currently considered innovative practice in hypertext prose has long been at stake in poetry, even when poetry was limited to print media. For the past one hundred years, “rather than focusing on the information of the text, poetic practice has explored the conditions that determine that information, the procedures, processes, and crossed paths of meaning-making, meaning-making as constituting the ‘meaning’” (32, italics mine). Thus, poetry has been working towards a critical approach to mediation for some time, and now that it has moved into digital media, poetry should have a more important place in the conversation.

In one sense, it is as though hypertext is poetry’s “soul mate”—the ideal match for poetry, the medium poetry has been waiting for all these years while it made do in oral history, script, and then print. Glazier writes, “digital poetries are not print poetry merely repositioned in the new medium. Instead, e-poetries [make] possible the continuation of lines of inquiry that could not be fulfilled in [print media]” (26). Here, it seems a dimension is unlocked as poetry moves into a new writing technology. In another sense, however, Glazier acknowledges that poetic traditions are not carried over from medium to medium without undergoing serious transformation by the medium itself: “the Web […] has become a part of a transformed social fabric: writing will never be the same again” (52).

This is the key distinction/question I come away with: to what extent does innovative poetic practice alter and advance digital media (or create new media in some cases), and to what extent does digital media alter poetic practice and what it even means to do poetic work? This is a bit like the distinction between technology determining society vs. society determining its technology—who or what is in control? As Glazier asks, “What should be questioned? What […] should be accepted or rejected?” (18). I don’t think he or anyone else has the answers, though it is crucial to keep asking these questions as new poetic forms emerge.