A few years ago I was driving to a softball tournament with a pair of microbiologists who didn’t like my taste in music (folk, for the record — and no, this isn’t the beginning of a bad joke about cell division). Shuffling through my CD case, they came across a burned disc with “To Tim, From Sally” scrawled at the top, along with a track list full of indie bands that I still can’t keep straight.
“Who’s Sally?” one of them asked.
“She’s a…fan, I guess?” I said, and explained how she’d read some of my poems in a magazine, then emailed me to ask if she could read more. I sent her a copy of my in-progress manuscript, and then she sent me a mix-CD in exchange.
“You have fans??”
“I have three fans, maybe.”
“You have three fans??”
The conversation went on like this for the next hour, as we made our way to Palm Desert. I couldn’t believe that they found it so interesting — these were microbiologists who do important research, publish papers, attend conferences all over the world, write letters to other microbiologists… And in publishing my silly little poems in magazines that don’t sniff a thousand readers, I had something that they seemed strangely desperate for. Maybe a little celebrity in this star-ful culture, maybe just a voice in the void. There’s a romanticism to the thought of connecting with strangers, and a power to having your words echo out of the blue. Until that moment, it never occurred to me that there’s this need to be heard in everyone — and that poets are part of a very small fraction of society that gets to have that need fulfilled.
But every day now, this becomes less and less the case.
On the long view, poetry’s usefulness is a history of technological assault. Technology, by definition, is the steady replacement of simple tools by those more complex and efficient. And make no mistake — poetry, at its heart, is the simplest of tools.
The first poems were mnemonic devices. Even thousands of years before petroglyphs began evolving into proto-writing, human beings were complicated social animals, with rich spiritual lives. Our ancestors had religions and rituals and origin myths, just as we do, and these incredibly important stories needed to be passed down to their descendants uncorrupted. Without any tools for record-keeping, they turned to poetry, using the literary devices we’re familiar with to this day — assonance and alliteration, rhythm and rhyme — to solidify their myths into fixed-form oral histories. Not only does poetry allow for tremendous feats of memory, it also inhibits our natural tendency to embellish a good story. It’s hard to add your own fraudulent details without losing the meter as you tell your tale. Poetry was the best record they could keep.
Then came the Bronze Age (4th century BC), and with it, the beginnings of a true phonetic writing system. For the first time in human history, spoken language could be recorded almost verbatim, and poetry became a little less important. What had been written on breath could now be written in stone. But still, materials were expensive and literacy levels were low. The technology of writing remained mostly limited to the scholarly class — at times, literacy itself was a trade secret of professional scribes. Part of the allure of a poem like The Odyssey was still that it was an exciting story that could be recited. Poetry was still a vessel for information.
Then came Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440, and even more importantly the industrial revolution of the 19th century, which made books affordable. As literacy levels rose, an affinity for poetry remained — it’s in our blood, a crucial part of human history — but its necessity as an informational medium had been supplanted.
At the same time, verse began losing its hold on fiction, as well. Written prose — the novel — became the new vessel for story, eliminating the need for the epic poems of writers like Homer, Chaucer, and Spenser. The new epics would be written in paragraphs, not lines — why bother with rhythm and rhyme, if there’s no need to memorize? Why bother putting your words on the tongue of the world when your books can fill the libraries of forever?
With another pair of uses stripped away, poetry remained entertaining. We love language — the sound of two words next to each other, the shape of a phrase in our mouth. We evolved to love it; it’s written into the structure of the brain. Music provided a similar — and sometimes superior — aural pleasure, but the only music was live music. In the absence of a band and your own ability to play the fiddle, there was poetry, which had a monopoly on the private, acoustic experience.
Then came the phonograph.
But poems were still intensely imagistic, kindling to the fire of the mind’s eye!
Then came movies.
But you can’t take a movie to the beach!
On a train, on a plane!
Walkmans, CDs, iPods…
The history poetry’s usefulness is a history of technological assault. From every place that poetry draws its importance comes a new technology to replace it.
And here is a new use — over the last 50 years, the rise of the lit rag industry, hundreds of journals then becoming thousands with the ease of the internet, giving tens of thousands of poets their own voice in the void, and the possibility of developing a handful of strangers who call themselves fans. A little bit of celebrity for everyone, in a society obsessed with celebrity.
And here comes a new technology — Twitter — to replace it. With a Twitter account, you can pretend to be your old dead cat and generate hundreds of “followers.” You can just tweet about your life, and if you’re funny or lucky enough, reach thousands. My favorite is God, who shares the most banal of messages with 33,000 people, pretending the whole time to be — you guessed it — God. And who wouldn’t want to know that God is “Seeing the Pixies again in Denver on Monday”?
Of course, this just a continuation of social networking technology — a journey from blogs to MySpace to Facebook to Twitter. But there’s something about this last step that feels final. I think it’s the simplicity of it, the ease of signing up and watching your readership rise. Blogs have to be both interesting and well-written to be popular with strangers. Twitter can be neither — the medium is often the message…and sometimes it’s as simple as being the first to stake out a good handle.
Thinking back on those ballplaying microbiologists, they could easily have Twitter accounts themselves, and then my three fans would sound exactly as pathetic as it actually is. And it’s only a matter of time.
Where does that leave poetry? If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I think poetry is still important, both as a mind-tool, and as a social barometer. Will it be long until we develop technologies to replace those uses as well? When the phramaceutical companies develop prescription mood pills, and the hyper-net allows for total information awareness and empathy, what will we be left with? Will poets be nothing more than flat-earthers and civil war reenactors — a cadre of Luddites refusing to let go the tools of the old world? Or will poetry always find a smaller niche to escape to, as it always has, to have its place?