Can Poetry Find New Life Online?

November 4, 2009 at 2:38 pm (By Amba)

That’s the gamble being taken by the multimedia website, which launched yesterday — not so much that poetry might be read again in the old way (the words “dustily perused” come unbidden to mind), but that it has untapped appeal for a postliterate, audiovisual, multimedia culture — that people might even pay for a poem in various formats the way they’ll pay for a song.  This strikes me as a very sharp insight:  poetry is music — word music — and it might catch the inner ear of musically imprinted people in a way that unstructured prose does not.  The launch press release describes as both “a social network for poets and poetry lovers” and “a new business model for poetry”:

On, poets will be able to manage their own information, blog if they wish, explain and display their body of work to their own choosing, and even post their speaking or performance schedules. […] Both interactive and educational, visitors will be able to create their own “favorites,” plus connect to the poets via Twitter and other social networking sites. will also be a business and marketing engine for poets and poetry presses.  There are already three revenue streams, with several others identified and being developed. sells individual poems in different formats (audio, video or text), as well as books, ebooks, DVDs and CDs, and tickets to online performances, slams or readings.

That combination of functions makes the site an agora — one of the most ancient human institutions, a place of inseparable social, commercial, and cultural exchange [wish I could use the German word “Geistlich,” which covers both intellectual and spiritual], where performances, transactions, meet-ups, pick-ups and trysts are all going on in the same spacetime.  All our favorite ingredients fermenting together makes for a heady and fertile brew.  I hope the site takes off and helps poetry reclaim its rightful place among the musics that move us.

And in related newsReading poetry is a good workout for your brain.

Subjects were found to read
 poems slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with 
prose. Preliminary studies using brain-imaging technology also showed greater
 levels of cerebral activity when people listened to poems being read aloud. Dr
Jane Stabler, a literature expert at St Andrews University and a member of the research group, believes poetry 
may stir latent preferences in the brain for rhythm and rhymes that develop
 during childhood. She claims the intense imagery woven through poems, and 
techniques used by poets to unsettle their readers, force them to think more
 carefully about each line. “There seems to be an almost immediate
 recognition that this is a different sort of language that needs to be 
approached in a way that will be more attentive to the density of words in
 poetry,” she said. […]

To study readers’ reactions,
 the research group focused an infrared beam on the pupils of their eyes to
 detect minute movements as they read. They found poetry produced 
all the standard psychological indications associated with intellectual
 difficulty, such as slow deliberate movement, re-reading sections and long
 pauses. Even when they used identical content but displayed it in both a poem
 format and a prose format, they discovered readers found the poem form the more
 difficult to understand. Stabler said: “When readers decide that something
 is a poem, they read in a different way. As literary critics we would like to 
think that this is a more thoughtful way, more receptive to the text’s richness
 and complexity, but in psychological terms it is the same sort of reading
 produced by a dyslexic reader who finds reading difficult.” […]

The group hopes to use
 Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to watch how the brain reacts as people 
listen to poetry and prose. Early results suggest a larger area of the brain
 lights up in the scans upon hearing poetry by Byron than prose by Austen. The 
research has profound implications for the way English literature is taught in
 schools, and Stabler believes they should consider placing greater emphasis on 
teaching youngsters poetry.

Both rhythm and rhyme have been found to be
 intricately linked with making and recalling memories.

It’s hard not to have rap come to mind, as a postliterate return to humanity’s preliterate mnemonic reliance on rhyme (as the above article notes, “the only way rap artists can remember all those lyrics
 is because they have rhythm and rhyme”), and as a bridge from music back to pleasure in poetry.

Cross-posted at The Compulsive Copyeditor


  1. mrgobley said,

    Mr. Gobley approves.

  2. amba12 said,

    Mr. Gobley might do well to participate! As a published poet, you can sell your book there. Cross-post. Develop a following.

  3. Jason (the commenter) said,

    It’s certainly given comics new life. Of course web comics have done just fine without a web portal of their own.

    I think this site would be better if it focused more on rating poetry. The problem for a consumer is finding quality products.

  4. amba12 said,

    Good point — people will yawn and go away if most of the poetry is crappy vanity-press stuff. In fact the founder, Dominque Raccah of Sourcebooks, acknowledges that in a blog post: “One of the things that we’re not saying to one another is that things sell because they’re good.” So the site is not unaware of the quality question. It’s developing an advisory board, You’ll see here that they also have a five-star rating/review system, á la Over time, poets may develop rather merciless reputations . . . or, they may get their friends to stuff the ballot box. Maybe the raters too will need to be rated.

  5. amba12 said,

    Plus which, they do have classic, passed-the-test-of-time poetry, which sets a standard. (Not your grandmother’s standard, either.) And two out of three sections of the site emphasize published poets, who’ve already been vetted.

    Gosh, I quite like the first current poem I clicked on.

    Also, CLEVER!! You can’t highlight a poem to copy it, but you can buy it. (Of course no one can stop you from painstakingly copying it word by word. )

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