Technology

One of the many reasons I admire A.E. Stallings’ “Sestina: Like” and Bruce Beasley’s “Year’s End Paradoxography” so much is that the modern technology/modern world is integrated in those two poems in the way farmland or city streets or the human body are in so many other poems — thoroughly, and as metaphor, and amongst other topics, and not called out per se, and in ways that feel (though only time will tell on this point) like the poems will survive with their strengths intact even after the technology they engage with has moved into obsolescence.

Based on my admittedly totally unscientific general sense of the poetry I myself read, a flip through the Best American 2012 anthology, and some poking about this week in the searchable online poem databases of the Poetry Foundation and The Academy of American Poets, I feel I can say (until proven otherwise — please feel free to bring my attention to other poems in the comments box below) that current-day technology doesn’t show up as much in contemporary poems as you’d think it would.

I don’t mean poems that are about technology or social media, which are usually critiques thereof (“Touchscreen,” a performance piece by Marshall ‘Soulful’ Jones from the 2011 National Poetry Slam competition, is an awesome example of that). And I don’t mean poems that play with fractured inattention or use texting shorthand and LOLs. I mean poems that have technology in them the way poems have mothers and trees in them.

First a technical note about Stallings’ “Sestina: Like” — it’s a sestina, but all six of the form’s prescribed repeated words are just the one word “like” which should be completely impossible to pull off but she does, and she sounds free and contemporary doing it. (Stallings’ technical acumen, as evidenced by how often in her poems you cannot tell she’s adhering to strict meter or rhyme scheme or form — they just sound natural — is pretty amazing).

“Sestina: Like” isn’t just about being on Facebook, it’s also about how we talk, and what we talk about, and how poetry engages with it. It speaks about, but not just, our social media world using, but not just, our social media world. The tight winding of lines, er, like

                                                         […] Unlike
With other crutches, um, when we use “like,”

We’re not just buying time on credit: Like
Displaces other words; crowds, cuckoo-like,
Endangered hatchlings from the nest. (Click “like”
If you’re against extinction!) […]

which go from endangered verbiage back to Facebook conventions are the stuff of complex thought. Which I adore in a poem with a large section of adolescent relationship-angst slang speech.

Most technology platforms have, what is it, three years expected lifespan? before they’re obsolete. Will “Sestina: Like” stand up twenty years from now if Facebook is gone or totally different, or we’ve forgotten that there used to be a Dislike button? Unanswerable of course, and it could wind up looking as dated as an 80s Pepsi commercial does today but I’ll put my money on it standing up, because of how fully-realized and grounded in humanity the poem is, despite its branded technological setting. (I’ve made a note to check back in on this poem and post in 2033.)

I take as evidence that it can be done another poem by A.E. Stallings, “Telephonophobia” — I think that poem holds up beautifully even though it’s about a landline phone. (Though to be certain of this I should really find a reader who did not grow up with a phone attached to the kitchen wall, as I did.)

Bruce Beasley’s “Year’s End Paradoxography” is, as his recent work usually is, a delightful web held taut between literary word play, faith, doubt, something archaic, and something weird. It also has one of my favorite mis-heard word moments in a poem,
I always thought it went
Our Father which aren’t
in heaven, and sat
staring at His stained-glass throne, wondering
where instead He were.
The overall metaphor of the poem is how trying to talk directly to God is somewhat like trying to talk to a live person on a TiVo customer service line. But he touches on all sorts of modern-life weirdnesses too, like silica packets in shoes and gas station safety instructions, and forgotten password obstacles. And again, who knows, but I feel like this poem too is grounded in such a level of universal humanity that it will still “work” long after both TiVos and robotic voice customer service lines go the way of floppy discs. (Oh, don’t you just hope robot customer service conversations go the way of floppy discs?!)
Certainly poems which reference technology of the current world are not nonexistent (in my search I came across poems such as “9773 Comanche” by David Trinidad, which has Google Maps street view in it) but it just feels like there are fewer than there should be given that we’re all online all day long, more or less, even poets.

Even a poem like “Potato Soup” by Daniel Nyikos, the narrative of which involves a webcam, doesn’t really depend on the presence of that particular technology; it could just as easily have been a conversation on a party line telephone. Ditto “Anybody Can Write a Poem” by Bradley Paul — there’s nothing inherently online in the speaker’s relationship with “the idiot online” with whom he’s arguing.

“Computer” shows up on the Poetry Foundation search in 26 poems, but that’s not really that many when you think about it, and most are along the lines of “The calico cat / stretches her long body out across the top of my computer monitor” (Dick Allen). “Facebook” and capital-T twitter net hardly anything. Based on my little exploration, “cell phone” returns the most poems, which makes sense since they’ve been ubiquitous so long. (Side note: searching for, say, “printer” or “mouse” or “twitter” slams one right up on into the downside of etymology.) And there are only two poems in the 2012 Best American Anthology directly engaging with technology (one engages with Facebook, though in a much less interesting way than Stallings’ poem, and one that riffs on the programming language BASIC).

Engaging with the world around you is always a resonant argument for artists, though I’m not necessarily saying poetry has to talk about tweets a lot, mind. I mean you wouldn’t know Elizabeth Bishop was writing while, for instance, The Brady Bunch was on the air and that’s just fine. And given the short life span of particular technologies using them can be risky and/or tricky. But it is something to pay attention to.
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One thought on “Technology

  1. […] totally duck you in bullet-time.”) And A.E. Stallings’ amazing, amazing “Sestina: […]

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