Poetry and the Digital Age, Part 1

At The Saint Constantine School, we organize the educational enterprise around conversation. As we see in Plato’s dialogues, it is in conversation, and perhaps only in conversation, that learning can occur. This is true not just for students, but also for so-called experts. The expert in her field who ceases conversing with both her students and her fellow experts has ceased, in an important way, to be an expert. For it is an open secret that there are no experts, only those who have remained – fiercely, dedicatedly, even intransigently – students long past their graduation dates.

Two of the most intransigent old students of poetry in contemportary Britain are Carol Anne Duffy – current Poet Laureate of England – and Geoffrey Hill – Oxford Professor of Poetry from 2011 – 2015. In 2011 they began an conversation about poetry that I find instructive for all interested in literature and the modern digital age. The conversation began in September 2011 when, in an interview with the Guardian, Duffy explained:

“The poem is a form of texting … it’s the original text… It’s a perfecting of a feeling in language – it’s a way of saying more with less, just as texting is. We’ve got to realise that the Facebook generation is the future – and, oddly enough, poetry is the perfect form for them. It’s a kind of time capsule – it allows feelings and ideas to travel big distances in a very condensed form.” (Moorehead)

In a lecture at Oxford two months later, Hill took issue with Duffy’s use of the word “condensed”: “Text is not condensed, it is truncated… What is more it is normally an affectation of brevity; to express ‘to’ as ‘2’ and ‘you’ as ‘u’ intensifies nothing”(Hill). Instead, Hill argues, “true poetry… is not a series of textings about the world… it is a kind of intensely crafted and parrallel world” (Hill). The distinction Hill is making is an ontological one. What kind of thing is poetry? According to Hill it is not the same thing as a news report, but instead a crafted world which may bear more or less resemblance to our own. Further, the craft that poetry requires is not a craft of truncation—cutting information down into abbreviated, but still understandable form—but of condensation, which intensifies rather than abbreviates. If the plain, undisciplined form of everyday speech is like a cloud, the poem is like the raindrop. That poetry is a type of condensed language is a point on which Duffy and Hill seem to agree. What they don’t agree on is whether the text message condenses language in the same way that poetry does.

While I am naturally inclined to agree more with Hill than Duffy, I believe there is something to be said for Duffy’s position, and I will, in this brief essay, expand her argument a bit and see if it holds up. Poetry, according to Duffy is “a way of saying more with less”.  I would like to adapt Duffy’s decription thus: poetry communicates important information in a brief form. After all, it is the brevity of the text message much more than its digitization that matters here, for the history of poetry is rife with brief forms. In English poetry the rhymed couplet of iambic pentameter may be the most ubiquitous short form. See Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Goodnight, Goodnight! Parting is such sweet sorrow

That I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.

(Shakespeare II.ii.184 – 185)

The haiku, a poetic import from Japan, is now a common short form for apprentice poets, due to its almost vicious brevity of 17 syllables, three less than the English pentameter couplet. One of my favorites is by Basho:

The lonely silence –

a single cicada’s cry

sinking into stone.

(Basho 58)

One could also point to the landay, a poetic form from Afghanistan that consists of two often rhymed lines, the first nine syllables, the second thirteen:

Separation brought this kind of grief:

it made itself a mullah, and me the village thief.

(Poetry 270)

But it is characters, not syllables, that count in texting. It was Friedhelm Hildebrand who, in 1985, set the standard character count for text messages at 160. Later, Twitter, following his lead, set their character count to 140, leaving 20 characters for the username of the author. (Milian) Hildebrand had found that most brief communications—including, it turned out, postcards—used 160 characters or less. And lo, many classic poems in brief forms do easily fit into 160 characters: Basho’s cicada haiku, Shakespeare’s famous couplets, most landays, and even the first two stanzas of Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights” (though even those are a dozen characters two long for twitter).

But there turn out to be two major problems with concluding that since text messages and tweets provide enough characters for many short poems, they are themselves conducive to the writing of poetry. The first is pointed out by Hill himself: “Poetry is lines in depth designed to be seen in relation or in deliberate disrelation to lines above and below”(Hill) Both text messages and tweets lack an essential feature of poetic form: distinct and intentional line breaks. This is especially problematic when reading on a mobile phone, the narrow screen of which can frustrate even intentional attempts to clearly display lines of poetry on a webpage. Technology has developed for almost three thousand years since Homer wrote the Iliad, and still one is hard pressed to find a satisfactory way to display his long lines of dactylic hexameter on an iphone screen, let alone find a decent formal translation of his poem.

In most poetic traditions it is syllables, not characters, that are the determining factor for formal rules in poetry. This is because syllables are easily measurable in time and stress—something that they share in common with musical notes—and the pleasure derived from poems written in a strict form is largely due to the patterning of syllables in time. A syllable of one character and a syllable of five characters may take the exact same amount of time to say. In Greek poetry, a syllable of one character may, in fact, take twice as long to say as a syllable of two characters. Thus character number is a poor feature on which to base the formal rules of a poem, especially in any tradition that treats the spoken performance of the poem as an important aspect of its being.

Thus I am hesitant to conclude that the text and the tweet are necessarily conducive to poetry. They lack an attention to lines in depth as well as to syllable patterns, elements fundamental to all major poetic traditions in world history. However, I do think that the mere characteristic of limit that both texting and tweeting possess is instructive for the writer. Limit in a real sense is necessary in art. As Chesterton said: “It is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame” (Chesterton 32) The limitation that formal rules like those of the haiku (three lines of five, seven, and five syllables each) the landay (two rhymed lines of nine, then thirteen syllables) and the sonnet (fourteen lines of iambic pentameter rhymed ABABCDCDEFEFGG) set enables the poet to exercise her powers of linguistic invention in a way that the resulting poem can be truly called an “intesely crafted and parallel world”. Just as the solar system consists of a sun, the gravity of which pulls into orbit nine planets, each with their own gravity which pulls into orbit an assortment of moons, so the powerful force of the sonnet’s structure pulls together and blances syllables, words, phrases, and sentences into an ordered and diverse stack of lines, linked in time by patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables and the gravitational superstructure of rhyme.

If anything, the 160 character limit of the text message is simply too weak a rule in comparison to the demands of landay or sonnet. What the poet needs in relation to text message rules is not more but less freedom. Texting only puts a cap on how many letters can be typed, but says nothing of how the music of language is to be ordered. Is it any wonder, then, that the Guardian publishes along with Duffy’s comments on poetry and texting not a sonnet or even haiku, but two stanzas of free verse?[1]  Given what Hill and I have said about poetic form, and given the worldwide preponderance of formal rules in every poetic tradition, the term free-verse sounds like an oxymoron. And of course, if we look at much of the poetry called free verse that is published these days, we will see that it does follow rules. Much free verse is organized into stanzas of three or four lines. Some free verse employs repeating refrains, or rhyme. But the best poetry, I dare to say, is that which freely, even gleefully asks or creates for itself intricate rules to follow, rules based on the inherant and daunting musical potential of language. Inasmuch as the online communications of the digital age ignore or downplay this potential, the poet will find herself stuggling against her age.


Works Cited


Basho, Matsuo. The Narrow Road to the Interior. Translated by Sam Hamill. Boston: Shamballa, 1991.

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. New York: Dover, 2004.

Hill, Geoffrey, “Poetry, Policing, and Public Order”.            11-30_geoffrey_hill_poetry.mp3

Milian, Mark. “Why Text Message are limited to 160 Characters”.

Moorehead, Joanna. “Carol Anne Duffy: ‘Poems are a form of texting’”. 

Poetry Magazine 202:3, June 2013.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet.


[1]      I have written elsewhere about the unsettling trend toward writing in prose about those topics that seem to us most pressing in our world.

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