Has Internet Done to Poetry What Spring Does to the Cherry Tree?

Exploring poetry’s roller coaster journey into the digital world

From rare yellowing anthologies waiting to be discovered in the last aisle of the library to backlit daily Instagram feed, poetry has travelled a long way. Unlike some successful Tumblr and Insta poets, the most celebrated poets of our world cannot claim to have gone “viral”. It fascinates me how the digital world has almost entirely altered how poetry is produced, shared and consumed.

While each one of us millennials has strong opinions on how the internet has ruined/revolutionised parts of our life, we have yielded to its power and played along. Poetry readers are no different. There is a lot to celebrate about poetry on the internet along with legitimate concerns raised by the alert witnesses of this overhaul. Before sharing my poetry on social media, I wanted to arrive at a deeper understanding by weighing my cynicism about whatever ‘trends’ against my love for poetry itself.

To borrow Neruda’s words, has internet done to poetry what the spring does to the cherry tree? Perhaps, yes. The Internet is said to have wrecked the publishing industry. But has the industry been very keen on publishing poetry in the first place? In her note published in 1993 titled “Those Two Shelves Down There,” Adrienne Rich writes about visiting a mall bookstore, to find aisles and aisles of fiction and self-help, before reaching the tiniest corner for poetry. If this wasn’t traumatic enough, this corner also gave refuge to misplaced books from other section. Over two decades later, whenever I visit Crossword, I live through what Rich must have felt.

The lack of published poetry or rather the lack of our willingness to pay for poetry has been a painfully persistent problem of our culture. While internet couldn’t change this, it opened up spaces for abundant sharing of poetry, which in the offline world was reserved for an exclusive elite class. Blogging websites empowered many to share their poetry with the world without the approval of a white/savarna/male editor. It has democratized to a good extent, if not entirely, both the writerly and readerly communities.

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If it were not for the phenomenal success of Insta-poet Rupi Kaur, there wouldn’t be a lively discussion on the merits and threats of “pop” poetry. Several poet bloggers like Tyler Knott Gregson, Lang Leav, and Nikita Gill subsequently got published in print as well. Personally, finding the poetry of Warsan Shire, Nayyirah Waheed, Harnidh Kaur has been a joyful experience. Voices of women of colour, people suffering from anxiety or depression, queer persons – poetry is advancing hitherto unheard narratives.

The readers of poetry seem to have multiplied with the internet. Here, relatability is the priority for engagement, rather than an appreciation of the craft. The emergence of spoken word on YouTube has unleashed a whole new art form which borrows from theatre, dance and storytelling. Universal themes like love, desire and migration infused with flavours of languages other than English led to a poetry that pursues global appreciation.

Then why the cynicism? What worries poetry lovers who have seen it before hashtags? For starters, plagiarism. It’s easy to copy a poem and add a little tadka to it but equally difficult for anyone to call people out on such theft.

Appropriation is more damaging than plagiarism as it stems out of a deeply flawed politics. When individual poets pretend to single-handedly bear the collective pain of being brown, being queer, being fat without enough of the claimed experience, they become the mascots for marginalized voices, silencing and discrediting others with similar struggles.

I discovered an experiment by a poet named Thomas Young. He made a parody account on Instagram to demonstrate the instant popularity achieved by short and trite poetry. The younger generation, he suggests “is mostly interested in ‘fidget-spinner’ poetry. Like they’re just scrolling on their devices, to read something instantly, while the libraries are empty. I think people today don’t want to read anything that causes a whole lot of critical thinking.”

Poetry has shrunk to fit into Instagram squares. Apps like Your Quote and Terribly Tiny Tales allow you to pair your writing with fancy typography and “stunning visuals”. This prioritizes glamourous aesthetics and undermines the immense power of words to create images in our mind.

These issues are enough for some to reject the charm of social media poetry. However, I was curious if short, simple, chic poetry is the problem or just a symptom of a deeper problem.

While it is evident that length of poetry has been decreasing with the screen size of our devices, it is crucial to remember that length was never the sole parameter of good poetry. Kabir’s dohas, Japanese haikus by Basho, poems by the filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami can all testify that short and simple poems can be as legitimately poetic as sonnets and epics.

The popularity of short poetry is alarming not because it is short, but because it reveals our abysmally low attention spans. A lot of poetry on the internet lets you hover over a stray thought for a minute or two before you scroll for the next stimulating thing. Only a few poems have a lasting effect on the reader.

Time spent with the poem, then, could be a better way to measure a poem’s value, rather than length. Poetry taught me patience, something that’s severely endangered online. If poetry is food for thought, most poetry on social media is as nutritious as Maggi.

Whether being at our fingertips has helped poetry to reach our depths demands some contemplation. Going viral and reaching deep are two different achievements. I often meditate on these questions: Do people still memorize good poetry? Do they still quote poets in intimate conversations? What does sharing poetry mean? How is forming a huddle around an erotic poem in the college library, different from sharing it on Facebook and tagging a few friends? Is loving poetry a lonely act, impossible to carry out without a connected device?

This is not misplaced nostalgia. I feel sorry that ink, typewriter, kurta clad poets are still more romanticized than the keyboards, Microsoft word and poets who don’t look like poets should. Poetry referring to texts, sexts, pixels and other elements of our digital world will allow us a fresh, real context. Poetry could be both, a statement about our times and a statement about what is timeless, joys that are essentially found “offline”.

Can libraries ensure more space for poetry than commercial bookstores? Can poetry circles and open mics carve a space for critical feedback? The Internet may have connected poets to readers, but it has ensured a certain loneliness for both, which needs to be mitigated creatively.

Buying anthologies or printing poems is allowing me to regain the patience I lost due to social media. I touch each poem, breathe with it and read it thrice before urgently tapping on that “heart”. When I write, I try to prioritise images created by my words over fonts and backgrounds. I give my words the gift of time.

I realised that consciousness is imperative.  By being conscious of our interaction with poetry, printed or on our devices, we can gravitate towards better, more inclusive poetry.

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