Paper Cuts

Is paper’s diminishing relevance changing the way poets write?

Since its invention more than 1,500 years ago, paper has been often praised for its magical properties. In Chinese folktales it was commonly mythologized; in one story, a round piece of paper becomes an enchanted moon, from which the priest can conjure beautiful women. Even in contemporary poetry, it can maintain a similar mystical allure: in David Ferry’s “In the Reading Room,” reading lights illuminate the pages of library books:

But under their steady imbecile gaze the page
Is blank, patiently waiting not to be blank.

The page is blank until the mind that reads
Crosses the black river, seeking the Queen
Of the Underworld, Persephone…

Again, activating paper through our use of it conjures a mythic being out of nothingness. But there seems no stronger indication that the magic of paper has waned in recent years than the publication of two books within months of one another—Paper: An Elegy, by Ian Sansom and On Paper, by Nicholas A. Basbanes—with nearly identical premises: to celebrate paper’s long life and reassure against its death, in the face of increasing sentiment that we’re heading toward a paperless world, particularly for literature.

“Paper’s most powerful magic? Simply this. That paper allows us to be present—or appear to be present—when we are in fact absent,” Sansom writes in Paper. “It both breaks and bridges time and distance. I am talking to you now, for example, on paper. You cannot see me, and you cannot hear me. I may, for all you know, already be dead. But by the mysterious application of pen to paper, and by your patient reading, we have between us conjured the illusion of communication.”

The sentiment would clearly make a better argument for a computer screen. (And in the case of this article, it is an argument for a computer screen.) The authors make a case that the world needs paper, for commerce, for bureaucracy, for identity, but surely through countless references in each to its bookish traditions, and by nature of writing journalistic accounts, they mean to make a case for its continued literary presence as well. The books get caught somewhere between protest and plea to those who doubt paper’s relevance. They don’t give a clear answer, however, to the question that is probably on the minds of many in their ideal audience: do writers really need paper to create? And in the case of poetry (the older practice, perhaps more indebted to paper): is paper’s absence changing how the craft is written?

For thousands of years writing surfaces such as papyrus, animal skins, and stone had been alternately celebrated and eschewed for the advancements they provided to memory, but none had been as utilitarian as paper. Basbanes, “a self-confessed bibliophile,” gives a number of dates for paper’s first appearance: fragments have been found from as far back as 150 A.D. in China, although the first identifiable printed book appeared there in 868 A.D. Use quickly spread from China to the Middle East and eventually to medieval Europe, where paper mills proliferated. Usefulness, Basbanes argues, is paper’s defining merit: in 20,000 different iterations, it can be handled and physically present in the face of an increasingly abstract world. Basbanes quotes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Even in its most poetic forms, paper’s role in our world is a way to put “airy nothings” onto solid objects.

Sansom, on the other hand, describes paper not just as a useful thing but an inherent part of us. “In Japanese there’s a phrase, yokogami-yaburi, which means to tear paper sideways against its grain—idiomatically, it means ‘perversity’ or ‘pig-headedness.’ By ignoring paper, we are perverse; we go against the grain.” It’s a more poetic book than Basbanes’s, if a bit overblown at times: “We are born human, but are forever becoming paper, as paper becomes us, our artificial skin.” Paper, says Sansom, defines our world. He notes that Lord Byron wrote Don Juan on the backs of readily available playbills, and that modernity came into being through the durable, multipurpose product. But he also points out poets’ historical animosity toward it.

And in 2013, it would seem that poets are increasingly at odds with paper again in favor of the screen, for writing at least. The screen may be sterilized and stripped of distraction on the physical level, but many poets are grateful for this, for the attention to form it brings.

“Before computers I always wrote on the typewriter, so that I could see how a stanza or series of lines would look,” David Ferry says. “Now I write into a file on the computer while looking at a clear image of what the poem is doing, how it looks.” That luxury has expanded to phones, iPads, and highly portable laptops, with new and more mobile alternatives appearing every year—as anxious-provoking as it is exciting, particularly for a younger, more adaptable generation of poets.

“I even send myself emails with lines that enter my head, and have composed first versions of poems on my phone and emailed them to myself,” Rowan Ricardo Phillips says. “Whatever it takes to get the poem down.”

The screen has irreversibly facilitated the writing, shaping, and editing of poetry—not to mention its sharing and reading—but it may also be changing the way we conceive and voice thoughts through poetry.

Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, argues that the digital age has not at all limited our notions of literacy. “What happened to society is that our ability to communicate promiscuously, in different moments, being able to go right to each other rather than going through gatekeepers, has been transformative to people’s thoughts,” Thompson said in an interview.

He describes the digital era as the herald of the mass writing public; the time of paper was ruled by far fewer thinkers, voices, and modes. But much as in our own time the move from paper to screen was criticized, Thompson says, so did Socrates warn in his day that the move from memorizing to writing by hand would promote forgetfulness and laziness. In fact, the diversification of forms of communication leads to more choices of which mode to use, and which best serves the particular thought. “We need to do more thinking about our thinking,” Thompson says.

All this change has created a kind of rarefied idea about paper when it comes to writing poetry, he believes, particularly in young people. While older generations embrace the magic of the screen, younger people “associate a screen with a certain kind of thinking, and that kind of thinking is conversational, or it’s social, but it’s not quiet contemplative thinking that poetry emerges from, so they need to get away from that environment to do their writing.”

For the poet Mary Kinzie, “typing could never replace writing because it did not engage the entire musculature of the hand—let alone the swaying of the upper body. I could look through the action of typing to the actions of my hand and torso above the page. The gestures of writing a ‘g’ and an ‘m’ still remain rhythmically visible in my mind.” She also noted, however, that in 2010 a former student created, a weekly journal of cell-phone-screen-size poems; one poem gets sent via text message once a week to subscribers. (One example is David Yezzi’s “Nocturne”: “From toile to étoiles— / a masthead moving / across cloudless / peach-black skies.”) The minute compositions aren’t indebted to paper at all, can be read anytime and anywhere, and can, on the other hand, be discarded with the swipe of a finger.

It’s only one example of how technologies have not only transformed how we encounter and transmit poetry, but reinvented how it is composed. Releasing poetry via PDF is becoming increasingly common. Baltimore’s CARS ARE REAL published a PDF of Josef Kaplan’s Kill List, a poem comprising a long, alphabetical list of contemporary poets characterized as either “comfortable” or “a rich poet.” Inflammatory, personal, and provocative, it wouldn’t have been as potent a poem if it had been distributed via print: the word “viral” applies for a reason. Similarly,’s “Longest Poem in the World” uses programming to generate a constantly updated stream of rhyming tweets in real time. (As of this writing, it was up to 1,354,614 verses.) While much of the poem is nonsensical, the point isn’t in the verses themselves, as with much of the poetry created specifically for the Internet. Paul Legault’s “English-to-English” translation of Emily Dickinson in fact takes Twitter as its cue, reducing her poems to one line: “Hope is kind of like birds. In that I don’t have any.”

The ability to cull from millions of public writings online and assemble them using the power of technology, as well as the ability to disseminate a work instantly to millions, provokes different kinds of questions: on how we socialize, on how we relate to each other and to poetry, and on vernacular speed. If the magic inherent in poetry on paper is like a rabbit hole—one falls deeper into worlds unknown, or the paper itself brings forth a world—then the screen’s magic is the inverse, an outward version. If paper has historically made poetic thought vertical, a wide horizontal web best characterizes the poetics of the screen.

In Sansom’s book, he quotes from Eugenio Montale’s “The Decline of Values,” in which the poet instructs us to turn away from paper:

Tear up your pages, throw them in a sewer,
take no degree in anything,
and you will be able to say that you were
perhaps alive for a moment or an instant.

“Paper makes us legible: it also makes us erasable,” Sansom writes in response. It serves as a cutting reminder about the ease of the screen; the speed with which poetry can be conjured goes the same for the magical command “delete.”

Originally Published: December 17th, 2013

Alexandra Pechman is a writer living in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Artnews, Artforum, the Paris Review Daily, and the New York Observer.

  1. December 19, 2013
     Janet Butler

    at first it was hard for me to write on Word, but now I do it with great ease, and prefer using my laptop to paper. but I love books and newspapers and paper-based things in general, so I think there's room for both paper and technology in our lives. after all, we probably all have a Kindle but continue to buy books as well! love both!

  2. December 19, 2013

    This is a really interesting observation but it doesn't take into account the process of editing. I think that there is a whole other world that is contained within the realm of editing and the way that a poem is transformed from its original purpose to something wholly different.

    It would be a completely different experience to edit and re-edit a poem using track changes in Word than it would be to scratch out and erase content on a piece of paper. To be able to visibly track all of the edits to a poem rather than simply notice a vague grey outline where there used to be text that was erased or a frustrated strink-through across the page. These things for me influence very much the way that I am able to then re-enter the world in which I started the poem in the first place.

  3. December 20, 2013
     Joan L. Cannon

    Matt hit the nail on the head for me. Why have I never thought of the
    track changes tool? I used to write poetry only in longhand, with the
    mentioned erasures. Long ago, I begs to use the computer for writing
    anything I could because it almost keeps up with the speed with which
    thoughts enter my (forgetful) head. But I couldn't live without the
    sensations (many) provided by books and snail mail and newspapers.
    Not to mention drawings and paintings and photographs that can hang
    before our eyes wherever we want them to be.

  4. December 20, 2013
     Jean Chapman Snow

    I agree with Matt in wanting to visibly track all my edits and changes.

    Can one take a computer to bed for writing or editing before one turns off the light? Even a 7"x10" Asus, like mine? No, a realio-trulio book or paper notebook is what one takes to bed for either reading or editing. Paper is necessary for those ideas that strike, even as Morpheus approaches.

  5. December 21, 2013
     Mikie Michaels

    You won't hear me bitching about using computers. It's an easier row to
    hoe than banging out a piece on an IBM Selectric but a poems birth for
    me must come pencil to paper with all its fits and starts, erasures and
    overwrites. The page may be blank but it never turns black while you're
    thinking of just the right word.

  6. December 24, 2013
     sarah kelly

    my poetry has within the last year taken an interesting turn when i began
    to learn how to make hand made paper, a life long interest in the skin of
    language, blank pages as a concept, embodied texts and concrete poetry
    has now led me to develop my practice as a textual-visual poet. I create
    text pieces by exploring the place of the words on a page that I can
    create and manipulate myself. This allows me to put words literally into
    the page itself, rather than simply inscribe it on the surface. I have a lot
    of research left, into contemporary mark making practices, editing and
    the physical movement shift in writing with digital technology... this is
    only the beginning, but an exciting time for me, and would be very
    interested in hearing of others views/similar work at this crucial moment
    in the history of paper/books!

  7. January 7, 2014
     Alison Swan

    I never tire of reading about this whole "situation." What worries me
    most, by far, about online documents is how easy they are to alter. I
    have day-mares about a time in the future when we simply don't know
    what Shakespeare's sonnets actually were because all of the online
    versions have been hacked and all the books are gone.

  8. January 8, 2014
     Phil Sheehan

    I appreciate the speed of computer input. If I'm jotting down a journal
    entry, or hacking away at an op-ed, ideas come quickly, and need quickly
    to be caught.

    Yet if I try to write a poem, try to mold evanescent images into harsh solid
    words, I need time to push and prod, re-arrange and re-form. It is a slow
    process. I want to feel in control, to have raw material in my hands to
    squeeze and stretch and twist. What I need is a clear maple plank and one
    of my father's old chisels and, perhaps, a mallet. And time, lots of time. Pen
    and paper is as close as I can come.

    Imagine driving from Boston to New Orleans. Stay on highways and you'll
    get there quickly. But you will miss so much if you don't take back roads.
    The slow route.