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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 Cellpoems.org, 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, GitHub.com’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.”


Paper Cuts

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

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