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new_poem.gif: the alleged afterlife of poetry brought to us by the millennial internet

Poetry Obituary doc icon on a desktop

Download with me, if you will, the cyclical discourse of poetry’s death. Between the year I was born (1992) and 2017, popular opinion, perceived as fact, indicated poetry readership on the decline. The lineage, however, of public dissent regarding poetry’s livelihood has been an on-going & apparently laborious task for the (white / cisgender / mostly dude) writers undertaking poetry’s interrogation. I am of no mind to genuinely entertain this arrogant and erroneous notion that poetry has the power to die, nor the conceit that any-THING, let alone any-ONE, could kill it. Poetry, here, meaning: whatever language helps you sleep at night—but more on that later.

In 2003, after Ruth Lilly gave a 100-million-dollar endowment—described as unprecedented—establishing the Poetry Foundation, an article from Newsweek detailed a journalist’s sheer shock. The diatribe begins:

It is difficult to imagine a world without movies, plays, novels and music, but a world without poems doesn't have to be imagined…. Don't these critics and poets realize that their art form is dead? Perhaps not. They probably also don't realize that people like me helped kill it.

The argument that follows unfortunately rings true for many who still don’t actively engage poetry in their life: it was taught horribly to them. From private to public schools, poetry is poised between pedestaled & pedantic. Contemporary poetry education in its formalized fashion posits students in conversation with a certain kind of continually dead voice. The Canon of the (White) Dead (Man), as you want to imagine—if not personally value it—is reified daily in classrooms, syllabi, criticisms, reviews, foundations, etc. Voices (Living / Not White / Not Man) that can be read into that seemingly endlessly phallic tundra of saturated ennui are occasionally linked to this lineage. It’s not even about the Dead poets, because there are still so many not taught. So many Black, Indigenous, Queer, Trans, Immigrant, and Disabled writers... writers who etched their way into their communities & parallel poetic timelines. So (White) critics decreed that (White) Poetry was dead. If we have manifested on this side of Poetry’s Resurrection, what divine force raised our (un)metered savior from its prosaic grave?

It is easy to offer The Internet™ as the reason for the fatalistic discourse around poetry, however this ease can weaponize that answer as a dismissive. The digital as a site for the proliferation of contemporary language-, community- & archive-making seems like the most logical incubator for most poetic forms. However, despite its ubiquitous and vast nature, the Internet is by no means a new thing, and poetry predates its utility in our life, so what about this new hotness? Parallel to all other forms of communication, the Internet  age has materialized a dimension for poetry to both appear & travel autonomously away from most establishment-issued renderings of the genre. For the contemporary poetry community, new sociality is available beyond the material gathering places of open mics & literary readings (both of which also have seen increased engagement). Indispensable from this technology is the new accessibilities the Internet offers.

I’m getting to the Why, or the How poetry is not dead, or undead, here—the Internet is the Where, you see, and now we must interrogate the Who & What. For some reductionists, the burgeoning readership of poetry is happening because of its simplicity. The “click & swipe” nature of this generation of readers requires somehow “less rigor.” For young people, mostly Black, Brown, Indigenous, Immigrant, Trans & Queer femmes, they have never felt so seen by language. This new vernacular resonates & motivates a population so consistently denied joy & solace in this world. Poetry readers are young people. Young People of Color engaging with & demanding something special from poetry. Consider the most popular poets of the day: Yrsa Daley-Ward, Rupi Kaur, r.H. Sin, Nayyirah Waheed, among a growing number of others. Consistently referred to as Instapoets, the pejorative phrase resurrects that same dismissive notion of “The Internet” as the simple reason for poetry’s rise.

The medium of Instagram, here as a placeholder for social media writ large, has fundamentally shifted our national consciousness, from language to politics. That poetry has made its necessary mutation to this dimension feels more logical than surprising. Social Media hosts a multi-sensory experience for poetry that is often missing or somehow not readily implemented in formal education. There is immensely more relatability in seeing poetry in the same psychological space as family, friends, & other desired subjects. These digital poetic projects, whether they manifest into bestselling books & New Yorker profiles or hundreds of thousands of followers or a few independent book sales, create a new economy for poets, unconcerned or divested from the poetry establishment, to create their art in the world. The critical devaluing of this Young, Black, Brown, Queer, Femme poetry avant-garde, however, is more than literary elitism. These poets are both fetishistically celebrated & reprimanded for the identity politics rendered in their work. A multi-pronged troubling needs to occur within those readings.

First, what good is poetry if the people who need it aren’t getting it? The way these caption-ready considerations resonate is because of how they distill through the noise of our everyday language without sounding like the inarticulable. The draw of millennials to the poetic form is arguably because they can see themselves in it. Consistently blamed with killing industries, there is something to be said for poetry demanding attention. Language as a means of both social change & personal archive are urgent as ever. Voices previously annexed now occupy a metric of poetry’s visibility—which directs us to the second issue within the blanket critique of digital poetry’s accessibility: the Who. Curiosity, masking a personal paranoia, arises with the off-hand dismissal of many digitally acclaimed poets by traditionalists (& protégés mimicking those legacies): the issue is with the Who over the What. Akin to misogynistic critique of teen heartthrobs & pop idols, this poetry is a kind of millennial “chick lit” (another pejorative) that only serves a means to an end for its consumer. This renders this multi-tonal digital genre as niche or trite, relegating it to the aforementioned pedantic category of poetry.

I guess I just have to ask: Can we have something? Can Writers of Color have something? Can Trans & Queer Writers have something? Can Femme Writers have something? Why the vitriol for what clearly is a rise in poetic mirrors permeating our culture? Like Slam Poetry spaces & digital independent journals, contemporary digital poetry is a place for the generationally consigned to see & build the communities they so urgently need. Though the present is unquestionably tenuous, these voices have never not needed to be heard. 

Confession: It took me a while to not resent these voices. I had to figure out why popularity rendered this genre of poetry as cheap to me. I have joked openly about Nayyirah Waheed & Rupi Kaur’s writing style, even warned poet friends from letting non-poet friends share her work. I read many critiques, some valid (re: Kaur’s flattening of diasporic identity for the sake of feminism) & then I read a bunch of white dudes talking about these women like petulant children. I then noticed how many people who otherwise never publicly engaged poetry consistently return to these texts. Digital poetics, doubling as a hot-spring of memes in lyric, serve so many necessary functions of poetry. Its ephemera made material, its solace for the incomprehensible everyday. These voices help so many sleep at night. I also learned I didn’t need to editorialize on the quality of the work because even if it wasn’t mine, this electronic genre is a major one for new readers & writers of poetry to see themselves & their language in focus.

Can we delete Poetry_Obituary.doc from everyone’s desktop now?

Originally Published: July 2nd, 2018

Literary and performance artist jayy dodd is a blxk trans femme and is the author of the poetry collections The Black Condition ft. Narcissus (Nightboat Books, forthcoming 2019) and Mannish Tongues (Platypus Press, 2017), and the chapbook [sugar in the tank] (Pizza Pi Press, 2016). Their work has been featured in Teen Vogue and Entropy. They are the...