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A lost river of words: how poetry is vanishing before our screen-weary eyes

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Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

Ben Williams explores why poetry risks extinction in the digital age, at the mercy of the algorithms.

At university, I had a poetry professor who dressed in black lace, like Helena Bonham Carter in the Harry Potter films. The professor preceded the films by several years, but she still somehow played the “good witch” version of Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange; perhaps the Gothic undercurrents that rippled around transatlantic youth culture during the decades prior count as their common ancestor.

The professor, who pronounced the word “poem” as though the last two letters were transposed (how wonderful to hear her introduce, gravely but with a tremor of delight at the corners of her mouth, a new “pome” in class each day), taught me a lesson that only materialised decades later, with the advent of the internet.

The lesson was, in short, that poetry is unGoogleable. To Google, in fact, it is a form of writing that is already extinct.

All other types of text bend the knee to the mighty search algorithms. If you’re seeking an essay that you read some years back, whose central idea you suddenly find pertinent to your life again; or if you need to track down the name of a writer whose short story collection, the details of which you only vaguely recall, you think might please a friend; or if you’re just trying to find that one especially wicked article about Arsenal that was in the Guardian last week; well, spend a few minutes Googling it – a quarter-hour at most – and your quest will chivalrously rush to meet you with its own completion. Here, on a silver platter, dished up from the infinite archive of words, the specific item that you wanted. Good day.

But when it comes to poetry? Google gaslights us all.

For years, I have been searching for a poem (“pome”) that the professor taught, whose only bit I can recall is an answer to a rhetorical question about feasting on one’s own heart. Namely, this chilling bit: “it asks why not / it says once more”. Now, try Googling the keyword string “poem eat heart asks why not says once more” and see how far you get. Nothing of worth shall be forthcoming on your screen. The poem lies in various repositories of paper somewhere – but it will not cross the book-silicon brain barrier.

Just like, as by now you may have guessed, the professor’s name. She was there for a semester, then gone, her identity and the extraordinary “pomes” she taught blown to the four winds, thanks mostly to my callow exuberance as I lined up courses and barrelled through them, keeping few records.

Occasionally, with poetry and Google, you get lucky. Such is the case with a work by Mary Kiznie, also a poet, and also my professor at university. I remember Prof Kinzie with incredible clarity, for she was the director of our programme; much hinged on her whims. Years after I graduated, she published a volume that included a poem which obliquely ventures, in my reading, the most novel etymology for the word “fuck” that’s out there.

For some reason, I found myself grasping for this poem recently. But I would never have been able to track the verse down – try Googling “fuck poem” and see how far you get – had I not remembered the specific Latin term that Prof Kinzie disintered from antiquity to centre it around: offoco, which means to force something into someone’s mouth. In the case of Kinzie’s poem, the object being forced was a jigger of hot lead. Someone pours a jigger of hot lead down your throat, then truly, you’re offocked.

Kinzie’s poem is the exception that proves the rule, however. In the digital age, poetry is the last stand of the recondite. Poetry is anti-information; it refuses to be organised.

Consider WH Auden – the “stop all the clocks” fellow – whose achievement, fame and prodigious output should have been the makings of an eminently Googleable writer. But dip into any book of his – the hard-copy variety, perhaps one found on a shelf in a library – and, alongside the sheer revelations of language within, you’ll find a vast accompanying digital silence. The writer’s words, plain and musical, are not arrangeable by algorithm: the bulk of Auden’s oeuvre, which relies on metre, rhyme, exquisite timing, and other ineffable qualities for its intelligence, breaks down into mere primary school diction that does not scan when fed to a machine.

I know this from firsthand experience.

Long ago I held one of his books in the stacks of a library, entranced, gazing upon immortal phrase after immortal phrase, including the following couplet, which I scribbled down in a diary, without even noting the poem that it came from (that terrible crashing exuberance again):

Hunt the lion, climb the peak /
No one guesses you are weak.

– WH Auden

Google it. It’s barely there, barely in the machine, and if you misremember or mistype the words even slightly, it’s less than a remnant, it’s a straw that cannot be sought, much less grasped. 

Hundreds of Auden’s felicities like this are waiting to be stumbled upon and intelligently transcribed for future discovery; but there’s no person to do it; and so the algorithm, which lives or dies by specificity, and shuns context, erases as it indexes.

As the archive of our civilisation becomes ever more digitised, I’m minded of the fragments of Sappho, who wrote a whole world into being, but whose “tongue was smashed” (to borrow from Fragment 31, translated by Spraggs) when the bulk of her verse didn’t make it out of the 500s BCE. Every poet today is a future Sappho; every poem a pale fading straw – or, occasionally, a lucky fragment, a signal from our time to the one that lies ahead, a snippet of wonder and mystery, fished out by chance from a lost river of words. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jeff Robinson says:

    Never have I more greatly enjoyed reading bad news; such is your eloquence.

    • Johan van der Watt says:

      I whole-heartedly agree!

      I’m not a native english speaker, neither am I anything remotely close to a poet, so my words shall never flow as eloquently as do yours Ben, but

      May there come a time once more,
      I do hope & earnestly pray
      When our children shall return with eager and hunger hearts
      searching written words
      in dusty shelves and ancient pages
      that shall ever more profoundly
      feed their souls, their screen-spoiled minds
      with the soulful nourishment
      offered only, and oh, so gently – without digital rush
      by eternal wisdom buried in books.

      I hope the lust for reading, which sadly seems to be disappearing wil again prove itself in future times – hopefully sooner – to be that luminous educator to those not fortunate enough to sit in lecture halls, and never fails to shine its light on the deepests corners of our being.

      How fortunate, and immensely grateful today am I to have learnt from an early age – that incomparable joy found only in reading – all the while being enchanted by the smells of printed pages from times througout the ages!

      I am humbled by that priviledge.

  • Daniel McAslin says:

    As a recently graduated English literature student this article reverberates around the profundity of my soul. Thank you for a magnificent Friday morning read, Ben!

  • James Harrison says:

    I wonder whether the same difficulty would apply to the lyrics of popular songs? I will give it a try.
    The problem, I believe, lies in the unpopularity of much poetry. And who/what is to blame for that? I lay the blame at the doors of professors and poets who cleave to an academic, recondite approach to poetry.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Or perhaps the mobile, instant gratification age where people can’t be bothered? Look at the lyrics of music from the 70’s and 80’s, they were poems, odes, words with meaning, even Jim Morrison described himself as a poet and his lyrics had deep meaning, now artists repeat the same couple of lines a few times and win a grammy.

  • Bruce Danckwerts says:

    One of those absolutely Classic articles that make Daily Maverick so worthwhile. Lovely. Thank you. You have identified a problem, we, as a community, have to now find a solution. We’ll need poets (versed in both ancient and modern genres) and computer geeks (for the search engines) and presumably some money . . . . then we ought to be able to put a search engine together (called Pomes?) that can uncover these gems.
    (Your University should be able to provide the name of your missing lecturer – even if she was only there for a term).
    Bruce Danckwerts, CHOMA, Zambia

  • Billy Meyer says:

    Please post a link to the Mary Kinzie poem. I am finding it to be ungoogleable. On the other hand I did google a beautiful Mary Oliver Poem last week.

  • Iota Jot says:

    You say that the Auden is ‘barely there’, so perhaps you have found it. In case not, here’s the pome.

    Conspicuous Courage

    Pick a quarrel, go to war,
    Leave the hero in the bar;
    Hunt the lion, climb the peak:
    No one guesses you are weak.

  • Iota Jot says:

    Beautiful piece! You should be glad you cannot find Auden on the web. Now you have an excuse – as if needed – to visit the library and stand, book in hand, entranced once again. as you stumble felicitously on golden phrases.

    You haven’t considered copyright. Auden died less than 70 years ago. So did Eliot, Wallace Stevens, the playwright John Osborne, the novelist Anthony Powell. One would find it difficult to find all but the most famous/popular of their poems or lines or phrases online. They are not yet in the public domain. In fact, if you can find their complete works fully accessible, you’ll no doubt be reading a pirated copy.

    But take an 18th century poet like James Thomson (somewhat less famous than Auden or Eliot) and enter a less memorable line of one of his poems and voila! Up comes the full work. Likewise Pope, Byron, and of course Sappho. One need hardly add the long-dead Shakespeare, Marlowe and Chaucer, Webster, Sophocles and Sterne.
    If you are keen to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover online, you’ll be happy to know it entered the public domain this year.

    So, although I enjoyed your piece, I’m not sure that poetry is unique in its online unavailability.

  • Bastienne Klein says:

    A lost river of words? Seriously? Dear reader, move your screen weary eyes over to Instagram’s (at)poetryisnotaluxury account for a daily blessing of serious poetry, old and new and always profound. (No shares in that account, promise). As for fading straws and crushed poets – look no further that archive(dot)org an Internet Archive, which is a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more. I typed in “Auden” and in three seconds came up with 1379 results, including his complete works.

  • anton kleinschmidt says:

    To make matters worse:

    They take trite prose
    They hack it up
    Then call it poetry
    It does not flow
    It never rhymes
    Worse still, it’s far from free
    Thus, rhythmless
    Bereft of style
    And ignorant of form
    And then the cherry on the top
    It’ all become the norm
    And if thats not all bad enough
    They spurn the use of meter
    So what is left amidst this drek
    And who on earths the cheater
    Call it anything you like
    The world of choice is free
    But no matter what they say
    It’s never poetry

  • anton kleinschmidt says:

    Poemhunter.com. A wonderful source

  • Deborah Ewing says:

    I thought I was alone in my wretched incompetence. My desperate combinations of key words came closer to reconstructing the poem than finding it.

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