Hayden's Ferry Review


Poetry and New Media: A User’s Guide

by Elizabyth Hiscox

The Poetry Foundation’s newly-created Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, described as “a sort of think tank for poetry,” is a forum that’s all about fostering discussion. What’s fresh about it: its first project focuses on the practical. In poetry? Indeed.

The project deals with poetry in new media and the final report of the initial meeting-of-the-minds, a select group of writers and scholars, is weighty at 74 pages, but readable. A lot of the work of the initial group and focus-groups seems to have centered on fair use and copyright issues. While not the most lyrical discussion, it is timely.

The report is interesting, in part, because it parses out the implications of some of those apocryphal stories of The Great Poets' work being cloistered away that are apparently not apocryphal at all but entirely true. Yes, the lucrative deal for T.S. Eliot’s verse being adapted into a purring Broadway musical. And poor, dear Auden.

The report is also interesting in that it clearly states the case for poetry’s particular peccadilloes. One of the recommendations of the report is to “Reproduce the Original Work Faithfully.” The concept is detailed in the copyright and fair use portion: “This desire for accurate reproduction is especially intense for poets because an unusual level of attention to linguistic detail and discipline is inherent in the art of poetry. Poets meticulously consider punctuation, line breaks, syntax at the smallest level, and even spelling in the construction of poems, so they are unusually concerned that their poems be reproduced not nearly as they appear but precisely as they appear.” Damn straight.

The report also deals with new media, as the name implies, from Kindle to podcasts and beyond. It deals with them quite a bit, but in the context of issues that transcend media formats. If you have a particular beef or concern with a new media outlet, I’d scroll the report to see how they’ve addressed it.

The report’s second section, “The Lifeline of Poetry: Creating Opportunities for Access to and a Lifelong Engagement with the Pleasures of Poetry” moves beyond the legal barriers and ramifications to spell out a plan to deal with various barriers to folks getting access to and spending time with poetry. Namely to create a national study group “to develop a flexible, modular set of guides meant to help people of all ages engage with poetry in a variety of settings ….” Ambitious? Yes. Flawed? Perhaps. But scanning the list of goals for what the guide might do, I’m not going to argue with “model ways of reading poems that do not focus on coming up with ‘correct’ and testable readings but rather encourage engagement, discourse, pleasure, and critical thinking.” Nor am I ready to scoff at the aim to “provide parents with tools for reading and experiencing poetry with their children.” Sounds gravy to me.

And, lest you think it was just a bunch of suits talking shop about stanzas, check the list of the Poetry and New Media Working Group Members: Michael Collier, Wyn Cooper, Rita Dove, Cornelius Eady, David Fenza, Kate Gale, Kimiko Hahn, Lewis Hyde, Fiona McCrae, Robert Pinsky, Claudia Rankine, Alberto Rios, Don Selby, Rick Stevens, Jennifer Urban, Monica Youn. I think the poet’s voice might have gotten heard at that table, don’t you?

The report doesn’t pretend to speak for everyone, but honestly raises some questions about use that are in need of some, yes, “creative” answers. It deals with the stuff that many of us wish was already in place. The safeguards that might allow us to get down to the business of being creative already. The infrastructure that allows the next generation (and the previous) to access poetry with the passion and ease that we might. It’s a project that’s overdue, and while it may be a somewhat dry read it could just whet your appetite to change the world.