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Wendy Merry Headshot

Yeah, It's Poetry... Let's Get Over It

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For me, dirty limericks were a more poignant recruiting tool for prose than Keats. My gut is that Keats would be fine with this, which is why I am surprised when the word "inaccessible" is applied to poetry. Few writing forms are better engineered for our snap-synapse driven e-culture. And compellingly, poems coax meaning in a way similar to the best of social media.

I approach a group outside an East Village club to prove my point. "Hi," I said to young person #1. "Do you read poetry?"

"No." She is wearing a black t-shirt with a skull on the front and a binary cluster on the back. When I ask about it, she tells me, "It's a Twitter hashtag. It's like one line that stands in for a bunch of information." I ask what the skull does, and she states, "Nothing. I just like skulls."

To person #2: "Do you like poetry?"

"I don't know. Not really. I feel like it makes me bored." She continues, "The words are sometimes snobby." I want to press further, but she is already texting a cyber bestie.

"Have you ever written a poem?" I ask.

"I don't write anything I can't text shorthand." I'm confused. "You know, like... LOL." I ask for the acronym she most relies on and she offers, "Easy. GOOMLF" (for "Get Out Of My Life Forever"). How common could a need for this line be? "It's really just like, 'Shut up. I can't.'" I leave her thinking about syntax, and the creative ideal of words as symbols.

Leaning on a coffee kiosk en route home, I spy a kindred barista reading Stephen Dunn's What Goes On. "I love poetry," he tells me. "Dylan Thomas. Rage against the dying, all that." But he quickly u-turns, regaling me over cappuccino squall about Thom York, Bright Eyes and Maynard, the "lyrical genius" behind Tool. "I read every virtual album online I can."

"This is the thing," my professor friend tells me later over the phone. "We've all had to get really self-aware about what technology has done to literature. The delivery mechanism is different, so the consumption is going to be different. And it's not all bad."

She is right.

Electronic media might have a bad rap for being impersonal, but it has bred a way of intake that is, by design, poetic: the act of a click, leading to a click and gaining on something small within a whole. It carries the same intimacy as prose.

If poetry is the synthesis of language and aesthetic, consider Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer-Prize-winning Visit from the Goon Squad, where PowerPoint (she includes a chapter written in nothing but) becomes ethereal.

Equally coercive is the text slang we promulgate, the persona we craft on seven-line status bars and the meta we share, shrink-wrapped to 14 characters. (If you are not familiar with "Twaiku," please Google "Josh Groban sings the best of Kanye West Tweets.")

But perhaps most profoundly we are now upon a cohort group with a boundless capacity for cognitive leaping, who carry the expectation that each word holds the potential to hyperlink tangentially and infinitely. Spoon. Spool. Socket. Space. Still.

Maybe the PowerPoint here is that our zeitgeist is not lacking poetry; it's rarely been more ubiquitous. We just aren't calling it by name. And while poetry is a nearly prototypical medium for our epoch, it's the mnemonic sophistication of the electronic age that holds unique promise for its evolution.

So you in the skull shirt. And the guy writing "twitticisms." And you, prowling Radiohead blogs. I'm recruiting you all. It's poetry, but get over it. You can unsubscribe anytime you like. But promise you won't.

Oh. Just one thing. May we all continue learning something poetry demands, which is scarce among us today: restraint. A poem would leave its online profile partially blank. It might confide one or two small details but allow enough gaps to keep it interesting, asking us over and over to chose our words, chose wisely and to mean each one.