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Poetry: Digital, Not Dead

In December 2022, the same month of the hundred-year anniversary of T.S. Eliot’s magnum opus, The Waste Land, The New York Times published a guest editorial by Matthew Walther, titled “Did Poetry Die 100 Years Ago This Month?.” Walther acknowledges that while there is no shortage of poets in the postmodern literary landscape, he proclaims that the literary tradition of poetry died with Eliot. The reason? According to Walther, we are now “incapable” of writing “good” poetry due to the nature of modern life and its tendency to “[demystify] and [alienate] us from the natural world.”

Walther’s assertion seemed to disturb a literary hornet’s nest almost immediately upon its publication, eliciting responses from poets across the nation. The responses challenging Walther’s claims flooded the desks of Times’ editors, revealing a major point of literary contention that was previously rarely discussed.

Everything we know about our philosophy toward poetics, we have thus learned from great minds that could have never fathomed the technological advancements we have made today—Aristotle, Plato, and even Coleridge.

But is it that poetry has died, or has the tradition just taken on a new, more digitalized face?

What is Digital Poetry?

Digital poetry is the postmodernist answer to Walther’s premature mourning over the death of a well-loved literary tradition. The term digital poetry was coined by German poets André Vallias and Friedrich W. Block in 1992 when the men hosted an exhibition of their work titled exhibition p0es1e: Digitale Dichtkunst/Digital Poetry. Digital poetry, then, shows the tradition’s ability to adapt in the technological world.

Although there seems to be little consensus on an overall agreed upon definition for digital poetry, Christopher Thompson Funkhouser, author of Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959–1995, credits Block with the “strongest attempt” so far, who suggests that the term “applies to artistic projects that deal with the medial changes in language and language-based communication in computers and digital networks. Digital poetry thus refers to creative, experimental, playful, and also critical language art involving programming, multimedia, animation, interactivity, and net communication.”

Funkerhouser simplifies Block’s wordier definition by suggesting that the term is a suitable label for poetic forms of literature for on-screen display with the use of computer technology or programming.

Key Features

A defining feature of digital poetry is text generation, when a digital poet makes use of code to generate randomized text to appear in their poem. An example of this can be found in Pauline Masurel and Jim Andrews’ “Blue Hyacinth,” a digital poem that uses HTML code to generate individualized experiences for the readers of their digital poetry as they hover their mouses over different lines of text.

Another defining feature of this proliferating genre is its visual and kinetic properties. According to Funkhouser, digital poets as early as the 1960s experimented with using technology to turn language into images. Unlike text generation, which delivers randomized reading experiences, visual works of poetry—kinetic or otherwise—necessitate a controlled output. At first, visual poetry was still, static, and non-moving.

However, as technology progressed, kinetic digital poetry emerged, highlighting new flexibility in a literary tradition deeply rooted in the past. “Circularities: Animated Variants,” a digital poetry collection by Mark Laliberte is a stunning example of kinetic digital poetry.

Another technological aspect used by digital poets is hypertext, which changes the text display of lines of poetry. Such a feature can make poetry more interactive and leave readers with a deeper understanding of a particular poem. “Penetration” by Robert Kendall, for example, uses the colors resulting from his use of hypertext to differentiate between the two subjects of his poem: a mother and a daughter.