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National Poetry Month: Aesthetic Animism

April is for poets! All month, we’ll be bringing you excerpts each week from one of our books to celebrate National Poetry Month.  

And we know what you’re thinking… MIT Press publishes poetry?? Indeed we do, just with our very own twist!

This week we're featuring an excerpt from Aesthetic Animism by David Jhave Johnston. This book explores the concept of digital poetry. Digital poems don't have authors or stanzas. They are found in ads, conceptual art, interactive displays, performative projects, games, or apps. Poetic tools include algorithms, browsers, social media, and data. Code blossoms into poetic objects and poetic proto-organisms. In his book, Johnston asks the reader to think about the difference between traditional poetry and digital poetry. 

Bodies will be relevant. Embodied relevance requires extrapolating poetry beyond algorithms, beyond machines. In other words, What can humans do that computers cannot? What does embodied life deliver Where is breath? And for digital poetry, What can algorithms and humans do together that humans alone cannot? What can algorithms teach us (retroactive big-data assessment of corpora; generative style emulations)? Symbiotic interstices, cyborg splices.

Johnston continues to reflect on the habitat in which poetry has evolved. The natural landscape which provided inspiration has changed drastically. 

In the seventeenth century… the metaphoric power of print culture diffused into botanical paradigms…The garden meadow in which bucolic poets once moped or elated is now teeming with binary motes. It is filled with letterforms embodied, reactive, aware of readers, capable of memory, dimensional, kinetic, interactive, code full, context aware, and tactile. Words within networks react like cells; clusters of these words in packets behave like worms. Language traverses network ecosystems in modes similar to rudimentary self-perpetuating organisms.

This change reverts language back to a state proximal to what the anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan (1993) refers to as mythographic. Words in ancient usage were both practical tools and living magic, sent through the ether, emanating from the gods. Our terms for gods might have changed yet some parallels persist: remote communication is now both inspirational and normative, and our contemporary pantheons are platforms. Since the Renaissance, as science explored the universe, the habitat of ancient myths (which gestate the evolution of the poetic aspects of language) dwindled. Displaced from oracular dominance, poetry became a refugee, a fallen exiled god. Incarnated and mortal, poetry devolved into secular interiority, sexuality, drugs, fluctuating states of consciousness, wordplay, and the primacy of phenomena.

With the ascendancy of reproductive media technology (photography, film, video, etc.), poetry’s habitat again changed. Photography erodes the need for ekphrasis , the description of things/events/situations from an external perspective. Ekphrasis was a big term in antiquity, the equivalent of world making; it came to maturity with the novel. Now it is a peripheral skill, obliterated by YouTube, Flickr, and lifeblogging. Tweets and blogs continue to erode poetry’s domains as condensed commentary, haiku lines, and psychological glitch emerge from always-on social network feeds. Irony and kitsch (scathing poets) became positions exemplified by 4chan and Reddit. Appropriation and self-curation, the archive, and uncreative writing (Pheed, Tumblr, Facebook, Diigo, etc.) became normal rites of passage. Everyone is possibly a poet.

What uniqueness can poetry claim when text messages emulate the immediacy and vowel-less neologisms of eccentric late twentieth-century poets like ee cummings and bill bissett? What right to the line can poetry claim as a formal principle if instant messages and Whatsapp exile formal punctuation and foreground the intermittent? Where can poetry dwell? How can it nourish? Poetry’s relevance involves engaging with technology’s effect on language. And not just the surface effects of shifts in word usage and transitions in styles, but fundamental transformations that are occurring in how words operate ontologically.

Check back next week for more on National Poetry Month!

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Books, news, and ideas from MIT Press

The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.