Discovering a new world of poetry

April 12, 2010

By Gary Panetta
Peoria Journal Star

Kevin Stein thought poetry was dead.

After all, critic Joseph Epstein said so about 20 years ago in a famous essay called "Who Killed Poetry?"

But then two things blew the Bradley University professor out of his academic cloister: the State of Illinois and the World Wide Web.

The former chose him as Illinois Poet Laureate back in 2003 - in effect, putting Stein on the road to libraries, schools, nursing homes and elsewhere where he was surprised to learn that actual, nonacademic human beings crave and love the poetic word.

The latter propelled him into the virtual reality of the Internet where more people are encountering more poetry than ever before. Where the very idea of poetry itself is changing as once stable collections of words on a page are exchanged for words in cyberspace, a realm that makes a poem seem less like a thing and more like a performance: Poems can be merged with moving images and even altered by online readers.

Both experiences have informed Stein's latest book of essays, "Poetry's Afterlife: Verse in a Digital Age," which will be released by the University of Michigan Press next month. (It also will be available in digital form through the University of Michigan library.)

"The book is a re-examination of what poetry in the moment is doing - if it died, how it is enjoying a rather nice aesthetic hereafter right now," said Stein, who will be honored by Secretary of State Jesse White at a summer conference for Illinois school and public libraries. "I have chapters on youth poetry. I have a chapter there about my work as poet laureate. I have a chapter on digital poetry, computer-generated and computer-aided poetry - a lot of research into work I didn't know anything about until then. And just what's happening as pen and paper disappear and everything is becoming digitalized."

Digitalized poetry can be defined in several ways.

The term can signify poetry that has existed on paper but carries on another life in the virtual world. More intriguing, "digitalized poetry" can mean writing that has never appeared on paper at all - its natural home is a gallery site in virtual space.

Listen to Stein long enough, and it becomes obvious that digital poetry is anything but the print experience in another form. On the contrary, poetry online is becoming its own art form - one that is closer to cinema than to conventional poetry as it interweaves moving images, sounds and text.

Other experiments with online poetry go even further.

"Some people argue that digital poetry is meant to be participatory, so when you enter into a poem, you make choices, you move things around, the text alters," Stein said. "Other folks have made digital poetry games. (One example is) 'Arteroids' - like asteroids. What you blow up are little poems, and they create other poems. The final expression of that is a site that creates a visual and textual poem where you upload your words and your images and they became part of this amalgam of other people's words and images. The whole idea of authorship is questioned there, of course. Is this really a poem?"

Philosophical questions aside, such innovations mean losses and gains. For instance, more than ever, would-be poets can circumvent official gatekeepers like publishers and reach an audience directly. Yet at the same time, a lot of poetry online, as Stein candidly acknowledges, is just junk. On the one hand, exciting new technological tools of expression prove fun and irresistibly enticing for many. On the other, there is always the threat that flash will replace substance.

But before those wedded to the printed page raise too much fuss, it's important to remember that the printed text itself was once a suspicious innovation, Stein said.

"Imagine those oral poets who never wrote their work down and always performed orally - imagine how they cursed the book," Stein said. " 'How can you write down the poem? It's meant to be read to a person, it's meant to be read to an audience! You're killing it by putting it on the page!' A hundred years later, that argument was absent."