Is there a place for poetry in today's high-tech world? Absolutely, says Mary Jo Salter
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
NO DOUBT ABOUT IT—the ever-evolving modes of new communication make sharing and receiving information much easier: Twitter, Facebook, smartphones, tablets, e-readers. In this age of instant-gratification messaging and 140 characters, is there a place for poetry? We sat down with noted poet Mary Jo Salter, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, to ask her where poetry, and the contemplation it requires, fit in today’s world.
Is there a role for poetry in this era of new digital media?
Another way to frame this question is whether there is a role for digital media in poetry. In other words: How will the very syntax and stanzas and vocabularies of poetry change because of our culture-wide exposure to new media? For instance, there are whole novels now in print, or on e-readers, constructed of fictional characters’ emails—an updating of the centuries-old epistolary novel. Surely poetry will be affected, or is already affected, in an analogous way.
Last year, the New York Times said the smartphone might be the best thing to hit poetry since the printing press. Do you agree with that?
Sounds like an exaggeration—a big one. Nonetheless, the smartphone is good news. A reporter friend recently showed me on his iPhone how, just for fun, he looks up poems on pretty much any subject he does a search for, when he’s in the mood. If non-poets are doing that, it can only be a wonderful thing for the poets.
Poetry is not exactly conducive to the instant gratification technology of Twitter, Facebook, and instant messaging. Do some technologies work better for poetry than others?
I get instant gratification from reading a good haiku. Reading one haiku a day is not as good as reading Paradise Lost all day, but it’s better than reading no poems at all. The question is really what we want to read in our busy day. Do we want to check Facebook endlessly to see what our friends did in the past 15 minutes? The first reading we make of most poems actually takes much less time than people spend on Facebook. If you want to check a good poem on your iPhone first thing in the morning, and then check it again in 15 minutes, I promise you it will still be there—but it will be doing something new inside your brain.
Has the rapidly advancing world of digital media changed the way you teach poetry at the undergraduate and master’s levels? If so, how?
Not really, except that (like all teachers these days) I frequently email my students with links to interesting readings I may not have thought of for the syllabus—or which didn’t exist yet when I first made the syllabus.
If you want to check a good poem on your smartphone first thing in the morning, and then check it again in 15 minutes, I promise you it will still be there—but it will be doing something new inside your brain.
Mary Jo Salter
Are students still coming into the poetry program at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere in the same numbers and with the same goals/motivations? Or have you noticed a change?
Our numbers are high and going up. We have hundreds of Writing Seminars undergraduate majors; over a thousand undergraduates in all majors who take our Introduction to Fiction and Poetry every year; and hundreds of MFA applicants who hope to be among the lucky few: five new fiction writers and five new poets we admit every year. Despite the terrible economy, and our society’s resultant emphasis on “practical” majors, you really can’t kill off the universal love of reading and writing.
What percentage of poetry would you say you read on the computer/phone/iPad screen and what percent in print?
I read no more than 5 percent of the poetry I read on the screen; the rest is in books and magazines. I’m sure this is a percentage influenced strongly by my age, and that my students would answer differently.
Do you publish solely in print or online as well?
I prefer to publish in print, but there are excellent online magazines and websites in which I would be honored to appear. Often, what happens is that one is published in both the print and online version of the same magazine.
You have a new book out: The Selected Poems of Amy Clampitt. When you were putting the collection together, did you consider that a number of people would be reading it on a tablet or an iPad? Does that or should that make a difference when editing or writing a book of poetry?
If a number of people (3? 3,100?) actually have read it on a tablet or iPad, that’s terrific. The only question that occurs to me is formatting. It’s essen- tial that lines of poetry stay intact as lines, and don’t run over randomly as prose does. Also, when designing a book, publishers try to keep stanzas intact on a page. It would be a shame to lose that pleasing feature in other formats.
Can you talk about Amy Clampitt and how you came to edit a collection of her work?
I first encountered Amy Clampitt’s poems when I was a young staff editor at the Atlantic Monthly in the late 1970s. I didn’t realize when I wrote this virtu- ally unknown poet a fan letter that she was 34 years older than I. We became correspondents and ended up commenting on drafts of nearly every poem each of us wrote until her death in 1994. Meanwhile, Amy became famous, partly for the sheer number of her poems published in The New Yorker. She published her first book at the age of 63—very inspiring. By the time of her death 11 years later, she was a revered figure with five books to her name. I became the editor of her Collected Poems, and then, over a decade later, it became clear that it was time for a Selected Poems, for a new generation of readers. What I’m happiest about in the new book is that I’ve been able to contribute a long chronology of her life that is a first step toward a biography. But I won’t be writing it; happily, a number of scholars are studying Clampitt’s life and work now.
Clampitt died before the advent of some of the new technology we enjoy today. Would she be reading poetry on a smart phone?
Amy only graduated to an electric typewriter at the very end of her life, and under protest, when her old manual died. She was among the last generation that could choose freely whether to embrace new technologies of writing and reading. She loved everything associated with hard copy—old-fashioned letters, envelopes, stamps. She would never have sunk so low as to get herself an email address.
The written word is being consumed in so many different ways now. What is your prediction for the future of print poetry?
Poetry itself will struggle along, maybe even get stronger. But it may well be that anyone who wants to read it in print will have to download it, or that technologies I can’t imagine will be invented for people to read it in yet another way