Poetry in an Age of Technology

The juxtaposition of poetry and technology might seem slightly incongruous to some, but there is a great deal that poetry can teach us about living well with technology.   By taking the (significant) liberty of speaking broadly about the poetic and the technological imaginations, I’d like to suggest that the poetic imagination offers a needful supplement to the technological imagination.

To begin with, the technological imagination very often fragments reality into its constituent parts.  The machine with its interchangeable components becomes a kind of master metaphor; the technological imagination sees parts where the poetic imagination takes in the whole.  Consider that poetry very often works through metaphor and metonymy which pushes us to see relationships.  With poetry we understand by bringing reality together rather than by dividing it up.

Along similar lines, James Gleick recently reminded that the key to the digital revolution came when mathematician Claude Shannon recognized that communication could be abstracted from concrete contexts, divorced from meaning, and efficiently transmitted as a series of binary decisions — yes/no, 1/0 — or, as he called them, bits.  Reduce to essentials, kill redundancy; abstract the message from the medium, the content from the form.  These were the principles of information theory and the foundations of the digital age.

Poetry suggests to us the limits of such an approach.  In his review of The Information, Nicholas Carr observed that, “What information theorists call redundancy … is also the stuff of poetry.”  We would have a very hard time abstracting the meaning of poetry from its form.  The assumption that one could do so is probably why so many have such a hard time “understanding” or “getting” poetry.  In a way, the desire to “understand” is misguided because it seeks a “meaning” apart from the form of the text.  It desires to reduce to themes stated in prose what the poem captures in its own unique form.  The meaning is in the reading, and in the reading out loud at that.  When Robert Frost was asked to tell what his poem was about in other words, Frost responded that if he could have done so, he wouldn’t have written the poem.  With poetry the form is the meaning; at least, it is inseparable from the meaning.

Describing her project in How We Became Posthuman — a book that touches on Shannon, cybernetics, and the onset of the information age — Katherine Hayles spoke of explaining “how information lost its body.”  This is a suggestive formulation.  Where digital technologies tend in some respects to push us toward a neglect of the body, poetry relies on embodiment for its meaning.  I emphasized reading out loud above because poetry conveys its meaning and does its work by the operation of the sounds it produces through our body.  Another problem with our “understanding” of poetry may then be that we seek its meaning in the silence of our minds.  We can “hear” something of the sounds in that silence, but not quite in the way that we would when our mouths are forming words and enacting the rhythms of the poem.

One last thought, in so far as poetry remains elusive, it also combats the sense of mastery encouraged by technology.  Technology can, as Heidegger warned, position the world at our service, ready to be manipulated in the worst sense.  Poetry refuses to thus accommodate us, it resists our efforts to “grasp” it and use it.  It provides resistance in a social world that is otherwise increasingly designed to be “frictionless.”  In this way, poetry is an antidote to the worst delusions we might become subject to in a world that, we are repeatedly told, is at our fingertips.

If I am at all on to something, then we can sum up by saying that the poetic imagination (which is to say the imagination nurtured by poetry) balances the technological imagination by seeking to hold the world together and by refusing the abstraction and alienation often engendered by a technological orientation to reality.


“My heart rouses

thinking to bring you news

of something

that concerns you

and concerns many men.  Look at

              what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

despised poems.

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

      yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.”

William Carlos Williams, from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”

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