The Medium and the Message
You'll notice I don't say (as Marshall McLuhan did) that the medium IS the message. Poetic messages are surely more subtle and multi-layered than that!
But perhaps I do mean something like it. I'm interested in how (and even whether) we write in different ways when we intend the results to be read in a paper book or journal, to be heard from a stage, or to be accessed in a blog.
One could differentiate further and examine presentations on YouTube compared with SoundCloud readings, or delve into whether the ebook experience is different again. But for now, let's look at just those first three categories.
Perhaps the question should rather be whether an individual poet writes differently for different media. It may be that some do, some don't. Or is it a more-or-less unconscious process which we're scarcely aware of?
(Oh, surely not the latter! A poet unconscious of every tiniest nuance? I don't think so! Yet ... if it was unconscious we wouldn't know, would we? We could be fooling ourselves; influenced, yet blithely unaware of it.)
Well, some of this is an old conversation. I expect we all know by now that any poem written for the page CAN be spoken effectively. That is, unless it depends a lot on visual arrangement, which of course some do. Similarly, any poem written to be performed can be read on a printed page; though some might have to depend on special typography to convey the full impact – capital letters, extra spaces....
Sound vs Sight
Sarah Temporal and Thomas Keily, whom I've featured here (check the links if you missed them) write for oral presentation, whether on stage or on video (both do both). They write very specifically for that medium. Such powerful poets! I can't imagine their stuff not working as well on the page – but I'll never know, as I encountered it spoken first.
Thom Woodruff (Thom the World Poet) has also been featured here in the past. I chose the poetry very carefully – and it was appreciated – as I have known some people who have only seen his work and never heard it to be dismissive of it. That surprised me at first. Again, I am used to hearing him recite it. I had to try and look at some of it with new eyes, getting out of my mind as best I could the memory of him chanting and almost singing the words, emphasising rhythms and cadences which are less obvious on the page. I could see how the poems might lose something that way.
Sight vs Sound
There are yet others who very much write for the page, and frequently present their work at live readings too. They want their poetry to impact people both ways, but it may include complex metaphors for savouring and pondering rather than grasping immediately.
Much may depend on the audience. Readers and listeners are not necessarily passive recipients; they can bring something to the event too. For instance, I expect that people who attend a lot of oral presentations must develop a better 'ear' for layers of meaning.
I think Mary Oliver, many people's favourite contemporary poet (mine for one) succeeds equally both ways – but perhaps that's rare.
And then there's the now huge tribe of bloggers, to which we all belong. These reflections began when I suddenly noticed a little thing of which I'd scarcely been conscious: that I was writing not only for accessibility but in the expectation that the poem would be glanced at quickly – that this is how people read online. Such an expectation is death to subtlety! It also tends to discourage length.
This may well come from the fact that I myself often have to choose between skimming other people's poems hurriedly or taking a long time to get around to reading them.
We have wonderful poets blogging, and I love reading their work. Furthermore, reading poetry has always been one of my greatest pleasures. Yet I have to make that unwelcome choice as I don't have time to read and savour all the good poetry I'd like to. I suppose it's a good thing that I'm never going to run out of poetry to delight in. On the other hand, I hate to miss out on any of it!
I imagine other people have the same problem. Sometimes people's comments reveal that they haven't fully understood something I've written, or have actually misconstrued it. That could of course be a fault in my writing! But I occasionally get the impression that people are reading quickly because they have more to read, rather than taking time to grasp intentional complexities and ambiguities.
It's not their fault – how are they to know these things are there unless I flag them? There are people from whom we expect depths, so we allow for that; but perhaps my poems are usually so straightforward that there's no expectation of anything else? (Perhaps more copious process notes would handle it?)
For myself, I find I'm better not reading other people's poems late at night. Things which seem obscure then can be perfectly transparent in the morning! The fault is not in the poems but the state of my brain.
So should we dumb down our work, or should we demand more of our readers?
I don't want to dumb down – and I certainly don't notice anyone else doing so, nor would I wish that. I think, though, that I was starting to do it unconsciously. After all, I do want my poems to be understood!
This makes me wonder if there will come a generation of blogging poets who keep it all very simple and immediate. Good poetry can be written that way; even great poetry can be written that way. It wouldn't necessarily be a disaster. It might be something that would just happen, spontaneously, over time. If so, it will probably become apparent to future generations rather than to ours.
But I hope it doesn't happen. I love listening to a piece that knocks my socks off right in the moment, but I also enjoy poems which make me think and reflect. I love diversity in poetry, and that we get in abundance from the blogging poets.
What's your take on it all?
Speaking of Thomas Keily, he sent a message about his feature last week, which I have included in the comments there (see link in this post, above). He also said some people have asked about sound recordings, so he has included in his remarks a link to some of the 'ecstatic erotica' and would welcome feedback.
Moon image © Rosemary Nissen-Wade 2015.
Other images in Public Domain.