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Downloading the Undergrowth

“You do worry about buying electronic goods these days, because technology evolves so fast. It’s not quite the same concern when purchasing an anvil” – Harry Hill

Poetry, for many people, will be seen as an anvil – something that won’t fluctuate within the constant gallop of technology. Unlike TV, film or modern art, that are so greatly affected by gadgetry and new tech, and frequently benefit from it, poetry will remain the stuff of the school anthology.

In the last five years, the Internet has broadened my understanding of the history of poetry – and, crucially, contemporary poetry – which had been dawdling along since I read this edition of Plath’s Ariel at 15 in Southend’s Brutalist-styled library, and considered putting poetic pen to poetic paper.

Before Web 2.0 – social media, easier peer-to-peer file sharing etc. – my education in poetry relied almost exclusively on the education establishment. These writers, while incredible, were all part of historical periods, which were to be pored over. It was the study of the past; the study of runestones, dotted across the bucolic landscape of English Literature.

But what about people like me, fledgling sparrows with our twiggy pens and scrappy notebooks, what landscape were we to skitter and swoop over? Where was I to find my peers? I couldn’t afford to take part in a Creative Writing MA and I bought the odd poetry magazine and although it was contemporary, these were established names, doling out their new poetical wares. I didn’t identify with them.

Like every social outcast, I turned to the Internet. I started a blog that, originally, was a place for me to write frequently about my thoughts on poetry, as well as a place to put up my most recent work. When I joined Twitter a few years later to help promote the blog, I started to find people who were like me – young, writing poetry and publishing it outside the constraints of the major publishers. I found poetry books about contemporary experimental verse, austerity, and psychopaths.

Why weren’t more people talking about this? How was this happening on in the Internet and yet was not part of a larger poetry consciousness? I hosted a series of readings at the V&A Reading Rooms to celebrate this diversity in the poetry world. During these events, hosted by me and the editors of different independent poetry presses, emerging writers would read their work alongside more established names – Maurice Riordan, Christopher Reid, Angela Kirby – to emphasize this rich poetry world.

Perhaps the most exciting ventures I came across were those that used the Internet as its own literary platform. Like Starlings encourages two poets to work together on a series of poems across international boundaries. I was also involved in a recent project started by Sarah Crewe, Mark Burnhope, Sophie Mayer and English PEN – the charity that supports the rights of writers across the world – to support the release of the members of Pussy Riot.

This is part of the beauty of the Internet: the dissemination of ideas and the constant update of news can often merge together. The two create a global cultural climate, and this spawns a multiplicity of written work.

This break-up of the homogenised print world of poetry is, to me, its future. Today’s poet has a great opportunity thrust upon them: the ability to reach a global audience, immediately. With poetry book sales dropping on a yearly basis (with a slight rise recently) the Internet’s appeal is obvious. Even reputable publishers of desirable literary journals – Granta, The White Review, Clinic – are all maximising their online work, independent of their print output, with great effect. We poetry lovers are being gifted more voices, for free.

Philip Larkin, one of the few poets I was taught before I was 18, might have turned his nose up at this. In an introduction to his first collection, The North Ship, he wrote about the auspicious time when he started writing, the era of World War 2. He wrote that the major poets of the time – Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Betjeman – were “all speaking out loud and clear, that there was no reason to become entangled in the undergrowth of Poetry Quarterly or Poetry London”.

I think limiting yourself to a handful of poets is a fool’s game. The major poets of our time – whoever they may be – are not enough to satisfy me. Sure, I read the likes of Don Paterson, Jo Shapcott, Louise Glück, John Ashbery – ad infinitum – but my own work benefits from the multiplicity of poetic voice available to me. You can create friendships with these poets, encourage them, be involved in their poetic development.  My relationships with these poets are closer, more personal.  So I frequently download the undergrowth, from the many literary PDFs and blogs, which are updated with new and different voices from across the globe.

The issue will be five years from now, when that burgeoning undergrowth has become the canopy, when each poetic voice I’ve been praising has a website, a Twitter page, a YouTube channel. Will a new generation of poets – who have grown up surrounded by social media – want to have their work published in print, won’t it look old fashioned? How will we know when the next Larkin is amongst us when their post is published on a Tumblr feed, and it is almost immediately usurped by another post, from another poet?

The Internet is transient, it shifts; it is like memory. There are already good sites that are raking through history to find the writers that time forgot. We now need this type of approach to reap through the burgeoning new voices on the Internet – to collect them together on an even playing field: a poetry wiki, if you will.

This will be difficult, yes. Who will be the ‘reaper’? There will no doubt be accusations of cronyism that have existed ever since poetry was being published. What will be needed is a mixture of editorial decision and random selection, which the Internet so readily offers. Imagining what this could look like is incredibly exciting. The potential for an ever shifting downloadable poetry journal, different for every person who downloads it is possible. The Internet has the ability to hold such an ordered system. It just needs to be built.

The Internet is clearly a boon for poets and poetry in a world where the traditional publishing methods have seen better days. If we’re not careful, however, we could loose a generation of poets in the wild thickets and echoes of new voices.


alexmacdonaldAlex MacDonald lives and works in London. He has had his poetry published in The Quietus, Clinic II and English PEN and was shortlisted for the Poetry School / Pig Hog Poetry Pamphlet Competition. He hosted a series of readings at the V&A Museum on independent poetry publishers. He is currently Digital Poet in Residence at the Poetry School.

One Comment

  • Nichola May

    Great post 🙂

    I sometimes wonder if there’s an advantage arriving at poetry without having gone the conventional route of an English/Arts degree followed by an MA: perhaps less obligation to tradition and norms and a (real or imagined) freedom to invent or re-invent?

    It’s not just some kind of youth movement, though. There seem (to me) a lot of people coming to poetry later in life, having been put off in the past by traditional forms and restrictions, but now seeing a place for themselves through the digital platform.

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