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I’ve been reading a lot of Marshall McLuhan in the last several months. I know he’s not the most fashionable critic anymore, but I admire his attitude toward culture. I’ve heard some call him a “futurist” but this seems to run directly counter to McLuhan as I read him. If anything, McLuhan is a medievalist who has adapted himself to our futurist culture in order to bring a rather old timey message.

McLuhan created what he called a “tetrad.” The general idea is that for every new medium, four things always happen.

1. The new medium enhances some aspect of us or our life.
2. The new medium obsolesces some aspect of us or our life.
3. The new medium, when pushed to its maximum, ultimately reverses some aspect of our life.
4. The new medium retrieves some past aspect of us or our life.

For example, the car:

1. It enhances speed.
2. It obsolesces the horse and buggy.
3. When there are many cars on the road, it ultimately ends up reversing that speed (in the form of traffic jams)
4. It retrieves the “knight in shining armor” in the form of the boy with the bitchin’ car.

Now pondering on the advance of the press (and now the digital age), I’ve been thinking about the effects of various mediums on poetry (which is itself a medium). When poetry was primarily oral, it was filled with mnemoic devices of all sorts that allowed for it to be memorized easily. Even during the manuscript era, poetry was necessarily oral poetry. Yet with the growth of the printed manuscript, one didn’t have to memorize as much anymore.

I have not done any formal research, but I suspect that as the written/printed word gained ground, the formal constraints on poetry (which were originally there to allow for oral memory) began to fall by the wayside. They were no longer necessary, though it seems the inertia of tradition kept these conventions in place for a while. Once the instrumental use was gone, it was only a matter of time before poets began exploring less oral-friendly forms.

Now, of course, we are entering the digital age, and I suspect the next thing to go (indeed has already gone) is the poetic line itself. Words no longer need the inertia of the line to carry them forward if digital animation can do so. WC Williams (with his visual foot) was already pushing in that direction, as has prose poetry. Is it possible that the poetic line as the bread and butter of poetry may be on its way out?

I would not be surprised if anyone has advanced this thesis before.  Could anybody point me to another author who has written on this topic?

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Micah Towery teaches writing and literature in South Bend, IN. His book of poetry is Whale of Desire. His writing appears in magazines like AWP Chronicle, Mantis, Slant Magazine, and his poetry and translations appear in Cimarron Review, Paterson Literary Review, Ragazine, Loaded Bicycle, and Prime Number Magazine. In the past, he's worked as a Coca-Cola delivery driver, bus driver, baker, and church organist. He sometimes tweets @micahtowery.

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  • Van Bakker June 24, 2010, 7:19 pm

    That is very interesting. However, while it does make sense, I don’t think that the poetry will ever stop using words, since even the oral poetry used words as well. I don’t see the poetry going only visual. Let’s just hope I am right on that.

  • Adam Fitzgerald June 24, 2010, 7:23 pm

    Nor will human beings stop using legs, well, I hope not. But what will they use their legs for? To walk to the street, to bike on the bank, to drive on the drive, etc. Poetry is changing, not that it hasn’t, nor that it shouldn’t, but what?

  • Christopher Robinson July 15, 2010, 11:34 am

    I don’t follow what you mean about the line becoming unnecessary as an instrument of propulsion when we have “digital animation.” Can you elaborate?

  • Micah Towery July 15, 2010, 11:45 am

    i was thinking of animated poems, mostly. where the lines and words from the poem will glide across the screen, fade in and out, etc. part of the function of the line, as i see it, is to help create that sense of rhythm, to propel the reader forward (in a more self-aware way than, say, prose). in animated electronic poetry, the line doesn’t push the reader forward, the animation creates the movement.

    or, i’ve seen electronic poems where the words themselves are hyperlinks, so a reader may “fall through” the line to a completely different page. i talked about this a little more on the next post about print and rhyme (here: http://www.thethepoetry.com/2010/07/more-about-mcluhan-and-the-poetic-line/ ), but the general idea is that we’re moving away from a line, and more towards a “field” of action. perhaps?

    it seems crazy to think that the line as an aspect of poetry may be on its way “out”…maybe not. but as i see it, the line plays a function. it was used in poetry because it actually had a job (it wasn’t just a random convention that people came up with, right?).
    but perhaps give it a hundred years of electronic journals and poetry, and the line will seem as relatively functionless as end-rhyme now seems to us. or, perhaps not functionless…but as we’ve lost the functional foundation of end-rhyme (i.e., mnemonic device), it becomes a pure convention that you can use at will (for aesthetic reasons, perhaps….which is not a bad reason, but it’s certainly not necessary for a poem to have rhyme to be considered a “poem”).

  • Micah Towery July 15, 2010, 11:49 am

    one more aspect of these thoughts: poetic lines were probably created as a function of end-rhyme. but as end-rhyme becomes only a convention (and has ceased to be a necessary aspect of what it means to be a “poem”), the line has changed function to helping create a sense of movement in the line. but now electronic poems are challenging the necessity of the poetic line in poetry.

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