Studying the rise of the novel, the distinguished scholar Franco Moretti wonders how people managed to read so many of them. He points out that though the numbers of readers in Western Europe roughly doubled in the 18th century, the circulation of novels increased 30-60 times. He concludes that this was possible because people learned to read in a new, distracted way, surfing through titles, as it were. Drawing on the ideas of Walter Benjamin, Moretti argues that such a way of consuming helped people adapt to rapidly changing social and economic conditions. It enabled them to become early multi-taskers. And because the vast majority of what they read were action and adventure novels, their distracted reading also helped distract them from everyday tedium (like the action blockbusters flicks of today).
Moretti’s ideas got me thinking about the ways we’re taught to consume poetry. If anything, what we learn in school about the form is the complete opposite of “distraction.” Maybe it’s changed since I was a student, but I remember being taught that the form demanded rapt attention – that it was no country for the lazy reader. (Of course, to be fair, something similar, if not as severe, was preached about the novel.) In any case, I was wondering if there even was a more relaxed way to consume poetry. And then I remembered how popular “Magnetic Poetry” once was in the corporate world where I work.
Back in the early 90s, it was not uncommon when you strolled office halls to see, on the sides of file cabinets, tiny white, magnetic tiles forming snake-like patterns of humorous, surreal and usually mildly erotic word combinations. It was as if Dave Kapell, the inventor of Magnetic Poetry (not a poet himself, but a musician), had found a way to market the Dada poem. Dada offered a recipe for writing: cut up words from a newspaper, place in a bag, shake, empty, and record the results. This was to make it easy for all to be poets. But Magnetic Poetry made it even easier: they cut up the words for you, and placed a magnetic backer on them so they could be affixed to any metal surface. And, judging from the fun people had playing with the tiles, magnetic poems did serve a function: they distracted their writers from a little of the tedium of 9-to-5. As a result, the “Magnetic Poem” may be one of the bestselling poems of contemporary times: according to their website, over 3 million kits were unloaded.
With the rise of the Internet, the tiles quickly vanished from offices. Now there are an infinite number of word recombination programs. There are engines for writing entire poems, haiku generators and Magnetic Poetry itself has a free site with virtual tiles. My current personal favorite is here, where a ghostly silhouette types your poem to order, from a flowing stream of words you play around with. But there’s a drawback for me, to all this creative randomicity: I get bored with these games quickly. It’s as if the tedium I was trying to escape, returns, like the fabled repressed. It all reminds me of what a copywriter friend told me in the early days of the Internet: it’s a revolution, all right, but often a dull one. That’s why it’s necessary to keep hopping from site to site of these poem generators: as soon as some part of you recognizes a program at work, what you’re playing with loses its unexpected charms.
(Referred to in this piece: Franco Moretti. “The Novel: History and Theory.” New Left Review 52, July-August 2008.)