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What might an anthology of the future look like?

Martin Langford 1 March 2017

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What might an anthology of the future look like? What do changes in the nature of the space the poem is written for imply about the poem itself?

Thinking about the nature of the space the poem is both written, and read in, I was wondering what the editors of an anthology like ours might have to deal with in the future. There are obvious problems for anthologists associated with the changing nature of society: a more populous society, for instance, should mean even more poets to research: I can’t imagine how that is going to be managed, if the number of books published continues to increase, in the same way that it had increased for us in comparison to the previous quarter-century (and how, on that point, could one ever put together a credibly-researched American anthology?) But there is also the issue of the space the poem is written into. I am thinking of the way the Mallarmé-space of the page can seem so aware of the words that are placed on it, whereas the bright abyss of the screen – or so it seems to me – has not yet formed a relationship with the words that click and slide across it. Overwhelmingly, the poems in the anthology are by poets with a sense of their own body, and of the social context the poem is written in – for readers with a similar sense of physicality, and with a similar capacity to read for context. I don’t know whether it’s just long usage, or whether there are actual bodily reasons underpinning it, but the page has developed into a ground which has come to feel highly receptive to the nuances of physicality, rhythm and context.

But electronic space feels different. It doesn’t come with much sense of anywhere specific on earth: it comes from the ether – and the ether has no co-ordinates. It is, moreover, rare to feel that the language one encounters on the net had a physical cost. When one does come across words that are weighted, physically, or emotionally, they can seem too much: an intrusion – a wrong note, from the land of costs. People sometimes say how difficult it is communicate emotional subtleties in emails or on Facebook (hence the need for emoticons). Part of the reason, I think, is that one is speaking into a  weightlessness and a placelessness. Our sense of location and weight is built up through our need to negotiate resistances. Poems as we know them are made out of our social instincts: they bristle with an awareness of implications. Without that, it is hard to imagine how an utterance could ever be thought of as entering a public space: what does ‘being public’ mean, other than acting with an awareness of the differentiations one’s social or physical space requires one to negotiate? Without that, language seems to fall into that naive, unconsidered monotone one associates with private thought – and which one sees in the affectless interiority one meets so frequently on the net: the strangely neutral tones for porn or hate, for instance, because they don’t come with any risk. Perhaps the poetry of the future will have to learn how to inhabit such a world – but if the language hasn’t cost anything, it is hard to imagine how it will have any power.

Humans are terrific at finding ways to exploit possibilities when they see them, and it is hard to imagine that they won’t find ways of saying compelling things in a weightless environment. Perhaps the poets of the future will be speaking to a new type of human – one with no sense of cost. But that will mean that poetry will not be able to access the music that is built out of resistances.

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