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Latest canary in the literary coalmine: ‘Twaiku.’

March 21, 2011

Ed Skellings holds forth.

Did you know today is World Poetry Day? Me, neither, until I read about it in this New York Times story on the rise of Twitter poetry — “twaiku.” It put me in mind of Edmund Skellings, who years ago told me that in the future poetry would be the only literature people will be able to stand.

I’ve lost track of Ed, poet laureate of Florida, since he abandoned his computer lab/office at FAU in downtown Fort Lauderdale, for newer digs at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, but I trot him out once in awhile when I want to sound the alarm about the effects of digital technology on the amazing shrinking attention span.

Let me quickly add that Ed finds nothing alarming about the rising dominance of digital technology or the erosion of human concentration. At  his  website you will see he’s been pushing the technological envelop as a poet since the 1960s, when he experimented in vinyl and television as the self-described “First Electric Poet.”

You can’t stop progress, he once told me with a mischievous smile — or did he say evolution? I can’t remember the exact quote, but I’m sure he meant both.

However much I admire Ed’s prescience, not to mention his breadth of accomplishment (serious poet and pioneering computer scientist), I cannot view the digital revolution quite so sanguinely. For one thing, the fragmentation and erosion of the attention span is a loss of incalculable proportions. As I’ve said before, within two or at most three generations (and possibly much less), people will be functionally illiterate by today’s standards, unable to immerse themselves in a novel or short story or even newspaper article, or, indeed, anything longer than a haiku. Note that the real dominant modern-day literary form — the advertising slogan — will be as functional as ever.

I know a lot of you are optimists who think I’m overstating the situation. Of course people will continue to read, you say, it’s just that the delivery system will migrate from print to digital device. But bless your little glass-is-half-full heart, abundant evidence exists to the contrary, and fresh examples pop up every day.

Last week, for example, I wrote about a study showing the iPad users are severely distracted by the gadgets other capabilites, thus making them “unfocused” readers. Today I find this essay by Linton Weeks at NPR on how consumers increasingly choose not to finish consuming a work — and not just books, but records, movies, TV shows and even video games.

“Fewer and fewer gamers are following gaming storylines all the way to completion, according to a recent blog post on the IGN Entertainment video game website. The post marvels at the statistics provided by game developer Bioware. The data show that only 50 percent of people who play Mass Effect 2, Bioware’s popular space-age role-playing-game, actually finish Commander Shepard’s mission to stop the Collectors.”

If kids don’t even have the concentration to finish a popular video game — a play pursuit that is almost all mental candy — then how can literature –beyond twaiku — hope to have a place in the future?

Of coruse, Weeks ends his piece on the obligatory upbeat note. He quotes information researcher Adam Thierer, of George Mason University, who says that people may not spend as much time with books or albums or “other types of long-form content,” but that’s simply the price paid for “life in an age of information abundance.”

I just love the new lingo, don’t you? “Long-form content” is a terminology that’s inherently reductive and denigrating when applied to books, movies or albums. It’s like calling a journalist a “content provider.”

Thierer adds: “I’ll take that over life in the past age of information poverty any day of the week. More people have more access to more information than at any time in human civilization. That’s a victory, even if it does come with some growing pains.”

Ah yes, and we’re all so much happier for it, aren’t we? Let me ask you the politician’s question. Are you better off today than you were in, say, 1995?

But let me, too, end on a note of upbeat by quoting my latest poetic discovery. As a dedicated prose lover, I came very late to poetry, and I routinely make Eureka!-style discoveries of poems that most readers probably have known since grad school if not kindergarten. Alas, it is not haiku:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

–Rumi

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    March 21, 2011 2:27 pm

    You take issue with the term “long-form content.” I take issue with “information poverty.” Personally, I enjoyed having to dig for information from my local library back in the days. It made me appreicate it so much more than having all this information and misinformation right at my googling fingertips.

    But I am speaking to the choir, right?!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 23, 2011 11:32 am

      Indeed you are. I just read a remark in the New York Times Magazine, which had been migrated from over the past three weeks from the living room to the bathroom, where it might actually have hope of being opened, a piece in which some fellow remarked in passing that he and his wife could not remember how they got along without Google. Well, let me tell ya, I remember, and I got along just swell. I used to love going to Broward County Library to research my stories for the Sun-Sentinel, and I believe in many ways I was a happier, less enervated person back when.

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