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How Poetry Died

For those who don’t know me in real life – I’ve been unemployed for a little while now since returning from India, looking for work and somewhere to live in London. I’ve had a handful of interviews already, and hope to have some good news on this front soon. But in the evenings, after I’ve spent my day drinking double strength coffee and slavishly refreshing indeed.com, I’ve been working on another task, one equally heroic though considerably more pointless. Like a modern day Sisyphus, slowly pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again, I have been – yes – trying to clear out my Steam library.

Call it the one benefit of having too much time and not enough money: I’ve been trying to get through the long list of games I’ve purchased on digital game market Steam, but never found the time to actually play. Every adult with a Steam account probably knows that vaguely depressing feeling of scrolling through your games library and realizing you’ve never even installed half the titles in it. You feel like you’ve become just another cog in the wheel of cultural capitalism, a victim of market psychology: ‘Oooh, it’s half price – wouldn’t it be stupid not to buy it?’ But, inevitably, you never find the time to play through that copy of Grand Theft Auto 2 which was marked down to 60p.

A culture of consumption

Of course, we know why this is happening. The people who run digital markets like Steam, Playstation Store and Amazon are masters of sale psychology. Limited time deals, wishlists and free trials tap into a particular part of the brain, and lead us into purchasing decisions we might not otherwise have made. It doesn’t make any difference to the platform holders whether we actually play the games or watch the movies we buy, so long as we’re spending money on them. (As a side note: anyone who wants to learn more about how corporations advertise to you should watch this fascinating Youtube video on the six principles of persuasion.)

We can see it in the world of music, too. I’ve sometimes caught myself listening to an album for no more than twenty minutes before abandoning it forever, for the sole purpose of logging it on music database rateyourmusic.com, a website where I have rather obsessively ranked almost 2000 albums on a scale of 1-10. As someone who writes critically about music, it can certainly be a useful tool for keeping track of everything I listen to. But there’s definitely an element of fetishizing the sheer quantity of music that enters into my ears, without giving it the critical attention it deserves. And even more perverse is game database backloggery.com, which I recently stumbled across, where users spend large amounts of time creating detailed lists of all the games they haven’t had time to play. Instead of, y’know, actually playing them.

“This is the reason why poetry is pretty much dead in 2018”

I think this trend towards a culture of consumption, which has probably been happening since the industrial revolution, is accelerating faster than ever now that online stores make it so easy to purchase media. And I also think this is the reason why an artistic medium like poetry is pretty much dead in 2018, or has at least lost a great deal of its cultural relevancy. A book of poetry doesn’t have a runtime, or a clear beginning and end – it gives out as much as you’re willing to put into it. It requires patience and space to think, both of which are in short supply in the digital age. And it isn’t easily qualified or ranked. In short: you can’t consume it quickly and throw it away.

And poetry is also almost completely removed from technological advancements, which have been at the heart of culture throughout the 20th and 21st century. Film, games and music have all developed alongside the technology that powers them, taking us from rudimentary projections, Pong and Kraftwerk to 4K displays, virtual reality and an electric organ made entirely out of furbies. OK, whether that last one is an evolution or a monstrosity might be up for debate. But regardless, these mediums are the ones that have remained, or become, relevant to contemporary culture (by which I basically mean popular and financially viable) because people want progress. And in the digital era, technology is progress.

“We’ll still be able to write poems in the dirt with our mutated, radioactive fingers.”

I went to a poetry workshop in Bath a few weeks ago titled ‘Publishing Your Poetry’, which was hosted by a small publisher called Burning Eye Books. One of the things that struck me the most was when the speaker made a very casual comment that there was ‘absolutely no money in poetry’, and that none but the one or two biggest publishers do better than barely staying afloat. Of course, I never expected I would make any money from writing or publishing poems I’d written, but I was surprised to hear just how bleak the business reality is.

Perhaps that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. Everyone who works on the publishing side of poetry does it purely as a labour of love, and for the sake of the art. Likewise the people who still feel the urge to write poems in 2018. If poetry is dead, maybe it can live an afterlife where it serves as an antidote to the culture of consumption which surrounds contemporary art? One which exists outside the whirlwind of reviews, sales figures, fame, twitter controversy, and – yes – steam sales. And even if that never comes to pass, we can at least take comfort in this thought: when Donald Trump and North Korea lead the world to an inevitable nuclear apocalypse and all human technology is destroyed, we’ll still be able to write poems in the dirt with our mutated, radioactive fingers.

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