I was once at a poetry talk where the speaker said, “Poetry has benefited more from the internet than anything else has—except pornography.” I was struck by the idea: pornography and poetry, the winner and runner-up in the internet sweepstakes. It’s not necessarily what you would have predicted when the internet was getting started. Well, at least the poetry part.
Of course, the two things probably benefit for different reasons: pornography because people really want it a lot but are embarrassed to go get it in person; poetry because people don’t want it that much, so it helps if they can get it for free without ever even leaving their desk chairs.
Whatever the cause is, though, the effect might be similar. Certainly print media takes a hit in both cases, given that there’s a viable (and cheaper) online alternative. That’s why Playboy is saying goodbye to nude photos—how else to sell a magazine to people who can look at naked strangers without having to make awkward eye contact with the person who’s selling it?—and also why print literary magazines are being threatened with extinction at a number of universities and some print magazines—Ascent, Exquisite Corpse, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, and others—have gone to an online-only format.
At the heart of this is money, and this is where we return to distinctions between the internet’s big #1 and #2. As it happens, both have lots of content available online for free, which means that hardly anybody is making a profit. As Cade Metz writes for Wired Magazine, “the adult industry is in a bind. Money is hard to come by, and as the industry struggles to find new revenue streams, it’s facing extra competition from mainstream social media.” This is a serious problem for an industry whose endgame is pretty much entirely about revenue; people make porn to make money.
Poetry, however, is different. For better or worse, poets have hardly ever expected to make a living from their verse. In fact, we’ve typically lost money on it. The makers of toner and printer paper took our money so that we could send our work out to magazines, and so did the post office. Magazine editors had to dig into their pockets (often their own personal pockets) for printing and distribution. And so, although free online poetry doesn’t make profits any easier, it does at least cut some costs. As I say, this is a for-better-or-worse point—it may not be a good thing that we’re so accustomed to giving our poetry away. But it does mean that poets have adopted a metric for success that fits the internet: we want readers, and the web has some of those.
Meanwhile all this online-ness has led to new kinds of poetry. Audio poem and video poems are more common than ever—check out Fishouse, 2River View, the Cortland Review, or Poetry Out Loud, for starters, or just do a search on YouTube. Taking more direct advantage of the special powers of the internet, there are interactive poems, too, like some of what you can find at Born Magazine (now defunct, but with a great archive). And you can interact with huge poetry databases, too—like the one at the Poetry Foundation—whether on your phone or laptop. (Incidentally, searching their database for “pornography” turns up this great, solemn poem by Paisley Rekdal.)
By now, the world of online verse is of course a thoroughly accomplished fact; poetry is thriving in digital. (Check out this hefty list of online poetry magazines to give you a sense of thriving.) We’ve figured out how to get the line breaks and indentations right in HTML and how to choose background and fonts to make work readable. Poems move easily through social media. Academic institutions are starting to take web publications seriously as they do their tenure and promotion reviews. And so, okay—probably poetry isn’t anywhere near #2 in the list of web beneficiaries (we have to make room for massive online stuff vendors like Amazon, and video streaming services, and social media, and so on) but there’s no doubt that, if the web is open real estate—if you lived here, you’d already be home!—poets have moved in, in force.
I do find myself wondering if this ubiquity has changed (or will change) the dynamic that drove so much poetry online in the first place. The picture with pornography is mixed; some studies suggest that those negative feelings (like shame) that drove users to their computers instead of to the corner store are on the decline, but others disagree. What about poetry? Has there been any shift in the apathy that made the web a more appealing home? Well, according to the NEA, poetry reading has decreased during the era of the internet, which is not a great sign. (Cue the perennial hand-wringing articles about whether or not poetry is dead.) It may be that the original apathy is still driving the picture; the internet may make poetry easier to find, but probably only if you’re actually looking for it.
One interesting thing: a study by the Poetry Foundation found that a huge majority of people will read a poem if they happen to stumble across it, and tend to generally like what they read. The web doesn’t always allow for stumbling-across experiences, though. In fact, it’s generally best at silo-ing things off, so that people who are very interested in a thing know where to go get it. But maybe websites can diversify; maybe people will start to care about poetry if they run into it while doing other things. (Like visiting pornographic sites? Probably not, though Playboy was once famous for its fiction, and perhaps it will be again.)
Of course, there’s no need to get evangelical. For the people who already love poetry, anyway, the world is awash in the stuff, and (even if it’s not so nice that we’re not getting paid) it’s a good thing that you can get your fix whenever you want it. (The parallel to pornography is obvious enough.)
A final thought: apparently there’s a real chance that hackers are going to dig up everybody’s porn preferences from online search histories (whether searched incognito or not) and release them to the world, identified by people’s names. (This may cause some panic.) Of course, there’s no comparable danger around poetry. In fact, I like the idea that somebody will track down all the things we like to read and blow our cover. Just picture the headlines: Your Goofball Co-Worker Spends Lunch Reading Melancholy Formalist Poetry; Binge-Verse-Reading and Today’s College Student; maybe even Fortune 500 Companies Turn to Poetry-Blockers for their Company Web Browsers. (While you’re in there, hackers, go ahead and unmask any remaining fake Yi-Fen Chous, will you?)
In the meantime, poetry lovers will keep on reading, wherever and however we can.
David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including, most recently, the novel How to Mars (Tachyon Publications, 2021) and the poetry collection Some Unimaginable Animal (Orison Books, 2019). He teaches at Georgetown University. Visit him at www.davidebenbach.com. (updated 6/2021)
Ebenbach founded the AGNI blog in 2015 and edited it until 2019.