Writer in Residence

Poetry Intelligence and the Intelligence of Poetry

By Edward Carson


In fifty years, poetry will no longer resemble what we read today.  

Let’s riff a bit on some serious, playful, and radical thinking about how poetry, language and reading are changing, as well as some of the causes driving those changes. 

The World Wide Web first emerged thirty years ago. Today, half the world is online.

That’s closing in on 4 billion people. Think about what that number means . . . 

The world literacy rate in the early 1800s was 12 %. Today it is 86%, the vast majority of that coming since the 1960s. Today there is still a large difference in literacy rates across generations, mainly favouring the young . . . those born into or coming of age during the emergence of the computer, online media and the web.

A lot more people reading, coupled with the growth of and access to online media, has altered not only what is read but also the quantity and variety of available product.

Throughout the last 30 years a generation of poets and readers has been gradually immersing itself in our online world, adding both more creatively varied as well as more prosaic forms of poetry.

Today, a widening range of electronic media is daily creating and supporting ingenious information systems, innovative forms of knowledge, the creation of new words, different uses of language and reorganized patterns (OK, bubbles) of culture, all of which flow overtly and covertly into what we write. 

Google’s digital universe is ground zero for a new kind of writing – weaving technology into the service of the brain’s continuously adapting creative processes – in which focused computer-mediated modification and extraction of data, commodification, and control/guidance of an author’s decision-making methodology are all affected.

As the principal medium of conscious human thought and emotion, the language with which we express ourselves – how it is both written and read in processing through and merging with that media – is leading to a more fluid research and writing process, different kinds of reading experience, as well as confronting us with whole new kinds of diction, syntax, metaphors and styles of writing. 

We need to recognize the notion that “place” (even as in writer in residence) in an online medium now clearly means not a particular place for the author but rather something located in and emerging out of a map composed in the size of the world (which also happens to be the title of a new manuscript I’m working on).

The innate ambiguity of language requires context before its precision can be realized. With electronic media, the new context for both writer and reader is wherever you are as well as everywhere the writing comes from, goes to, and is consumed.

Words in the web are often hyperlinked to another location/perspective – at their simplest appearing as definitions, synonyms, antonyms, spelling, grammar, to name just a few – and in their more complex form as links to pictures, articles, books, other writers, etc.

Those links can be familiar or surprising and novel, opening up infinite combinations and capabilities for exploration. 

Next up within the coming decade will be how artificial intelligence (AI) – already with us in several forms – will bring/enforce new levels of technological decision-making, control, contribution and modification with respect to choices as to what and how language is used.  

The emergent flexibility of such media consistently reshapes and “free-orders” the mind, how we experience the world and our thoughts and ideas about that world . . . ultimately also reshaping the diction and syntax we use.

Walter Ong tells us, “Writing and print and the computer are all ways of technologizing the word.”

Science is telling us the brain’s neural activity is continuously evolving as circumstances and context change. Online media is the biggest contextual change yet!

Writers like Marshall McLuhan or more recently Nicholas Carr and Yuval Noah Harari write that the brain, because of its plasticity, is also subtly adjusting its neuronal connections – guiding, altering how we think – for better and worse – in response to the various forms of electronic media it encounters.

Change can be lamented or embraced, and technology is fine so long as it is deployed wisely.

 So . . . What are some of the intrusions/effects of technology on poetry? (Note: These will be numbered throughout April)

(1) The gradual narrowing, and assigning portions of our creativity and decision-making to technology and its algorithms.

The computer – and the programming codes/processes underpinning its workings – becomes the author’s co-author, and the poem’s first reader and editor . . . not always wanted but forever, it seems, more than willing to exert its will and influence.

Imbedded algorithms help guide/direct the writer to move seamlessly between documents, check/propose spelling and the composition of clauses/phrases, suggest alternate words, synonyms/antonyms, search information, and connect to other documents by way of hypertext links.

Algorithms have been employed for some time. Around 300 BC, Euclid created one for finding the greatest common divisor of two numbers, and in 60-120 AD Sieve of Eratosthenes used one for finding prime numbers.

In today’s lexicon, an algorithm is a precision-driven process guiding a computer to define and resolve a problem through a methodically ordered cycle of clear directions.

It measures and ‘discerns’ the world through the systematizing and shaping of its coded directions.

On the web, whether searching or in social media, knowledge more and more becomes information altered and shaped through the unique presence, influence and authority of algorithms. 

For more ways technology affects/intrudes upon how we write/read poetry, look for my next post. 

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Edward Carson, writer and photographer, is twice winner of the E.J. Pratt Medal in Poetry and author of Knots, Birds Flock Fish School, and Taking Shape, as well as his most recent collection, Look Here Look Away Look Again. He lives in Toronto.