I was at a poetry reading not so long ago when one of the poets made a great point of displaying the phone screen on which he had composed a poem and from which he was now going to read. I have to admit that the poem doesn’t stick in my mind though I’m not sure that is any reflection upon the quality of the work. I was simply too distracted. It felt a bit like finding a great pub with a decent counter and a fine pint when the barman suddenly flings on Sky Sports above your head and the whole space takes on a different dimension. Here too the technology worship, I thought. The acceptable bling. The cool consumerism. Not, I’ll admit, that my mind was on the truly nagging issues behind these Apple and Google sects, ‘the chaos that lies beneath’ them as one Observer journalist recently put it, the mined and rare materials neodymium and europium, the cobalt and coltan from the Congo over which people are killed, those factory camps in China with their nettings to prevent suicide. The hidden costs behind the latest must-have phone or laptop. No, to my shame I was merely lost in suggesting to myself that poetry is, perhaps, the ultimate in insecure arts. Damien Hirst and David Hockney are two widely known and acclaimed artists but I have spoken to quite a few artists, painters and sculptors who have freely admitted that, for all their acclaim, Hurst is widely recognised as at worst a charlatan and at best a mere salesman. Hockney is admired for his paintings but giggled at for his I-Pad creations. They don’t shy away. They know. Yet, as the poet Laureate in Britain launched a poetry App recently, among such true poets as Harry Enfield and David Cameron’s friend Helena Bonham-Carter, the one of whom the Irish actress Kathy Burke was so profoundly descriptive, how many of us wanted to, I don’t know, shout enough. Enough of this nonsense. Enough of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Or are we too frightened of being seen as reactionary, of being in opposition, as if the purchase of a phone was now the signifier of an open and adventurous mind. After all, despite those noises a few years back about the arts being the saviour of the economy we know deep down that market economics treats us with a deep indifference. We know that the School of Chicago economics, the reduction of everything to its market value, which is essentially the belief system we live under, leaves next to no room for poetry. Might that then explain Seamus Heaney’s praising of Eminem, or Carol Ann Duffy’s equating of poetry with texting or tweeting. I even read recently where one poet claimed that texts and tweets meant we were thinking harder about our writing than ever before. I tell you I LOL about that one. It’s all a bit desperate. It’s all a little bit like trying to get down with the kids. I mean I’m no spring chicken but even I cringed when Carol Ann Duffy praised the verbal dexterity of rapping by citing the Arctic Monkeys.
So anyway. Enough. Enough of phones and apps and the ludicrous wonder of astonishment at something just because it is on a screen. Being a lover of the physical entity the book, being a poet who uses a pencil and paper, doesn’t make me a reactionary. I send e-mails. I use the internet to check the football scores. I look things up on Google. But I don’t stare wide-eyed at the screen as if I had never seen one before. And I don’t want you to show me your phone apps, whether they can tell me where to get the best pizza or have a celebrity read me a poem. I can read myself.
The historian Tony Judt when discussing Facebook and Twitter argued that they brought an ‘impoverishment of their own’ and that we needed to remember that when ‘words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express.’ The integrity of a poem always lies in the words. Putting it on a screen, on an app, runs the risk of making it all about the medium and if it comes down to a battle of the mediums then I need to go into a corner of the bar not with a screen but with a book beneath my arm. I don’t want to click the wrong icon and find out that I’m looking at Louis Walsh. And I want the barman to turn off the tele.
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