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How has the internet shaped modern poetry?

When you type “poetry” into the YouTube search bar, an unexpected number of the results that come up are not what we would consider conventional forms of poetry. Many of the thumbnails show people stood up against a plain black background, often looking into the camera, often gesturing passionately: they are all caught mid-performance by YouTube’s algorithms in the energetic experience of slam poetry. Slam poetry is technically a form of spoken-word poetry performed at a competition, but it has acquired distinctive enough formal features to earn a reputation outside of the metropolitan slam poetry circuits. It is known for heavy internal rhyme, its dealings with social issues and marginalised identities, and its tendency to be didactic, confessional, and sometimes aggressive in tone or theme. It feels a bit like prose with internal rhyme.

But when 22 Jump Street parodies it (and it does so very funnily), it becomes clear that slam poetry is not merely a poetic form, but something with the weight of momentum behind it, something worthy of mockery. It has become, in other words, a trend.

The proliferation of clips of slam poets on YouTube in and of itself is not a problem. One of the most glorious aspects of the advent of the digital age is how democratising it is. Gone are the days when poetic forms were preserved by the cultural and literary elite. Now, anyone can watch some slam poetry videos, get familiar with the form, film themselves, and wait for the hits. But it begs the question as to what point – if there is any point – at which this proliferation becomes excessive; when it is not an exciting, burgeoning trend, but a site of exhausted, self-parodic wastage.

Slam poetry as a form is frequently mocked for its use of lazy true rhymes, its generic liberal agenda, its (what people deem to be) faked passion or indignation, and its self-importance. But there is a lot of clever, sparky, and incisive slam poetry out there. It is often also a space in which women in particular are given a platform and a voice, with rape culture and insidious manifestations of patriarchal society shrewdly disseminated at many competitions. The issue lies in the sheer amount that there is on the internet. As it is performed, it is more easily digestible and of course makes more sense in video format than, say, T. S. Eliot giving a reading of The Waste Land. As a result of this dominating form, however – and certainly a form that is becoming monolithic on YouTube – perhaps less easily digestible, but more interesting and challenging works, are getting filtered out. It is far more likely for a motivational slam poetry video to crop up on someone’s Facebook timeline than it is for a Simon Armitage reading to make its way onto the social media echo chamber.

Part of the problem with the excessive amount of slam poetry online is the damage done to the quality of the poetry itself. Take, for instance, the video ‘I’m Not Okay / Spoken Word Poetry’ uploaded by channel ClickForTaz. In the video, Taz, a teenage girl, speaks eloquently on her experience of depression, lamenting “the constant frustration to fill this void” and how “that happy feeling always goes away, and the sad emptiness kicks in again.” The exposure of mental health issues by a teenager presumably to teenagers is, of course, valuable, and for such a young voice Taz speaks and writes sensitively. However, the poem lacks all the features that, well, define slam poetry – let alone what we think of when we conventionally define ‘poetry’. All the clever techniques slam poets use – from rapid, almost rap-like internal rhyme, to contriving rhythms that compel the performance to come alive with real vital energy – are absent here. The video is a thoughtful treatise on the experience of adolescent depression and unhappiness, but it lacks rhythm, poetic construction, and performative energy. It isn’t a slam poem. But due to the excessive amount of slam poetry on YouTube, the formal features we associate with it have become baggier and baggier, looser and looser – until such a video where the poet does little more than talk to the camera is happily labelled ‘Spoken Word Poetry’.

A similar point could be made about Instagram poetry. While the astonishing success of Rupi Kaur has been feverishly dissected over the past few years, the success of Instagram poets whose poetry (at least ostensibly) seems lazier than a lot of contemporary works out there remains dubious. People are less likely to look out for works that challenge and stimulate, when their interest could be satiated by a likeable, 10-word piece that happens to crop up on their timelines or feeds. And, though Kaur’s Milk and Honey has a polarised reputation for being either a work of small-scale, effortless beauty, or an ill-informed assemblage of chopped-up sentences worthy of derision, it is unequivocal that a great deal of the Instagram poetry that Kaur’s popularity has sparked is lazy, uninspiring, and self-indulgent. Proliferation has again led to damaged quality, as well as the potential drowning out of publications that work harder to express and experiment; that have ideas that cannot be summarised in a 10-line, half-baked conceit, but provoke and touch the reader through intricacies of style and image; that suffer in popularity because of it.

It is also worth arguing, however, that there is perhaps no such thing as too much art. Despite the problems that the (over)flow in YouTube and Instagram poetry demonstrate, the notion that the amount of art out there is excessive in some way is unpalatable to many. How can there be too much self-expression? Where do the limits of artistic creation lie, and who decides who is in the Venn diagram of ‘worthy’ and who sits beyond it in the camp of ‘excessive’? The internet also benefits artists by eliminating systematic pressures; anyone can get an Instagram account. Online, self-published content does remove the dependency many writers and artists suffer on institutional frameworks. On this level, the internet actually encourages bolder, more experimental works – if Faber & Faber reject your modern epic that is part Spenserian sonnet form, part villanelle, and part Rimbaud-inspired prose poetry, then Twitter is where you should be taking it! The internet should be publicising that which commerce-driven institutions are too critic-fearful and money-conscious to bother with.

But instead, the internet has flattened experimentation, made its poets lazy. Internet poetry is increasingly subject to parody. It is not just the writers of 22 Jump Street who have caught on – Milk and Vine is a collection of ‘poems’ written in the typography of Kaur’s poems (‘Times New Roman’ font, simple line sketch, most of the page blank), that are merely viral Vines typed out in that notorious format. It became a No. 1 Amazon bestseller.

It feels less like an indictment on Kaur herself, than on the whole bulging, baggy, carelessly expanding mess that is the Instagram poetry scene, sliding rapidly and irreversibly into self-parody while trying, with moderate success, to legitimise its substandard content.

There might indeed be no such thing as too much poetry, that doesn’t mean there isn’t such a thing as bad poetry. And, it seems, the internet isn’t helping with that.

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