Friday, March 20, 2009

Poetics of the List

The days of print prose are over. Actually, probably not "over", but their days of prominence are certainly over. Not everyone has realized it yet, but language on the Internet functions vastly differently than it does on the page. Sentences are different. Paragraphs are different. It's all different. We shouldn't allow the similarities between writing on the page, and writing on the screen to distract us from the fact that they're as different from each other as written Standard English is from the endless vernaculars. They're different languages.

The Internet has changed the way we read.

If prose was the primary literary form of print, the List, via the Internet, has become the primary form of literature that we consume on a daily basis. The reason for this is that the List is (and always has been really) the form for navigation of language (tables of contents, indexes, glossaries etc.).

We need a list of tabs and windows we have open; we need a list of sites we've visited, and a list of favorite sites; Google generates lists of relevant content; blogs are listed in my RSS reader, which lead me to another list (of posts); comments come in lists; there are lists of tags to lead you to more lists of content; The most popular sites are list-oriented; Your facebook page has a list of your friends which takes you to other lists (interests, activities, their friends, lists of comments); The most popular content is lists (the 20 things list that was going around, top 10 lists are pretty much the most popular content on web 2.0 sites [another list-oriented style site], Ron Silliman's link-list that he provides every week is probably the most read poetry blog post).

Even prose, when it does happen has begun to take on various forms of the list. This is because Internet users approach reading text on the Internet very differently than they approach it on the page. People read even text as if it were a list. Paragraphs now tend to be approached as items on a list. Writers who realize this tend to structure their paragraphs entirely differently than one would on a page. Paragraphs tend to be shorter, and present one solid idea, before indenting again.

The article I just linked to seems to view this as a negative thing, as does Andrew Keen and many others. I don't really see the need to put a "positive" or "negative" spin on it though. It's "good" to be aware of how reading happens in various mediums.

In fact, I think that the way readers approach reading on the Internet is very similar to the often "4 dimensional" reading experience offered by certain 20th century poetry.

Other random thoughts about lists:

--Lists may be the very first "literature". Most written language systems evolved out of written number systems, which were first used for making lists of crops, livestock, various possessions etc.

--Lists have been employed in poetry for a long time. Much pre-literate poetry revolves around the repetition of certain structures (not just rhythmic and rhyme structures but there is plenty of pre-literate poems where every "line" begins with the same opening words) , forming sorts of lists.

--lists are not always assumed to be complete, whereas usually poems are.

--lists are "about", not just the items on the list, but their organization too. (alphabetical [forwards or backwards], numerical [forwards or backwards], order of importance, order of "first appearance", chronological order)

--lists have both more linear and non-linear capacity than, say, prose. For instance, in prose, the lines are fractured by the margins, where as lists (on the Internet), extend downwards perhaps infinitely. However, lists are often not read in linear fashion. Items are scanned for both linear progression, and for similarities between non-adjacent items (or just for one or more desired items).

--when approaching a list, the reader does not assume a particular (or even only one) connection between items. The reader knows he must, not only read the items on the list, but also infer many forms of connections between these items. (yet somehow, if the poet expects the poetry reader to do this, she is somehow being "too difficult").

--Lists are read multidirectionally. Traditional "reading" is used, but also scanning. Reading happens across, down, up, and even "through" (the "depth" possibilities I mentioned before).

--The presence of numbers on pages of a book make any page an item on a numbered list.

--Check out Wikipedia's list of Wikipedia lists.

--Lists have infinite "depth" possibilities ("traditional" writing rarely goes deeper than a first parenthetical). Any item on a list can (and often does) spawn its own list.

--any written poem (excluding prose poems) invokes the list on some level. Prose runs in one line (we're not supposed to think of the line breaks as "real"), whereas poetry is broken into list-like partitions of breathes, ideas, metrical completions, rhymes, etc.

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