Digital communications can benefit from the lessons and practice of poetry.
In May 1991, Dana Gioia wrote an essay in the Atlantic Monthly called ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ The article was a major contribution to a long-running debate on the relevance of poetry in a modern world that appears to run on prose. Gioia’s conclusion to this long running debate on the cultural significance of poetry and its practice was clear in his summary:
If poets venture outside their confined world, they can work to make it essential once more*
In 1991, digital had only just begun its progress to its current pervasive state. Gioia does not even reference digital journals and blogs which now reinforce his point on the niche audience for much modern poetry. We have learned a great deal since then on the practices of digital business and digital communication. Two decades of lessons in digital communication is still a small fraction of the lessons learned across the centuries of history of poetry.
Why Learn from Poetry? Isn’t it Dead?
Modern digital communication can benefit from a deeper understanding of the practices and art of poetry. In many ways, poetry has been practising to refine approaches that align to current challenges facing digital communication.
Capturing The Essence: Gioia gives a strong clue to one rationale when he defines his first rationale for poetry in his essay:
Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning.
Digital communication always faces a poverty of attention. Extracting the highest value from expression and conveying as much meaning as attention will allow is essential.
Expressing the Experience: The mobility of digital communication means that messages no longer sit apart from any experience. Digital communications must help express, support and enrich the experience. Poetry has long battled with this same challenge of capturing, enhancing and enriching the human experience. There are lessons to be drawn in the relationship between poetry and the experiences that it captures and supports.
Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them – Charles Simic
The use of poetry in ritual in human history is a sign to its power in experiences.
Leveraging Reflection: The practice of writing poetry requires observation of the experiences of life and reflection. Wordsworth described poetry as:
Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
Similarly, Robert Frost wrote:
Poetry is when an emotion has found a thought and the thought has found words
Digital communicators can provide an important outlet from the busy pace of work. They can write from and help provoke a deeper reflection on the daily experience of work and life.
Engaging through Rythm & Rhyme: The first poets had no written poetry. Jorge Luis Borges once said
Poetry remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art.
Homer was a bard who told his tales from memory and they were passed on in memory. Many of our literary techniques are echoes of ideas that go back beyond the Ancient Greeks to master poetry and rhetoric. Sections of Shakespeare’s plays on the page can be a struggle for a modern reader but put them in the hands of an actor who can work the structure and they sing with new meaning. Read poetry and you realise the power of the rhythm of words and rhyme structures to engage others and to support your own efforts to share the work. When much digital communication struggles to hold attention, leveraging rhythm and rhyme for engagement remains relevant.
Memorable & Memetic: Great poems and great lines of poetry are memorable. This memorability is often based in universality of the ideas. Keats said
Poetry should… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
The English language is filled with phrases from the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare or the poetry of the King James Bible. They are so common now we barely can trace their origins. The potential of digital communication is to find that central, shared, memorable idea, phrase or aphorism that can live beyond one reading and spread through your networks as its own meme.
Open to Experimentation: Since the beginning of human history, poetry has experimented with forms, rhythms, rhymes, assonance, visual and verbal representations of messages. The most successful forms like the sonnet, the haiku, rap or the spoken word jam were tested and refined before spreading around the languages of the world. Digital communicators have learned to measure their effectiveness using the new tools available. A breadth of experimentation will help ensure that digital communication does not become trapped in local maximums of performance like the listicle.
Bringing in the Whole Human: Communication is not just a process of the human brain. Poetry shows the ways we can communicate beyond recitation of facts and logic. We have already seen digital communicators begin to leverage visual imagery in new ways to reinforce messages. Poetry also earns its attention by reaching for a deeper meaning in what is often a brief form:
Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves. – TS Eliot
Emotion, experience, spirituality, beauty and more are opportunities for experimentation for effective digital communicators as well. Finding richer ways to connect with human meaning is always an effective approach to communication.
Change: In the Defense of Poetry, Percy Bysse Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ His point was that poetry is a way in which communities share and develop norms. Digital communication must play the same role in networks reinforcing the values and creating shared connection as new communities come together. Poetry has exploited its marginal place to push boundaries as Thomas Hardy pointed out:
If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the inquisition might have let him alone.
Equally importantly, Salman Rushdie laid out the challenge for the poet as follows:
A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep
No challenge is more relevant to digital communicators when the virality of a message now outweighs its accuracy or usefulness.
Adapting: Paul Valery once said ‘a poem is never finished only abandoned’. The same holds true of digital communications. The work should be adapted continuously based on feedback, performance and changing circumstances. The goal is enhanced effectiveness and continued relevance. Communication that is static is dead and abandoned.
The lessons above are but a few of thousands of years of the practice of poetry to engage the human mind and soul. Any digital communicator can learn from that collective experience. If applying poetry in digital communications seems unlikely, you can at least consider what poetry can do to improve your prose:
Yet, it is true, poetry is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry. Virginia Woolf
Always be a poet, even in prose – Charles Baudelaire
* This insight has an echo in Steve Blank’s startup maxim ‘there are no facts inside the building so get the heck outside’