“Mediality is the general condition within which, under specific circumstances, something like ‘poetry’ or ‘literature’ can take shape.”
– David Wellbery, Foreword to Friedrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks 1800/1900

Poetry, even among its practitioners and scholars, is notoriously difficult to define. At its etymological root is the Greek poesiscreation, bringing about – from the Indo-European root *kwei-u- – to pile up, arrange, erect.[i] If the Greek suggests a divine act, then the Indo-European describes a structure whose constitutive elements have been gathered and layered upon one another. The latter conveys some of the transhistorical difficulty in defining poetry: it lies at the intersection of media in their spaces of overlap and contradiction. Poetry’s constitutive parts mediate their whole. Indeed, Wellbery’s reading of Kittler indicates that poetry emerges following the contours of already-present technologies for organizing informationscriptural, oral, print, gramophone, cinematic – which share as their content, among other media, language.

In its most common OED usage, poetry is defined as a “patterned arrangement of language in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.” [ii] A few of these elements are sticking points in the field of poetics, but common among critical conceptions of poetry is the notion of language for which meaning is co-constructed by lexical content and material form. The OED entry includes a note that poetry is “traditionally associated with explicit formal departure from the patterns of ordinary speech or prose.” This sort of negative definition – poetry defined against prose or ordinary speech – indicates the difference that is attributed to poetry: a construction of language that is set apart, that may use the elements of “ordinary” communication, but has been marked by those same elements through a recursion as outside the circuits of communication. In Clement Greenberg’s terms, poetry is language that insists on “the opacity of its medium.”[iii]

In a sense (supported by Kittler and others after him), attempts to define poetry transhistorically will inevitably be ahistoric. Following the line of thinking that “media determine our situation,” Wellbery explains that “[literature’s] character will change historically according to the alternative material and technical resources at its disposal.”[iv] That is, a definition of poetry may be given for a particular moment in media history but that must be revised over time according to each technological invention. Kittler’s technological determinism shapes contemporary inquiry into the mediality of poetry, perhaps naturally since poetry frequently claims a continuous tradition whose origins predate the technology of writing and that has passed through most of the inventions of recorded history and as some claim “will undoubtedly outlast them.”[v] (Indeed, many of those histories were written in verse.) That claim to continuity implies a transhistoric constant which is further remediated in each new epoch of technology.

Although many of the terms were developed in the field of prosody (initiated by Aristotle’s Poetics with the triadic melos-opsis-lexis), discussion of poetry’s mediality begins in its modern terms in the second half of the eighteenth century, during the period that Kittler refers to as alphabetization, aided by compulsory education and expansion of book production in the West. Maureen McLane dates the discussion to 1760, when James MacPherson’s Ossianic Fragments was first published – supposedly the poetry of a third century Highland bard – and controversy erupted – skeptics claimed the texts were forged – which involved theories of orality, cultural authenticity, translation, and historicity.[vi] 1766 saw the publication of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoon, which dealt explicitly with the medial capabilities of painting and poetry. Shortly after this time, in England, poets such as Sir Walter Scott collected oral poems by ear and compiled them in written anthologies of folk verse. Editorial and poetic questions arose regarding orality and literacy, improvisation and transcription, and ethnography and British cultural imperialism, all of which gave shape to debates of poetry’s mediality and its historical contingency.[vii]

Interrogating Scott’s own poetry inspired by the folk collections, Celeste Langan reconstructs this historical intersection of oral and written traditions, invoking Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that the content of one medium is another medium. In this case, within a print culture, oral poetry becomes the content of print.[viii] In the face of the untranslatability of media, Langan finds it also to be the case that something akin to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the aura has been stripped from oral poetry in the process of printing it, while – drawing from Susan Stewart – paradoxically the text’s “lost context and lost presence” leaves a “residue […] a sense of nostalgia or regret” layered upon the printed poem. Following a Derridean line of thinking, orality and print become mutually constitutive.[ix]

One of the elements lost in the movement from oral poetry to print is the poem’s immediate sound – for Kittler, the Lacanian real of the poem. This is particularly significant, since historically, poetry in many cultures has been formally organized (that is, marked apart from prose) through sound – for instance, by rhyme, vowel length, or pitch.[x] Other such lost elements include the body of the performer which mediates the verbal text and the performance itself which is mediated by the present listener. In a print culture, the verbal function has been transferred to the page, where the Lacanian real consists of the material book and the marks pressed onto its surfaces, which the reader touches. Within this framework, a frequent marker of written poetry that distinguishes it from prose is the arrangement of those marks on the page and often the amount of blank space.[xi]

Poetry may call more or less attention to its material components through varied strategies, such as rhyme which saturates the verbal text with auditory echoes, constituting in part a poem’s degree of self-mediation. Conversely, displacing that attention to material form – such as by the removal of rhyme in blank verse – moves the text toward something like immediacy, but that “immediacy” occurs inside of the bounds of the medium within which the language is nested. For instance, in print, the tendency described by Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads and taken further in the twentieth century to emulate “ordinary speech” in poetry collapses the difference between poetry and prose. When poetry strips away its layers of self-mediation, the distinction between it and prose constitutes mere eyewash for the medium of print. As Langan puts it, print makes all verse “a blank and silent screen.”[xii]

The historical movement in Western poetry toward a prose-like, unmarked form coincided with Kittler’s alphabetization and his observation that around 1800, “the book became both film and record […] in the imaginary of readers’ souls.”[xiii] That is, the book and attendant reading strategies produced a kind of audiovisual hallucination that anticipated by nearly a century those technological developments. By calling less attention to its material form, printed poetry produced that hallucination more effectively. That is, by amputating the poem’s material presence, there could be an extension of the virtual space of the page in which the content is a (literate) subjectivity, produced through the reading of an interior.[xiv]

Of course, those technologiesfilm and record – were both invented and circulated within the next century, causing poetry to change as a result of the new media. Margaret Linley observes that “the anthropomorphic turn of Victorian poetry” should be read in terms of “anxieties and fascination” related to mass print and communication technologies.[xv] In an era in which the gramophone exists, the book no longer serves that purpose. For this reason, Yopie Prins describes the voice of the Victorian poem transforming into a metaphor for the human voice – away from its former hallucinatory status of the voice as such.[xvi] Into the twentieth century, modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot consciously appropriated the formal techniques of cinema in their poetry, particularly the montage which moves abruptly from one shot to another.

The discussion of mediation in poetry continued in the first half of the twentieth century with certain of the Russian Formalists who were working on traditional poetic form and linguistics more generally. Jurij Tynjanov’s analysis of a literary work as a system describes the ways in which each element of the system (lexicon, syntax, generic convention, etc) is mediated each of the others. For instance, an archaic word choice may be used as either “elevated” language or as parody, depending on the system’s elements. And indeed that literary work is mediated by other synchronic literary and non-literary texts.[xvii] In this way, he destabilizes genre, since for example a poem may be more closely influenced by newspaper editorials of the day than earlier poets who are considered to be part of its poetic tradition. Roman Jakobson does similar work – though from position that orients linguistics toward more traditional prosodic questions – situating poetry within the structure of communication, mediated by linguistic codes, addresser/addressee, and the context of the “message.”[xviii]

Regarding conventional poetic forms, meter is seen to mediate poetry insofar as it marks a text as poetry, particularly as part of a tradition of poems similarly marked. In ancient Greece, certain meters were associated strongly with particular subject matter. In nineteenth century England, meter itself was nearly the exclusive constitutive requirement of poetry.[xix] Rhyme and alliteration are understood to do the work of marking poetry as well by repetition of sound, but also draw together words with similar phonemes to generate further lexical meaning in their emphasized relationship.[xx] That is, lexical words mediate one another by virtue of their similar auditory features. Syntactic parallelism operates similarly and imposes further lexical mediation.

In the sense of traditional formalism, language’s own components are employed for their ability to mediate one another. Meaning is co-created in the dialogical relationships among poetry’s elements and within the symbolic chain of the language itself. The contours of that mediation, however, are historically contingent, and if poetry is understood as a continuous tradition from its oral cultural origins to present, then it must be understood to have passed through each “new” medium as it was historically introduced. The “double logic of remediation” drives poetry simultaneously toward both immediacy and hypermediacy.[xxi] In Katherine Hayles’ terms poetry cycles those media through one another, further remediating poetry as a set of conventions and as a strategy for the discursive production of meaning to which both content and form contribute.

— Theodore Roland

[i] IEDO, “ποιέω.”

[ii] OED, “poetry, n.”

[iii] Greenberg, 32.

[iv] Kittler, DN, xiii.

[v] McLane, 9.

[vi] McLane, 7.

[vii] McLane, 7.

[viii] Langan, 54.

[ix] Langan, 54.

[x] Fabb, 5.

[xi] Langan, 63.

[xii] Langan, 63.

[xiii] Kittler, GFT, 9.

[xiv] Langan, 58.

[xv] Prins, 46.

[xvi] Prins, 44.

[xvii] Tynjanov, 68.

[xviii] Jakobson, 353.

[xix] Langan, 51.

[xx] Jakobson, 367.

[xxi] McLane, 214.

Works Cited

Beekes, Robert (with the assistance of Lucien van Beek). “ποιέω.” Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries Online. Ed. Alexander Lubotsky. Brill Online, 2014. February 21, 2014. <http://iedo.brillonline.nl.proxy.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/lemma.html?id=8585 >

Greenberg, Clement. “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 1: Perceptions and Judgements, 1939-1944. Ed. John O’Brian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1988.

Fabb, Nigel. Linguistics and Literature: Language in the Verbal Arts of the World. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. 1997.

Jakobson, Roman. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.” Style in Language. Edited by T.A. Sebeok. New York: Wiley, 1960. 350-377.

Kittler, Friedrich. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 1990.

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 1999.

Langan, Celeste. “Understanding Media in 1805: Audiovisual Hallucination in The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” Studies in Romanticism. 40.1 (2001): 49-70.

McLane, Maureen. Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2008.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1994.

“poetry, n.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 20 February 2014. <http://www.oed.com.proxy.uchicago.edu/view/Entry/146552>.

Prins, Yopie. “Voice Inverse.” Victorian Poetry. 42.1 (2004): 43-60.

Tynjanov, Jurij. “On Literary Evolution.” Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views. Ed. Ladislov Matejka, Krystyna Pomorska. Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press. 1971.