So far poetry has proved far more adaptable to a higher-and-higher high-tech world than prose fiction, which clings to the book as if the only thing justifying its existence were the bar-code and ISBN-number (not to mention the price-tag). This would be relatively easy to explain away if we were only talking about longer fiction—novels and novellas—since they demand more attention for longer and more numerous time periods than are comfortably provided on our laptops, smartphones and (most) other electronic data readers. But this also goes for shorter fiction, which has very little room on blogs or Facebook (let alone Twitter) compared to poetry. Prose of similar length—non-fiction articles, whether on blogs or news sites—is the most popular text online while comparably lengthed fiction is probably the least popular.
And it makes you ponder.
For one thing: almost everyone’s a poet. As I may have mentioned before, poetry’s the lazy man’s art form. So blogs and online poetry forums are easy to fill up with, excuse my French, emotional drivel in pretty little words. Any teenager with a laptop and an emotional problem; any middle-aged used-to-wannabe with a drawer full of anything from a lifetime’s worth of occasional quatrains to half a manuscript of semi-serious yet dated modernist verse; anyone who’s tired of solving Sudoku while the laundry dries—i.e. anyone without the time or the patience to write longer works (or more ambitious poetry) can self-publish online. And by jolly, let’s not forget that while this may make horrible poetry available to an unsuspecting (and sometimes unsavvy) general public, this is (in itself) nevertheless a good thing—überdemocratic and pretty like peaches.
Another thing: the writers most interested in the possibilities of text, and hence with the hardest hardons for the textual, social and lingual possibilities available online, usually call what they do poetry rather than prose—since prose is somehow supposed to be a story while poetry can (at least peripherally) be whatever the hell it feels like being. So the people who want to make movable or moving poems, who want to make self-generating or interactive texts, who want to write for a new venue—in short, the people who fall flat for the innovative are less likely to wanna constrict themselves to a one thousand year old Arabic invention. For prose, any medium is a vehicle. For poetry, any medium is a limitation on the path towards divinity.
Third: while length does not explain why people read the New York Times online and not the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges; while it does not explain why fiction can’t keep up online with non-fiction, length may explain why poetry beats fiction. You can get snippets of poems—but not stories. You can have a minute of poetry. Or half a minute. A second of poetry. Add to this the fact that a lot of poetry can be disjuncted, spastic and humorously dysfunctional like comedy—it can be very audience friendly. Anyone who’s attended poetry readings and prose readings can attest to the fact that poetry readings are usually much more enjoyable—poetry is (by nature) more performative than prose; by origin it is a spoken or chanted artform. And on the internet you can find anything, save for patience—hence the popularity of short fun.
Fourth: while there is no money in poetry and (for some reason) people have no compunctions about giving away non-fiction, or republishing it online a few weeks or months after it’s printed equivalent hit the streets, the world of prose fiction has been sufficiently conservative and self-protective to avoid both the blogosphere and the webzines—nor has it much of a presence within the (semi-legal) world of peer-to-peer networks.
Much of this may change with the advent of the e-book, which so far is mostly designed around linear prose fiction. For one thing the books of many popular and/or respected writers are now available (illegally, in most countries) in various e-reader formats through torrent-sites. They’re not available in the same enormous way as music or film, but the files are there and they’re much smaller than music or film and therefore more expediently downloadable. Although e-reader platforms are mostly geared towards longer works of prose fiction (including collections of short stories), non-fiction does have some presence, while poetry—with all of its line-breaks and weirdo layouts—will have to adapt (and become more adaptable) if it wants to fit in.