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“Writ in water:” Poetry Books in the Digital Age, a Doomed Medium For a Doomed Genre?

  • 1 See in particular: “Every few years an essay appears in a mainstream periodical denouncing poetry o (...)

1Both the book (as a medium) and poetry (as a genre) are frequently described as either dying or doomed. On the one hand, the future of the book is said to be hanging by a thread in the age of free online access and digital proliferation; on the other hand, poetry is customarily described as being by nature irrelevant, or at least inoperative, in times of crisis – a Western paradigm addressed most recently by Ben Lerner in The Hatred of Poetry (2016).1 What happens when we bring these two together, poetry and books? What exactly might the life expectancy of “poetry in print” be today?

2The aim of this special issue is to reappraise poetry’s new place in the digital age. If “the place of the poem” is no longer in the book – as Neil Fraistat once argued (Fraistat 1986) –, does that mean that “the order of books” has become obsolete to the reading, writing, and teaching of poetry (Chartier 1992)? If so, what are poetry’s new modalities and how has the rise of digital technologies affected not just poetry’s production but also its circulation and reception? How do local, political, and historical specificities redefine the way poets, publishers, and readers incorporate digital tools as either a limitation or an emancipation?

  • 2 To give but one example of this military rhetoric, see Sven Birkerst’s introduction to The Gutenber (...)

3Somewhere between denunciation and diagnosis, the essays gathered here seek a third way that is neither military nor medical2 to examine the nature and future of poetry books in the digital age. Navigating the field of new media, they trace a very different story from the apocalyptic prophecies and well-honed jeremiads mentioned above. Stretching across periods to investigate a corpus ranging from late 17th-century France to India’s contemporary anglophone poetry scene with an emphasis on British and American poets, they consistently agree that, far from losing ground, poetry in the digital age has in fact extended its field to thrive outside the private pages of the book, in the public spaces of libraries, concert halls, galleries, and social media. Have the “Gutenberg elegies” in turn become obsolete (Birkerst 2006)?

4Assessing the place of poetry in the digital age while also eschewing the aporia of “denunciation and defense” identified by Lerner, Noa Shakargy, in a recent issue of the International Journal of Cultural Studies, coined the name “Internetica” to depict “the sphere of intersections between the internet, social media and poetics” (Lerner 2016, 10; Shakargy 2021, 326). Poetry in the digital age, she argues, has become ubiquitous:

Poetry is everywhere: in specialized websites and forums and on social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. But poetry also infiltrates previously uncharted waters, such as programming, coding, and Deep Learning. It seems that the Internet allows for a significant increase in the number of texts that are considered poetry and the number of people who are considered poets. This is because poetry is self-defined since authors can frame various texts as poetry and because the Internet continuously generates new textual structures, such as chats, and help guides. (Shakargy 2021, 325)

5In Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age (2010), Kevin Stein similarly documented poetry’s rich, dynamic “afterlife” in the digital age – a renaissance of sorts: “Poetry today enjoys a spirited afterlife. Its aesthetic hereafter has come despite, or perhaps because of, two decades of commentary diagnosing American poetry as gravely moribund if not already deceased” (Stein 2010, ix). After all, aren’t the actions of reading, writing, or recording poetry on one’s smartphone the shortest path toward “hold[ing] Infinity in the palm of [one’s] hand,” to quote William Blake (Blake 1979, 209)?

6As Darren Wershler-Henry reminds us, technophobia and retrophilia often go hand in hand. Typewriting, which once belonged to the realm of the prosaic, is now regarded as poetic. Why wouldn’t the same be true of computer-based writing?

Once, typewriting symbolized all that was antithetical to poetry; it was cold, mechanical, awkward. Now, however, through the misty lens of nostalgia created by several centuries of typewriting’s own propaganda, we believe that typewriting is poetry: precise, clean, elegant in its minimalism. (Wershler-Henry 2007, 6)

7Will the digital age be seen as a golden age for poetry once we have moved on to new, more sophisticated media? If typewriters, like LPs and tape recorders, are becoming “poetry” now that they have receded into a distant past, what does it say about poetry and technology, and – more importantly perhaps – poetry and its time?

Obsolet(h)ics: Poetry, Obsolescence, and the Market

8A new generation of widely acclaimed poets who made their debut on social media platforms have reignited popular interest for poetry while also boosting the sales of poetry books. Clearly a thriving genre in the digital age, these social media revisitations (like Instapoetry) have nevertheless become a favorite target of both academic and non-academic attacks aimed to disqualify them entirely as not poetry. Indeed, poets and critics in awe of digital technologies’ ubiquity (from computer-based poems to poetry blogs, videopoems and, among others, the rise of online magazines) tend to speculate about the standards of poetry today, and the increasingly elusive contours of its generic boundaries. But this is not the end of the (poetry) book, to paraphrase the title of an essay by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière (Eco and Carrière 2012). At stake is less the future of print-based poetry than the nature of poetry itself.

  • 3 In fact, the studies referenced in Gioia’s book often cover a period that predates the advent of th (...)

9Dana Gioia’s Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the end of the Age of Print (2004) is a case in point. To Gioia, print’s decline was a major epistemological shift responsible for a sharp decline in both literacy and poetry studies.3 Meanwhile, however, he also acknowledged the impressive upsurge of new poetic forms and media, thus complicating his own tale about the disappearance of poetry in the digital age: what worried him was the decline of “literary poetry” (or print-based poetry) as a consequence of the rise of “popular poetry” (or digital-born poetry), which he condemned as mostly “undistinguished or worse” (Gioia 2003, 25) – a partition that had much to do with ideology and little to do with aesthetics, since paper and screen continue to exist side by side and mutually enrich each other.

  • 4 See, for instance, Jean-Marie Fournier’s analysis of the line: “How are we to understand [Keats’s] (...)

10While evidence shows that poetry today is anything but moribund, still there remains much anxiety about its fading cultural and political value – hence Gioia’s metaphor of the “disappearing ink,” a common topos of literary elegies. Ephemerality (a less technocentric term than “obsolescence”) has been a recurring concern for poets since the Romantic era – as exemplified by John Keats’s famous “writ in water” epitaph, part of which is quoted in the title to the previous section.4

  • 5 McGill urges literary historians not to overlook “the vast amount of poetry from the past that has (...)

11Yet fears about poetry’s dilution into the “ocean” of mass-produced texts arose long before digital technology appeared and can be traced back to the transition from manuscript to print, when poems became widely available in compilations and selections. And of course, digital tools have proved invaluable in helping recover and preserve paper-based poems otherwise at risk of disappearing, as Meredith McGill reminds us (McGill 2016, 293).5 If the book is best defined as “a portable data storage and distribution method,” then perhaps it cannot be separated from speculations about issues of preservation and conservation (Borsuk 2018, 1)?

  • 6 See again Lerner’s argument about poetry as being an impossible genre that is only worth defending (...)

12Obsolescence as a concept is historically linked to the industrial age and a late-capitalistic approach to the market. Planned obsolescence – the notion that goods must have a short lifespan to make sure consumers buy a replacement sooner rather than later – emerged in the 1950s as part of the ethos of mass-consumption. Now the epitome of capitalism’s social and environmental evils, this model is finally being challenged by more sustainable models of production and consumption. But the accelerated aging of computer systems as a result of both planned obsolescence and technological inventiveness has helped shape a vision of print as the more stable, more reliable and more timeless format, in keeping with a Romantic vision of poetry as ahistorical and by essence impervious to the contingencies of matter.6 Challenging the assumption of the book’s fragility versus the computer’s durability as a storage device, Miha Kovač in Never Mind the Web. Here Comes the Book (2008) points out that:It would be hard to find another human invention that has resisted the ravages of time so successfully and for such a long time” as the codex – a format that has remained pervasive despite the advent of “newspapers, magazines, radio, television, the world wide web and […] e-books” (Kovač 2008, 9).

13Paradoxically, then, ephemerality is far from being the province or privilege of print. True, paper ages and ink fades. But in normal circumstances, print’s obsolescence is a matter of multiple decades, while e-books need constant updates, and e-literature always seems on the verge of collapse. In his study of digital poetry, Aaron Angello makes it clear that electronic literature itself constantly grapples with issues of preservation and storage:

Each software update, each development in hardware, can provide myriad challenges for a given born-digital poem, and the writers of these poems have been struggling with what they perceive as the “problem” of their poem’s rapid and inevitable evanescence. One only need visit the Electronic Literature Organization’s online anthologies, the Electronic Literature Collection, Volumes 1 and 2, to find a host of links to works that no longer function as they were intended to, if they function at all. (Angello 2015, 14)

  • 7 See Michael Joyce’s argument in Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture (2000) that while (...)

14Interestingly, some digital artists are now turning planned obsolescence upside down by factoring it as a defining feature of their aesthetics.7 This results in what Talan Memmot in his hypertextual poem Lexia to Perplexia (2000) (Angello’s case study) refers to as “obsoletics,” a portmanteau word that perfectly encapsulates this aesthetics of obsolescence (Angello 2015, 21). Reclaiming their poems’ “rapid and inevitable evanescence” (Angello 2015, 14), electronic poets paradoxically embrace ephemerality as a goal (not an accident) and a powerful means of countering the patrimonial imperatives of print (notably, by letting the work “fade” away, and thus foregoing the costs of maintenance and storage, as Angello demonstrates). To some electronic writers, obsolescence is no longer a curse: rather, it is a blessing with an added ethical and political value as it deliberately foregrounds the vulnerability of our culture – an “obsoletics” turned “obsolethics.”

15Eventually, the current energy crisis together with the numerous blackouts occurring across the world as a result of global warming, climate catastrophes or war are sharp reminders that digital media are just as vulnerable as print media. More than ever, multiple media are necessary alongside one another to achieve sustainable modes of preservation and circulation for poetry, in the digital age and beyond.

Poetry, Print, and Power: The Poetry Book as an “Edifice to Be Collapsed”

16In her 2019 Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, Alice Oswald magisterially redefined poetry as an “art of erosion” (Oswald 2019) – a counternarrative allowing her to revisit the Keatsian water metaphor as a site of power, not retreat. As poetry books shift from paper to screen and back again, what comes under threat more than poetry per se is the power dynamic stemming from literature’s traditional sites of knowledge – print, academia, and the publishing industry.

17Apocalyptic discourses foretelling poetry’s exhaustion in the digital age – which continue to thrive despite empirically disproven evidence – interestingly reveal the vulnerability of these sites of power – as several essays gathered in this issue repeatedly suggest. Academics who worry about the future of poetry (like Gioia) harbor deeper anxieties about poetics as a field of study, academia’s role in the world’s economy, and the future of the Humanities. Likewise, publishers concerned with the end of the poetry book really worry about the future of poetry as a market and a commodity. In both cases, poetry is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

  • 8 While a lot of poetry is now available for free on the Internet – whether it be pre-digital poetry (...)

18Poetry books in the digital age interrogate existing models of production and dissemination that are quickly becoming obsolete. Internet poetry, online poetry magazines, and videopoems posted on social media – now available (almost) for free to anyone with an Internet connection – are forcing publishers to rethink the commodification of poetry in the age of late capitalism.8 Moreover, as digital technology began to rock the book market, literary critics were reminded that poetry books are commercial goods whose market value has been fluctuating over time (independently from its aesthetic value), and whose study cannot be dissociated from the history of print, copyright, and capitalism. Mark Rose, in Authors and Owners (1993), was among the first to document the connection between poetry and property, writing about the 18th century as the moment when: “The production of poetry becomes the production of property” (Rose 1993, 8). Exploring the connection between books, authority, and power, Roger Chartier famously argued that: “The book always aims at installing an order, whether it is the order in which it is deciphered, the order in which it is to be understood, or the order intended by the authority who commanded or permitted the work” (Chartier 1992, viii). This is not to say that the authority produced by (or conferred on) books is incompatible with a reader’s individual freedom. But just as books aim at establishing an order, so their users will try to dispute and redistribute that order.

19For some poets of the pre-digital era, the book already stood for limitation more than emancipation. William Blake’s attempt to subvert the physical boundaries of the codex through an experimentation with illuminated pages (Hammond 2016, 58), Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s multimedia explorations (McGann 2001), and Emily Dickinson’s vast manuscript collection are but some of the most radical evasions of the domination of print long before the World Wide Web. As Michael Hinds and Stephen Matterson underline:

Dickinson’s legacy has been to problematize the concept of the book in order to allow potential meanings to proliferate beyond the immediate containment of its binding. […] Dickinson permits a poetry of disorder by design, and the poetry book is the most vital stage for such planned insubordination as it presents an edifice to be collapsed. (Hinds and Matterson 2004, 6)

  • 9 See, among others, Lori Emerson’s chapter “The Fascicle as Process and Product” in Reading Writing (...)

20For these poets, the codex just was not an adequate answer to the multidimensional potentialities of the poem for the eye and ear. How could print carry onto the page Dickinson’s innumerable graphic signs without standardizing or flattening them?9 As a medium, the poetry book has been in dire need of remediation, both in the sense of a redeployment across media and in that of an attempt to redress its flaws and abolish its limitations, for longer than most people are generally prepared to believe.

  • 10 The book was then defined as “a non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages, exclusive (...)

21Many poets whose work is examined in the following pages put definitions of the book to the test. If a book comprises a minimum of forty-nine pages (according to the UNESCO’s 1964 landmark definition), how is Vanessa Place’s one-page poetry book even a book?10 Are poetry readings, performances and installations a way of bringing down “the order of books” (Chartier 1992)? What has indeed become obsolete is today’s increasingly limited understanding of the book, not the poetry collection itself, defined as a bringing together of multiple poems into a common place or medium, to be perused by readers collectively – as a grouping, sequence, or network – rather than singly.

Poetry Across Media: A Pluralized Field in the Postprint Age

  • 11 While McGann sees the year 1993 as marking the beginning of the digital age, there are slight varia (...)
  • 12 McGann had then undertaken the task of coordinating The Rossetti Archive, a trailblazing digital po (...)
  • 13 On the metaphorical construction of the Internet as navigable space, see Lev Manovich’s subsection (...)

22Since the year 1993 is generally recognized as marking the birth of the World Wide Web,11 we are now almost three decades into the digital age, and it is high time we looked at this “epochal event” from a fresh perspective (McGann 2001, 4). At the opposite end of the critical spectrum (from Gioia, Birkerst, and others), pioneering Digital Humanities scholar Jerome McGann marveled that jeremiads should arise in the literary world when actually “digital technology has remained instrumental in serving the technical and precritical occupations of librarians and archivists and editors” (McGann 2001, xii).12 Why not embrace the fluidity of the new media, learning to “surf” the tidal wave of digital-based poetic productions and navigate an “expanding universe of textuality” (McGann 2001, 5)?13

23Following in the footsteps of Adam Hammond’s Literature in the Digital Age (2016), this special issue therefore offers a timely challenge to still pervasive assumptions about digital practices as representing a threat or even a hindrance for poetic practices. It is now clear to most literary scholars – whose daily routines are deeply embedded in the digital whether they want it or not – that the literary and the digital are not just compatible and complementary fields: they have become so enmeshed as to have become virtually impossible to untangle.

  • 14 In Paper Machine (2005), Derrida reflects on the continuities and discontinuities between the digit (...)
  • 15 See in particular: “We’re suggesting with Derrida that new media can provoke retrospective reflecti (...)

24Building on Jacques Derrida’s remarks about the affordances of paper and screen in Paper Machine (2005),14 Meredith McGill and Andrew Parker convincingly argue in a 2010 special issue of the PMLA that thinking about genres retrospectively across media may in fact be vital for “the future of literary past,” to take up the title of their essay (McGill and Parker 2010). A productive new path, the multimedia approach to literary texts – combining print and digital materials – opens up fresh possibilities not only for 21st-century literary criticism (the topic of the PMLA special issue) but also for the future of the Humanities. In the classroom, in particular, “digital images of printed texts can help students think about the cultural significance of different print formats and about how these formats shape our perception of literary genres,” which, in turn, enables them “to experience the work of genre as a historical process” (McGill and Parker 2010, 962). In other words, understanding how media shape literary content is crucial when it comes to envisioning both literature’s future and literature’s past. Their argument returns us to Derrida, for whom “by carrying us beyond paper, the adventures of technology grant us a sort of future anterior: they liberate our reading for a retrospective exploration of the past resources of paper, for its previously multimedia vectors” (Derrida 2005, 47).15

25In “American Poetry: What, Me Worry?” (2016), McGill again presents media shift as opening new vistas for poetry, if only because it is granting readers the opportunity to finally recognize the multimedia nature of poetry long before the digital age (a point Schuwey and Cazé also make in the present issue). While a wide range of media have been involved in the circulation of poetry over time (both simultaneously and in succession), the authority conferred on the codex – constructed as the dominant or “major” medium – has led us to erase from the history of poetry all the “minor” media, in particular periodicals, pamphlets and broadsides, but also notebooks and scrapbooks that complicate the story we have been telling about “poetry in print.” We should therefore learn to de-correlate literary genres (such as poetry) from formats traditionally associated with them (such as the book), as Lisa Gitelman suggests:

Written genres in general are familiarly treated as if they were equal to or coextensive with the sorts of textual artifacts that habitually embody them. […] Say the word “novel,” for instance, and your auditors will likely imagine a printed book, even if novels also exist serialized in nineteenth-century periodicals, published in triple-decker (multivolume) formats, and loaded onto […] Kindles, Nooks, and iPads. (Gitelman 2014, 3)

26The problem with such terms as “books” or “print” is that they tend to erase the plurality of media that such categories encompass. When Roger Chartier talks about books, for instance, he means both manuscript and print: “Whether they are in manuscript or in print, books are objects whose forms, if they cannot impose the sense of the texts that they bear, at least command the uses that can invest them…” (Chartier 1992, viii). In Paper Knowledge (2014), Gitelman urges us to beware of “statements [that] tend to reify (to default to?) print as one thing instead of many” (Gitelman 2014, 9). Applying media archeology to her reflection on (paper and screen) “documents,” she reminds us that “books” have always been used for writing, archiving, or simply looking – not necessarily for reading (Gitelman 2014, 22).

27The poetry book in the digital age can no longer be reduced to a receptacle merely hosting pre-existing content: rather, it refers to a pluralized field of media, all of which singularly shape and enrich the text as poets and publishers become critically aware of their specificities in a media-immersed culture. The present issue is therefore an invitation to study poetry across media, using some of the tools of media studies to conduct media-conscious – at times media-specific – examinations of poets’ works.

  • 16 Postprint,” as defined by N. Katherine Hayles, does not so much refer to the end of paper as to th (...)

28Further complicating the (admittedly obsolete) opposition between paper and screen, print and digital, N. Katherine Hayles chooses to refer to the “digital age” as the age of “postprint.”16 The traditional print versus digital dichotomy is historically and technologically inaccurate, she argues, since both editorial modes constantly overlap:

Of course, books continue to be printed, but the methods of production have changed so dramatically that it is more accurate to call contemporary printed books output modes of computational systems rather than extensions of the printing press as Johannes Gutenberg envisioned it. To recognize the differences in these methods, I will refer to bound books produced by computational systems as postprint productions […]. (Hayles 2018, 1225-6; emphasis added)

29Given the centrality of digital tools in the production of books since the late 20th century, literary practices reflect not so much an either/or situation as an intricate network of interconnected media – a “convergence culture” (Jenkins 2006) where multiple or mixed media are the norm rather than the exception. Most poetry books now coexist in multiple formats that serve different purposes and overall reinforce (rather than weaken) poetry’s cultural presence.

30Following the lead of textual scholars and media historians, contributors to this issue believe it is now necessary to anchor poetry within the contingencies of its media manifestations, to harness the potential of poetry’s digital excursions, and thus to encourage media-specific analyses of poetic texts. Crucially, this special issue reminds us of “the limits of the self-enclosed book as a model” (Knight 2013, 18) long before computers and information technology were invented. To historicize poetry by paying attention to its varying material incarnations – as McGann, McGill, and others invite us to do – is to rediscover its malleability across media, not just in the digital age but long before.

From Poetry Book to Poetry Collection: The Poetics of Assemblage in the Digital Age

  • 17 The notion of “assemblage” is borrowed from Gilles Deleuze, who defined it as follows: “What is an (...)

31By shifting the focus to the poetry collection rather than the poetry book, this special issue extends the field of poetry and poetics beyond the bound book, exploring the meeting ground between poetry studies and media studies to rediscover groupings of poems as multimodal assemblages both before and since the World Wide Web.17 Such a terminological shift entails not just a remapping of the field of poetry but of the methods enlisted to its study.

  • 18 “Certainly, in terms of textual and editorial theory, we still have our creationists, critics who, (...)
  • 19 In Bound to Read (2013), Jeffrey Todd Knight also underlines how “word processing blurs the once-st (...)

32As collecting and compiling are being investigated as key stages in the act of book-making (see in particular Knight 2013) – perhaps even more so in the age of information overload, when reading becomes synonymous with sifting and surfing –, it is high time we relinquished Romantic conceptions of poetry as a sacred word enshrined once and for all within the immutable pages of the book, a belief that Robin Schulze in her 1998 study of Marianne Moore’s poems denounced as “textual creationism” (Schulze 1998).18 Poetry’s remediations did not begin with computers or e-books, neither did they coincide with a shift from paper to screen. Yet many readers still approach poetic texts as essentially stable and, so to speak, frozen in time. Resistance to the theory of “Textual Darwinism” – i.e. recognizing poetry as “endless adaptive process” (Schulze 1998, 288) – can still be felt twenty-five years later, yet another lingering aftereffect of the Romantic vision of poetic genius.19

  • 20 Adrian Johns in his pioneering study The Nature of the Book (1998) was among the first to recognize (...)
  • 21 By contrast, Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies (2006), sees print as a “formerly stable system” wi (...)

33Addressing poetry books as poetry collections – a term that acknowledges the form’s fluidity and malleability in the digital age – has several theoretical and methodological implications. Chief among them is the notion that, as a word, the “collection” foregrounds a bringing together (from colligere, meaning “to gather together” or “assemble”), and thus recognizes plurality as a defining feature of poetic collections, from their composition to their reception. First and foremost, it is an invitation to rediscover poetry books as a collective undertaking, involving many contributors. Ezra Pound’s revisions of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) exemplify one kind of shared authorship that has been erased by the single name displayed on the cover (Eliot 2022). But textual scholars have long been arguing that from the Renaissance onwards, books have been the product of many other agents beside the author. Jeffrey Todd Knight’s Bound to Read (2013), for instance, “urges us to revise accounts of literary production across periods in view of a different type of creative agency – the agency of compilers, curators, readers, programmers, and others who make books, as authors do” (Knight 2013, 18). Adrian Johns in The Nature of the Book (1998) – conceived as the first “social history of print” (Johns 1998, 6)20 – already made it clear that in fact “a large number of people, machines, and materials must converge and act together for [a book] to come into existence at all. […] In that sense a book is the material embodiment of, if not a consensus, then at least a collective consent” (Johns 1998, 3; emphasis added).21

34The fascinating notion of “the book” as embodying a form of “collective consent” touches upon many of the political issues raised in the following essays and sheds light on the poetics and politics of assemblage at work in many poetry collections, both predigital and postprint. Collaboration is an explicit part of the creative process for several poets examined here (see in particular Broqua, Lang, Marciano, and Boukhroufa-Trijaud). Consent comes into play as both an ethical and an aesthetic crux in the works of Vanessa Place and Mary Ruefle (see Aji and Winters). And while predigital collections – such as the multi-author compilations addressed by Schuwey and Dickinson’s unstable assemblages addressed by Cazé – problematize the gathering and scattering of poems, they also interrogate the reading communities that such unstable poetic orders generate. Who exactly comes together to experience poetry in the digital age (and also how, where, and when) – in public readings, performances, and even political rallies – is a vital question for poets, as they gauge poetry’s social and political impact (see Goursaud and Hinds).

35The terminological shift, from poetry book to poetry collection, is also an invitation to invest poetic assemblages as an unstable plurality that aims to be reshuffled. Contrary to books of fiction, poetry collections tend to not be read from cover to cover in linear fashion; rather, readers will skim through – or “surf” – the pages, moving back and forth to redeploy their own poetic order. In that sense, the collection’s arborescent structure together with its availability to multidirectional reading recalls that of the World Wide Web, itself a kind of hypercollection. What if the flitting, polyfocal attention attributed to the digital age was a condition of, or at least a preferred modality, for the poetry collection’s specific readerly experience? Poetry collections, rediscovered as instable, fluid, malleable assemblages seem indeed to prefigure the reticular, rhizomatic deployment of the Web.

36The cover illustration for this special issue is a 1999 sculpture by British artist Antony Gormley currently on exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that speaks to the poetry collection as assemblage or network. Part of a series produced over a decade (between 1999 and 2009), Quantum Cloud VIII anticipates the “network turn” as it gestures toward post-millennium representations of the body as network. Emphasizing the reticular rather than the linear (Knappet 2006), the metal used by Gormley (mild steel) takes us back to the first English usage of “network” as a “gridiron” (according to the OED) built from interlaced iron to resemble a net (as in metal armors or fishing nets). In The Network Turn (2020), Ruth Ahnert and her co-authors remind us that:

The development of the work “network” as a metaphor for systems that have very different patterns of distribution from fabric or mail armour can be seen from at least the seventeenth century, when it was used to describe the systems of arteries, veins, and capillaries in humans and animals – what we might describe as rhizomatic structures. Later, […] the word ‘network’ came to represent systems of interconnection in general. (Anhert et al. 2020, 16)

37Combining rigidity and fluidity, the Quantum Clouds produce a complex, if evanescent, sense of volume – not flatness – evocative of the three-dimensional materiality explored by new media poetry in the embrace of the digital age.

38Writing against alarmist discourses about the death of the book or the exhaustion of poetry, the articles gathered here suggest that the poetry book more than ever functions as an aesthetic and political laboratory within which poets, publishers, and critics can invest the instability of the collection as a network that is constantly shaped and reshaped. To examine the different modalities of poetry outside the book is thus to ask to what extent the multimodal and composite poem – in turn installation, performance, and playlist – reinvents itself as an ephemeral, radical, polysensory assemblage on the contemporary scene. Covering a wide range of methods, periods, and places, these essays eventually demonstrate that poetry books in the digital age are not so much disappearing as they are mutating; in fact, they continue to reinvent themselves under the pressures of history and technological evolution, a testament to their exceptional vitality.

An Overview of the Contributions

39In dividing this issue into three sections, we have tried to bring together mutually enriching clusters of questions and arguments about the nature and future of poetry books in the digital age. Cumulatively, these articles productively challenge the trope of a dying medium for a dying genre and offer a new understanding of poetry across media both before and since we entered the digital age.

40In the first section, “Predigital Assemblages: The Making and Breaking of Poetry Books,” Christophe Schuwey and Antoine Cazé examine how poetry was mediated, assembled, and circulated long before digital technology became available. Schuwey’s exploration of French poetry collections at the intersection of digital humanities, book history, and the market is a welcome reminder of the material, commercial, and political imperatives that led to the rise of poetry collections as a promising format for the dissemination of poems in the late 17th century. Testing the divide between old and new media, his article traces similarities across periods, revealing unexpected continuities in the way print and digital media were first designed, decried, or shared.

  • 22 Ongoing anxieties over the “great replacement” of paper by screen or books by e-books seem to have (...)

41Cazé’s case study provides a compelling re-reading of Emily Dickinson’s posthumous editorial history as a site of heated critical and commercial debates both before and after her manuscripts were digitized. Comparing and contrasting existing editorial apparatuses, Cazé demonstrates that the shift across media – from manuscript to print to online archives – has resulted in the proliferation of wildly different versions of the same poems, not just in print but online as well, ultimately defeating any neat, linear narrative of her poems through the tropes of “repression and recovery” (to borrow Cary Nelson’s title [Nelson 1989]).22 Reading Dickinson’s poems through the digital is to experience them as what Jacques Derrida calls a “future anterior” (Derrida 2005) and to rediscover them, in Cazé’s words, as a “mixed media venture, always already predicated on re-mediation.”

  • 23 See Darnton’s statement that: “The democratization of knowledge now seems to be at our fingertips” (...)

42Section two takes these issues in a slightly different direction to address “The Poetics and Politics of Going Online.” Poetry books in the digital age, it argues, function as “radical assemblages” that redefine the contours of new and old reading or writing communities. At issue is whether – or to what extent – to digitize is to democratize; a question familiar to Digital Humanities scholars (Darnton 2009; Hammond 2016; So and Long 2013).23 Poetry publication appears here as an increasingly polarized field with the Internet as both a democratic paradise fostering insubordination (see in particular Hinds, Marciano, and Boukhroufa-Trijaud) and a democratic hell fostering political and critical misunderstanding (as exemplified by Aji’s case study). All articles steer clear of both utopianism and dystopianism, however, underlining instead the potentialities of interconnected dynamics.

43Michael Hinds’s article builds its case for a post-capitalistic revaluation of poetry books from a picture that went viral on Twitter showing a woman reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) – a book that blew up the myth of post-racial America – while seated among Trump supporters in the last months of Barack Obama’s presidency. Why exactly did the image go viral (beyond its obvious incongruity) and what does it say about the power of poetry books in the digital age? By converting the book’s beautiful cover into an unwitting political banner and the private act of reading into a public act of protest, online readers were reinventing the poetry book as a site of civil disobedience while paradoxically erasing its content in favor of its iconicity – in other words, reframing text as network, for better or for worse.

44Hélène Aji similarly investigates the ethical and political issues that arise amid poetry’s digital remediations. Her reading of Vanessa Place’s poetic experimentations as dramatizing “the death of the poetry book” powerfully echoes Roland Barthes’ 1968 proclamation of “the death of the author.” Indeed authorship, originality and responsibility form the core of the cultural edifice embodied by poetry in print, an edifice that Place deliberately tears down. Her excursions outside the boundaries of the book – adding audio files and tweets to the many formats she engages with – raise challenging, and at times uncomfortable, questions about the nature and future of poetry books.

45In her mapping of emerging online poetry communities based in the US, Laura Marie Marciano offers another glimpse of the emancipatory as well as inflammatory possibilities afforded by social networks to digital native poets. The arc she traces begins in the late 2000s with the somewhat questionable productions of the Alt Lit movement, ending with minority-driven collaborative projects such as Illuminati Girl Gang and others that work against gender, racial, social and sexual stereotypes to engage collectively and inclusively with multimodal formats. Marciano’s essay allows for an ambivalent yet hopeful portrayal of Internet-based poetry that tells a seldom heard story – one that is informed by the Covid-19 crisis, when online poetry communities became a safety net(work) for local and global artists.

46Equally hopeful is Manon Boukhroufa-Trijaud’s overview of India’s anglophone online publications as offering an alternative to more conservative modes emanating from its long-established publishing industry. As poets and publishers work together to reinvent venues for the collective reading, discussing and writing of poetry on the Internet, they have helped diversify the Bombay poetry scene and allowed digital networks to restore a sense of collective identity within diasporic communities scattered across several continents. Emphasizing the porosity between print and digital versions of poetry books, her article shows how deeply interconnected political, urban, and literary networks have become.

  • 24 Section three is indebted to Béatrice Pire, Arnaud Régnauld, and Pierre-Louis Patoine’s Contemporar (...)
  • 25 See for instance Arnaud Régnauld’s argument about Mark Amerika and digital literature’s embodiment (...)

47The third section addresses poetry books as “3D Poetry Collections in the Embrace of the Digital Age (Sound, Image, Network),”24 a title whose aim is first to shift the focus away from the misleadingly narrow noun “book” toward the more malleable medium of the “collection;” second, to emphasize these poets’ multidisciplinary engagement with both new and old media; and third to abolish misconceptions about the digital as disembodied.25 On the contrary, poets working at the intersection of sound, image and network appear to embrace the digital age in its multiple dimensions, combining text with audio or video to produce immersive, polysensory language experiments that are fully and dramatically embodied. In doing so, they often produce non-hierarchical, highly interpersonal, poetic experiences that make media-conscious approaches to the poem a necessary step toward a poetic revival.

48Vincent Broqua’s essay explores recent publications by poet and artist Caroline Bergvall through the lens of “remix” – a notion first defined by Lev Manovich in “What Comes After Remix?” (2007) – to delineate what he calls “a poetics and a politics of multiplicity that seeks to define how to live together now.” Remixing takes the art of collecting a whole step further: incorporating the language and methodology of DJs into the world of literature enables Broqua to build a reading of Bergvall’s poetic production not just as remediation but, more tellingly, as “remixology.”

  • 26 Media-specific analysis was first hailed and defined by N. Katherine Hayles in her article “Print I (...)

49Catherine Ann Winters adopts a media-specific methodology26 to study Mary Ruefle’s erasure poetry, focusing on A Little White Shadow (2006) as articulating a poetics of the book. By overwriting Emily Malbone Morgan’s forgotten 1889 novel, Ruefle raises key issues about the circulation and appropriation of content in the digital age. Her poetic remediation is both an act of retrieval and erasure that calls attention to the end of the codex as the default format for poetry.

50Abigail Lang approaches the poetry book as a playlist in her study of two 1972 poetry readings by Louis Zukofsky. Working from open-access audio archives and lists (or sets) of poems selected and arranged by Zukofsky for the purposes of these live reading, she argues that poetry sets offer a unique point of entry into the way poets think about (and assemble) their collections. Because it blurs the boundaries between poem and song, recorded poetry opens up tremendous new possibilities for the future of poetry reading as either close or distant listening.

51Bastien Goursaud tilts the poetry book in the direction of live, streamed, and filmed performance in his discussion of British poets Alice Oswald and Kae Tempest. Drawing on the notion of “convergence culture” (Jenkins 2006) to overcome methodological challenges underlined by Julia Novak in Live Poetry (2011), he argues that poetry’s textual, oral, and visual performances are of equal importance to the study of poetry. To attend to poetry books in the digital age is to incorporate all of these actualizations and to experience poetry as intensely embodied and relational.

52Positioned at the intersection of poetry and poetics, book history and media studies, the essays gathered here map a rich poetic terrain. Whether considered individually or all together as a volume, these contributions offer a unique foray into the nature and future of poetry books in the digital age, therefore opening up new vistas for the study of poetry and poetics.


53This special issue is the result of many years of collaborative work. Funding by VALE (EA 4085), LARCA (UMR 8225) and Labex OBVIL helped launch ORPo (Observatoire du Recueil Poétique), a two-year research program dedicated to the study of poetry collections across periods and languages. Support from these institutions and TransCrit Paris 8 made it possible for us to organize a series of events at the Sorbonne to foster academic interest in poetry books and their transformations in the digital age. We would like to thank Aurore Clavier for her help in organizing the symposium where earlier versions of several essays gathered here were first presented, and for giving an expert hand in the preliminary stages of our editorial work. We would also like to thank Aurélie Delevallée for her invaluable professionalism as copyeditor and proofreader of this issue: she was as patient as relentless as we worked toward finalizing essays for publication. We are extremely grateful to Alexis Tadié and VALE for greenlighting our request for professional proofreading, and to the editorial board of Sillages Critiques, in particular Line Cottegnies, chief editor, Aloysia Rousseau and Juliana Lopoukhine, for their unfailing trust and support. And of course, our warmest thanks go to the authors for entrusting us with their contributions and answering each of our requests with utmost grace and alacrity.

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Ahnert, Ruth, et al. The Network Turn: Changing Perspectives in the Humanities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Angello, Aaron. “To Archive or Not to Archive: The Resistant Potential of Digital Poetry.” Text Matters, vol. 5, no. 5, pp. 13-27, 2015, (doi:

Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30) [2008]. London: Penguin Random House, 2009.

Birkerst, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. New York: Faber and Faber, 2006.

Blake, William. Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York/London: W. W. Norton, 1979.

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018.

Chartier, Roger. The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe Between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Trans. Lydia G. Cochrane. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Darnton, Robert. The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. New York: Public Affairs, 2009.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Claire Parnet. Dialogues II. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Derrida, Jacques. Paper Machine. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Eco, Umberto, and Jean-Claude Carrière. This is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac. Trans. Polly McLean. London: Vintage Books, 2012.

Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land, a Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. Ed. Valerie Eliot. London: Faber, 2022.

Emerson, Lori. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Escarpit, Robert. The Book Revolution. London: George G. Harrap/Paris: UNESCO, 1966.

Fournier, Jean-Marie. “‘Empty Spaces’ and the Poetics of Silence in the Poetry of John Keats.” Études anglaises, vol. 63, no. 1, 2010, pp. 88-98,

Fraistat, Neil, editor. Poems in Their Place: The Intertextuality and Order of Poetic Collections. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Gioia, Dana. “Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture.” The Hudson Review, vol. 56, no. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 21-49.

Gioia, Dana. Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2004.

Gitelman, Lisa. Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Hammond, Adam. Literature in a Digital Age: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Human and Machine Cultures of Reading: A Cognitive-Assemblage Approach.” PMLA, vol. 133, no. 5, 2018, pp. 1225-1242.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis.” Poetics Today, vol. 25, no. 1, Spring 2004, pp. 67-90.

Hinds, Michael, and Stephen Matterson, editors. Rebound. The American Poetry Book. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2004.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York/London: New York University Press, 2006.

Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book. Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Joyce, Michael. Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Knappet, Carl. “Beyond Skin: Layering and Networking in Art and Archaeology.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol. 16, no. 2, June 2006, pp. 239-251, (doi:

Knight, Jeffrey Todd. Bound to Read: Compilations, Collections, and the Making of Renaissance Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Kovač, Miha. Never Mind the Web. Here Comes the Book. Oxford: Chandos Publishing, 2008.

Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry [2016]. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

Manovich, Lev. “What Comes After Remix.” Winter 2007, n.p.,

McGann, Jerome, Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

McGill, Meredith L. “American Poetry: What, Me Worry?” American Literary History, vol. 28, no. 2, 2016, pp. 288-294, (doi:

McGill, Meredith L., and Andrew Parker. “The Future of the Literary Past.” PMLA, vol. 125, no 4, October 2010, pp. 959-967, (doi:

Nelson, Cary. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Novak, Julia. Live Poetry: An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance. Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2011.

Oswald, Alice. “The Art of Erosion,” Inaugural Lecture of Alice Oswald, Professor of Poetry, University of Oxford Exam School, 13 November 2019, University of Oxford Podcasts, 9 December 2019,

Perloff, Marjorie. “Screening the Page/Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text.” In New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories. Ed. Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006, pp. 143-165.

Pire, Béatrice et al., editors. Contemporary American Fiction in the Embrace of the Digital Age. Brighton/Chicago/Toronto: Sussex Academic Press, 2022.

Régnauld, Arnaud. “‘To incorporate or not to incorporate, that is the nullification.’ Digital Embodiment in GRAMMATRON and PHON:E:ME by Mark Amerika.” Revue française d’études américaines, vol. 132, no. 2, 2012, pp. 76-89, (doi: 10.3917/rfea.132.0076).

Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Schulze, Robin G. “Textual Darwinism: Marianne Moore, the Text of Evolution, and the Evolving Text.” Text, vol. 11, 1998, pp. 270-305.

Shakargy, Noa. “Internetica: Poetry in the Digital Age.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol.  24, no. 2, 2021, pp. 325-341,

So, Richard Jean, and Hoyt Long. “Network Analysis and the Sociology of Modernism.” Boundary 2, vol. 40, no. 2, 2013, pp. 147-182, (doi :

Stein, Kevin. Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Wershler-Henry, Darren. The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.

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1 See in particular: “Every few years an essay appears in a mainstream periodical denouncing poetry or proclaiming its death, usually blaming existing poets for the relative marginalization of the art […]. But why don’t we ask: What kind of art is defined – has been defined for millennia – by such a rhythm of denunciation and defense?” (Lerner 2016, 10).

2 To give but one example of this military rhetoric, see Sven Birkerst’s introduction to The Gutenberg Elegies – revealingly entitled “The Reading Wars” – which argues that: “What the writer writes, how he writes and gets edited, printed and sold, and then read – all of the old assumptions are under siege” (Birkerst 2006, 5, emphasis added). And nowhere is the “medical” diagnosis as violent as in Mark Bauerlein’s polemical bestseller, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) (2008) – a striking example of such (presumably lucrative) fear mongering discourses.

3 In fact, the studies referenced in Gioia’s book often cover a period that predates the advent of the Internet (typically, the postwar age of television), meaning that literacy issues cannot be attributed simply to the rise of digital media. By contrast, Kevin Stein – who also comments on the rise of attention deficit among digital natives – provides a much more nuanced (and less judgmental) account of “polyfocal attention” (Stein 2010, 99-103). It should be mentioned that Stein’s book came a few years later, when literacy was on the rise again in the United States (Stein 2010, x).

4 See, for instance, Jean-Marie Fournier’s analysis of the line: “How are we to understand [Keats’s] extraordinary self-obituary: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’? ‘Name’ here obviously refers to Keats’s fame, over which the poet was certainly despairing; could it not also perhaps be read as a metonymy for the whole of his life, and of his work, ‘writ’ in the elusive water of experience in which the very activity of writing is already dissolving (‘writ and not written’) as though the ephemeral traces drawn on the surface of the water were sinking into silence, in a reduplication of the beautiful image at the end of ‘When I Have Fears,’ and the extraordinary rhyme which associates ‘think’ and ‘sink’ in the final couplet of the sonnet” (Fournier 2010, 97).

5 McGill urges literary historians not to overlook “the vast amount of poetry from the past that has been made readily available through the digitization of once-rare or ephemeral print” (McGill 2016, 293). Marjorie Perloff also notes that digital versions of poems often make them uniquely available to readers in their original layout, as opposed to reprints that tend to alter size, spacing, and font for practical purposes (Perloff 2006, 145-146).

6 See again Lerner’s argument about poetry as being an impossible genre that is only worth defending as “an alternative to material concerns” (Lerner 2016, 31).

7 See Michael Joyce’s argument in Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture (2000) that while: “Print stays itself […] electronic text replaces itself.” Indeed: “What hypertext does is to confirm this replacement, whether in the most trivial sense in which we as readers sustain the text before us by merely forgoing the jittery shift of mouse button or Page Down key, or in the deeper sense, itself shared with rereading in any medium, where we linger or shift back intentionally upon a text, making each reoccurrence or traversal its own new or renewed text […]” (Joyce 2000, 132).

8 While a lot of poetry is now available for free on the Internet – whether it be pre-digital poetry recently uploaded or digitized on personal or institutional websites, or digital poetry first delivered to an audience through the Internet via social media, personal blogs or Webpages – this does not mean that accessing these poems is entirely free of cost for readers since, as all digital media scholars will point out, “companies and government can exploit the harnessing of large-scale network data and advanced network analysis or the purposes of power, surveillance, and commercial gain” (Ahnert et al. 2020, 7). GAFA’s stronghold on our digitally connected modes of reading sheds light on a logic of surveillance that predates the Internet yet has reached previously unknown proportions, raising new questions not only about how we read but also about how we ourselves are read as we search the Web.

9 See, among others, Lori Emerson’s chapter “The Fascicle as Process and Product” in Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (2014), which “positions Emily Dickinson not only as a poet working equally with and against the limits and the possibilities of pen/pencil/paper as interface but also as one through which we can productively read twenty-first-century digital literary texts” (Emerson 2014, 129).

10 The book was then defined as “a non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages, exclusive of the cover pages” (Escarpit 1966, 53). This was the first time that nations across the world agreed upon a common legal definition of what constitutes a book.

11 While McGann sees the year 1993 as marking the beginning of the digital age, there are slight variations among scholars (McGann 2001, 4). The authors of The Network Turn (2020) explain that the World Wide Web became “available to the public only in 1991” and that 2004 marked the launch of “TheFacebook,” the first step toward a “proliferation of social networking platforms” (Ahnert et al. 2020, 3). Despite these variations, experts generally agree that Web 3.0 – the Internet’s third generation – is about to be launched.

12 McGann had then undertaken the task of coordinating The Rossetti Archive, a trailblazing digital poetry resource whose aim was to make the multimedia nature of Rossetti’s visual and textual production widely available while also displaying his revisionary poetics (McGann 2001, 13). To McGann, digital technology from the first embodied a unique opportunity for poetry, as well as an “instrument for investigating the nature of textuality as such” (McGann 2001, 15).

13 On the metaphorical construction of the Internet as navigable space, see Lev Manovich’s subsection devoted to “The Navigator and the Explorer,” two types of digital readers he traces back to 19th-century literature (Manovich 2001, 268-273). Drawing on Geert Lovink’s analysis of the Internet surfer as a “Data Dandy” – namely, a “perfect aesthete [who] loves to display his private and totally irrelevant collection of data to other Net users” (Manovich 2001, 270) –, Manovich was among the first to emphasize not just the Internet’s impact on literature but, interestingly, literature’s very impact on the Internet: “If the Net surfer, who keeps posting to mailing lists and newsgroups and accumulating endless data, is a reincarnation of Baudelaire’s flâneur, the user navigating a virtual space assumes the position of the 19th-century explorer, a character from Cooper or Twain” (Manovich 2001, 271).

14 In Paper Machine (2005), Derrida reflects on the continuities and discontinuities between the digital age and the age of print. Noting how extensively computer science relies on the language of paper and print (by adopting such terms as “office space,” “sheet,” “page,” and “notebook” onto the screen), he predicts that “the order of the page, even as a bare survival, will prolong the afterlife of paper – far beyond its disappearance or withdrawal” (Derrida 2005, 46).

15 See in particular: “We’re suggesting with Derrida that new media can provoke retrospective reflection on the roles played by media throughout the history of literature and on literary texts’ negotiation of a shifting mediascape” (McGill and Parker 2010, 962).

16 Postprint,” as defined by N. Katherine Hayles, does not so much refer to the end of paper as to the fact that print now almost entirely relies on the digital. As many media scholars repeatedly point out, even print copies of books are in fact digital files that have been printed out as analog: Kovač, for instance, notes that: “Contemporary books are digitally created media products on an analog platform […]” (Kovač 2008, 3). As a result, it would not be wrong to call these digitally printed paper copies electronic books (Kovač 2008, 14).

17 The notion of “assemblage” is borrowed from Gilles Deleuze, who defined it as follows: “What is an assemblage? It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning […]” (Deleuze and Parnet 2002, 69).

18 “Certainly, in terms of textual and editorial theory, we still have our creationists, critics who, despite historical, physical evidence to the contrary, cling to the romantic belief that texts have a single perfect and special creation at the hands of their authors. Unconcerned with any historical record of textual changes, such critics trust that the text that they have in hand is the text that has always been and always will be” (Schulze 1998, 274).

19 In Bound to Read (2013), Jeffrey Todd Knight also underlines how “word processing blurs the once-stable boundary between composition and revision; eBooks and iPods break up the perceived wholeness of cultural products like books and albums” (Knight 2013, 18). Yet he also makes it clear that such instability actually dates back to the beginnings of print: digital textuality is simply shedding light on long existing notions of “writing as enlargement and compilation” (Knight 2013, 18).

20 Adrian Johns in his pioneering study The Nature of the Book (1998) was among the first to recognize the intense labor that comes into the making of a book. Johns warned that “The processes leading to the deployment of a book and those consequent upon its use both depend on too many contingencies. That in turn means that print cannot be as straightforward as it seems” (Johns 1998, 3).

21 By contrast, Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies (2006), sees print as a “formerly stable system” with “writer at one end, editor, publisher, and bookseller in the middle, and reader at the other end” (Birkerst 2006, 14).

22 Ongoing anxieties over the “great replacement” of paper by screen or books by e-books seem to have led to a kind of fetishization of poetry books in their original form. In American poetry at least, there has been an upsurge of poetry collections labeled as preserved, restored or recovered. Although I do not dispute the critical and aesthetic value of such editorial endeavors as a unique opportunity for readers to encounter iconic poetry books – such as Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965) and William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All (1923) – in affordable facsimile print versions (rather than digitized archives with a mostly scholarly or pedagogical aim), it is important not to underestimate the commercial intention that prevails: they primarily offer a way of capitalizing on the author’s cultural value.

23 See Darnton’s statement that: “The democratization of knowledge now seems to be at our fingertips” (Darnton in Hammond 2016, 52). More recently, Ruth Ahnert et al. suggest that the belief in network analysis as democratic (because it challenges narratives about power, hierarchy, influence) may be linked to the fact that it first emerged on the margins of academia among women and people of color (Ahnert et al.  2020, 40).

24 Section three is indebted to Béatrice Pire, Arnaud Régnauld, and Pierre-Louis Patoine’s Contemporary American Fiction in the Embrace of the Digital Age (2021), from whose title it deliberately and gratefully quotes.

25 See for instance Arnaud Régnauld’s argument about Mark Amerika and digital literature’s embodiment (Régnauld 2012).

26 Media-specific analysis was first hailed and defined by N. Katherine Hayles in her article “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis” (2004), which opens with the following declaration: “Lulled into somnolence by five hundred years of print, literary studies have been slow to wake up to the importance of media-specific analysis. Literary criticism and theory are shot through with unrecognized assumptions specific to print. Only now, as the new medium of electronic textuality vibrantly asserts its presence, are these assumptions clearly coming into view” (Hayles 2004, 68).

27 All Web references last accessed 1 September 2022.

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Juliette Utard

VALE (EA 4085), Sorbonne Université

Juliette Utard is Associate professor of American Literature at Sorbonne Université, where she teaches American poetry and fiction. She is the author of a monograph on Wallace Stevens’s late style, Wallace Stevens, une poétique du fini. Pour une histoire matérielle de l’œuvre (Honoré Champion, 2018), and co-editor with Bart Eeckhout and Lisa Goldfarb of a collection of essays on Stevens’s relation to France, Wallace Stevens, Poetry, and France (Presses de l’ENS, 2018). She currently serves on the editorial boards of The Wallace Stevens Journal and Sillages Critiques, and her essays on American poetry have appeared in Wallace Stevens, New York, and Modernism (Routledge, 2012); Poetry and Poetics after Wallace Stevens (Bloomsbury, 2017); Wallace Stevens in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2017); and Whitman, feuille à feuille (Actes de la recherche à l’ENS, 2019). In 2016, she launched the Observatoire du Recueil Poétique (ORPo), a two-year research initiative based at the Sorbonne whose aim was to foster interest in the poetry book and its ongoing transformations in the digital era.

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