Toward a Digital Poetics for Children
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Toward a Digital Poetics for Children

I must say at the outset that my title is overly ambitious. In this short paper I can only hope to sketch questions—and not having my crystal ball handy, I can't provide clear direction for the future. The questions I'll sketch grow out of the conclusion to my recent essay for the Cambridge Companion to Children's Literature, "The Fear of Poetry":

The internet has potential for presenting poetry in attractive formats, though it does not seem to have begun to fulfill that potential. And no matter how useful various technologies may be, they are no substitute for the embodied experience that characterizes the young child's first encounter with poetry. Children can only have a valuable 'inter-media-ated' experience if they are media literate, and media literacy can only be learned if there is a foundation of meaningful literacy to build on. Poems that challenge beyond their surface appeal, that will inhabit children and encourage them to inhabit language, are indispensable, if only we can see and hear them.

(89)

In keeping with the conference theme, I decided to take a serious look at the state of digital poetics and children's poetry. Such a poetics, I have discovered, is still in its infancy. While there is a growing and increasingly sophisticated body of criticism about electronic literature, including significant work about digital poetics, little of it takes work for an audience of young people very seriously. Some of what passes for digital poetry is of questionable merit, such as my new favorite, "Stud Poetry,"1 in which I can play card sharp to the symbolists. On the serious side, the Internet has been extraordinarily useful for hosting important archives, such as "PennSound," "UbuWeb," "Electronic Poetry Center," and sites [End Page 418] hosted by the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation, among others, but these archives either pay scant attention to children's poetry (though "UbuWeb" has a hilarious collection of children's records such as "Charlie the Hamster Sings the Ten Commandments") or they present a picture of children's poetry that is depressingly condescending to young people.

Most children's poetry available on the Internet appears not as digital poetry but as what media scholars J. David Bolter and Richard Grusin call "remediated" versions of print texts. The transfer of an earlier medium such as a print text to the visual realm inevitably changes the nature of the printed object (and not always for the better, as I can attest from my experience of negotiating Remediation through "NetLibrary.") As Bolter and Grusin write,

Digital visual media can best be understood through ways in which they honor, rival, and revise linear-perspective painting, photography, film, television, and print. No medium today and certainly no single media event seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other social and economic forces. What is new about the new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of the new media

(15).

In the latter case (in which older media refashion themselves), this can result in setting up impediments to the use of the earlier text: for example, digital rights management on music files or the way "NetLibrary" forced me to retype rather than cut and paste the preceding quotation. In the case of poetry (which Randall Jarrell likened to the making of "stone axes" [94]), remediation should make poetry easier to access, in ever more attractive formats. Why get in the way? As children's poet J. Patrick Lewis says in his annoyingly titled2 essay, "Can Children's Poetry Matter?" "Few if any adults are capable of convincing a ten-year old that poetry can be as much fun as volleyball or video games." Lewis's description of the ways in which poetry has been and continues to be remediated for children in the classroom is worth quoting here:

American children grow up in a country that poetry forgot—or that forgot poetry. The reasons are not far to seek. I have visited four hundred American...