Leaving the ivory tower
The challenge: if people would only know, hear, and see what poets did, then at least some of them would realize too how cool literature can actually be. - Three projects which engage in popularizing, mediating, and digitally archiving contemporary Hungarian poetry.
Poetry doesn’t sell too well nowadays. Perhaps it never did, really. Nonetheless, in the last two hundred years it was a highly popular cultural phenomenon, both for the elite and increasingly for the masses. Financially successful or not, poets and their often-cited, repeatedly hand-copied poems were known throughout the land, with iconic portraits of the national bards hanging in the aristocratic salons and in the bourgeois drawing rooms. More than anything else, the development of national education and curricula in the 19th century made sure to cement the canonical role and cultural reputation of a specific (mostly Romantic) concept of poetry, making it a basic element of modern life. Today, however, this age-old pedagogical approach, still focusing on the same iconic figures and texts, has trapped the very idea of poetry within a sterile amber casing, as a precious dead thing put on display. At the same time, with the immense transformations in popular culture, contemporary poetry can easily seem like a fuzzy, distant, unknown phenomenon which functions similarly to a strange subculture, the select club of the few who speak and can tolerate each other’s sophisticated, hermetic, or intertextual idiolect. No wonder that, especially in the last decades, sales for poetry volumes are down in comparison with other literary products, and their continued existence depends mostly on state subsidies and a sense of duty on the part of some publishers to engage in a cultural mission.
In any case, this is the impression one gets from surveying the opinions and comments on the state of poetry within the Hungarian literary scene. The consensus is that people do not read or buy poetry anymore since they feel it is outdated, not part of their lives, and that all poets are dead white men in school books—never having had the chance to hear or see the living, breathing, contemporary poets who write today. The conclusion is that poetry and poets are not popular or well-known anymore, that they do not fit into the frame of present-day success—and furthermore, they need promotion, quite badly, actually, in order to become cool, up-to-date, fresh, exciting, hip, trendy, etc. Leaving aside the highly successful movement of slam poetry (which was initially underground, yet managed to gradually conquer the Hungarian mainstream, and then national TV), what poetry needs then is discovery, mediation, performance, transformation, and accessibility—in the digital context.
As it turns out, poetry is in luck. Several young artists and writers are set on carrying out this exact task. The willingness and enthusiasm of these creative individuals—who, by some biographical or geographical accident, have spent their childhood devouring books—springs from a basic experience related to the social status of literature. They have all faced the contradiction between their life-altering encounter with the wonderful thing that is poetry and the general, stereotypical opinion which treats it as an anachronistic, ivory-tower item. The challenge: if people would only know, hear, and see what poets did, then at least some of them would realize too how cool literature can actually be. Not an easy mission, for sure. In their initiatives, they wish to bridge a gap between traditional and new formats, and also to facilitate a transformation: they want to reconstruct literary texts in a different context, to reach new audiences and have different, wide-ranging effects. They have taken on the role of mediators, creating a link between the old, paper-sniffing generations and the new, digital, smartphone-obsessed, app-oriented, net-addicted generation. They are in the unique position to have a chance in succeeding in this task, since they understand both languages and habits, having access to both paradigms of culture.
As an illustration of what I have described above, I will present three different projects which engage in popularizing, mediating, and digitally archiving contemporary Hungarian poetry. Although all three are independent initiatives that are fuelled by determination and passion, they received formal and informal encouragement from the József Attila Circle (JAK), the main literary association for young writers in Hungary.
The first project is called Búspoéták (“Mopey Poets”) and basically consists of a Tumblr site where the—initially anonymous—blogger (the young poet and designer Réka Borda) created stylized, humorous, cartoonish images from the easily recognizable paintings or photographs of both classic and contemporary Hungarian poets. The meme-like images are accompanied by funny or surreally absurd captions, inspired by the visual rendering of the given poet. For example, the message below the serious-looking 17th-century nobleman, warlord, and poet Miklós Zrínyi, is addressed to “Dear Louie XIV” and says: “We got shit-faced last night with my bro and spent all the money for the war. Pls send more. Your bf, MZ.” A particularly sassy image of Sándor Petőfi wearing a golden dollar sign on a chain features the request: “Draw me like one of your French girls.” And perhaps funniest of all is the series which inspired the name of the blog: the mopey faces of renowned poets Vitéz Mihály Csokonai, Endre Ady, and Attila József—who sang obsessively about being notoriously heartbroken—accompanied by the ridiculous, weepy question addressed to their torturer-lovers: “Y u do this?”
The admittedly and consciously silly project became an internet sensation overnight and after a round of votes, some of the images were turned into t-shirts. Despite its silliness, though, the blog delivers a welcome and fresh critical commentary on the iconography of literature. This humorous criticism works in several ways: while poking fun at and deconstructing the idealized depictions and revered auras of famous literary figures, the blog—in selecting its targets—evens out and opens up literary history, mixing up serious, multi-volume writers with volume-less young poets. Anybody can and should be the butt of jokes, no matter the measure of canonization. In the process of having a laugh, poets become memes and thus easily recognizable, more internet and social media friendly. Through humor they enter into the newsfeed and timeline of those who would never click on their names or texts otherwise. The irony in the blog, while humorously re-contextualizing classical literary figures, also ridicules commercial attempts of re-inventing such icons as trendy contemporaries: showing both how their elaborate laments can be translated into meme-language, and also what potential internet-trolls our beloved poets could be today.
The second project is called InstaVers, and it is an Instagram-inspired initiative which aims to present and popularize contemporary poetic texts on the internet through social media. The project was started by Dóri Kele on April 11, 2014, the Day of Poetry in Hungary, and presently the site has 6,000 page likes on Facebook, several branded merchandise, and the creating team is present at most literary events, festivals, or camps. InstaVers consists of carefully chosen, linguistically and conceptually powerful quotations from the works of contemporary poets which are then “pimped up”: that is, placed in a personalized visual setting, an ambiance of color and decoration that, in the eyes of the bloggers, fits the text in mood and symbolism.
The idea and hope behind this format is that the visually depicted quotation will have an instant effect on those who encounter it: the text will dissolve instantly in the imagination of the reader, like coffee powder does in hot water or, why not, an instantly gratifying drug in your blood. Thanks to the care applied to the selection, the textual images actually hit you like a shot of double espresso: once read, you inevitably wake up, and your mind starts to reel. The fragments get lodged both in your personal memory, and also in the digital memory of your devices, saved as profile covers or desktop and smartphone backgrounds, etc. Besides the primary aim of popularizing literature, the blog reveals that—if presented in an internet-friendly format and through the appropriate channels—even the “obscure” items of contemporary literature can become, once again, elementary parts of our daily lives. As the creator of the project stated: she wanted to show that poetry is at least as important to her own younger generation as it was for previous generations. And the success of this initiative, born as a reaction to the post-poetry-book era, reminds one of the success of a similar endeavor in the pre-poetry-book era: 19th century poetry albums and copybooks compiled by young ladies or gentlemen, and circulated by a more literal, physical sharing and copying.
The third project, initiated by Eszteranna Nagy, is entitled PoetVlog, and as the name already suggests it is a YouTube blog which presents short video recordings of contemporary poets reciting one of their—supposedly favorite—poems. The idea is simple, useful, and effective while also highly enjoyable and fun. Moreover, despite its apparent simplicity and obviousness in an era when everyone has a vlog, from online gamers to politicians, it is a surprisingly, almost shockingly necessary endeavor that can at least start to address the alarming lack of accessible video archives of contemporary Hungarian literature from the past quarter century. The inspiration for the project came from the old radio recordings or televised readings by celebrated poets which are now all uploaded to YouTube and can be easily accessed for personal or even pedagogical use in the classroom. There is also a special dimension to these videos which can reveal a very personal connection between artist and work, opening up a whole array of impressions and information that go beyond the textual. Yet, as the creator of the blog points out, one cannot find such recordings of more recent poetry (even if they do exist, they are locked up in the offline archives of state TV or radio), which is quite puzzling since the low cost and availability of digital technology would make their execution incomparably easier. As such, this—temporarily unique, but hopefully trendsetter—vlog is fulfilling the roles of both popularizing and archiving important instances of contemporary Hungarian poetry.
The lessons to be taken away and examined from these three projects indicate that one way of popularizing literature online is by adapting the already successful tools available in the online realm: exploiting the possibilities offered by the directness and humor of internet memes; the various visual options and strong appeal of stylized digital images; and the free and easy means of self-expression and communication through videos. This way poetry can benefit from a much broader accessibility, opening up not just for those who buy the volume, and from an effective decentralization, reaching not just those who happen to live in the capital. As many predict, and can already be seen in some cases, the role of online behavior and the effect of social media on the creation, distribution, consumption, and canonization of literature, especially poetry, will be a main area of research in future literary scholarship. Will it be the “same” poetry? Hard to tell. The re-contextualization of literature will definitely change its social and cultural function, together with the look, the taste, the feel, and most certainly the meaning of artistic texts—but the inherent human need they address and react to will most likely stay the same.
This article was originally published on Observatory, the blog of Literaturhaus Europa.