Emerson Project Examines How Literature is Adapting to Digital 21st Century

Andrew Peart '10
Andrew Peart '10
For Andrew Peart ’10, the literary movement known as Language poetry is the “pinnacle of modernist experimentation.” In the middle of our discussion at the library, he got up out of his seat and brought back Poetry magazine. Within seconds, he was pointing out what he thought were the best poems in the magazine.

This particular issue included a special feature on Flarf and Conceptual writing, two descendants of Language poetry that share a concern for the materiality of language. Peart is studying these forms of poetry through the Emerson Grant Foundation Program, which was designed in 1997 to provide students with opportunities to work with faculty members researching an area of interest.

With Professor of English Catherine Kodat and Associate Dean of Faculty for Diversity Initiatives and Associate Professor of English Stephen Yao, Peart will try to confirm his belief that language poetry might help us assess how literature is adapting to the digital environment of the 21st century.

Language poetry is a type of postmodernism, and has scores of defining characteristics. For example, it challenges the “natural” voice or narrator in a piece of poetry. Contrary to the Confessionalist movement of the 1950s and 1960s, language poetry is not used for self-expression or the release of an internal world. Rather, it emphasizes that the medium of language is just that – a medium. It is not original, not sentimental, and not personal. There is no sense of belonging in the poem. Instead of the words being possessions or maudlin contemplations, Peart explains that language is used as if it were paint or sculpture. That is, poetry’s responsibility is to make a point.

Peart’s research focuses on innovative writing practices that either engage with digital tools directly or investigate the status of the text in the age of digital reprocessing. The authors of Flarf and Conceptual writing featured in this month’s issue of Poetry magazine, Peart suggests, reflect these new practices. Like language poets, Flarfists and Conceptual writers try to analyze how context can contort the way language looks and functions. But these contemporary writers have to approach language from a new technological standpoint.

“They have to address the fact that the material nature of language is changing now that words are encoded in bits and bytes,” said Peart. “There is an unprecedented amount of language out there that it is instantly accessible and reproduced like raw information.” It is often difficult to trace Internet language back to a specific source or determine if its creator is human at all, he says.

“Endless strings of processed text on the web are now very common,” Peart said. “Poetry in the digital age forces us to think about literature not only in textual but also in visual terms.”

Most of his work this summer will consist of a genealogy of avant-garde literary and artistic movements. Because the digital age is reviving them by addressing issues of textual production and presentation, Peart will need to research how they have come into being in past years. His analysis will ease him into his senior thesis.

As a life-long reader, Peart contributes to the creative life on campus. He has been the poetry editor for Red Weather, Hamilton’s literary magazine, and is the former editor-in-chief of the Daily Bull. The Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center is also his second home, as he has been a writing tutor since the fall of his sophomore year.
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