University of Hamburg, DE

Contemporary poetry is often spoken or performed on stage, it is accompanied by music, available on CDs and DVDs, in online audio and video recordings, in the pop-cultural format of ‘poetry clips’, or as artistic ‘video poems’. New media poetry employs kinetic script and translates visual poetry onto the internet. Such formats have drawn attention to the intermedial tradition of poetry. However, new theories are required to analyze poetry in the digital age. ‘Book poetry’ is being enhanced by popular formats and vice versa. This entanglement between art and popular culture is particularly significant for contemporary lyric practice. The paper suggests to structure research in this emerging field into three topic areas: poetry and performance, poetry and music, and poetry and visual culture.


The European cultural journal Lettre International published an essay by the German linguist and poet Dorothea Franck entitled, “Do we still need poems in the digital age?” (“Brauchen wir noch Gedichte im digitalen Zeitalter?”; our trans.; 11-14). Her diagnosis is both idealistic and defensive. She argues that poetry addresses not only cognitive but also sensory intelligence. That it opens up new horizons of understanding by way of its formal and linguistic density. That it is the only art characterized by “economic irrelevance” and by its defiance of today’s commercialization of the arts. That it could be used to counter digitalization and the extensive availability of storage media if we were to employ traditional techniques such as memorization (to improve our increasingly diminishing ability to concentrate). That it reminds us of our “irreducible subjectivity”, enables introspection (again, as a reaction against the digital age and its culture of dissipation), and, finally, that poetry is resilient, which is why great poems will endure for millennia. The poems she quotes range from Goethe’s Wanderer’s Nightsong to the postwar poetry of Paul Celan. She does not mention, however, a single work written in the digital age.

The notion of the ‘digital age’ is not uncontested in cultural and media studies. It is used here as a heuristic category to denote the present day, where most information is available on computers and in digital form. Obviously, digitalization has not ‘changed everything’ and most artistic forms, including poetry, continue to exist as they did before. Moreover, some of the popular contemporary forms of producing, performing and distributing poetry were developed long before the introduction of the computer (for instance, poets performing to music or poetry books being published with images). However, digitalization has had a significant transformative effect, exemplified in practices of communication and social interaction in general, particularly since the establishment of the standard of web 2.0 environments. Even today, literature is quite popular in its established, valued form of printed books. But many new intermedial genres have emerged in the digital age, meaning that, as in any other cultural realms, there is a more diverse range of opportunities for the production and reception of literature. The fact that Franck’s backward-looking article won the first prize of an essay competition of the same title reveals the cultural urge to reflect upon the role of poetry as a literary genre in the digital era. It also reveals the tendency to stick to established values and traditions, to defend literary culture as it was and should remain. What is at stake, however, is a decisively different approach: it seems necessary to inquire the relevance of poetry in the digital age by investigating its new multifaceted forms and manifestations, while acknowledging its history and genre theory.

1. The ‘Renaissance’ of Poetry in the Digital Age

One needs to take into account the fact that the page and the printed book no longer constitute the sole focus of a poem’s presentation and reception. In many countries, poetry in its most popular form – the poetry slam – even fills large theaters. Because poems can be performed on stage, they are available on CDs – spoken by the poets themselves or by professional speakers, accompanied by music or beats –, or as audio recordings on the internet on sites such as or as video recordings, on YouTube or other social media platforms. Poetry can be found in installations in art museums and in public, urban spaces. Poetry also exists in the format of entertaining ‘poetry clips’ (resembling pop music clips) and as artistic ‘video poems’ or ‘poetry films’. Finally, there is a wide range of new experimental media poetry that employs kinetic script or natural or manipulated human voices, thus translating visual and sound poetry into the digital realm.

This broadening of poetry as a genre can be explained as a response to digitalization and social media in the “postprint era” (Hayles and Pressman), calling for aesthetic experiences that deviate significantly from traditional script and book culture. Poets react by employing one of two strategies: either they affirm such developments by adapting media technology and new event formats or they remain in their established domain and present their works of dense language as exclusive and exquisite. Both strategies appear to be successful. For example, there are esteemed classic poets like Jan Wagner, who publishes one poetry book every two to three years and has been a recipient of Germany’s most prestigious literary awards. A counterexample is the award-winning German-language poet Nora Gomringer, who started in poetry slam and is now renowned for her high-quality and popular spoken-word poetry, which is disseminated on CDs, on the internet and at live events. The current popularity of poetry in these two variants – conventional vs. media-oriented – requires a thorough explanation. In an age that has repeatedly proclaimed the death of the book, the significance of literature is often negotiated on the basis of poetry, which is considered the ‘heart’ of literature, not least due to its “high density of meaning”, which requires a lot of philological effort, meaning that “it has come to epitomize literary interpretation itself” (Lamping 84).

Poetry as a literary genre has often been viewed as marginal, esoteric and anachronistic. However, over the course of the last few years, it has undergone a noticeable renaissance: Poetry and ‘the poetic’ seem to be ubiquitous in contemporary literary practice as well as in the arts and aesthetic discourse. Moreover, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to musician Bob Dylan sparked a heated debate – not just in the feature pages but in academia as well – about what counts as poetry and what does not. A visit to contemporary art exhibitions, e.g. the Venice Biennale or the Documenta, frequently leads to encounters with attributions of a ‘poetic’ or ‘lyric’ quality or content in visual artworks. These adjectives are used to refer to images, sounds and artistic spaces that are especially beautiful, elegiac or complex. In international art criticism, the categories of the poetic and the lyric have, in fact, become master topoi of aesthetic value. It is likely that this tendency reflects back onto poetry itself.

2. Revitalizing Poetry’s Intermedial Tradition

These recent developments have drawn some attention to the intermedial history of the presentation of poetry. However, new theories are required to analyze today’s multimodal and intermedial forms of poetry. Another factor that has not been considered up until now is the reciprocal entanglement of ‘high art’ and ‘pop culture’, which is particularly significant for contemporary poetry. So far, literary scholars often shy away from this task and remain fixed to their established fields, which means that popular poetry “has garnered relatively little attention from intellectuals and virtually none from established poetry critics” (Gioia 7). This remark from an early book on ‘poetry at the end of print culture’ is even more relevant today, as there is a growing public interest in, e.g., fast-moving digital formats on social media, such as InstaPoetry. Such easy-to-grasp poems question established norms of poetry as a literary form, as they tend to lack the complexity, thickness and literariness that has adhered to this genre. It is therefore no coincidence that contemporary poets with artistic ambitions are distancing themselves from the consumable ‘language of advertising’ in their poetics (e.g. Marion Poschmann or Durs Grünbein).

Even poets who continue to publish their poetry in print are inevitably reacting to the pluralization of the genre in one way or another, e.g. by following recent trends in publishing houses to provide supplementary audio CDs with recordings of the spoken poems. Older and recent forms exist side by side but are tightly interwoven, which researchers have described in interdisciplinary media studies concepts like ‘remediation’ (Bolter and Grusin), ‘transcription’ (Jäger, “Epistemology of Disruptions”), ‘framing’ (Goffman; Bernhardt and Wolf; Gray; Wirth; Benthien and Klein) and ‘translation’ (Spivak; Marinetti; Schmid, Veits and Vorrath; Ott and Weber). Some new – or recently popularized – poetry formats, such as readings and spoken-word events, seem to be a response to a digital culture that emphasizes the ‘here and now’ and the collective character of the shared aesthetic experience. At the same time, it must be noted that liveness and mediatization are fundamentally intertwined and that most spoken-word poets, for example, carefully conceptualize and design their personal websites and online presence. It is time for research to reflect systematically the significance of these various digital dimensions for the genre of poetry.

Of course, the task is not simply to affirm new forms of producing and presenting poetry in relation to its tradition but to critically analyze their aesthetics. A promising way to structure the great variety of new forms and medial formats is to focus on the three most relevant intermedial (and interart) constellations of contemporary poetry: poetry and performance, poetry and music, poetry and visual culture. To investigate these different but closely related topic areas, approaches from other disciplines need to become part of the theoretical framework and research methodology. Literary studies and, in particular, poetry research, which have customarily dealt with printed texts and literary genre theory, will need to integrate methods from related disciplines such as media and performance studies, art theory, musicology and linguistics. It seems necessary to reformulate and develop an extended ‘contemporary philology’ that acknowledges new poetry formats and “the whole variegated media landscape in which the literary experience unfolds” (Schäfer 178).

Even though the phenomena in question are global, they carry national or local characteristics and need to be approached from different cultural perspectives. Such a research endeavor has yet to be carried out, mainly due to the fact that there are currently two different groups of scholars, one of which investigates popular forms of poetry, while the other examines elaborate artistic poetry. It is necessary to bridge the gap between these fields of entertainment and mainstream culture on the one hand and high-culture aesthetics on the other. Furthermore, one needs to emphasize the medial dimension of poetry, an undertaking that seems especially necessary with view to this genre, which is still largely based on the narrow, established book-culture concept of literature. The future lies in interdisciplinary research that assumes a broad perspective while undertaking in-depth analyses and providing theoretical insights. Although cultural studies have had a huge transformative impact on literary studies, this inevitable turn has not yet taken place in poetry research.

3. Poetry and Performance

One popular format is the oral performance of poetry at poetry readings, spoken-word events and poetry slams. Spoken-word literature and slam poetry stand in close proximity to poetry’s origins in orality. The focal point is the poet’s live performance in front of an audience and his or her text performance. A performance is a “genuine manifestation of poetry” (Novak, “Live-Lyrik”, 148), not a derivative version of a written poem. It occurs in a particular place, and the situational conditions frame the poem and send it forth as an aesthetic happening (Benthien, “Performed Poetry”, 287-309): a “soundpoetic event” (Lutz). Although poetry readings have a long tradition, e.g. in the avant-gardes and Beat poetry, the growing popularity of poets performing their texts at live events or in front of a recording device is a response to digitalization that counters virtualization. The physical and auditory presence of performers embodying their own texts generates “authenticity effects” (Novak, “Live-Lyrik”, 158) and the participants’ ‘co-presence’ creates an “intersubjectivity” (Middleton 290-295) not experienced by quiet reading of books or in digital communication.

Recordings of spoken-word poems can be found in CD format, supplementing poetry books, or as audio or video files on the internet. ‘Audio poetry’ is produced in sound studios and specifically for auditory reception (Vorrath, Hörlyrik der Gegenwart). It ranges from conventional poems being spoken by the author to experimental sound-poetic works (e.g. by Gerhard Rühm, Elke Schipper). “Audio-literariness” (Audioliteralität) denotes texts in which written and auditory content is related in such a way that its intermedial movement creates meaning (Jäger, “Audioliteralität”, 246). It seems necessary to investigate interactions between writing, live performance, recording and the way that poetry-specific parameters such as versification are translated into “secondary orality” (Ong) by means of corporeal and vocal presence (and vice versa). Liveness and mediatization are not opposing dispositifs but rather fundamentally intertwined and related (Auslander).

To analyze live poetry by literary studies parameters alone does not suffice. Methods from theater and performance studies will be essential – concepts like ‘performativity’, ‘embodiment’, ‘co-presence’ and ‘eventfulness’ (Fischer-Lichte 269-281). Julia Novak’s analytical categories, in particular her “articulatory parameters” and features of “bodily communication” are highly useful tools (Novak, Live Poetry, 85-125 and 158-167). For audio poetry, one needs to adapt relevant notions such as those of the “audiotext” (Bernstein 12) and the “poet-performer” (Novak 62). It is also helpful to take Ludwig Jäger’s already mentioned notion of ‘transcription’ into account, which considers the medial connections between the visual-scriptural and the auditive-vocal text (Jäger, “Audioliteralität”). Audiobook research (Stougaard Pedersen and Have; Bung and Schrödl) must be considered, while theories of mediatization (Kierkegaard and Ringgaard) need to be expanded in order to analyze audiotapes and videos of poetry performances on multimodal online platforms. For audiopoetry research, the detailed “manual for the analysis of audio poetry” developed by Wiebke Vorrath, is most helpful (Hörlyrik der Gegenwart, 187-202).

The task is not only “to map the ‘literary’ as a mode in between page and screen technologies” (Brillenburg Wurth 1) but to investigate the full spectrum of poetic forms and formats. In order to develop tools to analyze transcriptive movements between book, live and mediatized poetry, an interdisciplinary approach will have to be configured that integrates research on the processes of contextualization that take place when a text is transformed into another situative or medial context (Bauman and Briggs 75). The notion of ‘situatedness’ can be applied both to cultural events and to mediated content in order to describe processes of framing, perception and reception of poetry. Paul Zumthor, for instance, views poetry performance as “a creative social event, one irreducible to its components alone and during which particular properties are effectuated”, which comes about at a specific time and place; due to these singular situational conditions, the performance “projects the poetic work into a setting” (Zumthor 118 and 124). The same holds true, however, if an audio poem or a video of a poetry reading or performance is perceived. Two short exemplary case studies will illuminate this topic area: a mediatization of a slam poem and an audio poem.

Franziska Holzheimer’s slam poem “Früchtetee” (‘Fruit Tea’) employs the poetic device of parataxis, constantly repeating the particle ‘eigentlich’ (‘actually’ or ‘in fact’).1.

Her slam text deals with what the female speaker should do: she should be stronger, more straightforward, empathic, self-assured, etc. These qualities are illustrated by drastic body images. Today, Holzheimer does not perform “Früchtetee” any longer, but there were two video clips of her performance on YouTube. In the meanwhile, the performer has eliminated them (the videos, however, have been saved for research purposes). The hypermedial internet platform YouTube presented those clips in an embedded web 2.0 format, for instance by suggesting to watch further poetry slam clips on a bar at the right. Once a clip runs, however, this framing and contextualization is eliminated and an experience of closeness and intimacy towards the performer is suggested: a medial state evoking the impression of a “transparent, perceptual immediacy, experience without mediation”, a simulacrum of “unmediated presentation” (Bolter and Grusin 22 and 30). The video files are provided with dates and location, which attribute the character of a singular event to each performance. When comparing both Holzheimer videos, it becomes obvious that there are differences in clothing, stage and the respective moderation. The actual text performance, however, features strong correspondences. For example, the poet-performer lifts her arm at the same instant, makes similar gestures and adds identical pauses. The fact that these bodily or paraverbal means are identical in different performances indicates that they factually belong to the spoken text (Novak, “Live-Lyrik”), which would, therefore, be incomplete without them, e.g. in written form. Holzheimer’s performance carries the attitude as if she was speaking about herself; at times, she acts angry, at other sad or disappointed. The audience’s response is anticipated, in that punchlines are consciously spoken or pauses are inserted after a particularly drastic line (e.g. “Eigentlich müsste ich mir ’nen Stock bis zum Anschlag in den Arsch rammen, um aber auch wirklich in jeder Situation noch Haltung zu bewahren”)2. The slammer’s body, explicitly thematized within the spoken lines and visually exposed on stage, is only partly visible in the video. Likewise, the performance space and the audience are not visually represented (the latter audible at times). In this regard, the medial framing of the camera perspective creates a decisive view.

The second example is by Nora Gomringer, the already mentioned spoken-word poet, who denotes her poems as ‘Sprechtexte’ (‘speech texts’) (Gomringer, “Lyrik und Larynx”, 99). Her poetry collections contain CDs with recordings of spoken poems. The poem “Dich aus dem Leben lösen” stands out in its written as well as spoken versions and may function as an example of a ‘transcriptive relation’ between modalities3. In Gomringer’s book Mein Gedicht fragt nicht lange, it is the only piece printed in landscape format, covering the center part of a double page, with bold vertical bars that start above the poem, separate the verses, and end underneath the poem. Only when listening to the spoken version, it becomes clear that the vertical bars divide the poem into two parts which are juxtaposed on the page, and which we hear simultaneously as stereophonic sound. While the left part, emitted by the left loudspeaker, can be described as a listing or enumeration of things to be done after a beloved one has passed, the right text contains common phrases of comfort and intimate thoughts (Gomringer, “Dich aus dem Leben lösen”, 228, track 33). Gomringer’s articulation of the left part is steady and spoken like a mantra; all verses are pronounced with the same pitch movement and rhythm, which relates to the theme of enumeration. The vocal performance of the right part is more dynamic; the loudness of the first line is articulated in crescendo, whereas the following two are uttered more quietly, in a fast and legato rhythm. Despite the overlapping of the lines, one can understand most of the words. Two different soundtracks with individual rhythms and tonalities are heard at once, which produces a chaotic sensation. The last two opposing lines mirror each other: “Du aus dem Leben: ab jetzt | mein ich: schade, ab jetzt du aus dem Leben”4. Different from the written version, the left half-verse is repeated three times by the poet-performer, so that the third “ab jetzt” is uttered simultaneously to the right side’s utterance of these words and thereby reinforced.

4. Poetry and Music

A current debate deals with the question whether music and poetry should be strictly separated – an argument based on a relatively new notion of poetry, as ‘the lyric’ (originating from the lyra, a string instrument) has long been related to music5. Music and poetry were separated in the eighteenth century due to the “lyricization of poetry” (Jackson 183) and the privileging of poetry meant for it to be read (silently). However, the musical side has remained, and the repertoire of rhythmic forms – from strict meter to no meter at all, from bound to free verse, from rhythmic repetition to variation – exists to this day. Moreover, poetic-musical genres like ballads and folksongs have been joined by interart genres such as rap (Gruber; Wojcik).

The impact of new media and digitalization on musical poetry needs to be investigated. Phenomena such as poets performing together with musicians and sound designers (e.g. Thomas Kling, Ulrike Almut Sandig and Kate Tempest) or producing beats, and manipulating and estranging their voices using loop pads on stage (e.g. Jörg Piringer) are of interest. Other poets add sounds or beats to their audio poetry, which thus exhibits a likeness to musical forms (e.g. recitative), or pick up rap-styles (e.g. Dalibor Marković, Yugan Blakrok). In spoken poetry, the voice must be analyzed together with the poem’s content, with musical features and technical aspects such as the high-fidelity standard. If voices are recorded, concepts like ‘eventfulness’ and ‘elusiveness’ still adhere to them. Vocal authentication links the poem’s content to the performer’s personality, a strategy that unites spoken-word poets and pop singers. Further topics of investigation are audiovisual ‘poetry clips’, their relationship to music clips and their distribution as a pop-cultural phenomenon. The influence of contemporary poetry on popular music is also of interest, exemplified by the poet Warsan Shire, who instantly became famous when her work was included on the visual album Lemonade by pop-megastar Beyoncé, who had encountered her verse on Twitter (Ronzheimer).

One of the features of popular poetry is its return to formal elements, to rhyme and meter, in particular, which were long considered outdated in both poetry theory and poetic practice (Gioia 13). Research needs to make use of publications that have adapted the concepts and analytical methods of musicology and sound studies: for instance, the application of basic musical parameters from musicology to poetry, such as timbre/tone color, tone duration, pitch and volume (Von Ammon). For the analysis of the mediated voice, terms and methods from speech science such as Ines Bose’s parameters of “vocal-articulatory expression” (Stimmlich-artikulatorischer Ausdruck und Sprache” and Einführung in die Sprechwissenschaft) need to be combined with reflections on sound shapes and listening habits from sound studies. Research can also benefit from speech science by applying the concept of the melodizing of speech to poetry (Anders). Both contemporary poets and singers portray themselves as postmodern troubadour figures. They cross the boundaries between art and pop culture, between poetry and music, which is why studies on embodiment and authenticity in pop music (e.g. on German-language hip-hop (Baier; Jacke 72-95)) are relevant. Again, two case studies will function as examples for this topic area: one poem featured with music and one poetry clip published on YouTube that resembles music videos.

Albert Ostermaier’s recording of “leitkultur” was produced in a studio exclusively for an audio-CD and its listeners6. As in Gomringer’s case, this audio poem is not a documentation of a transient event but a self-contained artistic work, accompanied by electronic beats and guitar by the musician Bert Wrede. The pieces of the collection Autokino, a book with a CD, are reminiscent of musical genres like hip-hop, as they consist of rhythmical tunes and lyrical speech, but Ostermaier’s intonation presents stylistic differences to rap. The prosodic performance structures the context, while the voice offers information about the speaker’s attitude – the effect or impression can be highly controlled (Finnegan 385). Therefore, the influence on the listener’s interpretation is stronger here than it would be if the written text was received. Ostermaier’s performance reveals his Bavarian accent and imitates a conversational tone. The utterance exhibits dynamics in pitch, volume and rhythm; at the same time, there is a strong regularity in the intonation structure. After the end of the poem, the text is repeated once more, now in a lethargic undertone. Wrede’s sound and impelling beat consists of a slow and looped rhythm but is at times overlaid with sharp guitar riffs that are intensified by an echo effect. In the first version, the voice dominates the recording, as it has a higher loudness than the beat. In the second version, the guitar riffs are dominant, they appear more strident and overpower the voice. The combination of the conversational, later more lethargic vocal performance and the constant beat with the high-pitched guitar riffs constitutes a disharmonic and oppressive acoustic mood, which can be seen as a commentary on the reactionary structures of habitual language, consolidated through constant repetition (Vorrath, “Visualität und Sonalität in Albert Ostermaiers Hörgedicht ‘fernsehabend’”).

The second example is a so-called ‘poetry clip’, a genre closely related to the poetry slam. However, poetry clips do not document a stage event as they are artistic performances exclusively produced and distributed on videotape. Poetry clips are edited in a way reminiscent of music videos, setting, personnel and camera perspectives are chosen to fit the text. Generally, the author recites his or her own text and looks directly into the camera – into the eyes of the viewer –; the text is presented exclusively for the camera (no visible microphones, books, manuscripts); therefore, the clip suggests a direct, seemingly non-mediated communication with the audience (Porombka 223-243). Maximilian Humpert’s German poetry clip “Phoenix”7 presents the poet-performer in two roles: he is split into voice (poet) and bodily representation (performer). Whenever he is depicted with casual clothes – an open checkered flannel shirt – in medium close-up in front of a green wall, he speaks his own verse and looks openly into the camera. Whenever he is depicted in a darker outfit in the urban space of a large city (Cologne), we hear his voice from the off. The standing, moving, watching performer remains mute, introverted and melancholic. Humpert ‘embodies’ himself in these moving images. The subjective, moody text is turned into a narcissistic mirroring in which the performer addresses himself in the grammatical form of the lyrical second-person. The dramaturgy of the clip contains an acceleration of speed and movement, emphasized through a transition from melancholic piano tunes to drums and guitar added later when the protagonist runs through the street at night (and both personas melt in short cuts and counter-cuts). The poet-performer speaks his text in a structured, rhythmic mode, typical for poetry slam. Humbert’s text is a prime example for the return to rhyme and meter in popular poetry ‒ contrary to, for instance Albert Ostermaier’s text that has the visual shape of a poem in print but is spoken like prose.

5. Poetry and Visual Culture

New media poetry adapts literary techniques developed by the avant-gardes and can be described in the tradition of concrete and visual poetry. After initial enthusiasm about the possibilities afforded to literature by the net, research has stagnated to a certain extent. One needs to conceptualize them in light of, on the one hand, iconic and kinetic script – including different linguistic systems – and, on the other, coded poetry (e.g. the work of Mez Breeze).

In terms of digital poetry, one important task will be adapting international research (e.g. Bachleitner; Rustad; Scholler), another to investigate its potential as a medial transformation of concrete poetry (Donguy). A new feature of digital concrete poetry is its time-basedness, which can be seen as a transition “from object to event” (Hayles). In the age of “scrolling literature” (McElwee), phenomena of digitalization in popular culture, such as InstaPoetry or poems on Twitter and Facebook, are also relevant, as these short, simple, often kitschy poems designed for smartphones are adorned with visual elements, such as handwriting, drawings, photos and adorned script. Book publications of celebrated global ‘InstaPoets,’ such as Rupi Kaur, Atticus and Yrsa Daley-Ward have even led to an increase in the sale of poetry books.

In the past, poetry has often been linked to experimental and art film due to certain formal devices (in particular, their “excess structuring,” Link) and similarities between them, in terms of perception and articulation: their ‘subjectivity’. Unlike poetry clips as a pop-cultural genre, ‘poetic films’ or ‘video poems’ are considered more abstract, artistic realizations that reference poetry on a conceptual level, without speakers performing on the screen and by using elegiac combinations of image and sound that pick up on and transform poetic devices. The most comprehensive work on poetry films to date is Orphal’s Poesiefilme, which differentiates between video poetry, poetic film and poetry film. However, there needs to be further research into the difference between poetry adapted by audiovisual means as opposed to script-based or verbal poetry films. Contemporary theory on film and poetry (Sitney) has also to be reviewed, not at least with regard to its metaphorical use of the notion of poetry.

A related field is research on writing in the visual arts (Prinz) and on kinetic script (Simanowski; Knowles; Brownie). It needs to be expanded not only regarding online practices but also when it comes to poetry in the urban space, a topic which has not been researched yet. The visual presence of poetry in the urban space is also a recent mutual phenomenon of poetry and visual culture: poems posted in subways, projected onto the exteriors of buildings, permanently written on walls or published on flyers (Johnson; Benthien, “Public Poetry”). The general aim has to be integrating adaptations and compositions of poetry into the visual arts and to develop tools for their analysis. In the following, two short examples for this topic area – the relation of poetry and visual culture – will be presented: a poetry film and an online visual poetry project.                             

Matthias Müller’s found footage film nebel (mist; 2000) takes on a German poem cycle by Austrian poet Ernst Jandl, titled “gedichte an die kindheit” [poems to childhood] (1980)8. It presents the poems as voice-over recitation and combines the spoken text with filmic sequences9. While the adaptation is rather experimental regarding images and montage, the voice-over and the use of script follows the conventions of audio books and feature films. The voice-over is spoken by professional speaker Ernst-August Schepmann in a solemn manner, attentive to pauses and the pronunciation of syllables and letters. The footage shifts between color and black and white; tramlines – scratches that appear black after a film has been copied – and other marks of deterioration and damage highlight the materiality of analog film. Müller integrates excerpts of home movies from his childhood, shots from the Hollywood classic The Wizard of Oz as well as other footage. The footage accompanying the poems “die spuren” [traces], and “ein roman” [a novel], are particularly interesting. Both sequences show a close-up of hands holding an opened book, the images have a sepia color fog and are partly damaged with tramlines. “die spuren” opens with lines dealing with traces the lyrical I has left behind, written and printed ‘in some kind of script’, while we see the yellowed pages of an old book being turned in slow motion, crumbling between the fingers of the left hand. In the poem, Jandl both refers to the vanitas trope of the ‘eternity of script,’ i.e. of the poet leaving something of himself in his printed works after his death, a notion that the filmmaker Müller deconstructs with the images. “ein roman” (“a novel”) consists of only four ironic lines. Here a poem reflects another literary genre from a child’s perspective: The rudimentary definition of a novel is only based on its length, which is performatively contrasted with the poem’s brevity. As Schepmann utters the words, we see the hands again, now holding a closed book that falls into pieces. Books and analog film are storage media that can record thoughts and moments, and although they are prone to decomposition, they potentially preserve them indefinitely. In the digital age, paper and celluloid are often regarded obsolete when it comes to production and distribution, yet when it comes to archiving, the longevity of film is (still) regarded as better compared to digital data (Fossati 64).

Cia Rinne’s archives zaroum, an internet project the Finnish-Swedish poet developed with the visual artist Christian Yde Frostholm, will function as an example of how new media reflect and transform concrete poetry10. The work is presented on a virtual internet platform for visual poetry and intermedia art (link: The interactive animation is based on Rinne’s book of poetry, zaroum, its poetic language influenced by Fluxus, Dada, and Wittgensteinian language play. In archives zaroum, users click through different units of content that are organized by the device of folder cards. On a vertical level, the user scrolls down to complete a section of the artwork and move to the next. Similar to concrete poetry, Rinne exposes the materiality of written signs – or rather: the correspondences and tensions between materiality and meaning. The digital version includes animated signs. For instance, if one clicks on the phrase ‘to get her,’ it collapses when the two brackets around the words move, pushing in from both sides, so that the three words literally appear ‘together’ and are transformed into syllables. Such linguistic relationships of equivalence are mirrored, even amplified, by the visual layout. Similarity here refers to proximity in a physical sense; the words ‘nestle’ up against each other. It is Roman Jakobson’s notion of the ‘palpability of signs’ that Rinne’s digital poetry explores. The dominance of the poetic function, which Jakobson defines as a “focus on the message for its own sake” (356), creates literariness. The multiplication of layers is created both by linguistic means and the visual design. Rinne uses devices such as a sudden exchange that eliminates or adds letters; simulated ‘typing’ or words moving across the screen; black and red ‘typewriter ribbon’ to highlight certain words, thus emphasizing both the writing and the reading processes. She also employs typewriter script or handwriting, using capital or lowercase letters, and combines script with drawings. The multilingual work also shifts between languages, among them English, French, and German. The same word can be often pronounced differently, depending on the choice of language, creating ambiguity and alienation that is fundamentally confusing to the recipient.

6. Summary

As the examples presented and the remarks to the three topic areas have shown, research on contemporary poetry in media cultures is situated at the intersection of literary, cultural, and interart studies. By focusing mainly on German examples, the article argued in favor of the development of new tools for the analysis of such contemporary poetry formats, ranging from pop cultural to high-art works. A transmedial study of the diversity and medial spectrum of contemporary poetry, including recent poetry printed in books will, in the end, lead to a new definition of poetry as a genre – a definition that goes beyond its printed norm and written manifestation and takes into account its oral, musical, visual, kinetic, technical, medial, multimodal and interart dimensions. By writing such a ‘poetics of new forms’, research will acknowledge poetry’s significantly broadened artistic, cultural, social and perhaps even political functions in the digital age. It will develop tools for the analysis of contemporary poetry formats, ranging from entertainment to ‘high’ culture, from visual to acoustic and multimodal forms. Only by taking such an encompassing view of poetry as an aesthetic and cultural practice will it be possible to explain the current relevance of a seemingly anachronistic genre, i.e. not by arguing in favor of its ‘remaining value’ and its cultural tradition as a literary art – as Franck does – but by acknowledging its potential for innovation and renewal, its creative capacity both to take up and to shape medial settings and social conditions.

  1. A longer version of this example is discussed in Benthien 2013, 298-301.
  2. ‘Actually, I would need to ram a stick into my ass up to the stop, to keep posture in but any situation.’
  3. A longer version of this example is discussed in an online article containing the audio file as well. Cf. Benthien and Vorrath. 17-19.
  4. Due to their ambiguity, translating these lines is difficult; it would read something like: ‘You out of life: from now on | I mean: pity, from now on you no longer in life’.
  5. Many arguments in this paper – but in particular regarding the present section on ‘poetry and music’ – were developed together with Wiebke Vorrath in the context of the research project “Performing Poetry. Mediale Übersetzungen und situationale Rahmungen zeitgenössischer Lyrik” (2015-2017) at Universität Hamburg; cf.
  6. A longer version of this example is discussed in an online article containing also the audio file. Cf. Benthien and Vorrath 19-21,
  7. Link:
  8. For a comprehensive analysis of this work see: MacDonald 23-28; Benthien, Lau and Marxsen 219-222.
  9. Link:
  10. For a comprehensive analysis of this work see: Benthien, “Visuelle Polyphonie” or Benthien, Lau and Marxsen 126-128.
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To cite this paper


Benthien, Claudia. “Poetry in the digital age”. Theories of Lyric. An anthology of world poetry criticism, Antonio Rodriguez (dir.), University of Lausanne, May 2021,

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This article is a draft and initial publication of the project “Poetry in the Digital Age” for which the author received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 884177). Views and opinions expressed here are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union (EU or the European Research Council (ERC). Neither the EU nor the ERC can be held responsible for them.



University of Hamburg, DE
Claudia Benthien has been a full professor (W3) of modern German literature at the University of Hamburg since 2005. In 2004, she received her habilitation at the Humboldt University of Berlin, where she worked as an assistant professor from 2000 to 2005. From 1998 to 2000, Benthien did her post-doctoral work at the Free University of Berlin. In 1999, the state of Berlin awarded her the Tiburtius Prize for her dissertation, which she completed at the Humboldt University in Berlin. She has held visiting professorships at the University of California at Berkeley, Emory University in Atlanta, the University of Washington in Seattle, and Rutgers University in New Brunswick, among others. She has also received grants and fellowships to conduct research at New York University, the International Research Center for Cultural Studies in Vienna, the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel, the Warburg Institute in London, the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris, Columbia University in New York, and Washington University in St. Louis.


Oran McKenzie, University of Geneva