Two weeks ago, I attended a poetry reading for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. Every evening during Piccolo Spoleto, the audience gathers in the grandiose courtyard of the Dock Street Theatre, and a poet reads for an hour. Cue golf clap.
On Friday night, the poet was an older gentleman with several publications under his belt. He was the founding editor of a prestigious literary magazine and well-respected teacher. During one of his poems, he mentioned the tussle of two lively squirrels—how transcendent a moment for him, to glimpse in this seemingly insignificant happening the exalted impetus for a poem. The poem took place at a college, where the students walked by oblivious to the natural wonders of the world, realities they could not fathom. Like squirrels! And why did the students fail to see the miracle that was the poem-squirrel-God?
They were too busy staring into cell phone screens.
This revelation earned the poet a chuckle from the crowd. Cue golf clap.
Later, the poet read a piece about sighting seagulls through a coffee shop window, his fellow youthful patrons too absorbed in laptops.
I do not wish to disparage the need to appreciate nature or the beauty of contemplating and relishing moments of self-awareness. But comments like those the poet made compose a false dichotomy: if someone uses technology, they must be dull and uninteresting, unable to engage fully in the world. These young people, the elder generations seem to posit, don’t know how to pay attention. Furthermore, we apparently don’t write poems about real life—which according to the Dock Street Poet included squirrels and seagulls.
It is perhaps unbelievable that the students might do something worthwhile with their technology, their “toys” as the poet disparaged them. Toys? Do you mean the sparkling miracles in our pockets, our portals to unfathomable resources, these infinite encyclopedias detailing the cumulative knowledge of the human species?
The Dock Street Theatre is perhaps a fitting venue for the confrontation of old and new—after serving for several years as tenement housing for poor black Charlestonians, the theatre suffered through a fire and the city rebuilt the building as an architectural testament to Old Charleston. The space is a call-back to the white-washed glory of the Antebellum South, the wealth and class of Charlestonians pre-Civil War.
The condemnation of technology use among Millennials poses an unfair limitation on the personal and intellectual growth of an entire generation of artists. Perhaps the young’ins in the coffee shop were not ignoring seagulls but writing poems. Perhaps weaving the code for algorithms that will employ Artificial Intelligence to write poems in a manner humans cannot yet comprehend. Or perhaps they were plugging away at freelance jobs to complement their insufficient income in an economy the older generations corrupted. Perhaps they are making art.
While there exist cogent arguments for limiting one’s reliance on technology, the blanket bah-hum-bugging of advanced tools of civilization is a lazy criticism. It is an easy laugh. Or perhaps an uneasy laugh, as the realization arises among older people that they are being left behind.
We have embraced new means of communication, new modes of understanding the world, and the evolution of that relationship between a device and a human will only accelerate. Already we have witnessed a revolution in music production, and poetry too will draw healthily from the available technological resources. These devices—apps on our phones and access to information and social media—become fresh tools in the composition of art. Like a pencil, our cell phones become a new way to access poetry.
Perhaps one of the students is reading a poem on the screen as they walk to class, a poem about two squirrels.