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Don Delillo asks, 'Does poetry need paper'?


Yesterday PEN announced its 2010 literary awards; the winners include novelist Don Delillo, who takes the top honor, the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. Delillo's first book, "Americana," was published in 1971; his most recent, "Point Omega," came out earlier this year. He won the National Book Award in 1985 for "White Noise" and has been a finalist for the National book Critics Circle and Pulitzer Prizes.

Delillo has long been resistant to playing to the hype machine; interviews with him are both infrequent and charmingly substantive. PEN talks to him about Bellow, American literature, religion, paranoia and truth and new media.

"Will language have the same depth and richness in electronic form that it can reach on the printed page?," Delillo asks. "Does the beauty and variability of our language depend to an important degree on the medium that carries the words? Does poetry need paper?"

Delillo has clearly given thought to writing and its various forms. His 1988 book "Libra," a fictionalized account of the John F. Kennedy assassination, was so grounded in history that some wanted to call it historical fiction. Delillo insisted it wasn't.  "There is a set of balances and rhythms to a novel that we can't experience in real life," he told the Times that year, "So I think there is a sense in which fiction can rescue history from confusion." 

"A novel determines its own size and shape," he tells PEN now. Back in 1988, he said, "Fiction is one of the consolation prizes we receive for having endured the rigors of living in the world."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Don Delillo in 2004. Credit: Jean-Christian Bourcart / Getty Images

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Don DeLillo is one of the top 5 literary literary voices (WHITE NOISE, COSMOPOLIS) and he's had his fingers on the pulse of American culture. So when he asks 'Does poetry need paper?', we need to pay attention. Whether it's a paper copy of a book, a Kindle or just a PDF from a computer screen, in the end it's the living we do after we read a work. How does it stay or resonate with us? How were we moved?

There's definitely nothing like a book, but in a pivotal age as things are now, anytime someone is reading it's a victory for the written word, no matter the format.

Size matters

to me it is not a question of paper or no paper, but of size. The size of the surface on which poetry is printed, served as writing.

Having tested various e-reader-devices in order to determine their value as repositories of written poetry, I would sum it up like this:

- Poetry needs writing space in which to be free
- Poetry needs no fixed surface
- Poetry needs to be distinguished from prose

Thus, poetry can survive in or on any medium. The present problem with e-readers is that all focus is on flowing text, lines that break by themselves, if the text is made larger by the reader.

Poetry and the breath of the poem vanishes in flowing text. The present revolution for prose makes prose of poetry in modern e-reader devices. The size of e-reader screens at present is the determining factor in digital poetry.

Once we can have digital books of variable size, ie. size variable e-reader devices, poetry will once again be liberated to take on any form and (poetic) lines of any length will again signify the life of the poet, as a score of breathing instructions.

The only thing confining poetry to paper is the imagination of the poet. To bemoan modern technology and its strengths and weakness says very little about the nature of poetry in the same way the invention of the phonograph says very little about the nature of music. Some poetry obviously works well on the printed page but let's not get caught up in romanticizing something that has a million different faces. Something I find much more interesting is the fact that, now that many authors write entirely within the digital world, what sort of physical legacy will they leave behind (if any) if there are no hand written notes, reworked manuscripts, all the little cast-away relics of a writing career that once were saved on paper and donated to a library or foundation but now are just so many electronic data bites?


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