Aalborg Universitet Dialogues on Poetry


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part in the literary network connecting authors, publishers, distributors 
and readers. One of the first questions we ask of a literary work concerns 
what kind it is, and genre is one of the basic categories of orientation when 
we are entering the universe of a book.
Our experience tells us that genre matters. For example, it makes a 
major difference whether we expect to read crime fiction, fairy-tales or a 
collection of poems: we prepare our ways of perception differently, and 

239
we read the texts in different ways, with an eye for different features and 
with the anticipation of different kinds of experiences.
4
 Moreover, the more 
books we read, the more we may develop our sensitivity to genres, so that 
we not only register the main genres (prose, poetry and drama) and a di-
versity of sub genres, but also genre mix, genre developments, and genre 
inventions. At one and the same time, genres are a basic tool for orienta-
tion which children acquire at school and a tool that is optimized by ex-
perience. Fowler writes that “Acquistion of generic competence appears to 
be a complicated and lengthy process” (Fowler 1985, 45). An experienced 
reader is what is needed when it comes to sensing the specific ways in 
which a text deals with the issue of genre. The reader must know the norm 
to know when the norm is broken; it is only when readers know the tra-
dition that they know when something differs and takes a new direction.  
This does not just apply to the reader; the literature that intends to 
break decorum and create something new is the literature that is most de-
pendent on tradition. Negation and transgression call for regulation and 
retention of a kind. As Fowler says, “the writer who cares most about origi-
nality has the keenest interest in genre. Only by knowing the beaten track, 
after all, can he be sure of leaving it” (ibid. 32). Similarly, Todorov writes:
The fact that a work ‘disobeys’ its genre does not make the 
latter nonexistent; it is tempting to say that quite the contrary 
is true. And for a twofold reason. First, because transgression, 
in order to exist as such, requires a law that will, of course, be 
transgressed. One could go further: the norm becomes visible 
– lives only – by its transgressions. (Todorov 1976, 160)  
Hence, instead of taking the current situation with its great genetic com-
plexity as an opportunity to declare genre irrelevant, I will advocate retain-
ing its importance. This is due not only to the general terms of aesthetic 
reception and to the vital role of ‘genre anticipation’ in our encounter with 
a literary work; it is also due to the fact that the specific way in which a 
literary work relates to the question of genre and genre expectations is a 
key part of its enunciation. An important point in Fowler’s work is that 
genres are far from being effective only as classification tools. On the con-
trary, they are primarily of importance in relation to interpretation, and 

240
therefore the way in which a work expresses its genre greatly affects our 
understanding of the work. This becomes obvious in an examination of 
Danish contemporary poetic practices that are genre challenging. For in-
stance, Lars Skinnebach‘s Enhver betydning er også en mislyd (2009), Chris-
tina Hagen‘s White Girl (2012), Amalie Smith’s  I civil (2012), and Pablo 
Llambias’ trilogy Monte Lema (2011), Hundstein (2013), and Sex Rouge 
(2013) are  classified as poems by Gyldendal, their publisher, yet they all 
challenge the poetic genre. On the front page, Hagen’s book presents itself 
as “Digte” [Poems] but when you open the book, it says it contains “fic-
tionalisations of post cards”, and when you read the ‘poems’, they give the 
impression of short prose. Similarly, the texts in Llambiás’ book are written 
as sonnets, still on the back side of the cover, the book describes itself as a 
“narration”. However, it is not to determine whether it really is poetry that 
it is essential to mobilize the question of genre in relation to such works, 
but rather in order to examine what relationship each of them has with the 
genre, how each interacts with genre, and what implications this has for 
the overall position of the literary work in question.
Following Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance as “a 
complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” (Fowler 
1985, 41), Fowler also refuses to see genres as distinct classes. On the 
contrary, he suggests, we comprehend genres as historically changeable 
entities that are actively modeled by the texts that belong to them (ibid. 
20). Jean-Marie Schaeffer adopts a similar dynamic approach to the genre 
question; his concept of genericity emphasizes that rather than belonging 
to a particular genre, a text is involved in a productive and transformative 
dialogue with the genre (Schaeffer 1997, 291). Furthermore, one can ar-
gue that it is precisely the unexpected and surprising that attracts the most 
attention, and therefore it is only logical that the works that break with our 
genre expectations are those for which the discussion of genre is most ur-
gent. From this perspective, genre fractures do not reduce the importance 
of genre; rather they create increased sensitivity to it. As a counter to the 
argument that we should stop talking of genres in relation to contempo-
rary poetry – for example on the grounds that many contemporary lyric 
practices not only oppose genre norms but are also so diverse that it makes 
no sense to subsume them under a unified perspective – one can argue that 
this relationship revitalizes the genre issue and underlines its relevance.

241
IV
As we move on to focus more specifically on lyric as a genre, it is time to 
recall that this article began with the statement that most people in our 
cultural circles conceive of the lyric as a short literary form that expresses 
the experiences, thoughts or feelings of a subject. It is precisely in relation 
to this conception that much new poetry seems to be an experiment in 
genre. How has this norm survived relatively intact? Why do we feel it so 
keenly when genres are broken?
Virginia Jackson offers a possible answer. In Dickinson’s Misery. A the-
ory of lyric reading (2005), ‘Who reads poetry’ (2008) and ‘Lyric’ in The 
Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012), Jackson argues that 
Romanticism marks the establishment of a particularly tenacious lyrical 
standard which has since gone on to influence our understanding of the 
nature of poetry. Jackson thus lends support to Gérard Genette’s general 
account of the history of genres. Genette’s essential point is that an under-
standing of the main genres of poetry, prose and drama as virtually natu-
ral categories is a Romantic construction with little historical evidence to 
support it. Jackson builds upon Genette’s view that we are still stuck in a 
narrow and vulgarized conception which, ironically, understands poetry to 
be precisely the kind of lyrical poetry that Aristotle left out of his poetics.
5
More specifically, Jackson states that while poetry had previously 
barely been seen as a genre and had certainly not been understood in terms 
of the narrow norms ruling lyrical poetry, the shift that began in the 18th 
century saw the word ‘lyric’ change from its earlier usage as an adjective 
to its new status as a noun, and from having been a quality of poetry to 
being perceived as a category and an aesthetic ideal that seemed to encom-
pass any verse form. Poetry is simply seen as lyric, understood as a form 
of text that expresses personal feelings in a concentrated and harmonically 
organized form and that indirectly addresses the private reader (Jackson 
2012, 826). This entails a narrowing of the broader concept of poetry; to 
employ Jackson’s term, it has been lyricized. One of the central reasons for 
the major impact of this ‘process of lyricization’ is that it was reinforced by 
its close alliance in the 19th and 20th centuries with literary criticism and 
methods of analysis (Jackson 2005, 8). In this connection, Jackson ascribes 
a vital role to New Criticism, which she regards as having created a model 
of all poetry as essentially lyrical. The model had an educational point of 

242
departure, but it developed into a reading practice and influenced the ways 
in which poetry was written (Jackson 2012, 833).
This is still ‘the normative model for production and reception of most 
poetry’ (ibid.). The identification of poetry with the short, personal and ex-
pressive form of the lyric still acts as the norm against which we perceive 
many contemporary lyrical works as genre experiments. It is in the context 
of this argument that Stefan Kjerkegaard adopts Jackson’s distinction be-
tween poetry and lyric in his articles on genre fragmentation in contem-
porary Danish autobiographical poetry (‘Genreopbrud i 00’ernes danske 
poesi. Det selvbiografiske digt’ 2010) and on lyric, mediatization and poetry 
(‘Lyrik, medialisering, poesi’ 2013). As well as adopting the distinction be-
tween poetry and lyric, Kjerkegaard advocates the rehabilitation of a broader 
concept of poetry to embrace contemporary poetic practices. While Jackson 
wanted to challenge the lyricized concept of poetry, Kjerkegaard proposes to 
introduce a distinction in the application of the concepts. This is a distinc-
tion that might be useful in terms of education, but still it seems somewhat 
counter-intuitive in the Danish context. Here it is poetry that is the term 
with grandiose romantic associations, while the term ‘lyric’ acts as a more 
neutral technical term – insofar as such a thing really exists.
6
V
Jackson may have explained the origins of a lyrical norm that is so tena-
cious that we still react to works that depart from it, but Jackson’s solution 
seems to invite another question: is it possible for the history of modern 
poetry to be described both as a tradition of new departures (Todorov) and 
as the history of the institution of a narrower lyrical norm (Jackson)? Are 
these not incompatible points of view? I believe that this incompatibility 
is only apparent, and to explain why, the question of canonisation must be 
brought into play. 
While the modern history of poetry is bound up with the effort to 
create ever-new and aesthetically contemporary forms of expression, many 
of the new departures in poetry have still occurred within the basic frame-
work of the poetic genre as a short literary form which is often in verse 
and which mainly revolves around the subject’s experiences, feelings or 
thoughts. This is the case, at least, when we retrace the line from Roman-
ticism through Symbolism to the various phases of Modernism. Poetic 

243
practices where this has proved impossible have long occupied a more pe-
ripheral position, especially radical avant-garde forms. Of course, this does 
not mean that genre-related experimental forms have been ignored; rather, 
they have not been canonized and institutionalized to the same degree as 
lyric poetry, which has had a more classical form of expression and has 
remained within the format stipulated by the pages of the book.
However, the new situation seems to involve a reversal of the balance 
of power between what might be called classical modernist practice and 
avant-garde poetic practice. The avant-garde is not just asking politely, 
once again, to join the company of the established: it is practically kicking 
the door down. As mentioned earlier, in Denmark this is not only true of 
the rapidly emerging interaktionslyrik described in Peter Stein Larsen’s the-
sis, but also in relation to the many ways in which poetry is present in a va-
riety of forms of art and media and the way in which it is strengthening its 
material and performative dimensions. These contemporary poetic forms 
can be seen as an extension of earlier manifestations of the avant-garde and 
its experimental and boundary crossing drive.
7
 
The current tendency of lyric to appear across the media, to break 
down the borders between forms of art and to seek alternative paths of de-
velopment can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century when 
the ‘historical’ avant-garde established itself in forms such as expressionism, 
surrealism and futurism. Similarly, but to varying degrees, the avant-garde 
affected the concept of art throughout the 20th century.
In Denmark, the resumption and revitalization of the avant-garde 
tradition began in the late 1960s with the unfolding of a major experi-
mental endeavour. In literature, this resulted in play with the materiality 
of the book, in ‘Jazz’n’Poetry’, in performance art, and in the subversion 
of the borders between popular culture and art. In other words, artists 
and authors including Jørgen Leth, Hans-Jørgen Nielsen, Dan Turèll, Per 
Kirkeby, Henrik Have and Peter Laugesen comprised a group that broke 
with the established artistic norms and forms of expression within the me-
dium of the book and across a variety of art forms. It is precisely these au-
thors who were ‘re-canonised’ in connection with an increased interest in 
the open field of literature around the year 2000. Experimental literature 
had previously had underground status, but now it became more estab-
lished and was complemented by foreign sources of inspiration, especially 

244
from the USA.
8
 At the same time, a number of significant new voices 
emerged and, given their specific place in history, they continued working 
within what I have called the ever expanding field (‘det stadigt udvidende 
felt’ Mønster 2013) – a term inspired by the American art critic Rosalind 
Krauss’s concept of the expanded field.
9
With reference to this line of development in literary history, it might 
be said that there is nothing fundamentally new or surprising about the 
contemporary expansion, breeching and questioning of literary genres, in-
cluding poetry. It has long been avant-garde practice. Although the trend 
is not new, what is remarkable is the ingenuity, variety, originality and 
richness of these experiments. It is striking that so many of the interesting 
works produced in recent years challenge our established understanding 
of poetry. Now, perhaps more than ever, experiments with genre are being 
carried out to an extent and with a power that calls for attention and which 
can hardly be ignored.
10
VI
This situation leads us to ask whether more general aspects of contempo-
rary life might have put pressure on the established concept of poetry and 
have contributed to the emergence of alternative forms. With no illusions 
about being able to provide a full explanation, I shall point out four fac-
tors which I believe play an important role: mediatization, literary culture, 
forms of publication and increased politicization. It is certainly possible to 
distinguish between these factors, but they are also closely interconnected.
For the first time since printing became widespread, the supremacy 
of the medium of the book is genuinely challenged. The digital media 
pervade our reality, and even though the book is still a privileged literary 
medium, its power is no longer as exclusive as it was. Poetry is on the inter-
net, it is written on blogs, it takes the form of mobile text messages, and it 
can be experienced on the iPad. It is not just that familiar forms appear on 
the new media platforms; the mode of operation of the media influences 
the poetic genre and provides new aesthetic possibilities. This is apparent 
when one compares poetical works that have been published in print and 
have been remediated as internet poetry. It is obvious that internet poetry 
is often more complex in terms of genre, in that it creates a flexible text 
which can, for example, be combined with pictures and sound. Moreover, 

245
internet poetry employs a more open way of working, and it involves read-
ers to a greater degree in acquiring the work.
11
 As Hans Kristian Rustad 
puts it, in digital poetry the work changes from stable object to sensory 
event (Rustad 2012, 78).
While some authors of poetic works have sought out and studied 
the new possibilities offered by the electronic media, mediatization has 
also brought renewed attention to the printed book as a medium. Aware-
ness has increased regarding the mediality of various media, including the 
book, and instead of appearing to be a transparent medium for a text that 
must carry the meaning alone, material aspects of the book are increasingly 
incorporated in the production of meaning. The range extends from works 
that consciously play on their choice of paper quality and colour, to those 
whose idea and content cannot be separated from their format, including 
the materials upon which they are printed.
12
 In the form of book-objects, 
poetry has thus entered the gallery that had previously been reserved for 
painting and sculpture. Referring to Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Krista S. 
G. Rasmussen writes that a new material wave has emerged, and that this 
wave reflects a longing for the analogue and for physical objects. This long-
ing is a reaction to the transience of the digital (Rasmussen 2013, 44).
The second point is related to literary culture. While the production 
and consumption of poetic works used to be sedentary and compartmen-
talised activities, literature is increasingly socially involved. We are living 
in an experience culture, a culture of events; recent years have seen a sig-
nificant increase in the number of locations for the performance and dis-
semination of poetry. Literary cafés, festivals and stages now play a vital 
role in the meeting between author and audience. While the importance 
of such physical locations has grown, more and more participants have 
explored and exploited the possibilities of live performance. If the classic 
form of poetry reading has not been replaced, it is now complemented by 
various forms of poetry performance in which extant works are not merely 
disseminated, but in which their realization constitutes a literary work in 
itself. In particular, there has been a significant increase in the number of 
poets who have ventured into the field between sound’n’poetry.
13
 The oral 
dimension of poetry has been boosted in a broad range of forms extending 
from spoken word and poetry slam through rap and pop forms and on 
to rock, avant-garde and psychedelic forms. It seems to be the rule rather 

246
than the exception that young poets incorporate their works in a variety of 
performative and artistic contexts.
As has already been suggested, this trend towards more experience-ori-
ented poetical contexts has resulted in more dynamic author and reader 
roles. Their co-presence allows immediate response and various degrees of 
interaction. Moreover, the establishment of a shared field is not limited to 
live arrangements. It also exists on the internet, which acts as a locus for 
documentation, discussion and advertising. In Denmark, Authors’ blogs, 
YouTube, Bogtube [BookTube], Forfatterstemmer [Authors’ Voices] and 
Fieldsarkivet [The Fields Archive] are important places when it comes to 
experiencing  readings, poetry performance, video poetry, and so on. Even 
libraries have had to rethink the way that they function to accommodate 
the new forms of literature.
14
Changes in connection with publishing constitute the third factor 
which has had a decisive influence on the upheavals affecting poetry. A 
complex interaction of economic crisis and new publishing channels has 
led to a situation in which Gyldendal is really the only remaining large 
publisher in Denmark with space for poetry. The other actors constitute 
a plethora of small presses of various standing. Some of these enterprises 
have a long but tumultuous history; others act more like briefly opened 
channels. When we look at the growth of small presses, it appears that what 
began as a necessity produced by crisis has become an advantage – at least 
when it comes to experimental literature, including poetry. Without the 
control exerted by the desire to earn large amounts of money or to achieve 
success with a wide audience, these small enterprises have created a niche 
for poetry which offers the right conditions for poetry to develop in new 
directions.
15
 In addition, the advent of various new channels for electronic 
publication has made it cheaper and far less complicated to publish poetry. 
These channels include internet publishers, texting publishers, electronic 
periodicals and online poetry sites, while many poets publish on their own 
blogs and social media. As mentioned in connection with mediatization, 
the use of these platforms has helped to increase the diversity of poetry.
The fourth and final factor might be termed ‘politicization’. Politiciza-
tion may indeed be relevant to the difference between large and small pub-
lishers, but my main point here is that whatever the publication channel, 
it seems that in comparison with the 1980s and 1990s, there is a tendency 

247
for Danish poetry – as well as Western poetry in general – in the new mil-
lennium to engage with topical issues such as the climate, capitalism, power 
relations, race, colour and gender. Instead of a genre that was primarily 
aesthetically and existentially oriented and centred on the writing subject, 
poetry has increasingly become worldly and subversive since 2000 and has 
thus developed a more heterogeneous, discursive and impure character. 
The break with the established norms and predefined systems is not just 
a question of content; it demands a change of expression. Consequently, 
contemporary poetry is neither neat nor orderly in terms of form and genre.
In pointing out the influence of mediatization, literary culture, pub-
lication forms and increased politicization, I do not pretend to have pro-
vided an exhaustive explanation of why it is precisely now that there seems 
to be a fertile basis for a paradigm shift in our notions of poetry as a genre. 
I do believe, however, that these factors have made a decisive contribution, 
and that their interaction has meant that the present situation is signifi-
cantly different from the past. It could be said that the developments that 
we are currently experiencing in poetry are not new, insofar as the roots are 
to be found in literary history where they are particularly related to the var-
ious forms of the avant-garde. Nevertheless, the particular conditions and 
the specific technological possibilities that are characteristic of the present 
day mean that the new departures within poetry as a genre have taken 
a new direction and have greater impact than they had previously. Even 
though something is not essentially new, it can still be new.

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