Down vs. Up.

Kate Middleton is the guest blogger at Southerly this month and she’s written a really good article about the incorporation of new technology in writing. She first looks at the way that TV procedural The Good Wife effortlessly incorporates online life into its plots, then looks at the new words (and new uses for old words) that the internet has bequeathed to the dictionary before considering how this new technology and its consequent language is used in  poetry.

Middleton finishes with a close look at “Summer Fig”, a poem by Jaya Savige that includes the lines:

Our backyard god’s
a giant fig, downloading
gigs of shade onto the fresh cut grass.

It’s a cracker of a poem, one that I’ve thumbs-upped before on this blog, and one that has caught the eye of many a reviewer of Savige’s Surface to Air.

I coincidentally re-read “Summer Fig” this week, and I have to say I have a problem with Savige’s use of “downloading” in the context of describing a fig tree’s shade.

Hear me out:

When you download something you TAKE it from its original source so that you can make personal use of it. For example, downloading a song from the internet means taking it from the internet and putting it on your personal computer’s hard drive.

When you upload something you’re GIVING something of yours to another, more widely accesible storage medium.  For example, uploading a photo to your blog means giving your blog a copy of a photo that normally just lives on your hard drive.

Basically, downloading is accepting something that someone is willing to share with you, and uploading is sharing something of yours with other people. When you talk about downloading you’re focussing on the recipient, and when you talk about uploading, you’re focussing on the donor. The crucial distinction is between pulling something towards yourself (downloading) or sending something away from yourself (uploading).

Thus, in “Summer Fig”, the fig, being the entity that “gives” the shade to the ground (i.e., the entity that is responsible for creating of the shade), would technically be uploading the shade onto the ground, not downloading it. The ground, in this transaction, would be the one doing the downloading, not the fig tree.

I suspect that Savige was thinking of the movement inherent in casting shade onto the ground when he wrote this poem. The shade is below the tree, therefore the idea of downloading is more resonant that uploading, which seems to want us to look upwards, away from the tree’s shadow.

I’m not saying he should’ve used “uploading” instead of “downloading” in this poem. If t’were me, or if I had been in an editorial role with respect this poem, I’d’ve suggested looking for an entirely different metaphor altogether.

It’s important, I think, when poets start using new technological terms, to use them accurately (just as it is to use scientific terms accurately, he said in full acceptance of his own failure on this part) otherwise the metaphors can break down under closer consideration.



Poet. Author. Beard. Husband. Dad. Four chickens. Dog. Cat. I can sometimes fix my lawnmower.

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Posted in i would like to recommend these people's writing, new ways to procrastinate, poetry, writing
3 comments on “Down vs. Up.
  1. or else downloading refers to taking a copy of the original data – i.e. not the data itself – in which case the shade is being copied from the fig to the ground … or something. but onto a more important question: how long does it take to download a gig of shade anyway.

  2. tim w says:

    interesting conversation….

    aside to your reading of the specificity of the metaphor Adam – i read those lines as to do with transition from inside to outside, a residual way of seeing, kind of like the tetris effect. which i think is a more superficial take … anyway, when i went outside just then i found myself starting (meant to write ‘staring’) at a leaf wondering if it was transmitting or receiving information and it bent my head in a pleasant way.

    there’s a great poem by Peter Minter ‘voyager’ which has these lines : ‘where olive leaves / in freshly graded parks // look slightly lossy in the breeze’

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