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Techniques Enabled: (Pro)Fusions after Poetry Computerized

Techniques Enabled: (Pro)Fusions after Poetry Computerized

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222 / Chapter 5

has begun to play in the composition of poetry. In Perloff ’s view, “the most

common response to what has been called the digital revolution has been

simple rejection” (3); she explains that the consensus among most poets was

that “technology . . . remains, quite simply, the enemy, the locus of commodiÔcation and reiÔcation against which a genuine poetic discourse must

react” (19).1 We now know that this is not at all true, and many poets are

working with digital forms—this study does not merely re®ect my own creative interests but the interests of my surrounding culture. The initial, conservative response acknowledged (though not promoted) by Perloff is now

a dated fallacy. Digital poems are visually shaped and animated by software

and programmed into lyrical forms of all sorts through computer coding;

their hypertextually integrated fragments are initially arranged by the author and then reordered by the viewer. Poetic language plays various “roles.”

It animates language and dynamically infuses the computer screen with

atypical elements. For instance, even though animations now play a primary

role in advertising on the WWW, few businesses are plotting their Flash

movies in a mode comparable to Stefans’s the dreamlife of letters or presenting anything akin to the kinetic, aleatory material found in Cayleys reÔned


In contrast to those who use technology to market and sell products,

digital poetry subsumes old forms, and invents new ones, and more intensively explores the possibilities for alternative forms of communication.

Without the expectation or pressure to turn a proÔt, poets have had the liberty to consider and employ unconventional material aspects. As Eric Vos

writes in “New Media Poetry—Theory and Strategies,” his consideration of

approaches to new media literature, “The innovative force of new media poetry lies not in the communicative channels used (e.g., computers, video,

holography) per se, but in the exploration of their ramiÔcations for syntactic, semantic and pragmatic aspects of verbal/poetic communication in

general (215). Vos observes that the Ôrst poetry on the Internet aspired to

the basic conditions of print poetry, and he suggests that this is not the standard that digital poetry should set for itself. Fostering new types of poetic

communication, Vos asserts, “is the focal point of both the new media and

the new poetry that make up new media poetry” (218). In the foregoing reviews I have described the numerous ways poets have ventured to pursue

such objectives.

Digital poets working today, as always, may have any number of background experiences; one can be trained as a poet who applies literary skills

Techniques Enabled / 223

to technology, a programmer who pursues unconventional means of creative expression, or something else—like an artist who has opted to include

elegant verbal elements in her or his electronic work or simply someone

who knows how to use a computer and has an idea. Despite the demographic expansion of digital poets and poetry readers that has occurred on

a global level since the WWW emerged in the mid-1990s, the genre still

comprises works that share commonalities and aesthetic traits with historical productions introduced in the preceding chapters. Digital poetry is a byproduct of multiple expressive forms that came before. Perhaps unintentionally, today’s productions, while more aesthetically polished, hold many

similarities—beyond their technological association—with work produced

in the years before the global network was founded. The rise of the WWW

has not created a break between the past and present but rather represents

another stage of technological advancement for the culture at large and a

moment of stabilization for digital poetry. Diffuse and hybrid forms have

been drawn together as a continuum in their copresentation on the network

and in works that were developed of®ine.

As writing mixes with digital media, computer-based compositions have

been conceived using a variety of methods; words are conÔgured into texts

that are surprisingly expressive, assembled by devices built for calculation

and used mainly as mechanisms for the exchange of capital and information (though increasingly for the transmission of entertainment and communication). Poets and programmers working with hardware and software

continue a tradition of writing that merges poetry with image, programmed

language, cultural observation, and expressive symbols; many of the artworks introduced in previous chapters are clearly related to challenging

verbal-visual techniques of the past, even if they endeavor to ¤nd unique,

contemporary ways to process and re¤ne language. From a consideration of

the past emerges a mechanical display of the postmodern present, as artists

strive and successfully cultivate language in what would have been, Ôfty

years ago, futuristic communicative styles.

Digital poetry in all forms re®ects and exploits the highly processed,

mechanical aspects of the cultural moment we now live in, and computer

programming and software change the ways in which text(s) can be manipulated. Writers open to working in visual and hypertext forms can take

advantage of aesthetic fusions, layering dimensions that are difÔcult if not

impossible to enact on a printed page because they are kinetic and/or cyclical, disconnecting from one another by design. Text-generators and other

224 / Chapter 5

language-processing programs have helped poets to both reinscribe and

wildly distort conventional forms of writing. As in earlier poetry, a type of

translation of (or from) the world occurs in digital poetry. Creating poems

presented by or for computers, however, requires other processes than writing words down—the verbal climate of the digital poem depends on the successful implementation of many procedures, both technical and artistic.

Literary art in digital form takes on many different appearances and its

textual dynamics are not uniform. Authorship engages with technology;

writing mixes with other elements empowered by digital media. Despite the

challenges of evolving software, computer platforms that become obsolete,

and other fragilities, digital machinery is increasingly used as a staging area

for poetry. Computer coding allows authors to synthesize multiple layers of

text for the viewer/reader; hardware and software amplify and generate

writing, presenting visual, oral, and/or alphabetic dimensions of text. Digital technology is now part of a compounded form of writing, whether in

the form of word processing, desktop publishing, or in the movement of

work created beyond the “permanence” of the page. Writers who use digital

media combine their vision and linguistic skill with visual and auditory

communication and are creating a genre of new forms within the multitudinous realm of poetry. In its transformation from code to computer, digital

writing and presentation use the alphabet and other symbols/images in

electronic space, creating a tactile sense of language and expression that

effusively pours out of computer screens. Languagepoetrys principal

vehicleis no longer lodged on a Ôxed, silent page, as it is in print (even

if readers “sound” poems as they read). Words from one language enter

a dynamic and transmittable circuitry through another—computerized—

language that establishes built-in links, intricate graphical components,

soundtracks, and other capabilities. Vivid poetry is now charged with additional dimensions, and poets continue to cultivate a complex relationship

with language in a society of linguistically simpliÔed popular media.

We are left to question whether the prosody of digital poetry—what the

work actually consists of and how it is presented—will vary as technology

evolves or whether the basic dynamics have already been established in the

examples of early works. Computers and interfaces merely a decade hence

may not resemble today’s machines, but the literary content may not vary

from the formal foundations delineated herein. Currently developing hardware like vocal-response and iris-tracking mechanisms—where a viewer’s

voice and eye movement activate paths and dimensions to the text—will

Techniques Enabled / 225

eventually alter the ways in which texts are produced and absorbed. Yet digital poetry’s general textual parameters seem well established, at least until

some sort of new technological plateau is reached. While precomputer literature evolved radically within individual modes of literary production

(oral, written, printed, etc.) without requiring technological advancement,

it may be that digital poetry, closely tied to technology, will require both

technological and imaginative evolution in order for signiÔcant growth to

be attained. Explorations into digital poetry will continue as long as computer usage remains widespread; but how could productions of digital poetry grow—and into what?

WWW Works

Comparatively speaking, the small body of digital work predating the WWW

represents only a tiny fraction of the genre. The versatile, massive, global

network unquestionably ignited a proliferation of digital poetry, boosting

the conÔdence of artists who had previously been wary of the instability

of technologically based writing. Yet despite the transitory, ever-evolving

technologies and elements, the principles and features of digital poetry—

text generation, ®exible and collaborative language, use of sonic and visual

attributes, interactivity and intertextual linking—have been altered only

slightly if at all, as I will consider below, using a selection of texts that have

been produced on the WWW. Including this context also enables me to assert that the genre, despite its clear development in the prehistoric era, is far

from being fully realized. The coming years will indicate whether a more

televisual poetry, such as we begin to see in the highly animated, visceral

Shockwave or Flash poems and WWW works in general will dominate artistic literacy or the culture at large. Digital poetry is still forming and

gradually progressing, though it continues largely to embrace the characteristics, and sometimes the limitations, of its predecessors.

Digital poetry on the World Wide Web is brought together in HTML

(hypertext markup language), a comparatively uncomplicated process of

coding that allows a synthesis of graphical elements (in color), animation,

sound elements, and other coded features, with any “written” text. Hypertext markup language had a small impact on the development of digital

poetry. Increased access to computer technology has made for a bigger

readership—unfortunately, incompatible operating systems (e.g., Windows

and Macintosh), browser differences (e.g., Netscape and Explorer), and the

226 / Chapter 5

need for specialized software extensions (e.g., “plug-in” devices) sometimes

give the impression that digital poems lack ®uidity, even though bandwidth

transmission has widened.2 Interference from the interface can still prevent

or impede presentations, though it is also clear that the medium is capable

of infusing the form with sophisticated content. Aesthetically, the predominant condition of formal linearity in WWW digital poetry presentations

can seem contradictory; even digital poems that use random, animation, and looping procedures are usually self-conÔned, mainly linear segments that appear as individual works of art. Though they theoretically exist within a much larger domain of potential images, the teleologies and

terminal points at which a reader may go no farther are numerous; these

digital poems can theoretically branch in inÔnite directions, but they engineer themselves into a corner, forcing readers to begin again. The technology

is not being used any more profoundly than a footnote in a book, although

the work is often graphically driven.

Digital poems began to appear on the WWW as soon as it emerged,

and by the mid-1990s each of the forms that constitute the genre could be

found there.3 Using hypertext and hypermedia, Christy ShefÔeld Sanford

and Diana Slattery prepared some of the Ôrst works of digital poetry on the

WWW in late 1995 and early 1996. Slattery’s Alphaweb and Sanford’s work

were remarkable for their stylish appearance and methods of connecting

disparate forms of text by using graphical communication. Alphaweb, by

design, combines the use of vibrantly visual and alphabetic cues to guide

the reader through the text. Slattery uses twenty-six graphical and alphabetic links to interconnect arrangements of verse. At the end of each passage the viewer has the option to navigate texts subjectively through given

images or an alphabetic table. This application of hypertext, using a graphical table, recalls Rob Swigart’s appropriation of the periodic table in “Directions” and the style of graphical navigation used in works by Jean-Marie

Dutey (e.g., “Les mots et les images,” “Les trois petits cochons”), though the

quality of Slattery’s imagery, prepared using common graphical tools, is

more vivid. Sanford’s work is exciting because of its high-quality imagery,

inventive technical application, and breadth of subject matter. Two early

pieces, “Boucher en vogue” (1996) and “Spring” (1996) use the WWW’s capabilities to great effect by linking to external sites located elsewhere on the

network. She fortiÔes and expands her poetry with radiant imagery and

links to guide the viewer from one section of text to another. Sanford’s

visual imagery is dynamic: images do not merely decorate the narrative

Techniques Enabled / 227

but layer meaning and act as navigational levers. Although Sanford’s poems were initially static, they gradually became driven by moving imagery related to the theme of the poem. Safara in the Beginning (With Bible

Verses, Motion Pictures and Field Guides) is particularly notable, using animated images (such as insects), virtual collages, and texts to inscribe an

antioppression theme. This work presents a parallel story employing biblical

passages along with her poetry. As seen previously in Jean-Pierre Balpe’s

“Autobiographie,” Sanford makes use of mapped images (i.e., pictures that

contain links) and displays multiple associated texts simultaneously. At the

outset of the WWW, digital poets, even if they were unaware of their predecessors, were actively reÔning techniques that had been rudimentarily proposed in previous titles.

At this time many other works sprang up on the WWW. Poets such

as Glazier, Andrew Stone, and Alexis Kirke produced early works. Glazier

quickly moved from creating typographical and sound experiments to making use of image collage, hypertext (involving both images and associated

Ôles), animation, Java, and other procedural methods.4 Andrew Stone created a simple but illustrative hypertext poem, “The IndraNet” (a thematic

model also used by Cayley), to illustrate his view of “the entire web as one

gigantic interwoven organism” onto which “HyperPoetry” could be an “active lens.” Initially, each of the poem’s ten lines had links to a range of

WWW sites, including the Central Intelligence Agency, HotWired, sites for

job and volunteer opportunities, French culture, and a space telescope science institute. This small experiment proves Heim’s point (chapter 3) that

many disparate motifs can exist within the same textual or media-based

structure. Unsurprisingly, nearly ten years later more than half of the links

are broken (an unfortunate problem overshadowing some WWW works).

Kirke’s “Medical Notes of an Illegal Doctor” is a “hyperpoem” that “can

be mutated by the reader,” who can submit text that will be added to the

poem.5 The poem itself is set up in one large Ôle; the author embeds a series

of “anchors” that allow a nonlinear reading of the text. This type of movement from stanza to stanza recalls techniques used in pre-WWW hypertexts covered earlier.

Discussing some of these works in a Talisman article—which became the

basis for the online “Proto-Anthology of Hypermedia Poetry” I created in

1996—I remarked that these works were impressive for their graphical qualities and in some instances for employing hypermedia to great effect by

linking to external sites. At the outset of the WWW there seemed to be

228 / Chapter 5

more inclination to connect digital poems with exterior materials, but as the

WWW became a more popular vehicle for practitioners to share their poems in a noncommercial setting, works became more aesthetically sophisticated but less adventurous. More emphasis was placed on an individual’s

ability to organize her or his own materials and vision than on positing a

text within a larger body of interconnected documents (which was Nelson’s

original concept of hypertext).

For example, in several works created in 1996 and 1997 Laura Jordan (programmer) and Yolanda Astuy (writer) collaborated to present poetry combining sound and animation using Shockwave and Java. “Haiku” unfolds as

the viewer clicks on the word haiku—thunder sounds and a poem is read in

Spanish over the stormy background soundtrack. In “Eating Apples” words

of a poem about anorexia slowly fade onto and off the screen. The soundtrack of the poem is spoken in Spanish, accompanied by a sample of someone loudly eating an apple while the words pulsate across a shimmering

background. These examples utilize a greater amount of multimedia processing; sound effectively extends the language’s effect and message, and the

animations are ®uid and realistic in their three-dimensionality. Although

reminiscent of works found in Alire, these poems move a step beyond previous experiments as they inscribe high-resolution graphics and audio components.

Many animated and video poems have been developed in the WWW

era to enliven language using various compositional techniques. Some feature footage shot with a video camera, but more often they use a cameraless (borrowing a phrase used by Kostelanetz) approach to presenting the

poem-as-movie. Initially, such works were presented as miniaturized animations, as seen on Komninos Zervos’s “Cyberpoetry” site (circa 1996) and

on the Interpoesia CD-ROM (Wilton Azevedo/Philadelpho Menezes, 1997–

98). One especially reÔned visual and kinetic work, produced using Macromedia Flash and presented on the WWW, is Brian Kim Stefans’s the dreamlife of letters. Stefans, employing the alphabetized words of a text by Rachel

Blau DuPlessis, made a series of short static “ ‘concrete’ poems based on the

chance meeting of words (with prologue).” Then, using smooth, grayscale

letters on an orange backdrop, Stefans renders a short Ôlm of the ordered

letters, enlivening the already fragmented words of DuPlessis’s “very texturally detailed, nearly opaque” piece. In Stefans’s version words twist upward

in spirals, spin like a propeller, stack into grids and rows, bounce, ®ow in

vertical columns, and blend into one another. As Strehovec observes in

Techniques Enabled / 229

“Text as Loop,” the “meaning” of the poem is created by the “quick transitions to anti-words, derivative words, and even non-words.” These words

become something else when put into motion and certainly differ from what

they are on the page. When the word Cixous bounces, it gives the viewer

something more to consider with regard to the relationship between sign

and signiÔed. The quick and rapid presentation of asyntactic fragments is

visually interesting and keeps the reader attentive to see how (or if ) they

connect with one another. The versatility of animation, and the author’s

control of it, are especially astonishing. The animated materiality of language, as it has been in previous forms (Nichol, Layzer, Kostelanetz, Melo e

Castro) is also outstanding in the latest videopoetic versions. Letters are totally broken down, reshaped, and reassembled. Pieces of letters are used to

build other letters in multiple dimensions, and the language appears to interact within itself.

In his award-winning “text movie” windsound (2001), John Cayley cinematographically advances his HyperCard works of the 1990s (a process that

began with his 1996 poem Oisleánd ).6 In windsound, which only runs on

Macintosh systems, Cayley removes the viewer’s control of the output on

the screen (though in later pieces, as described below, he also develops navigable movies that include “transitional phases which are generated ‘on the

®y’ ”). Visual and poetic values transpire on the screen during the “transliteral morphs (textual morphing based on letter replacements)” that are illuminated in a sequence of alphabetic shifts that occur between nodal texts

while the program is running.7 As in his later work “Overboard,” which is

“installed as a dynamic linguistic ‘wall-hanging,’ an ever-moving ‘language

painting,” Cayley presents windsound as screens of text that algorithmically

unfurl into one another over the course of twenty minutes. These works are

to be observed, not interfered with. When any of the nodal texts begin to

reach lucidity, the possibility of clear communication immediately begins

to devolve. The viewer sees animated text, hears a continuous low-level

audio track, and, at various times, hears synthesized speech from one of

three voices. As explained in his essay “Literal Art” and elsewhere, Cayley

has made himself known for addressing linguistic structures at a granular

or atomic level to create (or re-create) literary expression. In her comments

on the piece Heather McHugh writes that windsound “reveals the power of

letters, even as it plays with the limits of literal intelligibility. It explores the

power of sequences, even as it plays with non-sequitur and bespeaks signiÔcant emotion in its manipulation and presentation of language.

230 / Chapter 5

Fig. 5.1. Aya Karpinska. Screenshot (March 9, 2005) from the arrival of the beeBox


Another graphically spectacular piece, Aya Karpinska’s the arrival of beeBox, is interactive rather than videographic. Karpinska uses 3-D modeling

software (3D Studio Max) to render three separate planes of language, each

containing seven clusters of layered words. The poem pivots on a wheel and

emerges while being navigated by the reader, who has downloaded the piece

and acquired the necessary plug-in device. These constellations of language

are at ¤rst indecipherable (¤g. 5.1); the viewer must discern how to negotiate,

plot a course, and read through the multiple dimensions of words.

By manipulating the computer mouse, the viewer can magnify the text(s)

and bring any area of the document to the foreground (e.g., dancing on a /

black tile đoor, Ôg. 5.2). This particular interaction with the text recalls

Rosenberg’s Intergrams, though it imposes a different sort of visual, nonlinear syntax. Viewers may neither add nor delete content from Karpinska’s

gamelike poem, but they can manipulate and arrange selected sections,

which operate as a row of Ferris wheels comprising words stacked on top of

each other in space. Unlike Stefans’s piece, which objectively appears the

same to every viewer, the arrival of the beeBox is interactive and less temporally based; the viewer is both coconstructor and consumer.

Naturally, graphical and hypertextual poems are abundant on the WWW.

Even text generators, the earliest form of digital poetry, have been available for download on the WWW since the 1990s through resources such

Techniques Enabled / 231

Fig. 5.2. Aya Karpinska. Detail of screenshot (March 9, 2005) from the arrival of the

beeBox .

as Marius Watz’s computer-generated-writing site and Luigi Bob Drake’s

Textworx Toolshed.8 Many of today’s generators, however, are presented in

new ways. For example, Glazier’s IO Sono at Swoons (2002) is not a program

that users download and play on their PCs, as were the programs Watz gathered. Glazier’s work, authored with Java, plays “live,” molting in vibrant colors on the WWW, continuously renewing itself on the screen in real time.

The dynamics of the work are neither linear nor complete; the language

presented is a disorganized mishmash of languages (including interruptive

diacritical marks), with references to Tibet and the names of other digital

poets. Glazier is not attempting to present individual poems, as have most

programs in the past. There is no convenient way to reproduce the poetry;

the only ways to document the program are by video or by screen capture.

Other advanced examples of automatically generated digital poems can be

found on Permutations, where several “server-side computer programs written in the Perl programming language” emulate a range of historically conceived combinatory poems (such as anagrams, proteus poems, and cutups); the site also includes less-traditional-oriented initiatives, including

“Autopoietic Real Time Music and Text Systems” (Karlheinz Essl) and a

“Neoism Machine” (Monty Cantsin).9 Permutations is a useful, interactive,

232 / Chapter 5

and informative site, wisely designed to work in all browsers without requiring downloads or plug-ins. In many works viewers can identify any WWW

site (by entering a URL), or insert their own documents, as the source text

to make a poem. Users can set further parameters in some programs via

menus containing processing options (e.g., size of alphabet or type of numerical conversion in Cramer’s “Gematria/Anagrams”) or—as in this site’s

version of Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes—by selecting the source

text to output from a range of choices on pull-down menus. In addition to

inviting the input of text or URL, the program that demonstrates Tzara’s

cut-up method uses a pull-down menu to give the viewer a choice of twenty

online newspapers to cut up. Texts are generated quickly, and the viewer can

watch how each poem functions.

Many of the pioneers of digital poetry whose works are discussed in

previous chapters continue to explore the media’s abilities to advance expression, communication, and literary culture. In France Jean-Pierre Balpe

continues to program text generators of various sorts and is director of

the Department of Hypermedia at the University of Paris VIII; he has expanded the scope of his work to include interactive multimedia museum

installations (see below). In 2003 Philippe Bootz cofounded yet another

group, Transitoire Observable (of which Balpe is a member), which focuses on “numerical” art and, as their WWW site reports, “the globality of

systems which are using computers and not only on the forms of surface

which can be observed on-screen.” This organization, consisting of members from several continents, circulates media-based poetry via a WWW

site and organizes events to discuss and display research and craft. Pedro

Barbosa, while maintaining an interest in algorithmic writing (i.e., programming text generators), has begun to incorporate generated text in an

interactive 3-D hypermedia environment. Barbosa refers to his most recent

work, Alletsator, as “opera” or “cyberdramaturgy” that is sequenced by the

viewer, guided by an onscreen robot (or, in computer gaming lingo, “avatar”) named “Anaximandro Macromedia,” through a rich graphical environment while Barbosa’s generated poems are recited (email 2005). Alan

Sondheim’s perpetually developing work—both on the WWW, CD-ROM,

and in performance—integrates kinetic elements, language, audio, and images. He has also created work in immersive environments (e.g., “World Premier: The Phenomenology of the Virtual”; see
clcold/sondheim/>) and stimulates philosophical and theoretical discourse

by moderating the listservs Cybermind, Cyberculture, and (with Sandy Bald-

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