Hypertext and Poetry

for nyc poetry talks

A force which has marked much twentieth century poetry, in the Pound-Eliot-Olson lineage, in ethnopoetry, language poetry, and other areas, is that structures, ideas, and flows of language are not necessarily linear. Though Ted Nelson's definition of hypertext, referring to a specific type of "non-sequential writing," comes in the sixties, (Lib 44) one can easily argue that authors of complex writing overstepped traditional speech and speech-making patterns long before then. Poetry and other adventurous art began the practice of hypertext much earlier in the century than is generally acknowledged. In this way, technology is just now catching up to what progressive minds have been doing across atomic - atomicized decades.

Hypertext and "electronic poetry" (poetry produced by computer, digital media, video) are the foci of my work at this moment. To further specify the term, hypertext is "a database with nodes (screens) connected with links (mechanical connections) and link icons (to designate where the links exist in the text)." (Heim 154) Hypertext is a type of textual branching which also allows the reader to link text freely with audio and video. This particular process is usually called hypermedia, a multimedia approach to presenting information. Intertextual connections previously enabled only in the individual mind, or by performance, are now elemental alongside the textual reality of the book. Now, the verb and noun of language posess a different kind of materiality in an electronic poem. A passage from Jed Rasula's book, The American Poetry Wax Museum, furthers the dimensions of a conversation on this subject:

The complex multimedia environment we inhabit offers a reproachful reminder about the archaic posture implied by the scriptural mode. Would it make a difference--and would that difference be audible rather than legible--to invoke another model? Instead of text and commentary, then, consider the format of exhibition and soundtrack. A display in one medium, the visual is attended and articulated by a performance in another medium, audial... (36)
Rasula's theories are inquisitive and polemical, but a lack of material evidence prevents him from prescribing how a widespread shift to other media might benefit poetry. He introduces the possibility that a textual expansion is important for poets to consider. Contrarily, Rasula is skeptical of the technology's ability (specifically computers and television) to distill contemporary writing into a vital force. He warns, "In our media environment (an environment, to be precise, inseparable from its media), the frantic mobility of voices amounts to a vast spectacle of dissociative turbulence." (42) This echoes Michael Heim, who in The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality writes, "The disadvantages of hypertext include disorientation and cognitive overload." (154)

It is a perplexing moment between contemporary poetry and its relationship to media where, "The printed page is no longer the sole medium of writing: electrical pulsations on a monitor dissolve print fixity into print fluidity, which is an oxymoron." (Rasula 45) While print and non-print modes of textual presentation are not mutually exclusive, awareness of computer hypertext has begun to have an effect on how writing is performed and staged. For a poetry publisher on the Internet, and in digital multimedia, the project is, how to craft with it. How to organize and present research, and (inter)active ideas in an organized yet unforced manner.

Among my inclinations of the past decade has been to apply different media to poetry, and vice-versa. In this instance, when "editing" hypertexts, or hypermedia texts, one is composing, alongside the surface text, a secondary text in another, quasi- invisible language. This secondary text is not as smooth to read, is not recognizable as poetry. This transparent (computer) language is not, however, without creative premise and result. There are new problems and difficulties, nuances in laying out a poem on the screen. As Michael Joyce writes, "any electronic text is a present- tense palimpsest." (9) What possibilities and difficulties are held by the mechanized, animated palimpsest? It is, as is poetry, more complex than putting letters down on a page.

The past few months, my concentration has swayed in the direction of finding archival uses for publishing and otherwise presenting and preserving poetry in a hypertextual manner in virtual pools. The rest of this talk outlines and gives some background to Reading Poetry on the World Wide Web (WWW), a pedagogical project of mine which has been up on the web for a few weeks. Its intention is to draw together and usefully arrange a panorama of poetry currently accessible on the WWW -- and whatever the web will become -- and, ideally, contribute materials to it. If you are on the Web, to connect with this site, link to http://cnsvax.albany.edu/~poetry You'll see a quote from Ted Nelson:

...there would be new documents, a new literary genre, of branching, non-sequential writings on the computer screen...these branching documents would constitute a great new literature, but they would subsume the old, since all words, all literature would go online and extend to a new branching generality. (Opening 46-47)
While augmentation, rather than subsumption, might be a better way to envision hypertext, the spirit and design of Nelson's vision are acknowledged as an ingredient of our site. Below the quotation is the temporary infrastructure of the project, there is a list of students' names which link to nodes uncovered by their research.

Late last year I began to formulate very specific ideas about how hypertext (or hypermedia) could be used to orchestrate poetry in a useful, and what I feel is purposeful, manner. The idea is to present, in hypertext (and, eventually, hypermedia), a script, a creation of multiple poetries. To amalgamate towards (undetermined) coherence a complex and fantastic range of "poetry" accumulated across centuries and cultures. A generality made-up of many, many particulars.

The seeds of this project go back a few years. One of the tenets I learned at Naropa Institute particularly comes to mind: "All fields of study are understood to represent the creativity of many people working in different ages, places, and cultural contexts." (Catalog 6) My impulse here has roots in a type of idealism. Macrocosmically, it is about an abstracted kind of community-forming which could have utility to readers at all levels and areas of interest. It presents itself as an equilateral literary adventure. A digital combing and map of the corpus - corpse poetic in an era where the public has become increasingly dependent on electronic and broadcast media.

In its present form, the project is a student - teacher collaboration in a Reading Poetry course at the University at Albany. Thus far, we have just completed the first stage, the first half, of a semester's project: to have students maintain web pages containing links to poetry sources they have found on the net. It has been at least a three part process. First, students were directed to read the course's printed text, The Handbook of Poetic Forms. Each student was required to carefully research four assigned topics from the book, and -- after instruction on how to do-so -- "surf the web," with the objective of locating as many poetry resources as possible. Next, students were taught how to build their own web-pages, & how to work with html (HYPERTEXT MARKUP LANGUAGE) code in order to manage these pages. As a group, we are creating one text which unites the writing of many authors. Since most of the students have had little experience with computers and networks, the demands of teaching them the mechanical dimensions have been significant.

It is in solving the present, second wave of questions, applying further implementation of thought and web-programming to the materials we are gathering, that the actual evidence for learning will become valuable for students and others. Beyond the initial challenges, there are questions such as how to organize and index the materials we gather as a unit. There is no other such project, or precedent for this project as yet. The so-called "mainline" poetry centers on the web (such as the English Server at Carnegie-Mellon, the Electronic Poetry Center, et. al.) are either highly specialized, or a hodge-podge of links. It is important, in my vision, to present the immense amount of materials in a design which enables readers to encounter no more than the requisite obstacles -- such as basic technical difficulties -- when it comes to locating poetry (open- writing, what-have-you) using network devices. Poetry can effectively resound and educate people on the net, beyond just being present there for someone to stumble across by coincidence. The organization and indexing poetry on the web is crucial if this zone of our culture is to be valued by readers and writers of poetry. For now, we are preparing at least two-indexes for the reader: a basic author index, and another by theme, form, and/or subject matter (i.e. type of poem).

Quickly, I wanted to touch on potential problems facing the type of hypertext proposed; issues we're keeping a keen eye on, in this arena:

1) Censorship. What happens if the content of some of the writing is antithetical to the interests and false morality, the overall intentions of those who operate the networks?

2) Access. The Internet and associated networks must be as widely accessible as is practical, or needed.

3) Issues of copyright, and to a lesser degree, payment-for-writing.

This is somewhat of an issue mostly because academic literature is business. Technical realities and adjustments, compromises and coordinations between print publishers and technicians, may allow for some aspects of this scheme to play itself out. Especially if authors, publishers and electronic library/datanodes find ways to work cooperatively, as they have to some extent with printed texts.

Reading Poetry on the World Wide Web is, on another register, a logical by-product of a movement towards the deterritorialization of poetry in America over the past several decades. An all encompassing, ultra-pluralistic poetics has yet to be woven, or even approached by most American writers in the past century. There are, to date, neither any general nor any specific terms under which we might classify "Our" "national "poetry." In fact, as Rasula writes, the notion of delineating "Our poets" is deceptively democratic. He speculates that, "such a phrase has never implied a radius bigger than an exclusive country club." (292) One of the purposes of this project is to suggest that hyper-media and organizations of thought, allow for a fully-inclusive compendium of poetry to begin accumulating.

There are two points I will reiterate. First, the ongoingness of these ideas for hypertext and poetry. The premise is of perpetual beginnings and understandings of what, say, computers and humans can and cannot do. We're at an early point with it. There is warranted hesitation. Among the hesitations from those less enthusiastic about technology is that the "hardware" is unstable. True, and there are obviously other problems. But digital media in one form or another will, for better or worse, be with us for some time. What I've thought to get going is the beginnings of the kind of poetry core within-the-system to be built over future decades.

Finally, there is an essential collaborative nature required by such intricate and precise creative projects. When it comes to merging poetry with technology, composition as collaboration is an integral part of the formula for efficiently producing sophisticated texts. It is at once an effect, and a necessity, when it comes to devising texts as hypertext and hypermedia. Hybrid texts developed by programmers and poets to graphically avail literature to the imagination -- and to make varied reading lists -- are a considerable approach to circulating and conducting texts for writers in the open today. Promoting multi-perspectival thinking and creativity, the greater tenets and purposes of poetry, amongst the culture-at-largening cannot be harmful.

--Chris Funkhouser, March 1996

Works Cited

Michael Heim. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Michael Joyce. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

The Naropa Institute 1990-1991 Catalog. Boulder, Colorado.

Ted Nelson. Computer Lib / Dream Machines: New Freedoms Through Computer Screens--a Minority Report. Chicago: Hugo's Book Service, 1974.

Ted Nelson. "Opening hypertext: A Memoir." In M.C. Tuman (ed.). Literacy online: The Promise (and Peril) of Reading and Writing with Computers. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992: 43-57.

Jed Rasula. The American Poetry Wax Museum. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1995.