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Varieties of Poetry Publishing and Aesthetics on the Internet
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This article considers the many forms poetry publishing on the Internet has taken and how technology has influenced the distribution as well as the aesthetics of poetry, in terms of reading and composition. The article cites examples of how poets have employed tools such as flash to create online reading experiences that differ fundamentally from those of the page. Blurring of boundaries between genres—poetry and prose, the expressly literary and non-literary—is also examined in relation to technology. The article assesses the economics of online publication as enabling new voices to emerge.
Amusing, ironic, provocative, collaborative—the text is cool indeed. But is it poetry? And do these adjectives, tied as they may be to digital media, necessarily describe the aesthetics of poetry published on the Web? This article not only explores a range of poems and poetry-related content on the Internet, but also considers the question of whether the medium really does make the message: whether creating and reading Web poetry differ aesthetically from the equivalent activities in print.
'This is a Journey into Sound.'
The Electronic Poetry Center (EPC), founded at the State University of New York at Buffalo by poets and educators Charles Bernstein and Loss Pequeño Glazier, remains the most comprehensive port of embarkation for a tour of poetry on the Web. With a particular taste for the innovative, EPC (http://epc.buffalo.edu) collects author and work page URLs, and indexes a wide variety of links to e-magazines, blogs, manuscript, text, and sound archives. Questions of how online distribution transforms the aesthetics of writing and reading aside, advances in this last area of audio represent the most striking initial difference in the experience of poetry online versus the page. You can hear it. Writes Charles Bernstein of PennSound http://www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Studio-111.html, one of EPC's audio links:
We launched PennSound —http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound—on January 1, 2005. PennSound represents a new way of producing and distributing poetry. While records, tapes, and CDs have also provided audio recordings of poets reading their work, the web greatly increases access to the small amount of material made available in these formats. But beyond that, the digitalization of archival material—which in our PennSound project preserves and distributes at the same time—is making recordings available that previously had no publication or distribution source.
Like the megawatt radio stations that sent rock and roll surging into rural and suburban America during the 1950s, PennSound carries an array of poets and poems with, potentially, similarly culturally transforming effects on the landscape—and the temperature—of the poetry on the Internet. Eighteenth-century scholar John Richetti, for example, admirably captures Jonathan Swift's mix of coy humor and affection in his delivery of "On Stella's Birthday 1719," a greeting that celebrates the subject, despite her apparent doubling in size and age since the poet first glimpsed her virginal 16-year-old form. Listening to Richetti, one can imagine Swift offering the birthday toast with a tonal cocktail of the sweet and the sharp: "So little is thy Form declin'd / Made up so largely in thy Mind."
"Close Listening," another PennSound link, essentially fast-forwards in time via a series of recorded conversations and readings. One can listen to poet, critic, and artist Tan Lin introduce his Controlled Vocabularies:
This work was an attempt to do a post-generic book of poetry or novel that could also masquerade as other art forms including architecture, cinema, film, lounge music, the airport, things like that.
Accessing the Controlled Vocabularies' "text proper," one hears little difference between Lin's aesthetic statement of purpose and his execution:
It would be nice if the book could be less spatially kinetic and more boring like mailbox with a name on it or a billboard. As anyone who has ever read a bestseller can tell you, the best reading experiences don't last very long and they tend to be as amorphous and formulaic as the human attention span will permit. Such a book would have the general effect of dispersing its community and converting all readers into non-readers. . . . Henri Bergson called disorder an order we cannot see. Similarly, the most beautiful poem suggests experiences that are highly inattentive and unwritten, and the most beautiful are merely superficial indicators for other sorts of peripheral, coded, programmatic, functional or directional information that is applied to the surface of things like postcards, flat panel displays, parking lots, brochures, street signs, or other depthless objects[.]
Matching the poem's text with overtly non-poetic peripherals is, of course, a trick as old as modernism itself. Think of T.S. Eliot's notes to The Waste Land. Lin extends this effect by miming the prosaic tone of the introduction—the work's first section is also called "Editorial Note"—in the poem itself: descriptive, expository, critical. Most notable is Lin's contextualization of his poem. How many poets would seemingly aspire to ally their books with popular bestsellers on terms of brevity and ease of demands upon the reader, inviting the reader to become inattentive, and distracted, and in so doing, shift from an inactive/attentive mode to an active/ambient mode, assimilating the poem as easily as if it were a component of the landscape? Poetry or novel? Airports as art forms? Poetry as a distributed experience? This is far removed from Walter Pater's notion of an individual's reading as a solitary experience of beauty, a moment snapped off in time, the value of which exists in its singular brilliance, its hard gem-like seconds of burning. And yet, Li's work, with its emphasis on collaboration and inattention, seems to capture well how the experience of poetry on the Web—in this case auditor—differs substantially from poetry on the page.
Some of the works archived on Poems that Go (http://www.poemsthatgo.com/gallery/) further advance Lin's qualification of online poetry as an amalgam of netscape stuff, familiar as ad banners and instant message texts. In"Conversations" (http://www.poemsthatgo.com/gallery/spring2003/conversation/index.htm) Jason Nelson presents the user a trio of icons at the left-hand side of a screen. An image of crowds in a grandstand forms the background, while a whirl of apparently random letters circles around the center. Mouse over an icon and the letters drop from the alphabetic maelstrom and sequence as the poe's title. Clicking the topmost icon, "Injury Analysis," sends the user to eight recorded tracks, each of a voice recounting an injury and its aftermath. Manipulating volume controls allows the user to prioritize some voices over others: a woman explaining the difficulty of getting out of bed, a man recalling a boating accident via the image of blood on sneakers, etc. Here audio deployment of the poem asserts its primacy as the "text" and with it comes the license to transform the final "product." The effect is to hybridize its auditor and author: deciding which narratives to bury and which to expose, determining the nature of the experience of the work by allowing it be a cacophony—all voices speaking at the same volume—or a duet.
"Inspired by Glen [sic] Gould," the site reads, "these are sound instruments designed for you to create a corwded [sic] room, or verbal composition." If the Internet is the largest crowded room in communication history, why shouldn't Web poets and readers engage in an essentially dialogic digital relation to one another? Why not make data verse and verse data? Why not have a little fun? Writes the pioneering poet and critic Stephanie Strickland:
What digital media can do that print can't: explore multiple spatial layers and multiple time codes that present simultaneously; explore live performance whether or not this occurs as a result of a reader's physical input; explore interaction and networked experience; explore 'gaming' as a possibly poetic mode; explore literature as a physical installation (see Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Camille Utterback, Clilly Castiglia Talking Cure http://www.studiocleo.com/cauldron/volume4/confluence/wardrip-fruin/); explore the interchangeability of sense representations, i.e., the same 'data' can display as text, as visuals, or as sound.
Web publishing makes possible the poem as sound object, a performance not passively observed but rather open to—perhaps even dependent on—the user's participation, and herein lies a significant departure from print. This is a different kind of Paterian combustion: a cool fire.
The Formal Aspects of Digital Poetry
"Poetry," writes John Hollander in a sharp, sensible little guide to English verse, "is a matter of trope; and verse, a matter of structure." Where fable and image, Shakespeare's stuff of dreams, are given shape by formal requirements like rhyme, rhythm, and where a line of writing turns, there is language recreated as music. Wallace Stevens formulated this equation: poetry equals the pressure of reality on the imagination. Hollander continues: "But the blueprints of verse can be used to build things made of literal, or nonpoetic material—a shopping list or a roadside sign can be rhymed—which is why most verse is not poetry."
Poets writing in any age via any medium require the discipline of form to give structure and sense to their imaginations. There is no avoiding the conscious choices associated with applying ideas to structures and structures to ideas. And when such choices are well made, the aesthetic effect is pleasure, which comes in difficult, even punishing forms, as well as, soft, sweet, easily accepted ones. But what happens when poets seek out determinedly "non-poetic" material—very much the kind of roadside signs Hollander and Lin both refer to—in creating their music (or noise as the case may be) and their forms are plastic, and easily manipulated by the reader? What happens when the reader—or a combination of the reader and a program—choose the structure of a poem, as they can on the Web?
Canadian-born, London-based poet John Cayley publishes a variety of formal experiments on his Web site: http://www.shadoof.net/in/. One of these,"overboard" represents the experience of drowning by utilizing QuickTime animation, and a soundtrack composed by Giles Perring, so that the lines of the poem itself—and its accompanying music—sink and rise to the surface of intelligibility, composing and decomposing themselves continually. The effect of this "dynamic, linguistic 'wall hanging'" on the reader is that parts of the four-stanza poem—the simple tale of a sailor who falls over the side of a ship during a storm—are always submerged. The reader must complete the missing segments or construct relationships between those portions that are legible, in effect making decisions on the form and thus the argument of the poem. Simultaneously, a visual representation of the poem, consisting of moving illuminated squares, follows the patterns of the made and unmade words synchronized to musical tones.
A traditionalist like Hollander might argue that this is indeed non-poetry masquerading as poetry in a suit of turned lines, nothing more than a shopping list; noise, not music. Yet if the object of poetry is mimetic—art reflecting, and, perhaps replacing, life in a parallel experience—Cayley's work arguably succeeds as a new kind of poem, enabled only by digital media. And only imagine how a master of print form, such as Robert Browning, might have published one of his many musical poems, such as "A Toccata of Galuppi's" were audio and animation available to him.
This may be the emergence of a new generation of Brownings and Dickinsons on the Web? It is difficult, and perhaps even pointless, to judge, as poems—a little like deities—depend on the attention of their followers for their existence, and therefore will live or die by how well they move, amuse, piss off, or please; the forms they use to coax such responses are only one factor in their relevance.
"Money is a Kind of Poetry."
We've considered the aesthetics of publishing poetry on the Web. But what of the finances? While very few poets get paid—Billy Collins, Fifty Cent, and John Ashbery representing the range of notable exceptions—it costs poets money to publish. For many of the major publishing houses in their pre-conglomerate days (Random House, Harper and Fill-in-the blank, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), poetry publishing was a small but stable part of the editorial program, and editors were often counseled that acquiring a poet's first collection might eventually produce her more accessible first novel. In this post-conglomeration era, operating income pressures increasingly squeeze poetry out of commercial publishers' pipelines and into the houses of independent publishers and university presses, where, to a large degree, it remains, though increasingly dependent on grants, and years of lead time associated with scarce funding. Match this slow connection-dependent and critical-reception-dependent mode with the possibilities of instant Internet publishing and the advantages of the latter become readily apparent. Today, almost anyone can start a poetry journal.
Writes Bruce Covey, poet, and publisher of the online journal Coconut (http://www.coconut.org):
It's affordable to publish an online journal. In Coconut, I feel the luxury of space—I can publish long sequences and chapbooks. . . . The increase in the number of online journals and the continued emergence of blog poetry and the issue-less journal (i.e., Reb Livingston's No Tell Motel or Daniel Nester's Unpleasant Event Schedule) de-formalize the publishing process and open/deconstruct the notion of canon. And "credibility" is skyrocketing within more established poetry circles. Online journals are becoming a larger and larger presence within Best American Poetry, for instance, and a couple of poets in the recently updated Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry are prolific bloggers.
Online journal Shampoo editor Del Ray Cross also points to the growing legitimacy and quality of online poetry publication:
It seems to me that the relevance of online magazines grows each year as we age (and are born) with technology.... Each year highly relevant new magazines pop up online that seem to take for granted the venue (some random examples: Octopus, Coconut, Softblow, Dusie, Ghoti). Then there are the mind-blowers like Jacket, which remains THE magazine on or off-line.
"On or off-line:" the phrase is telling not only for what is says about the credibility of electronic and print poetry publishing (they are becoming equal) but also for what it says about print publishing specifically: its role endures rather than diminishes. Nearly all of the editors and poets interviewed for this article were asked to comment on the potential for relevance, or irrelevance, of print publishing in a digital world.
There is no question that digital publication of poetry and poetics on the Web is transforming the medium. But the Web does not replace print publishing any more than print publishing replaced live poetry performances. They serve different—sometimes competing but sometimes complementary—functions.
I believe online publishing enhances print publishing, acting, in effect, as a marketing tool for print and drawing more readers to poetry. I buy more poetry books than I did three years ago, because I'm excited about a lot more work The recent developments in the ease and quality of print-on-demand publishing make book production much easier and affordable.
The print presses are not irrelevant at all. They are important and valuable. What is done best on the page is very different from what is done best off it. What is important is to distinguish what media should be used for what goals and experiences—and to see the continuities inside the differences, to understand media shifts as something that have happened many times before in human history.
Traditionalists may argue that online publishing—with its tendency toward cool aesthetics—reduces poetry to just another sound byte, information not wisdom, gimmickry not beauty. What is also arguable, however, is that by significantly lowering the economic and technical barriers to publication and distribution, online publishing is breathing new life in poetry, allowing new voices to emerge and, when used as a marketing tool, supporting print publication.
The Work of Art in the Age Technological Reproduction
"If a method of Printing which combines the Painter and the Poet is a phenomenon worthy of public attention, provided that it exceeds in elegance all former methods, the Author is sure of his reward," wrote William Blake in 1793. The method of printing to which he refers was his own, and he used it to produce the illustrated books that constitute some of the greatest and most visionary poetry in the English language. He did not receive much public attention in his lifetime; his procedure was so radically different from what preceded it that his age's prevailing notions of standards of elegance hardly applied, and the "reward" came only in posterity. Like the Web poets of today, Blake was a poet working a new medium. His work was post-generic, mixing prose and poetry, and, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, rewriting Biblical proverb in stunningly outrageous ways. ("Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.") In his own age, it would have been possible to dismiss him as a weirdo.
The history of poetry is filled with similar examples: Emily Dickinson writing her poems as letters (or fascicles), Walt Whitman revising and self-publishing the same book over and over (and even reviewing it.) Poets, like all artists, utilize the tools and media available to them. Some, like Blake, Whitman, and Dickinson, utilize their media to produce truly new and different results, forcing readers to rethink their aesthetic experience.
Digital poetry publishing represents a new medium and a new set of opportunities. A digital-born Blake may not yet have emerged. Nevertheless, Stephanie Strickland reminds us, there is: "a continuing intellectual evolving that brings in issues of database art, generative and combinatorial art, locative art, networked real time art. I say 'art,' but exactly what is evolving is exactly what is at issue. The old genre names don't work, but poetry, insofar as it designates poesis, or making, is exactly the right name for it all." In making their art, Web poets and publishers may well be remaking and renewing poetry itself, with collaboration redefining the notion of originality, orchestration becoming the dominant mode of composition, and what is at first seemingly noise transforming our perception of music.
Surette, Leon. "Marhsall McLuhan." The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Groden, M. and Kreiswirth, M., ed. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/marshall_mcluhan.html
Benjamin, Ben. "What Would Lincoln Say?" http://www.altx.com/hyperx/
Lin, Tan. "Intro." Close Listening: Tan Lin in Conversation with Charles Bernstein. 23 May 2005. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Lin.html
Nelson, Jason. "Conversation." Poems that Go Gallery Archives. Winter Issue 2004, 15. http://www.poemsthatgo.com/gallery/spring2003/conversation/conversation.html
Cayley, John, and Giles Perring with Douglas Cape. "Overboard." http://www.shadoof.net/in
Blake, William. Prospectus. 1793. William Blake Archive. http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu:8080/saxon/servlet/SaxonServlet?source=blake/documents/illum.xml&style=blake/shared/styles/wba.xsl
Bernstein, Charles. Syllabus for Textual Conditions 2005.
http://writing.upenn.edu/bernstein/syllabi/textual-conditions.html. An excellent reading list for a course that addresses the question: What are the implications—for art, knowledge, communication, research, and scholarship—of the digitalization of books, images, and recordings, now under way?
Hayles, Katherine N. How We Became Posthuman : Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Deals with fiction and cybernetics, but contains pertinent analysis on the transformation of information.
Rasula, Jed and McCaffrey, Steve. Imagining Literature: An Anthology. Boston: MIT Press, 1998. Anthology that deals the relationship of poetry and formal experiment.
JNelson, Jason.Nine Attempts to Clone a Poem http://heliozoa.com/clone.html
Sapnar, Megan. Figure 5 Media Series (Figure 5 in Gold Goes By)
(specific comparison of media)
Rosenberg, Jim. Barrier Frames
(poetry of grammar)
Strickland, Stephanie. The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot
(text, visuals, interaction)
Andrews, Jim. Nio http://www.turbulence.org/Works/Nio/
(music plus lettrisme)
Spider Tangle: The Book http://www.spidertangle.net/the_book/
Weishaus, Joel, and Alan Sondheim. Cybermidrash
(email and recombination)
Sondheim, Alan, and Rainer Strasser. Tao http://nonfinito.de/tao/
Leishman, Donna. Red Riding Hood http://www.6amhoover.com/redriding/red.htm
(reworking folk motif)
Rackham, Melinda. Carrier http://www.subtle.net/carrier/
Young-Hae. Change Heavy Industries The Last Day of Betty Nkomo
(text, movement, sound)
Memmott, Talan. From Lexia to Perplexia
Keenan, Joe. Moment http://beehive.temporalimage.com/content_apps42/app_h.html
(recombination, possible user input, moving visual effects)
Strickland, Stephanie, and Cynthia Lawson. V: Vniverse http://vniverse.com
(Here the differences from print are stressed, as this is the third
(Shockwave) part of a poem whose other two parts are in print (in one
Bök, Christian. Eunoia Chapter E (Flash by Brian Kim Stefans)
(Another example contrasting the e-setting of a poem from its print
appearance; one sees that the effects are entirely different.)
Szyhalski, Piotr. Ding an Sich
http://www.walkerart.org/gallery9/szyhalski/index.html for the interview
(this combines philosophy, politics, poster-type design history)