/ Digital Orpheus: The Hypertext Poem in Time


This article addresses the problem of how hypertext poems composed in the late 1990s have aged relative to their counterparts in traditional print. The author pays special attention to the rapid pace with which digital modes become outmoded and to the relationship between this process and lyric poetry’s inherent ephemerality.

It has been 10 years since FEED magazine, among the first and most influential online publications specifically devoted to culture in the digital age, shut itself down.[1] (The magazine’s editors recently reposted the magazine’s archive.)[2] This decennial provides a good context for the following discussion, which considers the problem of how hypertext poems composed in the late 1990s (roughly, the period of FEED’s activity) have aged relative to their counterparts in traditional print. Two issues are of particular interest to me here. First, I will consider why the poem in hypertext, a digital medium initially trumpeted for its novelty and malleability, appears to age so much more rapidly than its cousins in print; Stephanie Strickland will offer the primary examples. Second, I suggest that the hypertext poem’s visible submission to time is not a mark of its technological failure but rather the technology’s accentuation of the lyric poem’s inherent ephemerality. The essay addresses these issues in turn, beginning with an archetypal formulation of the problem, namely, Dino Buzzati’s delightfully idiosyncratic retelling of the Orpheus myth.

On its surface, at least, this pairing of genre (poetry) and hermeneutic frame (time) is intuitive, if not altogether conventional. At least since Empedocles wrote poetic lines declaring the universality of change—“All things doth nature change, enwrapping souls / in unfamiliar tunics of flesh”—verse, whose name in English already conveys the “turning” of that change, has assumed time as its measure and, often explicitly, its subject.[3] For some poets, the poem’s rhythmic movement reminds us that we must act fast, before these “tunics of flesh” have lost their appeal, as when Robert Herrick exhorts the virgins to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old time is still a-flying.” Others, beginning as far back as Xenophanes in the sixth century BC, regard the poem as a kind of mainstay against the ephemerality that would be declared by other philosopher-poets, at least insofar as the fame sung in verse will “never cease / so long as a Greek sort of song shall be.”[4] Of course, these two orientations of the poem in time—the first a declaration of time’s mercilessness, the second a defense against same—hardly exclude one another; Horace, for example, has given us lasting specimens of both.[5]

Yet any poem, as a language technology—“a small (or large) machine made of words,” as William Carlos Williams famously puts it—is inevitably subject to technological obsolescence as regards both its compositional (language) and distributional media (print, hypertext, loudspeaker, etc.).[6] The aforementioned verses illustrate this point perfectly: Language becomes antiquated (as in Herrick’s seventeenth-century idiom) or antique (Xenophanes’ Greek, Horace’s Latin), while the full text of the poem may be lost with the disintegration of the material upon which it had been written. The hypertext poem answers this challenge by slipping free of the materiality of print media and conveying itself instead within cyberspace, which none of us can hold, but which anyone with Internet access can see by opening the right kind of “window.”

0. Digital Orpheus

Among twentieth-century poetic technologies, hypertext is hardly unique in its attempt to reconcile the timelessness of Being with the all-too-brief time of our own passing, the memento mori now reshaped by technologies that afford us perspectives both cosmic and subatomic.[7] As we hear from Paul Celan, one of our most insistent practitioners of metaphysics grounded by experience, a poem always has to contend with the fact that its gestures toward eternity are constrained by the temporal dimension of any language technology: “For a poem is not timeless. Certainly it lays claims to infinity, it seeks to reach through time—through it, not above and beyond it.”[8] The hypertext poem of the twentieth century’s last decade seemed poised to circumvent the material aging of the poem by the very fact of its non-materiality. Why then, we may ask, do hypertext poems appear to age on the screen so much faster than their counterparts in print?

Stephanie Strickland’s work provides an excellent case-in-point. One of the few poets to achieve professional acclaim both as a hypertext author and as a poet in traditional print, Strickland frequently draws our attention to the ephemeral and the disembodied, juxtaposing meditations on the natural world with hypertextual elements that constantly draw attention to their own artifice, much as A. R. Ammons’ poems did with the long strips of adding-machine tape on which they were composed.[9] Taken together, the hypertext elements of Strickland’s poems suggest the convergence of the finite creative act and the eternal passing of the world into which that act is inserted, so that the artist affirms, rather than works against, the ephemerality of all things. Strickland suggests as much in the closing lines of the print version of “To Be Here as Stone Is” (1999).

are answers, unspoken collusions of humans with the earth
as it turns, as it culminates in night-skies on Neptune, Earth
as it sweeps by, or is swept—it depends where you are—
by schools of light, loose, adrift in the empty
aisles of the cosmos: this, their care
—the artisans—their persistent reverence for error,
mis-fit; fabulists of silica, water, what we are,
glassware, charcoal, starlight only; forgers of green,
translucent stones that are the structure of all question.[10]

The poet establishes a continuity between question and answer, natural object and made thing, encounter and manufacture. The objects of this world “are answers, unspoken collusions of humans with the earth,” while the “green, / translucent stones” that we either make or discover—by now the distinction has become trivial—reveal “the structure of all question.” Whether we stumble upon the object of our contemplation or reshape it to comport more productively with our ideal, the artist is a kind of “fabulist,” a storyteller whose text imbues the object with a meaning to which the object itself is wholly indifferent. In this way, Strickland collapses the concept-manifestation binary. She affirms neither the Platonic notion that the object should conform to its ideal, nor the opposite, Aristotelian tack, that we can come to know the principle only by observing the object.[11] Instead, object and ideal flow into one another, “schools of light, loose, adrift”; their designation “depends where you are.”

Where this affirmation of the ephemeral falters, however, is in its attendant assertion that the technological assistance of the computer retrieves the poem from its own passing and allows us to hold it in tenuous suspension, neither fully released from our own acts of reading, nor locked down into paper’s formal stability. Hypertext attempts to represent timelessness within the necessarily temporal acts of reading and writing, to create, in Stephanie Strickland’s formulation, “poetic work that thinks time dimensions in new media[.]”[12] The poet strives for Orphic katabasis, a visit to the Land of the Dead, in an effort to retrieve the object of his or her desire, that which has passed away and is now beyond mortal reach, and to bring that object back into a world defined by time.

Here I especially have in mind a non-classical, multimedia rendition of the Orpheus myth from the 1960s, Dino Buzzati’s Poem Strip. For Buzzati, what separates “Orfi” from “Eura” in the Underworld is the time limit that is felt by the poet but, in death, completely incomprehensible to his love (Figure 1).[13] Instead of the expected echo of the story of Lot’s wife, with its failure to keep oneself from looking back (Gen. 19:26), in Poem Strip we hear Goethe’s conclusion to Faust, Part 1: Faust cannot convince Margarete to leave her dungeon before dawn, when he and Mephistopheles will lose all power to save her. Buzzati’s Orpheus, like Faust, dramatizes the powerful maker’s powerlessness against time.

Fig. 1. Dino Buzzati, Poem Strip, pp. 201-202.
Fig. 1. Dino Buzzati, Poem Strip, pp. 201-202.

We witness an analogous staging of powerlessness in the hypertext poem, one that depends on the assertions of power made by hypertext’s earliest champions. Just as Faust must exercise his power over Gretchen/Margarete in order to establish his failure to rescue her—and just as “Orphi” must reach toward immortality through katabasis to realize his inability to draw that immortality into daylight—hypertext’s strong emphasis on the medium of its composition and distribution paradoxically underscores the aging of that medium itself.

1. The Downward Journey: A Race Against Time

Strickland’s claim that hypertext fosters “poetic work that thinks time dimensions in new media” has its roots in early projections of what hypermedia could deliver that traditional print could not. Many such claims originate from a time when the technology that would produce a hypertext poem was nearly as hypothetical as the poems themselves, as in Vannevar Bush’s conceptualization, published in 1945, of a deeply integrated, cross-referenced, universally accessible memory bank.[14] By the time widespread Internet connectivity allowed for the composition and dissemination of hypertext poems in the early 1990s—at least among the socioeconomic elites who could afford the requisite hardware and service charges—the writers theorizing the hypertext poem far outnumbered the poets writing it, though in many instances the theorists have been the poets themselves, who have felt compelled, as many of us do, to articulate the principles behind their practice.

Foremost among these core principles was the notion that hypertext could disrupt the supposed “linearity” of the print text. Typical of such declarations is John M. Slatin’s definition, from 1990, of how reading in hypertext differs from reading in print: “Reading, in hypertext, is understood as a discontinuous or non-linear process which, like thinking, is associative in nature, as opposed to the sequential process envisioned by conventional text.”[15] Several essays from the same period, some of which have been collected in Paul Delaney and George P. Landow’s anthology Hypermedia and Literary Studies (1991), draw a similar contrast between the relative freedom within a hypertext environment and the linearity of print, as Landow remarks in his own contribution: “Whereas print technology emphasizes the capacity of language to form a linear stream of text that moves unrelentingly forward, hypermedia encourages branching and creating multiple routes to the same point.”[16] In his phrasing, Landow is more cautious than Slatin, consistent with the former’s emphasis elsewhere on the fact that the basic model of hypertext is already visible in the scholarly convention of footnoting.[17] As Landow indicates, the capacity for a reader to click on the numeric superscript that concludes the preceding sentence—or, using a technology that Landow could scarcely have envisioned in 1989, to press that superscript physically with a finger—facilitates the reader’s navigation between the main body text and the parallel text in the footnotes. But the concept of footnoting is fundamentally the same.

There is a tendency in these early formulations to ascribe intentionality to the print object, which has “envisioned” our manner of reading before our arrival, and whose text “moves unrelentingly forward” regardless of our own habits or purposes. According to this model, it is the materiality of the print object that determines the parameters of how we use it, not the other way around.

It is an attitude grounded conceptually in the hypothesis that technology shapes our consciousness as much as we use technology to realize what consciousness has already imagined. For thinkers like Vilém Flusser, one of the first philosophers to connect advances in information technology to the emergent obsolescence of human interventions, the linearity of print is the source of modern man’s sense of history, which might just as easily dissolve once that linearity has been abandoned.

If one wants to decipher (“read”) a text, one must let the eye glide along the line. Not until the end of the line does one receive the message, and then one must attempt to bring it together, to synthesize it. Linear codes demand a synchronization of their diachronicity. They demand progressive reception. And the result is a new experience of time, that is, linear time, a stream of unstoppable progress, of dramatic unrepeatability, of framing: in short, history. With the invention of writing, history begins, not because writing keeps a firm hold on processes, but because it transforms scenes into processes: it generates historical consciousness.[18]

Flusser’s description of “synchronization,” effectively collapsing a syntactic chain into information no longer construed from sequence, resonates powerfully with the practice of reading, broadly defined, beginning with the ability to read whole words or set expressions without consciously registering the order of their component letters. And not just reading: Cognition in general involves a constant shift between unifying concepts (an idea, a memory) and their component parts (“and then this happened, and then that happened”). While it can be voluntarily directed, the mechanism itself is unconscious: I do not need to recall a particular author’s wording or syntax in order to describe Orpheus looking back on Eurydice, since the mental “scene” already synthesizes both the “processes” of the myth (Eurydice must first be walking behind Orpheus before he turns back to look at her, he must turn to look at her before she is pulled back into the Underworld) and the language through which that myth is told by a given author. In fact, I have synthesized the author’s syntactic chain so thoroughly that I need not recall any of his language in order to remember both the scene and its parts. For the purpose of contemplating the story, the language process itself may be superfluous.

Not so with a poem. To speak of the iambic pentameter of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth is nonsensical, since there is nothing in the story that designates a particular meter or any mode of telling whatsoever. In discussing Allen Mandelbaum’s elegant translation of Ovid, however, it might be equally foolish not to mention the prosody.

...But at last,
they’d almost reached the upper world, when he,
afraid that she might disappear again
and longing so to see her, turned to gaze
back at his wife. At once she slipped away—
and down. His arms stretched out convulsively
to clasp and to be clasped in turn, but there
was nothing but the unresisting air.[19]

A detailed discussion of the poem’s formal properties will remain much the same irrespective of whether the poem appears in print, online, on an e-reader, or even line-by-line as part of a multimedia reimagining of the poem.[20] Such reimagining, especially using Flash animation, is no longer exceptional, and several websites offer poems in a format that print cannot easily accommodate, ranging from simple, line-by-line transcription (TextFlow) to interpretive animated shorts.[21] At least one venue, Born Magazine, an online-only periodical, pairs written work that has been accepted for first-time publication with an artist/designer who programs his or her own animation to present the text, which the reader also has the option of reading without multimedia embellishment.[22] As a general principle, none of the texts imported into these multimedia projects is “digital born,” though all take on a new textual existence within their respective projects.[23] An analogue to traditional print would be comparing one edition of a given work to another: Even if the source text is identical in both editions, its presentation in each may differ considerably and offer substantially divergent reading experiences.

A poetic text, even a rudimentary one, cannot be read linearly if the very effects that we might characterize as poetic are to be legible.[24] But this does not mean that the poetic text does not have a linear dimension. On the contrary, all texts share a common linear dimension in historical time. That is, while one may argue that hypertext transforms the diachronous processes of reading back into synchronous scenes (to put notions of hypertext’s nonlinearity in Flusser’s terms), conceiving each page or link of the hypertext document as running parallel to all others, it is not so easy to unwrite the linear historical consciousness that tells us that we encountered stories in a grade school primer long before we tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Others have questioned hypertext’s claims to nonlinearity or have advanced their own modifications of same. Notably, in his seminal essay, “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory,” Espen J. Aarseth makes similar points about the nonlinearity of many traditional print texts, which may allow a high degree of flexibility and interactivity in how the reader uses them.[25] Aarseth’s alternative definition of textual linearity then draws on the topological definition as stated in Webster’s New Twentieth-Century Dictionary: “those properties of geometric figures that remain unchanged even when under distortion, so long as no surfaces are torn.”[26] Such a definition adapts itself well to a consideration of text, which, whether on the book page or the web page, is bound, however fleetingly, to the surface of its transmission medium, which the reader is nevertheless to “distort” in any number of ways. Though Aarseth goes on to present several persuasive readings of how this nonlinearity operates in both print and online texts, none is as revelatory—or as useful for my own attention to the linearity of historical time—as his commentary to the I Ching, or Book of Changes, from the third millennium BC.

Unlike historic texts with a fixed expression, such as Beowulf, I Ching seems to speak uniquely to us across the millennia, not as a distant mirror that can be understood in a philological or romantic sense but as an entity that somehow understands us and speaks for us. This almost religious effect can be partly explained by the repeated updates and the fact that the text was intended to be useful and directly relevant to events in people’s lives, but it seems to me that it is the explicit and elaborate ritual, largely unchanged through the ages, that creates the textual presence that allows us to be naïve users—not readers but agents of the text, closely related to the users of three thousand years ago, despite the epistemological interventions of time and culture.[27]

How close this “almost religious effect” of interacting with a text “intended to be useful and directly relevant” seems to our reading of the pre-Socratic poet-philosophers with whom we began! Though I would quibble with Aarseth’s idealized notion of the I Ching’s immediacy—as with Beowulf, the text would be quite incomprehensible to the vast majority of potential readers without the mediation of a dense web of scholarly and authorial interventions—he nevertheless offers a persuasive argument for qualifying the I Ching as a nonlinear text akin to hypertext. Indeed, Aarseth’s description of that work’s precisely ordered pictograms hews closely to the definition of “hypertext” first provided by T. H. Nelson in 1965: “a body of written or pictorial material connected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper.”[28] Of course, the I Ching is generally “presented or represented on paper.” But “the explicit and elaborate ritual” by which the text is incorporated into the lives of its readers—so goes Aarseth’s argument—does not lend itself to easy diagram, nor can it be divorced from the text without changing the text’s fundamental character. This demand for participation on the part of the reader gestures toward Aarseth’s subsequent elaboration of “ergotic” literature, the term he uses to distinguish those texts—he offers the I Ching as an example here as well—that cannot be navigated without the reader making unscripted decisions that will determine the path and its meaning.[29]

The point that Aarseth glosses over, however, and that I would now like to emphasize, has to do with the linearity of time irrespective of the text itself. For while Aarseth and others address time in the act of reading or engaging with a text (whether a codex, a hypertext, or a video game), they scarcely acknowledge time as a crucial determinant of how the reader situates him- or herself relative to each encounter with the text.[30] That is, if we characterize the I Ching as an expression of ancient wisdom that still speaks to us today, then the paradox of its simultaneous antiquity and contemporaneity, “despite the epistemological interventions of time and culture,” accounts for much of its power. One may argue, as Gunnar Liestol has, that this plotting of the historical timeline does not serve a discussion of digital media, which is developing so rapidly as to neutralize “the traditional one-directional relationship of analysis (and interpretation) in most humanistic inquiry.”[31] Such an argument falls short, however, when we look back on any given specimen of digital media in general, and hypertext literature in particular, from the vantage point of our own experiential present. From this perspective, the placement of the work relative to what came immediately before and after is obscured, much like looking at strangers in an old class photograph. A bit of scholarly scrutiny might reliably situate the photograph in time and space, Iowa City in 1958 or Cleveland in 1966, but the naïve viewer might just as easily characterize the photograph as “old” and leave it at that.

Strickland’s work is particularly advantageous for considering whether hypertext circumvents or emphasizes the reader’s temporal experience of the text because she frequently produces both hypertext and traditional print versions of the same work.[32] Such is the case, for example, with Strickland’s “To Be Here as Stone Is.” When viewed on a MacBook Pro running Firefox 3.5.11, the presentation shows its age (Figure 2). This is at least in part because the poem’s design calls for us to view it in Netscape 4 (Communicator), which was discontinued in 2002. The poem’s formatting can be highly variable depending on the computer’s operating system, available fonts, web browser, and the sizing of the browser window, changes to which may inadvertently re-lineate the text.

Fig. 2. Stephanie Strickland, “To Be Here as Stone,” viewed on a MacBook Pro running Firefox 3.5.11.
Fig. 2. Stephanie Strickland, “To Be Here as Stone,” viewed on a MacBook Pro running Firefox 3.5.11.

The problem of hypertext that is not continuously updated to the capabilities (and thus also the demands) of the latest hardware and software echoes N. Katherine Hayles’ remarks about people still relying on computer technology that has long been out of date: “Although they can still produce documents using these versions, they are increasingly marooned on an island in time, unable to send readable files or to read files from anyone else.”[33] Despite the familiarity of this phenomenon, I am nevertheless resistant to Hayles’ characterization of digital producers and/or consumers as “marooned on an island of time.” Here, the denial of coevalness obscures the fact that these producers/consumers operate in the same information marketplace and at the same time as everyone else, which is the very reason their technology’s obsolescence is perhaps more legible than anything it produces.[34]

This is why correcting for these variables in a hypertext poem like “To Be Here as Stone Is” one nevertheless notices that the text looks like a relic of an earlier iteration of Internet technology, which it actually happens to be. The publication of the same poem in Strickland’s True North (Figure 3), by contrast, looks like it could have been published in 1987, 1997, 2007, or yesterday. In this context, there is an unexpected accuracy to the stock wording that appears on that book’s copyright page: “The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials.”[35]

Fig. 3. Stephanie Strickland, “To Be Here as Stone Is,” as published in True North (1997).
Fig. 3. Stephanie Strickland, “To Be Here as Stone Is,” as published in True North (1997).

Can we imagine any comparable standard of permanence for hypertext poetry?[36] More to the point, if we accept the thesis, advanced by Celan and others, that the poem’s failed striving toward agelessness, the poet’s Orphic struggle to lead the timeless object of desire back into daylight, is an inherent quality of poetic expression—then doesn’t hypertext make visible an ephemerality that traditional print obscures? In addition to allowing the reader to visualize verbal connections and associative leaps that otherwise appear only to the mind’s eye, don’t the design elements of hypertext help us see the poem in its ephemerality?

2. The Upward Journey: Embracing Loss

Online publishing greatly reduces the temporal separation of composition and consumption, a fact that has proven especially consequential in the areas of journalism and political action. We no longer have to wait for the evening news—let alone the morning paper!—to find out what is going on around the world. As the so-called “Arab Spring” is demonstrating even as I am writing this, Facebook and Twitter feeds have proven far more effective at organizing immediate, large-scale political protests than print media have yet achieved. The paradox of this proliferation of online information is that, while by no means immune to decay, the information is quickly superseded by new dispatches, which in turn accelerates its aging. As we have seen, a book of poems published on acid-free paper in 1997 can easily look like a book published in 2011; in the United States, it is not uncommon for a book to go through multiple printings with little or no change in design. But a hypertext poem coded in 1997 shows its age almost immediately, whether because its design elements reflect earlier stages of a rapidly changing programming environment, or perhaps because the coding requires now-obsolete software.

Strickland has insisted that the online component of her lyric projects arises from and reifies this inherent ephemerality. Such is the case, for instance, in her V project, consisting of V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una, a double-bound, invertible book (flipping it over allows access to each part), and V: Vniverse, an online book composed in Adobe Shockwave. Regarding the latter, Strickland has articulated the importance of the computer screen as a mediator between text and reader.

When reading online, when transformed to that kind of reader, the indispensable recognition is that you always have a co-reader in a way you do not with print. Not only are some of the display choices made only by the computer, but if the computer is not reading the code there is no poem to be had. This is a situation quite unlike torn paper, books remaining unread on a dusty shelf, a broken Ozymandian statue in ruins to reconstitute. This reading situation depends absolutely on the temporal coincidence of many human and non-human choices, many human and non-human processors, or it is nothing. As fragile as an ecosphere perhaps.[37]

Strickland’s statement, co-authored with digital media artist Cynthia Lawson (her collaborator on V: Vniverse), seems to assume that it is only with the increasingly widespread availability of computers that an intermediary now intrudes in the idealized cognitive circuit of reader and text. Yet reading a poem is always and fundamentally a process of “reconstitution” of highly mediated inputs. This is most readily apparent in public presentations, such as a poetry reading, where the individual presenting the work executes all of the “display choices,” and the “reading situation depends absolutely on the temporal coincidence” of the speaker’s voicing the poems and the audience’s listening, though even in this mundane example there are “many human and non-human processors,” including everything from chance interference (a child giggling, an old man coughing, a cell phone ringing) to the presentation’s design (how well the microphone is positioned, whether or not the speaker is standing at a podium). All of these factors, and many more, mediate between text and reader.

What makes the hypertext poem special is not that the computer’s mediation of the text makes the poem new each time the reader encounters it, but that it integrates those display choices with the text so thoroughly that the poem’s age can be seen in the age of the display. Thus when Brian Lennon notes that “creativity in the electronic arts is concentrated [. . .] in practices of programmed visual and kinetic poetry that have their roots (acknowledged or no) in the experimental typography of the historical avant-gardes (Futurism, Dada, Surrealism) and European modernism as well as the internationalist Concrete poetry of the 1950s,” his observation not only puts hypertext artists’ claims to novelty into question but also invites us to envision hypertext itself as a “historical avant-garde,” one that is no less difficult to situate within a historical timeline.[38] Of course, Lennon did not have to limit himself to twentieth-century movements; since the advent of moveable type, the history of print has been one in which technological advances, design innovations, and reading habits are constantly reshaping each other. In this sense, Liestol’s argument about the rapidity with which computer-generated displays have been developing actually helps account for why, with hypertext, we can see as much aging in 5 years as might take 50 in print. Here, then, is where we see the hypertext poem “[a]s fragile as an ecosystem.”

In a recent essay for the Poetry Foundation website, Strickland advances what is perhaps her most radical position in what has become a decades-long conceptual evolution: “What is meant by e-literature, by works called born-digital, is that computation is required at every stage of their life. If it could possibly be printed out, it isn’t e-lit.”[39] At first glance, this assertion would seem to exclude from the genre of electronic literature most of Strickland’s own impressive oeuvre, and while she is free to support this rebranding for herself, it makes little sense for how her work has actually been read.[40] More importantly, it ignores the vital role of electronic mediation in the publishing process, the fact that many poets and publishers now make fundamental decisions about formatting, design, lineation, etc., on a computer screen, and with the full expectation that the product of that process will exist primarily in print. Finally, if the author offers up the text as an interactive experience while simultaneously prescribing the parameters of interactivity, such that the reader must always choose between conforming to or violating the author’s intent, how is the hypertext different from print? Declaring that it is only electronic literature when it was never imagined for any other medium is analogous to saying that acting is only that which occurs on a stage or, better yet, in the agora. After all, cinema and television have altered the dynamics of performer-audience interaction so dramatically (!) that it would seem as if we were now speaking of an altogether different art. I suspect that most actors would attest that doing multiple takes in front of a camera and performing for a live audience entail differing relations to space, but I cannot recall ever hearing an actor claim that one is acting, whereas the other is not.

While I have been arguing that the hypertext poem accentuates an ephemerality that has been a traditional feature of poetry itself, the ephemerality of what Strickland now defines as “e-lit” is of a different kind altogether. Poems presented in Flash animation, for example, and especially those that feature episodic or continuous animated sequences that cannot be stopped once they are started, allow the reader little choice but to follow the movement of the text as it runs through its script. What the reader misses—and this may be substantial, given the density of audiovisual information in Flash animation—disappears, at least until the reader reloads the animation. Thus the reader has a sense that the poem exists within its own time frame, which it traverses according to a visual rhythm that is the digital poem’s analogue to traditional meter. By incorporating their ephemerality into the composition itself, the Flash poem’s aging is less obvious than we find in hypertext poems.

Two examples of this play with ephemerality are Brian Kim Stefans’ “The Dreamlife of Letters” and Oni Buchanan’s three-poem cycle The Mandrake Vehicles, produced in 2000 and 2006, respectively.[41] In a note to the print publication of The Mandrake Vehicles in her 2008 book Spring, which also includes a CD containing the Flash animation, Buchanan describes the sequence as having been “scored for paper, letters, and imagination, each vehicle represented here by seven stilled frames selected from the vehicle that is itself in constant motion.”[42] Unlike Stefans’ poem, which calls on the reader only to “run poem” (and thanks him or her “for watching”), Buchanan’s compositions move in stages that have to be activated by the reader; the seven “stilled frames selected from the vehicle” in the print version are simply the stable states in each Flash-animated sequence.[43] While the animation certainly clarifies the poet’s vision for the reader, it is not indispensible, since the print version provides the reader with everything he or she needs to interpolate the “constant motion” that Buchanan intends. The reader performs the poem, as it were, as a musician might a musical score, and with the full confidence that the materials necessary to do so—in this case, “paper, letters, and imagination”—are already at hand. Buchanan, who is also a concert pianist, has worded these directions advisedly.

It is impossible to predict how these Flash animations will eventually show their age. Still, it is likely that they will do so before the print versions of the same texts. Real time is the delimiting factor of any technology. It accounts for the accelerating obsolescence of consumer goods in a global market that has long assigned great value to novelty, real or perceived.[44]

Shortly before FEED closed shop in 2001, Robert Coover, who had helped usher in the wave of hypertext composition of the 1990s, was already declaring that the heyday was over, since even this flexible recent technology, no matter how “nonlinear” in appearance, could not resist the linearity of time.

Could it be that text itself is a worn-out tool of a dying human era, a necessary aid, perhaps, in a technically primitive world, but one that has always distanced the user from the world she or he lives in, a kind of thick, inky scrim between sentient beings and their reality? Even alphabets, clever little tools in their time, are fettered now by the unlinked nature of the times of their origins, and are already giving way to new multilingual alphabets and pictograms called icons.[45]

Poetry, with its roots firmly planted in oral tradition, thrives on its portability and mutability: With every reading, and for every reader, it is simultaneously different and same, new and old. The poem in digital media is inevitably a poem about the failure to resist time, and in the long term this may prove to be its most poetic function. For it is only because Orpheus fails that the poet’s story seems to go on forever.

Benjamin Paloff is Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a poetry editor at Boston Review. He is the author of The Politics (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2011), a collection of poems, and has contributed to a wide range of scholarly and popular publications, including The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and Slavic and East European Journal. A former fellow of the US Fulbright Program and the National Endowment for the Arts, he has also translated several works from Eastern and Central European literatures, most recently Krzysztof Michalski's The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche's Thought (Princeton University Press, 2012) and Andrzej Sosnowski's Lodgings: Selected Poems (Open Letter, 2011).


    1. One sentence in, I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer for the Journal of Electronic Publishing whose many felicitous suggestions and comments contributed greatly to the essay’s development.return to text

    2. http://www.feedmag.com/wp/, accessed June 1, 2011.return to text

    3. Empedocles, The Fragments of Empedocles, trans. William Ellery Leonard (Chicago: Open Court, 1908), 58. Statements regarding the poetic line’s mapping of time are a staple of prosody manuals. Among the more jocular of these expressions is John Hollander’s mimetic description, “Blank verse can be extremely flexible: / It ticks and tocks the time with even feet / (Or sometimes, cleverly, can end limping).” John Hollander, Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse, 3rd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 12. But as Paul Fussell points out, the poetic line need not be composed in any standard meter—and, in fact, need not be a line of verse at all—in order to demonstrate a necessary temporal progress, one that places rhetorical emphasis on the end: “Every part of a poetic line accumulates weight progressively: every part anticipates the end of the line. This is less because the line is positioned in a poem than because the line is a unit of measured time.” Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, revised ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979), 167.return to text

    4. Xenophanes of Colophon, Fragments, trans. J. H. Lesher (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 67.return to text

    5. “Now as I say these words,” Horace concludes the eleventh ode of Book 1, “Time has already fled / Backwards away— / Leuconoe— / Hold on to the day.” Horace, The Odes of Horace, trans. David Ferry (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 33. We are in the habit of repeating this sentiment in Horace’s original Latin, carpe diem. In Book 3, however, Horace announces, “Today I have finished a work outlasting bronze /.../ Nor can the rain obliterate this work, / Nor can the years, nor can the ages passing.” Ibid., 255. David Ferry provides several similar examples of Horace’s “shifting” attitudes toward the poem’s orientation in time in his introduction to the same volume, xi.return to text

    6. William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, vol. 2, ed. Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 2001), 54. As Cecelia Tichi suggests, Williams’ approach to the poem as a language technology had been conditioned by the temporal demands of rapid industrialization: “Williams’s kinetics was a correlative of his poetics of efficiency. Both were a deliberate response to the new fast pace of an industrial United States whose tempos were set by machine technology.” Cecelia Tichi, Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 230.return to text

    7. As an example from the last decades of the twentieth century, consider the closing lines of Stanley Kunitz’s late poem “Passing Through”: “I’m passing through a phase: / gradually I’m changing to a word. / Whatever you choose to claim / of me is always yours; / nothing is truly mine / except my name. I only / borrowed this dust.” Stanley Kunitz, Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 131. Or else any number of poems by A. R. Ammons, whose early training in biology informed his treatment of how literature represents natural cycles of growth and decay. See especially his poems “Eyesight” and “Corson’s Inlet.”return to text

    8. Paul Celan, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, trans. John Felstiner (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 396.return to text

    9. See, for example, Strickland’s poem “Errand Upon Which We Came” (2000–2001; hypertext designed by M. D. Coverly), which uses kinetic, sometimes blurring text to convey the ephemerality of the text vis-à-vis its natural subject, http://califia.us/Errand/home.htm, accessed May 2, 2011.return to text

    10. Stephanie Strickland, True North (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 85. For the hypertext poem designed by M. D. Coverly, see http://califia.us/SI/stone1a.htm, accessed May 2, 2011.return to text

    11. For an eloquent treatment of the Platonic and Aristotelian approaches to concept, see Hans Blumenberg, Paradigms for a Metaphorology, trans. Robert Savage (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), 6–12.return to text

    12. Stephanie Strickland, “Quantum Poetics: Six Thoughts,” in Media Poetry: An International Anthology, ed. Eduardo Kac (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2007), 27.return to text

    13. Dino Buzzati, Poem Strip, trans. Marina Hass (New York: NYRB Classics, 2009).return to text

    14. Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic Monthly (July 1945), http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/3881/, accessed April 27, 2011.return to text

    15. John. M. Slatin, “Reading Hypertext: Order and Coherence in a New Medium,” College English 52, no. 8 (December 1990): 874.return to text

    16. George P. Landow, “The Rhetoric of Hypermedia: Some Rules for Authors,” in Hypermedia and Literary Studies, Paul Delany and George P. Landow, eds. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991), 100.return to text

    17. George P. Landow, “Hypertext in Literary Education, Criticism, and Scholarship,” Computers and the Humanities 23 (1989), 174–175.return to text

    18. Vilém Flusser, Writings, ed. Andreas Ströhl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 39.return to text

    19. Ovid, The Metamorphoses of Ovid, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Harcourt, 1995), 327.return to text

    20. For a thorough discussion of the movement of texts and publishing markets away from print, see Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009). True to its subject, the book can be downloaded under a Creative Commons license from the author’s website, http://www.thelateageofprint.org/download/, accessed June 1, 2011.return to text

    21. For the TextFlow project of the Academy of American Poets, see http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/531, accessed May 2, 2011. For animated interpretations of work by a single author, see Billy Collins Action Poetry, http://www.bcactionpoet.org, accessed May 2, 2011. For animated shorts that interpret work by a number of different authors, see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/poetryeverywhere/uwm/index.html accessed May 2, 2011.return to text

    22. Born Magazine, http://bornmagazine.org, accessed May 2, 2011.return to text

    23. I am following N. Katherine Hayles’ flexible definition of the term “digital born” as “a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer.” N. Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 3.return to text

    24. Another, perhaps more exacting way of stating this would be to say that poetic reading, the set of practices that allow the reader to appreciate the lyric poem’s effects, cannot be “linear.” Even those forms of repetition that make relatively modest demands on the reader, such as end-rhyme and anaphora, are predicated upon that reader’s ability to reconstruct the poem’s vertical architecture even as he or she is reading across the lines. Internal rhymes, assonance, and consonance require the same skill at a higher level of sophistication. Rhetorical effects, meanwhile, may demand that the reader process meaningful tensions between vertical and horizontal sequence (this is the case, for example, with chiasmus) or to refer outside of the text altogether (metaphor, allusion), and to do so by collapsing the discrete verbal elements together, effectively “synchronizing” what appears on the page as sequence. Rather than opening the way for new compositional practices, then, hypertext would appear simply to reframe those practices that are already encoded within the poem.return to text

    25. Espen J. Aarseth, “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory,” in Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. George P. Landow (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 51–86.return to text

    26. Ibid., “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory,” 60.return to text

    27. Ibid., “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory,” 65. Author’s emphasis.return to text

    28. T. H. Nelson, “Complex Information Processing: A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate,” Proceedings of the 20th National ACM Conference (1965), 96.return to text

    29. Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 1–2.return to text

    30. An especially engaging treatment of this topic as it relates to the process of signification in literature can be found in Lars Nylander, “Literature In and Out of Time: Temporality in Theory, Narrative, and Authorship,” Literature and Psychology 47, no. 4 (2001): 1–37.return to text

    31. Gunnar Liestol, “‘Gameplay’: From Synthesis to Analysis (and Vice Versa),” in Digital Media Revisited: Theoretical and Conceptual Innovations in Digital Domains, ed. Gunnar Liestol, Andrew Morrison, and Terje Rasmussen (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 390.return to text

    32. It may be worth nothing that it is the traditional print that has won Strickland the most acclaim. While we need not accept professional accolades as a measure of literary merit, they do help us describe the works’ cultural impact around the time of publication. Among her many honors, Strickland received the Poetry Society of America’s prestigious Alice Fay di Castignola Award in 2000 for the manuscript of her V project.return to text

    33. N. Katherine Hayles, My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 51.return to text

    34. Terry Harpold considers such challenges of the upgrade path in his Ex-Foliations: Reading Machines and the Upgrade Path (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Especially interesting in light of the present discussion is Harpold’s treatment of Vannevar Bush’s previously cited essay, in which Bush outlines his design for a machine (Memex) that both collects information and records the history of its own reading; see pages 20–43.return to text

    35. Strickland, True North, iv.return to text

    36. Without tackling this question directly, Hayles provides a nuanced discussion of the continuities between electronic and print media storage in the fourth chapter of My Mother Was a Computer; see pages 89–116. Of ongoing interest here is Matthew Kirchenbaum’s research into the preservation of born-digital media environments, including text and “virtual worlds,” which one can follow from his website, http://mkirschenbaum.wordpress.com/, accessed June 1, 2011. return to text

    37. Stephanie Strickland and Cynthia Lawson, “Making the Vniverse,” http://www.cddc.vt.edu/journals/newriver/strickland/essay/index.html, accessed May 2, 2011.return to text

    38. Brian Lennon, “Literature and the Transposition of Media,” American Letters and Commentary 12 (2000): 72. Lev Manovich makes a similar observation with regard to the cinematic experiments that the European avant-gardes, effectively demonstrating how digital media have allowed for the realization of avant-garde concepts that were not technologically feasible a century ago: “the avant-garde became materialized in a computer.” Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 307. Author’s emphasis.return to text

    39. Stephanie Strickland, “Born Digital,” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/182942?id=182942, accessed May 2, 2011.return to text

    40. In Hypertext and the Female Imaginary, Jaishree K. Odin provides a thorough and persuasive account of how the experience of reading Strickland’s poems differs depending on whether one is reading the print or digital versions. If we accept Strickland’s definition of electronic literature as offered, Odin’s reading across media would itself come into question. Jaishree K. Odin, Hypertext and the Female Imaginary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 73–102.return to text

    41. Brian Kim Stefans, “The Dreamlife of Letters,” http://www.arras.net/RNG/flash/dreamlife/dreamlife_index.html, accessed May 2, 2011. Oni Buchanan, The Mandrake Vehicles, http://collection.eliterature.org/2/works/buchanan_mandrake_vehicles.html, accessed May 2, 2011.return to text

    42. Oni Buchanan, Spring (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 85.return to text

    43. Stefans also calls for reader input to run the poem’s individual sections, but only once the entire poem has completed its initial run.return to text

    44. Aarseth addresses the insistent drive toward novelty among authors and theorists of electronic literature in his essay, “We All Want to Change the World: The Ideology of Innovation in Digital Media,” in Digital Media Revisited, 415–440.return to text

    45. Robert Coover, “The Passing of the Golden Age,” Feed 02.10.00, http://www.feedmag.com/templates/default.php3?a_id=1211, accessed June 1, 2011. As I have already mentioned, the claims to nonlinearity in hypertext originate with Nelson’s original definition of the medium: “Films, sound recordings, and video recordings are also linear strings, basically for mechanical reasons. But these, too, can now be arranged as non-linear systems—for instance, lattices—for editing purposes, or for display with different emphasis.” T. H. Nelson, “Complex Information Processing: A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate,” 96. But not all early practitioners of hypertext poetry conceived of their work as a rejection of linearity. Eduardo Kac, commenting on his first “hyperpoem,” “Storms” (1993), notes that when reading hypertext online “one chooses paths but each locus provides stable words on a two-dimensional computer screen, which are scanned by the eye in linear fashion, like in print, from top to bottom, left to right.” Eduardo Kac, “Holopoetry and Hyperpoetry,” in The Pictured Word: Word and Image Interactions 2, eds. Martin Heusser et al. (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998), 177. Eduardo Kac, “Storms,” http://www.ekac.org/storms.swf, accessed May 2, 2011. By the time Coover wrote his essay, several other theorists were also questioning claims that hypertext provided a “nonlinear” reading experience. Eric Zimmerman, also writing in 2000, demands that we no longer regard hypertext as meaningfully interactive, or at least not in a way that we do not already know: “There are plenty of examples of explicitly interactive media—architecture, computer games, letters-to-the-editor, sports, jazz—that offer richer and more meaningful interaction than tired old hypertext novels.” He then makes the very strong point that hypertext is simply a different kind of linearity: “Content-based interactive texts are more indebted to their linear cousins like film or novels. They consist of segments of pregenerated linear content, received in some order by the participant.” Eric Zimmerman, “Against Hypertext,” American Letters and Commentary 12 (2000): 79, 81.return to text