"The House of Poetry. . . ": Recent Noticings *

Virtual Muse: Experiments in Computer Poetry, by Charles O. Hartman
Hanover, NH: University Press of New England (Wesleyan University Press), 1996.

Visible Language 30.2: New Media Poetry: Poetic Innovation and New Technologies, ed. by Eduardo Kac. Providence, RI: Rhode Island School of Design, 1996.

Chris Funkhouser

On the first page of Virtual Muse: Experiments in Computer Poetry (published in 1996, though several of the essays initially appeared in 1995), Charles O. Hartman writes, "Talking about computer poetry is almost like talking about extraterrestrial intelligence: great speculation, no examples." He queries, "Why hasn't there been any computer poetry?" (2) Conveying a new direction for literature, Virtual Muse closely traces the textual and literary dimensions of (and for) poetry which have led to Hartman's own experimental work.

Hartman is a poet who has a strong interest in computer programming. His accomplishments, delineated through the course of Virtual Muse, include producing the software program, MacProse, capable of arranging a sequence of grammatically correct sentences using a complicated and interesting "syntactical template." *1* The seventh chapter of VIRTUAL MUSE, described by the author as the book's "climax," offers a complete description of MacProse's machinations. This chapter celebrates a personal melding and convergence between poetic theory, vision, and practice (via his work with MacProse). Hartman enthusiastically proclaims, "My programming and my poetry writing were at last teaching each other."

Allowing poetry to teach or influence computer programming is an unusual yet expectable textual development, anticipated by the alphabetic and visual works in artists of the Dada/Surrealist, Burroughsian/Oulipean traditions of "writing." *2* In the highly mechanized world, applying poetic techniques to one's programming is without question a commendable endeavor. Idealists will argue that the more tactics of poetry we can inject into to the machines which occupy the minds and lives of the people who shape our culture, the more likely it is we may transform it. On the other hand, a strict interpretation of programming (i.e., performing extensive series of binary operations) would be contestable in terms of its influence on the advance of expansive poetry and culture.

There are other provocative moments in Hartman's book, which I mention in order to build a context for understanding poetry as it presents itself in the computer age. Toward the end of his introduction, Hartman writes that his work has "followed some lines of research in this double area– computers and poetry–a little farther than anyone else." It is a fact that MacProse is an excellent text-generating program. The mechanical application of its complex of syntactical theory is finer than in any other program available. However, an objective study of Virtual Muse and its considerations, in the current historical-technological moment (1997), reveals that Hartman's conception of "computer poetry" is limited to a relatively narrow area within this already advanced field. His perspective as someone whose work has gone "a little farther" than others who have engaged with computerized poetry is inaccurate.

For instance, Hartman mentions hypertext only briefly in his introduction by describing it as "multiply linked on-line text" and noting that it "offers exciting possibilities as a way to present poetry, and more than that. Like any new medium, it will change the way poets write poems and readers read them." Despite (or perhaps because of the magnitude of) such a prognosis, Hartman barely acknowledges hypertext as a literary/poetic medium which is also a computer–or "machine modulated"–form of poetry. *3* "Hypertext and its cousins represent 'computer poetry' in one sense of the phrase," writes Hartman. "Yet these debates about a new medium for poetry's presentation haven't dealt much with the use of computers in the composition of poems." (4-5)

Instead of discussing hyper-poetry himself, Hartman defers to Robert Pinsky's article, "The Muse in the Machine: Or, The Poetics of Zork," which "surveyed the state of affairs as of March 19, 1995." Pinsky, whose main concerns have not been with digital media, does mention a few developing projects, including Hartman's work, Jackson MacLow's experiments, William Dickey's interest in computer applications for poetry, and Robert Kendall's "Soft Poems," as well as Dartmouth's Dante Project and the Contemporary American Poetry Archive. His article, unfortunately, explores hypertext as superficially as Virtual Muse. It is also significant to note that since Pinsky's article was published, an exponential increase in the volume of cybertext productions has occurred because of the World Wide Web, and because a growing number of poets are learning to use computer programs to present their work.

Visible Language 30.2, edited by Eduardo Kac, was published just a few weeks after Virtual Muse. The essays in this journal, while not comprehensive, present a more broadly researched analysis and synopsis of the discipline of computerized poetry on an international level. To varying degrees, the authors do discuss using computers in the composition of poetry. Subtitled New Media Poetry: Poetic Innovation and New Technologies, Visible Language 30.2 documents poetry which "takes language beyond the printed page" by using digital media to convey and project its artifice beyond the verbal sign. (99) Exposing serious endeavors in the discipline of digital poetic arts, new media poetry extends the active dimensions of computer poetry. Kac's anthology displays a range of approaches toward literary dynamism in Europe and the Americas across four decades.

The premise of the collection is that "A new poetry for the next century must be developed in new media, simply because the textual aspirations of the authors cannot be physically realized in print." (100) Establishing a perspective toward the work he has selected, Kac writes,

Technology has undoubtedly changed artistic practices in a profound manner in this century. In most cases, however, what one sees is the impact of technological innovation reflected on traditional forms, as exemplified by the current use of the Internet to publish lines of verse. This anthology, on the other hand, reveals poets that appropriate the new writing tools of our time, and with them give life to new and differentiated poetic forms. (99)

At the end of his introduction, Kac rightly proclaims, "This is only the beginning" in terms of documenting a new poetry. (101) Over the course of this "beginning," a variety of digital approaches and techniques are introduced in the essays collected in Visible Language. (Kac has also edited a non- commercial CD-ROM which includes works by the poets discussed in the journal).

The first essay in Visible Language, "The Interactive Diagram Sentence: Hypertext as a Medium of Thought," by Jim Rosenberg, provides an immediate example of how the collection's essays broaden the concept of "computer poetry." Rosenberg, whose Intergrams was published by Eastgate Systems in 1993, has worked intensively with computer poetry since 1987. In this particular essay, he shows how issues of juxtaposition and simultaneity in poetry influence his technological approach to the task of making a poem by layering language on a computer screen. Rosenberg resists the classical "nodes and links" model of hypertext. He illustrates his preferences by discussing the Hypercard project Diagrams, in which he achieves poetic juxtaposition by placing words in the same location on the screen (to be interactively unveiled by the reader). His interactive diagram sentences are to be explored, "as a vehicle for hypertext as a medium of thought." Diagrams are hypertexts "built up from scratch using very fine-grained word elements, where hypertext is used to carry the infrastructures of language itself, e.g. syntax." Rosenberg's efforts, "morphemic" hypertexts, serve "as an association structure for thought." (112)

Other topics taken up by writers in Visible Language 30.2 include "videopoetry" (E.M. de Melo e Castro), "holopoetry" (Eduardo Kac), "Virtual Poetry" (Ladislao Pablo Gyori), and "Beyond Codexspace: Potentialities of Literary Cybertext" (John Cayley). All of these variations represent modes of "writing" associated with digital media, via computer and other methods. I mention their existence here in order to further support my earlier suggestion that there is more substance to computer poetry than Hartman notices. To begin understanding what is happening in this area of literature and culture, it is necessary to broaden the scope of Hartman's project and show that there is a lot more to the poet/computer relationship than writing programs that create poems.


*The title refers to a quote from "Openings: The Connection Direct," an essay which serves as the "liner notes" for Jim Rosenberg's Intergrams: "The house of poetry has room for everyone." ^

*1* MacProse is a MacIntosh computer program, for System 7 or above, which may be downloaded from the World Wide Web, The phrase is Hartman's, p. 73. ^

*2* The collaborative cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse) writings practiced by writers and artists since Andre Breton, the cut-up prose works of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, and the automatic poems of Raymond Queneau and others are antecedents to the style of work practiced by Hartman. See the DADA POETRY GENERATOR on the Web for one example of a programmatic poetry. ^

*3* I borrow this phrase from the British poet and translator, John Cayley, who uses it to describe the poetries of his expansive Indra's Net project. Cayley has worked and published with computers and poetry for more than a decade. ^

Chris Funkhouser, the creator of proto-anthology of hypermedia poetry, is completing his dissertation on the subject


Copyright  1997 ebr and the author. All rights reserved.