You know that we are living in a material world

…and according to Loss Glazier, materiality is one of the defining characteristics of digital poetry.  I’m reading his Digital Poetics – in tandem with New Media Poetics (edited by Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss) – and Glazier emphasizes the necessity of considering the materiality of a digital poem, something readers don’t often consider when reading a print poem (Because print materiality is often taken for granted?  Though if you ask a poet, nothing about the materiality of her book is taken for granted.).  There’s a difference between medium and materiality.  Print is a medium, online electronic space (space?) is a medium.  Paper, its stock, its color, its blend of cotton and pulp, its heft, its stiffness, its size and its trim, all materiality.  Code (What are the defining components of code?  I lack the knowledge, the insight, the authority to talk of code.  My husband, the software engineer, talks of code.  I’ll invoke his authority.), its language, its efficiency, its beauty or lack of beauty, its level of sloppiness, its hidden jokes, its bugs and errors, its origins, its patchwork, all materiality.

And it makes sense to me, so much so that I don’t think it’s a new argument, merely a variant on an old argument: form=content.  A point I drive home in my poetry workshops.  The break in the line makes meaning just as much as the line itself does.  So an extension: the paper the poem appears on makes just as much meaning as the break in the line.  And code.  Code!  Code doesn’t just make meaning in the digital arena, it makes meaning impossible to achieve without it.  Then Glazier flips the argument around.  Materiality creates conditions of composition.  More sense.  I write a poem on one piece of paper.  It is one poem.  The poem must be transcribed onto another piece of paper, half the size of the first, forcing a new composition, a new poem.  And if I were to have composed the poem on the 2nd piece of paper first, it would have been a different poem.  And if I were to compose the poem in HTML, well, it would be another poem entirely.  Writing in HTML would be an entirely different composition process.

What I’m avoiding, of course, is the difference materiality makes between print poems and digital poems.  I think maybe (the easy way out) that Glazier isn’t emphasizing difference, he is emphasizing correlations.  Demonstrating that digital poems are poems in the same way that print poems are poems, but that we need to consider the differences in materiality.  But no.  That’s not the point.  That’s actually completely wrong.  The point is that digital poetry is working with a completely different set of materials than print poetry.  No. Digital poetry is working with many of the same materials as print poetry (text, lines, space, a field) and an enormous repository of other materials that print poetry doesn’t access: sound files, animation, kinetics, code (Code!), links (why is everyone so down on links and hypertext?), a screen, multiple windows, the intermedial, algorithms.  And among other characteristics of digital poetry (transmissability, programmability, rewritability, the human-machine connection) materiality makes digital poetry innovative.

And innovation is important to Glazier, and it appears, to Adalaide Morris, who wrote the introduction to New Media Poetics.  They discuss poetry and poetics in a way that I am not used to, in a way that makes me uncomfortable, not because I think it’s wrong, but because I don’t know how to talk that way.  They talk about processes and innovations and conditions instead of aesthetics and meaning and hermeneutics.  I mean, I know how to talk that way.  I just don’t know how to privilege processes and innovations overs aesthetics and meaning.  I don’t know how to investigate conditions and dismiss the close read.  And are they even asking me to dismiss the close read?  Though, again, I get it.  Poetry as a process, not an end product, a static object.  Poetry that reveals the possibility of the field, self-reflexive poetry, not poetry that reveals the possibilities of the author, “I”-centered poetry.  (But oh, my heart breaks.  The demonization of narrative as attempted mastery of the text! (sigh)  I get it.  Digital poetry can’t be digital poetry and sustain a narrative.  Otherwise, how coult it explore the materiality?  The conditions of composition?  But I’ll save a discussion of my beloved narrative for another day.)

Here’s the thing, though.  With all this focus on process and materials and conditions, how do I know if a poem is good?  Meaningful?  It may zing with transmissability, but is what it transmits of any worth?  I know, I know.  Archaic, this need to judge a poem as good or not good, meaningful or not meaningful.  Why don’t I just spray paint my ego all over the thing.  But still.  Still.  Morris gives me something when she says that the purpose of her anthology is to “showcase a series of visually arresting, aurally charged, and dynamic examples of this kind of writing.”  So I have an idea of what Morris thinks makes a good digital poem.  But what’s missing in her definition for me are the words.  Digital poems have images, sound, movement, but what about the words?  Am I being archaic if I still want to privilege the words?

Here is Loss Glazier’s Io Sono At Swoons, a “real-time reiterative programmable poem” according to Morris.  When I privilege the WORD and all its associations and baggage and signifieds and correlatives, when I privilege narrative grammar, then this poem frustrates me.  So I come to a wall.  A decision to make.  Cling to the WORD and traditional linguistics and sadly shake my head at digital poetry or let go and, like Alice down the rabbit hole, look around me, take note, make observations and connections, and  enjoy the fall.

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2 Comments »

  1. loveandpopsicles said

    You: “Here’s the thing, though. With all this focus on process and materials and conditions, how do I know if a poem is good? Meaningful? It may zing with transmissability, but is what it transmits of any worth? I know, I know. Archaic, this need to judge a poem as good or not good, meaningful or not meaningful. Why don’t I just spray paint my ego all over the thing. But still. Still. Morris gives me something when she says that the purpose of her anthology is to “showcase a series of visually arresting, aurally charged, and dynamic examples of this kind of writing.” So I have an idea of what Morris thinks makes a good digital poem. But what’s missing in her definition for me are the words. Digital poems have images, sound, movement, but what about the words? Am I being archaic if I still want to privilege the words?”

    I think this is an excellent question. As scholars in training and practicing poets (some of us, at least), it’s difficult to divorce ourselves from the need to evaluate a poem’s worth. While I think many of us try to avoid snobbery we are still bound to the idea of quality. We know what to look for on a page. We look for close-reading opportunities, engagement with space on the page, use of sound, etc. It’s a static thing that gives our eyes time to adjust, in a sense. Digital poetry, however, makes space for shifting and blurring. How do we read motion? How do read words obscured by other words? How do we consider randomly generated words? Admittedly, in my digital poetry travels over the internet, when I can’t derive semantic meaning from a text I’ll just remind myself that it is at least nice to look at. I’m hoping over the course of the semester I’ll develop fresh eyes for the form. Right now I’m just trying to explode my own deeply internalized definitions of the genre.

  2. I think that the lack of interest in semantic meaning is my problem with what Glazier calls “innovative” digital texts, as well. I’m in the process of making a career out of interpreting words, making connections between them, reading between them, valuing them. What happens to these aspects of literature when the focus becomes one of presentation instead. I love examining words (why else would I be studying literature?), and my entire scholarly being rebels against arenas in which the linguistic meaning takes a backseat to how the text is presented. And it is not that I don’t find the materiality of the text to be important; I believe that it deserves just as much attention as the content it represents. But I think that maybe Glazier et. al. are not really asking us not to close read, as you suggest, Michele. It’s just that the focus has shifted to the space surrounding the words, which can maybe be just a poetic and meaningful as the words themselves…

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