Intersection and Struggle: Poetry In a New Landscape

Intersection and Struggle: Poetry In a New Landscape

Brandon Barr
Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries
Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries
Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Brandon Barr considers Loss Glazier’s attempt at a hypertext poetics that moves beyond the link.

It only takes a glance at the cover to get a feel for where Loss Pequeño Glazier’s new book is headed. The cover art for Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries first looks like a typographic jumble (an image of the cover is available at the book’s online appendix). Grey lines of text - mostly HTML code and Unix commands - run down the right side of the cover, immediately signifying “computerness.” The main title of the book is printed in a red X-shaped pattern that is overlaid on top of the light gray text. The top portion of the X reads, from left to right, “Dig[iT]al.” The bottom portion reads “Poet(I)(c)s.” The “(I)” and the “[iT]” make up the crux of the X. The cover’s text is more than a jumble, though; it embodies the spirit and struggle of Glazier’s book. Glazier points out that Digital Poetics is an introduction to e-poetry that “reaches from hypertext through visual/kinetic text and to writing in programmable media” (170). The gray code on the cover prefigures that structure: the first line,”<a href=”agave.html”>,” the HTML code for a hypertext link, parallels the link-node architecture of traditional hypertext theory; a few lines later, “<img src= “”>,” an HTML image tag, asserts the importance of visual aesthetics to e-poetry; and the last two lines - “grep -i code * /*” (a Unix program command) and “HTTP Error 404” (the error code for a broken link on the Web) - point to the shortcomings of traditional hypertext and the possibilities of programmed texts. If the arc from hypertext to programmable media serves as the background for Glazier’s arguments, then the main focus of the text can be derived from the larger red text. The acrostic text invites multiple readings. If “Dig[iT]al Poet(I)(c)s” is the natural first reading, then it doesn’t take long for that reading to morph into another - one that drops the letters in parentheses: “Dig[iT]al Poets.” Also, the pairing of “[iT]” and “(I)” in the center of the jumble of letters implies an intersection between poetic identity (the “(I)” in “Poet(I)(c)s”) and information technology (the “[iT] in Dig[iT]al”). Glazier’s arguments within the covers continually struggle with these intersections.

For Glazier, innovative poetry practice is particularly relevant to the field of digital media studies because poetry, particularly in the twentieth century, has always had a symbiotic relation to the technology used to create it: “a union between poetry and its technologies of dissemination.” Glazier posits that digital media provide an electronic space of poeisis that is keenly concerned with its own materiality. “Materiality is important,” Glazier says, “because writing is not an event isolated from its medium but is, to varying degrees, an engagement with its medium. This concern with the material has been a constant element in modern and contemporary innovative literature…it is a trend that has continued through generations of innovative practice.” E-poetry finds its genealogy in various twentieth century precursors - from Apollinaire’s Calligrammes to the Concrete poetry movement, from the texts of the Mimeo revolution to the typographic experiments of Charles Olson and Susan Howe. Glazier convincingly argues that because poetry has been actively involved in an engagement with its medium, it is in a unique position to explore the impact of digital technology. Glazier’s project, then, in Digital Poetics, is one of delimiting the field of digital poetry and prescribing a plan for future investigations in the field.

Glazier speaks as a practitioner in the field, “one up-to-the-elbows in the ink of this writing machine,” and as he delimits the field of e-poetry, his voice is tempered by practical considerations and real-life experiences. For Glazier, the digital field of practice is the World Wide Web, and innovative digital work thoroughly explores that realm by maintaining careful attention to its material elements: its existence as various files indexed and displayed within the architecture of the Internet browser, its location on a Unix server, and its basic textual nature as HTML and JavaScript code. As Glazier delineates what he sees as the important elements of e-poetry, he also speaks quite bluntly about the state of the art, saying that innovative poetry “has not developed a clear sense of place in digital textual production.” In his later chapters, Glazier rails against what he sees as the cause of much of that deficiency: a prose bias in the field of digital media studies. He clearly draws distinctions between the projects of hypertext prose practitioners and e-poets. Glazier correctly points out that much current hypertext theory, by focusing on link-node narratives, only partially engages the electronic medium. But as Glazier delimits the field of e-poetry, he draws strong lines - lines that exclude particular orientations. For Glazier, e-poetry should follow a hacker aesthetic: not relying on proprietary systems, which “plague access to various e-poetries”; focusing intently on codework, “the convergences and irritations that occur on the boundaries of code and text”; and celebrating an openness and diversity that can only occur on the Web. Glazier argues for a broadening of the field of digital media studies, but his own prescriptions and descriptions seem to narrowly define precisely where he wants that expansion to occur; his focus on the power of poetry leaves little room for many digital artists that mix genres or prefer more traditional distribution models. By focusing on the conflict between prose and poetry, Glazier risks alienating many other digital artists who could be potential allies. Glazier does an excellent job at introducing e-poetry as a field, but delimiting a field by noting its distinctions has its risks as well as its rewards.

Glazier’s prescriptions near the end of Digital Poetics are particularly riveting because they stand as the boldest arguments in the book. From the outset, Glazier points out that Digital Poetics is intended as “an introduction to the making of the new digital poetries.” Two earlier chapters in the book, “Jumping to Occlusions” and “Hypertext/ Hyperpoeisis/ Hyperpoetics,” notably struggle with developing a poetics that moves beyond the link. But much of the book is oriented toward introducing a more general readership to the field of digital poetry. Large portions of the introduction consist mostly of lists of outside resources in digital media studies and innovative poetics. In other chapters, Glazier gives a short primer on Unix shells and spends some time describing how to read web pages - in both instances using his own work as practical examples. One of the largest sections of the book is what Glazier calls “E-Poetries, A Lab Book of Digital Practice, 1970-2001,” which surveys particular work done in the field and events that have focused on digital poetry. In many ways, these sections extend the work Glazier does at the Electronic Poetry Center - collecting, describing, and orienting the field. However, those already familiar with digital media studies will glean more from Glazier’s later, bolder arguments.

Finally, and perhaps aptly, Digital Poetics is a book that struggles with its own bookness. Like many university press endeavors, the book took several years to get to press. Glazier himself was already expressing concerns over the length of the publication process during an interview in early 2000, and the book was delayed twice after the announcement of a publication date (see Jim Andrews, ed. “Loss Glazier: Digital Poetics and the Electronic Poetry Center.” Defib Interviews. 2 Apr 2000; available online). Since much of the book catalogues particular contemporary work in the field, these delays are a particular liability. One section, “Home, Haunt, Page,” describes the design aesthetics of webpages from 1996-1997. Though Glazier mentions that this was a crucial period in the development of WWW conventions, these case studies (and others documented throughout the book) feel a bit stale, and the lack of much discussion of more recent work - such as the groundbreaking material presented at the E-Poetry 2001 conference, which Glazier organized - is noticeable. Glazier does his best to try to note when a website has changed prior to publication, but I wonder if much of Glazier’s project would be better figured as an online project - where links could remain up-to-date, and seminal works could be anthologized and archived as they appear. If the field of digital media studies is, as Glazier describes it, “a matrix of new shores,” then as scholars investigating that field we have to concern ourselves with its constantly changing landscape - with the sand continually eroding from under our feet. There are a good number of university press imprints releasing scholarship on this area, but Digital Poetics, for all its strong argumentation, also showcases the inherent weakness of the print publication process - and suggests, perhaps, that scholarship in the field of digital media studies is perhaps itself best presented in digital media.

Within the book’s covers, Glazier presents a strong case for the relevance of poetic practice to digital media. Perhaps more importantly, though, Digital Poetics stands as a book that documents the many struggles - aesthetic, practical, and political - inherent in the intersections between art, scholarship, and new media.