04 April 2011

DIGITAL POETRY - An Introduction


What is it?

Simply put, Digital Poetry fuses text with technology; combines words with computers; marries poets with machines, to create new works. Digital Poetry is also referred to as e-poetry, electronic poetry or cyber poetry.

Perhaps we could argue that in its most basic definition, any poetry or literature created using a computer program such as Word (or indeed any word processing device) could be considered as "Digital or Electronic Poetry" - as opposed to works created using a pen and paper, chalk and footpath, spraypaint and walls, typewriters and/or any other basic analogue device. When we create words from a keyboard to a computer screen we are by definition, creating "digital" works.

Indeed, since the advent of computers in our daily lives, we create literary works mainly using a word program to compose the bulk of our work.

However, the genre of Digital Poetry is much more than this.

Like concrete poetry, performance poetry and sound poetry, Digital Poetry does stuff to words - poems move beyond simple static words on a printed page, transforming the art of poetry into a visceral, tactile experience.Digital Poetry embraces the technology of our current and past computer ages - redefining poetry into a 21st Century artform. Embracing readily-available, relatively user-friendly software Digital Poets can bring words to life - in many examples, letters dance playfully across the screen to create a new meanings, words appear and disappear, colours and images become significant - semiotics blur, with sign merging with signifier and signified.

In Digital Poetry textural expression is larger than simply the meanings below the surface - this is the poetry of design. The experience is beyond the static surface.

Sounds are also frequently used, elevating poetic consumption from merely "reading" the words on a page into a aural, musical, sonic experience - synthesising word-forms and allowing poets to engage in different ways with their traditional audiences of the printed word. Video and imagery can fuse with written and spoken words on and off the screen.

A Definition

Christopher Funkhouser in his essay, Digital Poetry: A Look at Generative, Visual, and Interconnected Possibilities in its First Four Decades - (cited in A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, ed. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.) defines Digital Poetry as
"a new genre of literary, visual, and sonic art launched by poets who experimented with computers in the late 1950s. Digital poetry is not a singular "form" but rather a conglomeration of forms that now constitutes a genre even though the creative activity itself — in terms of its media, methods, and expressive intent —contains heterogeneous components."Digital poetry is an evolving process... where Poets explore a variety of computerized techniques, from interactive installations to randomized and visual attributes... Labels such as "e-poetry," "cyberpoetry," and "computer poetry" have been used to describe creative work in this area... Digital poetry is a genre that fuses crafted language with new media technology... A poem is a digital poem if computer programming or processes (software, etc.) are distinctively used in the composition, generation, or presentation of the text (or combinations of texts)..."
Further, Funkhouser breaks down the genre into: Computer poems; Graphical poems; Hypertext and hypermedia.

Computer poems:
Poets use programs to create databases, codes and instructions to manipulate content - poetry is generated using algorithms and displayed as a sequences of words etc, dependent on the programmed code. Funkhouser: "Computer poems challenge and invite the reader to participate imaginatively in the construction of the text; some mock the conventions of poetry, and others reify them.."

Graphical poems: Graphical poems use computer programs to incorporate the visual elements of poetry. Words, letters and images are manipulated. The the look and feel, style etc of the poem's graphical content is the main goal... As Funkhouser puts it: "poems, by design, move and change before the viewer's eyes"

Hypertext and hypermedia: Poets create clickable text with words and images as hyperlinks. A click of a word can take the audience on a new path, whether random or deliberate. Narrative becomes organic as the reader chooses to click through into new text, pages or other media.
  • http://digitalhumanities.org/companion/view?docId=blackwell/9781405148641/9781405148641.xml&chunk.id=ss1-5-11&toc.depth=1&toc.id=ss1-5-11&brand=9781405148641_brand


Social Media

With the rise of Social media in our lives - eg: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube etc digital poetry is taking on new forms.

Collaborations across time and space on the internet allow us to expand the definition of Digital Poetry even further. Poets can collaborate, share poetry and information about new works using these networks.
  • Blog Poetry: Here is a recent collaboration between myself and David Vincent Smith: http://apdvs.blogspot.com/
  • An example of Twitter Poetry: http://twitter.com/twitterpoetry
  • A Facebook poetry group: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2416793140
  • Google "digital poetry on youtube" to see many examples of digital poetry as video.
Some examples of Digital Poetry

The 40th Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, in June 2009, included a programme dedicated to digital poetry. The digital works of the Bits of Poetry programme: Digital Poetry Laboratory.
  • Browse the many examples here: http://media.poetryinternational.org/bop/indexx.html
Another Definition of Digital - or Electronic Poetry

The Electronic Literature Organisation (ELO) which publishes works by digital writers recognises that "Literature today not only migrates from print to electronic media; increasingly, “born digital” works are created explicitly for the networked computer…"

There are many example of the genre at their website. The ELO define Electronic Literature as referring to:
"works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer. Within the broad category of electronic literature are several forms and threads of practice, some of which are:
  • Hypertext fiction and poetry, on and off the Web
  • Kinetic poetry presented in Flash and using other platforms
  • Computer art installations which ask viewers to read them or otherwise have literary aspects
  • Conversational characters, also known as chatterbots
  • Interactive fiction
  • Novels that take the form of emails, SMS messages, or blogs
  • Poems and stories that are generated by computers, either interactively or based on parameters given at the beginning
  • Collaborative writing projects that allow readers to contribute to the text of a work
  • Literary performances online that develop new ways of writing"
See: http://www.eliterature.org/about

Concrete Poetry

In Concrete Poetry typographical arrangement of words is as important ore more so than conventional elements like semiotics rhythm, rhyme, metre etc. Often referred to as visual poetry, a term that has evolved to have distinct meaning of its own, but which shares the distinction of being poetry in which the visual elements are as important as the text. Often the pattern of the letters on the page illustrate the meaning of the poem.

Poems take on the shape of the object of the poem eg:

Image of "Easter Wings", published in 1633 by George Herbert. The poem was printed across two pages - so that the lines suggest two birds flying upward, with wings spread out:
SOURCE: The Noroton Anthology of Poetry, 4th edition, edited by Margaret Ferguson, et al., p 331, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (1996)

In this sense, Concrete Poetry is "designed" in that the words and letters, the shape of the poem becomes important, in much the same way that Digital Poetry embraces the visual aspect of the poetry.


  • For more examples of Digital Poetry, see also the Study Guide document attached to this weeks lecture: 2008_CWNM_MA_E-Poetry_bibliography

1 comment:

digital poetry said...

Nice roundup mate. Digital poetry goes beyond the fusion of new media technology and language. These new forms of poetic expressions prove themselves that they evolve along with technological advancements and can still slap a person holding an iPad tablet or smartphone.