With Code in Hand: An Inventory & Prospectus for E-Poetics

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Poetry is a field of writing/programming that presently finds itself disorganized in its sense of relation to digital practice. This is uncharacteristic for a literary genre that has been at the forefront of innovation in the 20th century. What is instructive at this point is an inventory of innovative poetic practice in the digital media. This paper offers a catalog of poetic practice from hypertext through new media to programmable media. The inventory also considers the tropes & materiality of such practices before offering a prospectus for e-poetry in an attempt to demarcate a field of practice for the work of innovative poets in the digital media.


Poetry's Digital Presence

Poetry's entrance into digital culture has been in fits and starts, at times stunted, ironically, by technology itself. What signs are there that the innovative poetries have not developed a clear sense of place in digital textual production? There is the dearth of any mention of digital poetries in most teaching anthologies. A distrust of the validity of digital practice is also reflected in the present lack of stature accorded electronic publication, particularly in academic circles. Finally, there is e-poetry's divided audience. Text generation programs evidence the same climate of disarray. Finally, we are faced with an inadequacy of vocabulary for discussing e-poetries.


An Inventory of E-Poetic Practice

A working definition of e-poetries can be extended by an inventory of present practice.


  • Closed-system or "classical" hypertext. 
  • Open-system. 
  • Polysemous hypertexts.
  • Disorderly links concept.

New Media

  • Sound works.
  • Works for three-dimensional performance. 
  • Video works. 

Programmable Media

  • Visual/kinetic works.
  • Programmed texts.

Tropes & Materiality

Any writing/programming practice chooses specific positions and dynamics, tropes, and various approaches to engage the material qualities of the texts that are produced.

  • Rhetoric. 
  • Programming elements.
  • Imaging systems.
  • Performance engines.
  • Code horizon.

A Prospectus for E-Poetry

One must accept the fact that an absolute common ground will never be precisely laid out and that divergent proprietary programs will repeatedly plague access to various e-poetries. Nonetheless, one can look to the existing common ground, the Web, and begin to develop an action plan that can be effected in that shared space.

  • For link-based hypertext, what is the future beyond the link?
  • Metabrowser technologies; which of these will prevail?
  • What will programmed texts contribute?
  • What will be the status of code as writing?

This prospectus calls for a collecting of writing/programming practices in a shared terrain where diverse performances may be witnessed. The word must circulate and must be viewable regardless of platform, corporate interest, or national boundary. Though the Web will not necessarily be a permanent medium, it is, like the book, a temporarily stable delivery medium for writing/programming -- and use of a shared space is called for. The Web and the writing/programming presently on it barely begin to explore the multi-faceted possibilities of its materiality; this locus for e-poetry is rich with the potentials of a practice that is multiple.

(Source: 1998 DAC Conference website, author's abstract)

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Scott Rettberg