When a lifeline of words is dangled for an instant before meaning about
to go under, or when some desperate insight pulls a knife on language,
what happens next is poetry--that extraordinary product of extreme
in which every verbal action has to count. A line of poetry is a walk along
a high ledge, and one false word can mean a plunge to the prosaic parking
lot below. Nothing less than "the best words in the best order,"
to quote Coleridge's no-nonsense definition of the art form, will get the
reader to that rooftop where the view of the world is broadened. (Samuel
Taylor Coleridge, Table Talk, 1827)
At least that's the story from one side of the tracks. In another part
of town Dada cutups, automatic writing, found poems, and procedurally
texts have settled in. For decades they have flirted with or embraced the
arbitrary to challenge the institutions of aesthetic convention, the top-down
social values those conventions represent, and even the repressive
of the conscious mind. Meanwhile the deconstructionist renovation project
moves from one neighborhood to the next, putting the whole notion of authorial
intention increasingly under suspicion. Is the pursuit of the perfectly
wrought poem becoming as ideologically unconscionable as the hunt for elephant
The hyperpoem, that recent arrival from the cold northern capitals of
information processing, would seem to add more weight to this question.
It can go the old-timers one better at the extra-authorial sweepstakes.
No matter what part chance may play in fashioning a linear poem for print,
the author still gets "final cut," ultimately determining what
goes down on paper. Hypertext, on the other hand, is enduringly indeterminate,
a permanently provisional enactment of virtual pages left to flap in the
winds of reader interaction. A poem in hypertext may be finished but never
Reading hypertext isn't the same as drawing shredded text from a hat,
but the rules of both games come from similar-looking handbooks. The author
may carefully plan out each intersection in the network of hypertextual
pathways but can't anticipate all the possible combinatorial routes through
the text. The reader/traveler of the branching and intersecting text trails
may carefully choose the way at each turning, deliberately weighing each
option, but can't know the full significance of each choice until after
it's made. Author, reader, and Lady Luck each have a finger in the pie.
Literary hypertext seems to reverberate with the sound of the door slamming
shut on some traditionally important literary ideals. When it comes to
ideological territory, however, new art forms can be more ambulatory and
less inclined to burn their bridges than one might suspect. By way of
let's explore the rather paradoxical-sounding notion that hypertext could
be the only means of actually exorcising the arbitrary from the poem--that
the pursuit of "the best words in the best order" may inevitably
lead the poet down the hyperpath. Let's start by taking the notion of textual
multiplicity and holding it up against the nature of linear poetry.
Cut to Poetry Nature Preserve. Here the author traditionally tracks
poetry through the wilderness of imagerial and philosophical underbrush
that sprawls in the mind. Our well-thumbed Baedeker tells us that the creative
process is one of finding the "right" route through this inner
landscape--the route that is mapped out by the finished poem. The poet's
successive drafts will evidence the many wrong turns that mark this journey
of discovery. The writer will lay down the pen only when the process seems
to have successfully arrived at something. When we read and contemplate
the finished poem in print, it will be as if we're retracing the poet's
steps through this inner landscape.
Now the hypertext theorists step forward to point out that when we follow
the linear flow of words down the page, there is often not just a single
route. Look at all those unmarked intersections in the form of ambiguities,
allusions, and levels of symbolism. They lead in many different interpretive
directions at once. Don't we, in fact, judge a poem largely by its ability
to get at places that aren't accessible by the main road of direct statement?
If, as Umberto Eco puts it, the poetic effect is "the capacity that
a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without
ever being completely consumed," shouldn't we welcome anything that
can deepen its textual multiplicity, such as, oh, say, hypertext? (Umberto
Eco, Reflections on the Name of the Rose, 1983)
Sounds logical. But when a poem resonates in different ways, sending
variable frequencies of meaning like sonar into the various nooks and crannies
it's trying to plumb, do these multiplicities always suggest true
A short poem may exude multiple meanings, yet these may be mere passing
lanes on a single road progressing from the beginning to a rhetorical
at the end. The linearity of such a poetic specimen may be an inviolable
part of its nature and even a necessary foil to any subtextual digressions,
giving them something to push against. A creative impetus can end up nailed
to the page in a particular verbal form simply because out of all its many
possible verbal incarnations, that one happens to be the best--the most
resonant, the most far-ranging in its different implications. Multilinear
variants would just water down the broth.
On the other hand, when the multiplicities multiply beyond a certain
point, we reach the outskirts of the hypertextual. Printed poems have been
known to go overtly in several thematic directions at once--like dull roots
stirred with spring rain--or circle around their subjects in unpredictable
orbits. (Modernism, anyone?) Particularly as a poem grows longer and more
complex, perhaps subdividing into semi-independent episodes, the relationships
among its components become more multifaceted and less clearly linear.
Instead of a steady progression toward the closing line there may be an
irregular shifting toward and away from various motifs as the poem unfolds.
Each new line may build upon the line immediately preceding it or upon
something that came up many lines back.
A certain challenge arises in circumstances such as these. The poet
must realize a conceptual structure that's supported not by a single
thrust, like a lone pillar, but rather by a complex of interconnected thematic
elements, like a profusion of intersecting walls. Yet however multidimensional
this thematic framework may be, the poet must reconcile it with the single
dimension of a column of print. This isn't always a painless task. It means
settling on specific orderings and juxtapositions of material that establish
or nourish particular relationships and leave other potential connections
dangling in the breeze. It means deciding how to chop up many a thematic
thread in order to maintain it throughout the poem by dropping the fragments
periodically into the linear flow. It means leaving some threads truncated
when there's no good way of splicing a continuation into the textual rope.
Finally, it means bestowing the conclusive weight of The Ending upon whatever
comes last, even if that weight could equally well serve other portions
of the text or if the poem would be better off without it altogether.
The poet labors to ensure the best possible effect from the way the
printed poem's many strands interweave and its many parts interrelate in
the temporal reading experience. Success depends partly upon the poet's
diplomatic finesse in arbitrating conflicts among the poem's many competing
agendas. Certain individually appealing possibilities must be sacrificed
for the greatest common good. Logic and intuition are on the advisory staff,
but when push comes to shove, sometimes it takes an arbitrary hand to get
things done. For example, suppose a group of episodes could conceivably
be ordered in a number of different ways. Suppose each potential ordering
has a strong structural argument in its favor, yet none asserts itself
as clearly superior. The poet may be quite likely here just to leave things
in the order in which they happened to have been written.
The more complex and expansive a fixed linear poem becomes, the further
it may lead the poet into the territory of compromise and sometimes
determined structures. What if a poet feels a little uneasy in this territory?
Hell, just chalk it up to the limitations of language and keep pushing
on. Or chalk it up to the limitations of linearity . . .
and reach for the computer.
Hypertext doesn't demand that the multifarious structural possibilities
inherent in a poem be pared away to accommodate the sheath of linearity.
The poem's multiplicities can stand unashamed as the structural framework
itself. Interrelationships among the poem's parts become actual links rather
than implied connections. The painted-on trompe l'oeil doors become real,
letting the reader open them to explore alternative juxtapositions and
interweavings. Images and themes expand over the once-closed linear borders,
gaining room to stretch and breathe, perhaps setting out to explore what
could otherwise only have been glimpsed from the highway. The wheedling
voice of compromise falls silent as all the fruitful configurations are
laid on the table at once.
Or does it? Is the hypertext author really eliminating a reductive and
sometimes arbitrary linearizing process or just foisting it onto the reader?
After all, the reader can't directly absorb the full panoply of hypertextual
multiplicities, but can only cobble together an individualized linear reading
that encompasses some of them. The reader doesn't have the author's intimate
knowledge of the poem's materials, but in fact knows next to nothing about
what hasn't yet been read. From this position of ignorance, how can the
reader avoid making structural decisions that are not only arbitrary but
sometimes downright bad? All the navigational options available at any
given moment may have equal structural validity on a purely local level,
but this doesn't guarantee that the cumulative result of all the reader's
choices--that is, the reading itself--will be cohesive and satisfying.
In practice, being proffered an inspired array of reading possibilities
is one thing, turning them into an inspiring reading experience is another.
Any time spent with the many literary hypertexts now available for public
consumption from Eastgate Systems
or on the Web will reveal that coaxing a meaningful read from such work
is a sometimes messy business. The writing may seem to wander at times.
One may reencounter passages with annoying frequency, while there's no
guarantee that key episodes won't be missed altogether. Looking for the
continuation of a thematic or narrative thread, trying to return to an
interesting section, or simply trying to find unread material can be a
process of wrong turns, backtracking, and struggling to remain on one's
cognitive feet. As a reading progresses, one must inevitably spend more
and more time roaming tracts of familiar text in search of something new,
and it can be damnably hard to know when one has finished a hypertext.
One's initial foray into hyperreading may suggest that the sumptuous
theoretical garb of the multiply realized poem is in danger of looking
rather shabby in the cold light of actual practice. Yet, if one is patient
enough with a good hypertext, the beauties of its protean structure will
emerge. As nodes recur more and more frequently and reading and rereading
gradually blur together, one can sort out seemingly redundant recurrences
of nodes from those that put old text in a revealing new context and clarify
structural interrelationships. From the reading/rereading that actually
unfolds, however flawed it may be in its details, one can derive some sense
of the more nearly ideal readings that are contained within the piece and
the ways these complement one another. One can in retrospect "edit
out" the missteps, redundancies, and ill-placed episodes as the overall
image of the work congeals in memory.
Some of the imperfections in a hypertext reading can even be deemed
an integral part of the multidimensional texture, the byproduct of an almost
tactile experience of feeling one's way through the work. For example,
a reader might "try out" several links from the same node by
selecting one, backtracking, selecting another, and so on, before settling
on a route to follow. This may leave the reader less with the sensation
of having sullied the flow of the reading than with a feeling similar to
having run a curious hand over a physical object. Some sense of resistance
to the onrushing stream of reading can be a benefit. Without it, how can
the reader really grasp that there is more to the hypertext than the virtual
linear text that is generated from it in real time?
Finally, the reader's capacity for mental reconstruction can help transcend
the work's real-time flaws altogether. It can spawn a mental image of
relationships among the linked parts of the poem. With a short or simply
structured hypertext, such efforts to conceptualize the work spatially
can be quite successful, especially if the writer helps out by providing
a graphical map depicting the nodes and links in a geometric pattern. A
reader can navigate a piece as if exploring a building and its grounds,
not just putting together a reading but also creating a mental model of
the text's architecture. Many of the work's multiplicities can in this
way be perceived simultaneously in the mind's eye.
With a complex work, however, any underlying geometric structure may
be incomprehensible in its labyrinthine entirety. Key structural relationships
may resolve themselves into geometric outlines, but even these may seem
flimsy and ambiguous. Efforts at decoding a theoretically pristine
geometry can therefore go only so far. There's also a drawback to our other
method of cognitive reconstruction, the mental editing technique: Carrying
a bottle of whiteout around in your head can simply grow tiresome after
a time. Must a hypertext be deciphered like a set of blueprints or corrected
like a bad galley proof? Can't it simply be read?
We might reply that if it could simply be read, the reader would lose
the deconstructive benefit of being compelled to reconcile the artificial
purity of art with the messy realities of life. We might say that hypertext
poetry is uniquely real simply because the very process of actualizing
it forces it out of the penthouse of High Art Towers and into the mean
streets of an imperfect world.
This wouldn't silence the unsettling questions, however. Must we approach
hypertext as we would the efforts of a talented but immature writer, making
accommodations for the faults and rough edges, trying to appreciate the
qualities that often seem but half formed? Must we make concessions to
the medium's limitations and therefore apply lower artistic standards to
hypertext than to printed poetry, as we would when judging, say, synchronized
swimming rather than dance? If so, does this mean hypertext is intrinsically
inferior to fixed linear writing?
I think all it means is that hypertext is younger than linear writing.
What we see today is just the beginning of a development that will likely
take many years to come to full fruition. We're witnessing the birth of
an entirely new kind of writing, one that has no close parallel in human
history. The newborn I'm referring to is not hypertext per se but the computer
programming through which it is realized. Though we often loose sight of
this, computer code is a species of writing. Programming languages actualize
procedures and principles rather than signifying objects or concepts. But
their goal, like that of the natural languages we speak and write, is at
least partly to embody human thought.
Hypertext poetry is an effort to integrate these two branches of language
to form a richer, deeper medium of expression. The hypertext system
the expressive capabilities of natural language by representing the dynamics
underlying the words. The words are the final product of emotional and
intellectual processes, an artifact of something in the author's head.
The computer interface can embody a thing more primal in character--the
impetus behind the poem's text. The configuration of navigational options
and constraints can parallel the laws of nature that first brought the
poem's metaphorical world into being and then seem to operate within that
Readers of hypertext don't actually create their own texts, though this
has become a popular trope for discussing the medium. A hypertext poem
is not to be confused with a blank word-processing screen. Rather, hypertext
readers take the reins of a creative process that is uniquely the author's
but also no longer the author's. The interface is a harnessing of a drive
toward verbal expression, an enactment of the inner guidance system that
leads the author in the quest for the text.
The success of the interactive reading depends, therefore, upon how
effectively the writer's artistic impulses and vision are encoded in machine
language--quite a different matter from encoding the products of these
in verbal form. Needless to say, the poetics of programming are less developed
than those of the more familiar variety. As an expressive medium, executable
binary code has managed to reach a state of development roughly equivalent
to writing when it was preserved on unwieldy clay tablets, understood by
few, and incapable even of representing the entire vocabulary of spoken
language. Just as no one could have foreseen the full flowering of written
literature from such inauspicious beginnings, we can only guess at what
interactive writing may hold in store.
As hypertext progresses through the school of hard knocks and its
become more accurate surrogates for the creative process, the quality of
the hypertext reading experience will increase commensurately. A more
hypertext will carry much of the author's highly developed sense of the
work's overall structural possibilities, letting readers tap into this.
They'll have more direct and intuitive control over the big picture. They
won't be confined to interacting with the text on a purely local level,
merely following one link after another and hoping it all comes together
in the end. They'll be able to alter the structural principles governing
the layout of nodes and links, interacting directly with the forces at
work in the writing.
A more street-smart hypertext will solicitously monitor the reader's
progress and anticipate the sorts of choices that its human charge would
probably want to make at any given moment. It will know not just which
sections can be effectively juxtaposed--that is, how the author has strung
nodes together--but also how the significance and appropriateness of these
juxtapositions will change in the context of the differently shaped readings
in which they may figure. As the reading progresses, it will reconfigure
not only the road signs that confront the reader but also the roads themselves
whenever necessary to keep things moving. It will ensure that each step
the reader can take will lead to something effectively complementing the
text that has already been traversed. Flaws in the reading need not be
an issue, because the author's (binary-encoded) judgment will be at the
reader's beck and call to eliminate them before they can arise.
Hypertext is still settling into its new literary quarters, hoping to
stay awhile. Gaining long-term acceptance will ultimately depend on how
well it finds its way around among the many demands and expectations of
the writing/reading world. This will become easier for it as writers (and
programmers) become more proficient at working directly in a new artistic
medium: possibility. Mastery of this medium will give rise to a hyperpoetry
that is secure in its uniqueness yet as resilient as any of the genres
of linearity--a hyperpoetry that is malleable to the nth degree yet produces
readings that are all equally polished in detail, solid in overall structural
integrity, and revealing in their differences from one another. Then, perhaps,
we may grow used to thinking of poetry in a new way: as the best words
from the best possibilities.
Robert Kendall's electronic
poems have been published by Eastgate Systems, The Little Magazine,
and Saint-Gervaise Genève. His book of printed poems, A
Wandering City (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1992),
won the CSU Poetry Center Prize. He teaches an on-line
class in hypertext poetry and fiction for the New School for Social
To explore a practical attempt at hypertextual street smarts, as they're
hypothesized here, see the author's long hypertext poem A
Life Set for Two (Eastgate Systems, 1996).