text menu at bottom of page

Lost in Translaton: Print to Screen
Kymberly Taylor

James F. Knapp, editor
Norton Poetry Workshop for use with the Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fourth Edition and
The Norton Introduction to Poetry, Sixth Edition
W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London: 1996.

 

The Norton Anthology of Poetry has an image problem: the 1,998 page, 4.2 pound tome is more like a tomb stifling an extraordinary range of voices within. An anonymous medieval lyric, Elizabethan poem, or nineteenth century spiritual, when creviced amongst 1,600 poems, seems nondescript and dated. The distance between the poems mandated by their chronological arrangement creates the false impression that these poets do not continue to converse, borrow from, and war with each other. Certainly, such unintentional linearity, inherent in the design of the book, does not enhance the study of poetry and, in fact, discourages inquiry.

The Norton Poetry Workshop, the educational multi-media CD-ROM that places thirty of The Norton Anthology's poems in context, attempts to rectify this problem. Though many of its sections are disturbingly uneven in quality, what is best about this CD-ROM is its ability to dissolve The Norton Anthology's visible chronology, freeing the poems from the crush of history's textual representation. Unburdened, the poems are fresher, more immediate. As sound, image, and video coalesce to remind us of poetry's oral traditions, buried personalities spring to life. One can view Walt Whitman's scrawled complaint about "mouthy magazines" on the back of an envelope, listen to Dylan Thomas, one of our century's most dramatic readers, and hear Marianne Moore, who introduced revolutionary ways to break a line of poetry, discuss nuances in form.

To its credit, The Norton Poetry Workshop is easy to use. A user clicks on one of thirty poets listed in the table of contents and then selects from the following menu: "Poem Text," "Critical Essays," "Text History," "Historical Considerations," "Author's Comment," and "The Poet's Life and Craft." Another section of the CD-ROM, entitled "The Poetry Workshop," is devoted to an introductory study of prosody which includes discussion of various poetic conventions and writing exercises. Because one can browse nonsequentially through screens which vanish and appear rather than mark time, as pages do, the poets seem to coexist and converse seamlessly and simultaneously, ensuring constantly changing intertextual dialogues between poets centuries and languages apart.

In the hypertext environment, for example, one negotiates rather than confronts the maze of Old English in Chaucer's copious The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale (ca. 1386). Rather than single spaced lines inching down the authoritarian white page, the poem appears in less forbidding reds, yellows, and blues, colors we have learned to associate with help-boxes and other learning tools. One click and a mysterious phrase reveals its contemporary corollary. Another click of the mouse brings an additional interpretive gloss. Hearing the Old English read aloud adds a startling dimension. The following lines, as the rich tones roll from the narrator's tongue, become more understandable, riveting, beautiful.

In two clicks, it is possible to leap from the fourteenth century to the twentieth and view We Real Cool, a poem composed by Gwendolyn Brooks. With one click of the mouse, Brooks's portrait expands to fill a ninth of the screen, blocking the poem and, in a refreshing sense, momentarily reversing the traditional textbook hierarchy in which narrative dominates image. Another click of the mouse and Brooks' melodious voice reads the poem aloud; she hits the end words succinctly, adding another layer of meaning usually unavailable in the classroom.

The video Gwendolyn Brooks Gives Advice to Young Poets, however, is ultimately disappointing. Most new poets using this CD-ROM will be burning with the fires of enthusiasm. Surely, Ms. Brooks and CD-ROM editor James F. Knapp, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, did not mean to douse those fires so soon. For of course, all poets eventually must ask the following questions:

Ms. Brooks, I've got all these poems, I've spent a fortune on writing programs - where can I publish my work?

I'm a little discouraged when children, teens, even adults ask where can I get my poetry published...

But, Ms. Brooks - the Romantic era is over -

where does that leave me? Writing poems alone near a polluted stream in the woods? Reading them aloud to an audience of toads?

...or how much money can I make? I feel that this is saddening...

Dear Ms. Brooks, now really, we all know you don't make millions writing poems. But is it a crime to investigate the possibility of being paid for what we do? To want to make a tiny bit of money, enough for a crust of bread and a group shack in the East Village to ensure that when that magic moment happens I won't be stuck in midtown trying to get home? You know, getting an office job to pay the rent is bound to make me drop from exhaustion.

Who do you think we all are, anyway? Wallace Stevens? T.S. Eliot?

Certainly, Brooks makes the valid argument that fortunes are not made writing poetry and that publishing should not take priority over writing. But the subtext of her message elevates publishing to a pinnacle only reached in a distant future rather than a necessary step that parallels, rather than defines, an artist's development. With all due respect to Brooks, this particular video seems mismatched to its audience.

The "historical considerations" accompanying Brooks do not leave one with much to consider. Surely a student unacquainted with the complex range of racial and social issues inherent in her work deserves a bit more than this one-liner:
Brooks discusses the alienation from mainstream American culture of African Americans who live in poverty. One may mistakenly infer that Brooks joined other radical black writers in their strident protest against white economic and artistic hegemony. However, only when turning to the critical essays, which are well-researched for the most part, does one learn that her tactics were more subtle; Brooks strove to raise racial consciousness through sophisticated writing that celebrated black culture.

As a whole, the entries in "historical considerations" are unfocused and frustrating to read: some seem hastily composed, others contain either an excess or dearth of details. For instance, Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743-1825) receives four or more pages of exhaustive information. Yet just one and a half pages are devoted to Denise Levertov (1923-). Oddly, her name is not even mentioned until the last line which merely directs the reader to her photograph.

One is prone to overlook these grievances, though, due to the admirable integration of sound and image to enlighten the many inroads of prosody in "Rhythm and Meter," which is located in the section of the CD-ROM called "The Poetry Workshop." To scan lines one must first learn to hear stressed and unstressed syllables. Because hearing is subjective and depends on pronunciation, teaching prosody is often tricky business, especially in large classrooms in which it is difficult to hear necessary tonal variations. Using the computer allows a student to progress at a comfortable pace; a variety of meters are read slowly aloud and simultaneously illustrated by scanned poems; some are even marked-up by the poem's author. Follow-up exercises test the participant.

The Norton Poetry Workshop's ability to divide large dense poems into digestible screen-size segments ideal for further scrutiny is its greatest strength but also its weakness. Though the paper-bound mountain of the The Norton Anthology smothers individual poems, the CD-ROM environment also fails to do them proper formal justice. Even if the poem fits on a single screen, the iconic meaning of an unannotated uncolored poem appearing in its entirety is destroyed. As margins move and screens are page-upped, downed, and homed, this critical element of a poem's identity is fractured because it is always partially present or never fully revealed. Learning about poetry involves not only studying a poem's content but also its visual scheme. It is painfully obvious that the poems in The Norton Anthology are composed for the page, not a computer monitor; dumping them onto a screen seems an undignified fate.

Of course, a poem composed in hypertext strives to manipulate form and content for intriguing, innovative, and often interactive reading. However, students using The Norton Poetry Workshop are learning the various historical and practical elements of poems that did not originate in the electronic environment. Are they learning to compose for the page or for the screen? For a print or electronic audience? Or both? Certainly, depending on the answer, choices concerning line break, stanza, spacing, rhyme scheme, meter, font choice, and title must be made because the page, in hypertext, disappears. To heighten a student's sensitivity to these issues of composition, it would be useful to have a section of The Norton Poetry Workshop devoted to discussion and examples of hypertext poetics.

Listening to muses past and present injects zest into the study of poetry. However, the questions and writing exercises posed throughout are rather dry. What would strengthen this "workshop" are more exciting assignments. To develop confidence and skill, a student must be encouraged to reach higher, to think more independently, to model more of their own poems upon the many fine examples in The Norton Anthology, and then begin to own these forms by experimenting with them. What this CD-ROM does have to teach is the value of screen and page as separate important formal entities. A writer must work towards mastering the electronic environment or fall prey to the hypertext tendency to impose form by default.

 

 

>--thREADs     reVIEWs--<  ebr6--<