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
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
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.
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