Conclusion Part Two: What Can We Learn from Digital Poetics?

What I want to add to a postanarchist literary theory, then, is that it must embrace all work as containing the potentials and the limitations of a digital poetics. This is probably a very controversial argument, but one that has its roots in studies of digital poetry. As C.T. Funkhouser illustrates in his seminal work, Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995, it is not only useful to understand that digital poetry has its roots in a history of the avant-garde; it is also useful to consider that all poetry—especially experimental poetry—written in the last half-century is necessarily influenced by the radical potentials and McLuhanian obsolescences of technology and the technologization of poetics. Digital poetry, Funkhouser argues, was “mechanically and conceptually built in the decades before personal computers” (1). With roots in Dada, Oulipo, Black Mountain poetics and projective verse, concrete poetry, imagism, the French avant-garde, Futurism, and high modernism, digital poetry (and its many off-shoots like cyberpoetics, kinetic poetry, hypertext fiction, and so on) cannot be understood as separate from the print-based tradition. We must also consider the manner with which writing anything in the last fifty years or so is necessarily influenced by the technologization of this practice from the typewriter to the personal computer to the current ubiquity of internet network accessibility. In this way, the tendency in scholarship of digital poetics to look back on these precursors and influences should also work both ways; it would be incomplete to study the texts in my project without also considering them a part of the network of digital poetics. In some cases, as in my discussions of the tapeworm foundry or Soliloquy I have explicitly done just this. And, throughout this project my eye has always been on the material and technological conditions of the production of these poems, which is often (see Mac Low or Mouré) digital in nature. But, I would like to make explicit here the need for a postanarchist literary theory to pay particular attention to the digital and networked elements of all poetry, especially print-based (read: not born-digital) poetry.

To begin, digital poetics explicitly work towards a depersonalization of poetry and a de-individualization of the author by virtue of their networked nature and the often randomized elements of their production as well as their tendency towards active engagement of their readership. As Funkhouser notes, “[d]igital poems are more inclined toward abstraction and are largely depersonalized, especially as the media used in composition has become hybridized” (17). My project saw this tendency in action in the works of Cage, Mac Low, and Mouré, but as my postanarchist readings of the other authors on my list can attest, print-based media also sees this concern enacted on the level of palimpsestic rewriting in Howe and Spahr, and intertext as in Duncan. While these effects are not exclusive to digital poems, the processes of

[r]andomization, patterning, and repetition of words, along with discursive leaps and quirky, unusual semantic connections, are almost always found in digital poetry, though sometimes these effects are so amplified that the poems would not be considered poetry by someone using traditional definitions. (Funkhouser 18)

Additionally, digital poems are marked by instability and flux. As Funkhouser goes on to describe, “[d]igital poems do not exist in a fixed state” and thus “[a]ny work that exists in digital form is temporary” (21). Indeed, “[l]ongevity is not one of the genre’s defining characteristics” (ibid). While recent curatorial work by the acclaimed digital humanist and creative writer Dene Grigar has endeavoured to change the way we view the ephemerality of the digital text, it stands to reason that this very ephemerality is a hallmark of the digital text. In some ways, the fleeting nature of the meaning inherent in the print-based media this project studies reflects the temporariness of the digital poem.

Perhaps the most important feature of digital poetry from a postanarchist perspective is that it is marked by linking, both through hypertext and through a radical intertextuality that both directs to other texts (either digital or print-based) and conditions itself to generate new poems and/or proliferate itself. As my introduction indicated, hypertext and hyperlinking are a major feature of the form of this project and of a postanarchism in general in that they embrace a rhizomatic structure that opens up the potentials of a reader freedom not typically afforded by the gestures toward linearity inherent in the bound book. For Funkhouser (and this position is affirmed by the scholarship of many other digital humanities studying electronic literature, namely Florian Cramer, Brian Kim Stefans, Sandy Baldwin, &c), digital poetry is marked by this rhizomatic linking. “Digital poetry is not a fixed object,” he explains, and “its circuitry perpetuates a conversation” (18). Embracing the conversation and discursivity inherent in the common and outlined in my introduction, digital poetry makes apparent the fact that “[p]oetry is a social constructed art form, always situated within other texts (not limited only to poems) and extended by readers” (ibid). The poetry studied here embraces this fact, as demonstrated by the writing-through methods of Cage and Mac Low (and also of Howe and Mullen), the reading-writing of Duncan, the active engagement of the reader of Levertov and Spahr, and the borrowed computer-generated of Mouré. Even in the conceptual work included in my coda, all four poets (Goldsmith, Place, Bök, and Wershler) demonstrate the text’s ability to proliferate and connect with other texts in a rhizomatic way that makes hyperlinks of the printed page[i]. What all of this is meant to suggest is that a postanarchist literary theory has a lot to learn from digital poetics, and the relative failures of this project in blog form is a testament to this.

[i] It should be noted here that the digital version of Soliloquy employs the hover-technique of traditional browser hyperlinks, though the sentences are not hyperlinked anywhere. Instead, the text suggests a radically connectivity but never actually leads the reader anywhere but where he or she already is.

2 thoughts on “Conclusion Part Two: What Can We Learn from Digital Poetics?

  1. Fascinating stuff. One question/request for clarification: you note that “Funkhouser goes on to describe, ‘[d]igital poems do not exist in a fixed state'”; how literally does Funkhouser intend us to take this comment? I haven’t read his work, so I’m curious–because you seem to take the comment rather figuratively, implying that a page-based poem, through its allusions and such, does not maintain a single, universal meaning. So, are you extending/adapting Funkhouser’s point to include rhizomatic print texts, or does he already intend that point? I think clarifying that point will help clarify a slight haziness in the middle of this plateau.

    Other than that, I think the plateau is really productive.

    1. Right, so in this particular case, Funkhouser is referring to the literal unfixed state of digital/kinetic poetry, but throughout the text he does use this “unfixed” nature of digital poetry to support politicized readings. I’ll make that more clear in revisions.


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