Uncommon Links: An Introduction to Hypertext Poetry
With the continued growth of information technology, poets have access to a remarkable number of new or recently expanded tools. One of these tools is hypertext, which allows writers to link various pieces of text and other media. While hypertext poetry can be transitory and scholars may choose to ignore it, it remains a worthy tool for writers who wish to engage readers more fully, incorporate mixed media into their poems, and create conversations about the nature of poetry.
The term hypertext was first used by Ted Nelson (De Las Heras 971) and refers to electronic text that links immediately to other text or media through a hyperlink. Often, the hypertext and the media it links to are related (Bell 1). Readers can generally access the secondary text by clicking or hovering over the hypertext. The secondary text may open a link in the same window, open a new window or tab, or display as a popup or text box in the original window. Usually, hypertext words are highlighted a different colour or underlined (Amos 159). Writers may choose, however, to conceal hypertext by ignoring these stylistic conventions. Despite its relatively short history, hypertext is now an integral part of computing. Most people navigate one of the largest examples of hypertext networks daily as they browse the World Wide Web (Bell 1).
Hypertext has been used by the literary community for decades. Novels or short stories using hypertext are called “hypertext fiction” (Bell 1). Early writers of hypertext fiction often used Storyspace, a software program for MacOs created by Eastgate Systems (Bell 3). These early examples of hypertext fiction were heavily text-based and tended not to include multimedia components (Morris 12). Regardless of its somewhat limited scope, hypertext literature seemed so promising in the 1990s that many scholars argued digital media would come to replace print media entirely (Hackman 85).
Despite the early interest in hypertext fiction, hypertext poetry has never fully emerged as a serious genre. In his book Digital Poetics: the Making of E-Poetries, Loss Pequeño Glazier laments that “poetry is a field of writing/programming whose alliance to digital practice seems generally unacknowledged”(153). Glazier’s statement is not without reason. Though scholars began to use hyperlinks to place the text of classical poetry in social and historical context, poets largely avoided creating link-node poetry in the 1980s and 90s (Morris 14). This remains the case today. While there is an abundance of poetry published online, much of it does not use internet technology like hyperlinks in innovative ways. In fact, Glazier argues that self-publication online has only led to an increase in the availability of more traditional poetry (154).
One possible reason for the lack of hypertext poetry may be the instability of the medium. Older pieces of e-poetry may be difficult to access because they rely on a particular operating system or obsolete software (Glazier, 156). For example, poems that use the plugin Flash may no longer play when new versions of Flash are released (Funkhouser 215). Digital poems may also be unreadable on devices like smart phones (Funkhouser 216). As more computer users gravitate toward smart phones and tablets, the risk of digital poems disappearing increases even more. While poets may preserve chunks of text, images, and videos for a number of years, the cohesive experience of a hyperlink poem is impermanent.
A second factor working against hypertext poetry is that most poets and academics fail to take electronic poetry seriously. As Paul Hackman noted in 2011, “hypertext literature remains on the fringe of literary studies” (85). There are a number of reasons why this may be the case. Poets may fear that digital publications will not be considered as impressive as print ones (Glazier 155). If a poem is not published in a print journal edited by the literary elite, how does one know it is “good?” Additionally, the impermanence of digital poetry noted above may make scholars reluctant to engage with it (Funkhouser 212). When academics study poems, they often spend hours examining the poem’s text, which becomes impossible when the text vanishes or is manipulated with an unlucky movement of the mouse. There is also a question of authority. If a text has both a print version and an electronic version, which is considered authoritative (Perloff 146)? Without a fixed text to work from, it can be difficult to engage in meaningful scholarship.
Despite the disadvantages, hypertext poetry is a useful tool for a number of reasons. First, it allows readers to engage more fully with the text. Hyperlinks present readers with choices (Funkhouser 25). Often, multiple links are presented and readers must decide which to follow, either arbitrarily or based on the presentation of the link. Because clicking different links leads to different content being displayed, every reader has a different experience of the poem (Funkhouser 31). For example, while navigating Deena Larsen’s “Carving in Possibilities”, readers actually carve out an image of Michaelangelo’s David by moving their mouse across the page, displaying text as they do (Larsen, “Carving in Possibilities”). While some of Larsen’s text remains viewable a second time, this is not always the case. The content of other hypertext poems may disappear, or a reader may not get to engage with content connected to links they did not choose. In other cases, the reader may only have control over the order text is presented or the speed at which they access the text. The impact of these decisions can be increased by making them irreversible. “The End of Capitalism” by Angela Ferraiolo does not allow pausing or reversing, so decisions by the reader feel final (Ferraiolo, “The End of Capitalism”). The amount of free will given to the reader is ultimately limited, as readers are still selecting from outcomes that are “pre-programmed by the writer” (Stefans 73). However, even the small choices made by readers provide an opportunity for reflection on the poem’s content.
The incorporation of mixed media is another advantage to hypertext poetry. Unlike early hypertext fiction, most recent hypertext poetry incorporates images, videos, and other design elements in addition to text (Funkhouser 13). Mixed media goes beyond enhancing a poem’s visual presentation and allows a deeper engagement with the reader. For example, Stephanie Strickland and Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo’s “slippingglimpse” uses Flash animation to show dynamic images next to scrolling text (Funkhouser 172). The images are sometimes related to the text; an image that resembles rock face accompanies a poem with the text “millions of years/of geologic material-forming processes” (Strickland and Jarmillo, “1_Upward”). Other images appear in contrast, as with an image of kelp accompanied by text describing videography (Strickland and Jarmillo, “4_Bladderwrack”). Some poets use even more innovative techniques. At one stage in Serge Bourchadon’s “Touch,” readers blow into microphone to manipulate text (Bourchadon et al, “Blow”). By combining hypertext poetry with various other forms of media, poets create multi-faceted and interactive works.
One final advantage of writing hypertext poetry is that it allows a poet to imbue new layers of meaning into their work, often to ask profound questions about the nature of poetry itself, both in form and in content. Most scholars of poetry would agree that even poetry using “new” techniques like hypertext is only exciting if its contents are meaningful (Perloff 143-144). Thus, not all hypertext poetry is innovative. However, all hypertext poetry does have the capacity to be innovative when used effectively. According to Glazier, innovative poetry questions what meaning is and how it is created (171). Hypertext poetry often allows readers to question meaning. It forces readers to reinterpret what it means to turn the page, an act we generally take for granted while reading print books (Hackman 99). New windows/tabs may open suddenly to “destabilize the notion of a total or complete reading” (Glazier 164). Hypertext poetry also forces readers to re-examine the meaning of words. In the “Move” component of “Touch,” Bourchadon allows readers to manipulate pronouns and structures, play with double meanings of words (Funkhouser 108). By using the mouse to change “Do you touch me when I touch you” to “Do I touch you when I touch you,” readers reveal the many different definitions of the word “touch” (Bourchadon et al, “Move”).
While it is true that hypertext poetry has its challenges, there is no good reason for it to be ignored entirely. Of course, all good poetry depends on fresh, meaningful content, and no poet should expect ground-breaking results from cramming dull material into an innovative package. However, those poets willing to combine insightful text with the tool of hypertext may just find the results engage readers by asking profound questions about what it means to read and write poetry.
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