How The Computer Will Save Poetry

Tierra de extracción, Domenico Chiappe

Most bibliophiles who fear a future of literary hogwash shudder at the phrase “electronic literature.” Rightfully, lovers of paper and print are universally wary of a technological standardization of form. However, a dismissal of all digital efforts overlooks a generation of avant-garde poets who undoubtedly care as deeply about literature as the most tenure-ridden English departments.

Indeed, it’s been the computer—and not the printing press—that has encouraged a fledgling movement of modern experimentalists. Referred to as “conceptual poets,” these writers—no strangers to print—have recognized the computer’s revolutionary ability to parse, manage, and disintegrate text. In combining a human poetic with coded logic, conceptualists hope to unsecure long-held beliefs about poetry.

Kenneth Goldsmith, figurehead of the conceptualist poets, describes its theoretic mission in a series of didactic questions:

What would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with “spontaneous overflow” supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise. [1]

Observant readers will find references to a literature of an “exhaustively logical process” reminiscent of old theoretic jargon tossed around in the 1960s and 1970s—inarguably, decades of print. Certainly, conceptual poetry has a long, printed history; founding theories of the movement can be traced to Derrida’s post-structuralist work and the lingual experiments of Raymond Queneau.

However, it is this era’s widespread application of the Internet that has allowed conceptualists to gain a sturdy foothold in literary culture. These renegade authors found new support and utility in the digital realm; online, linear language games of decades past were quickly replaced by a unique generative production of language.

Christian Bök, another leader of the movement, describes the relationship of technology and conceptualism thusly:

Recent trends in technologies of communication (such as digitized sampling and networked exchange) have already begun to subvert the romantic bastions of ‘creativity’ and ‘authorship,’ calling into question the propriety of copyright through strategies of plagiaristic appropriation, computerized reduplication, and programmatic collaboration. Such developments have caused poets to theorize an innovative aesthetics of ‘conceptual literature’ that has begun to question, if not to abandon, the lyrical mandate of originality in order to explore the potentials of the ‘uncreative’ be it automatic, mannerist, aleatoric, or readymade, in its literary practice. [2]

Early poetic ventures during modern conceptualist adolescence were impressive and challenging. For his piece The Day, Kenneth Goldsmith transcribed every word of the New York Times issue printed on September 11, 2001. In hindsight, even the blandest news reports trills with evocations of coming terror:

e2 the new york times, tuesday, september 11, 2001
Continued From First Arts Page
On Islam, Mr. Houellebecq went still further, deriding his estranged mother for converting to Islam and proclaiming that, while all monotheistic religions were “cretinous,” “the most stupid religion is Islam.” And he added: “When you read the Koran, you give up. At least the Bible is
Sexual tourism
and inflammatory
remarks about
very beautiful because Jews have an extraordinary literary talent.” And later, noting that “Islam is a dangerous religion,” he said it was condemned to disappear, not only because God does not exist but also because it was being undermined by capitalism. [3]

Christian Bök, who is currently writing a poem in the genetic code of a bacterium, wrote Eunoia, a univocalist (single-vowel) piece:

Chapter A – For Hans Arp

Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla. Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal – a gala ball that has what pagan charm small galas lack. Hassan claps, and (tah-dah) an Arab lass at a swank spa can draw a man’s bath and wash a man’s back, as Arab lads fawn and hang, athwart an altar, amaranth garlands as fragrant as attar – a balm that calms all angst. A dwarf can flap a palm branch that fans a fat maharajah. A naphtha lamp can cast a calm warmth. [4]

These printed works primed a literary audience for future forays, introducing questions about the nature and authenticity of language. As computer technology became ubiquitous in modern culture, offshoots of these early efforts blossomed: Flarf, Hypertext Fiction, Interactive Fiction, and Combinatory Literature are all digitized amplifications of initial, printed endeavors.

On the Internet, conceptualist literature takes on kaleidoscopic form, completely alien to the severe world of print: Pieces often feature aural experimentation, kinetic text, and diverse visual display. Commonly, viewers will guide a poem rather than simply reading it, becoming investigators—rather than bystanders—of art. These various digital combinations of form escape all reductive definitions of medium, and invite a reconsideration of literary practice.

As per the Electronic Literature Database’s mission statement:

Electronic literature is not just a “thing” or a “medium” or even a body of “works” in various “genres.” E-Literature is, arguably, an emerging cultural form, as much a collective creation of new terms and keywords as it is the production of new literary objects. [5]

The Internet has fostered this “emerging cultural form” unlike any other vessel of artistic enterprise to date. The World Wide Web is free from the politics of print publishing: There exists no definitive canon, no gatekeepers, no author worship, and no picky audience. The Web stands as a virtual tabula rasa—a digital wild west—where each new work dethrones the last. On the Internet one may create, unencumbered.

Thankfully, the absence of gatekeepers doesn’t correlate with an abundance of bad art; due to the prevailing vigilance of a scrutinizing cyber-audience, bad pieces are immediately defamed and subsequently ignored. For a piece of electronic literature to succeed, it must be uniquely conceived and appeal to the strongest elements of design and execution.

Creating art for a fluid medium is no brainless task. Where analog writers begin their work on an assumption of creation—the pen & paper, taken for granted—digital authors must reevaluate their means of creation upon beginning every piece. They cannot rely on a continual process, and must forever invent new modes of expression. Instead of asking, “What can I write?” the digital author asks: “How can I write?” In an age where popular print novels are bland regurgitations of romantic forms, this question has become invaluable.

Certainly, the tripartition of hardware (the computer) software (the multi-modal pen) and interconnectivity (the Internet) has produced an inconceivable depth of artistic creation and experience. However, despite its allure, the field has few fans. In a Digital Culture course I took last year, conceptual digital literature universally underwhelmed my classmates: “Conceptual poetry is too damn theoretical,” said one student. “It’s too technical,” said another. “It excludes more than it encourages”; “It’s not of humanity, it’s not art”; “It’s poorly written.”

This is an exhaustive—and mostly accurate—critical litany, to be sure. There are some very solid reasons to be wary of e-lit. This brand of poetry is too technical; its creation generally requires knowledge of programming and specific software. Should people, regions, societies, or cultures that aren’t technologically versed be excluded from poetry? Simply using a machine of modernity as the chief means of artistic creation indicates a hegemonic, exclusive manner of conduct. And, in any case, a poetic of algorithms trivializes the humanity of poetry.

But, as artist Sol LeWitt—another conceptualist frontrunner—reminds us, the endeavor isn’t prescriptive:

I do not advocate a conceptual form of art for all artists. I have found that it has worked well for me while other ways have not. It is one way of making art; other ways suit other artists. Nor do I think all conceptual art merits the viewer’s attention. Conceptual art is good only when the idea is good. [6]

Indeed, when we consider conceptual digital literature as a supplemental movement—rather than a totalizing, subsuming whole—we begin to realize its merit. These etymological scientists strive to refresh our poetic mission, not destroy its quiddity. Emergent literature damns long-revered bastions of creative enterprise to focus on the only thing that matters—the Art. By conducting upon language vigorous tests of a vastly fluid medium, electronic authors work to reinvent our creative consciousness—an effort that benefits digital and print artists alike.

Please browse around these wonderful compendiums at UbuWeb, Electronic Literature Directory, and Electronic Literature Organization.


Christian Harder is an undergraduate writer at Virginia Tech in literature who believes in innovations in form and style. He believes politics, preaching, and political correctness have no place in art and remains wary of the effect large cultural institutions and popular trends have on an otherwise intelligent public. He anticipates attending graduate school come next year. Harder maintains his website Pages to Pixels.

2 responses to “How The Computer Will Save Poetry”

  1. Cloudsoftoday says:

    Kenneth Goldsmith’s DAY is September 1, 2000. That’s why its strangely ominous. I am suspecting autocorrect.

  2. EIL says:

    Kenneth Goldsmith’s “The Day” and “Day” are two totally different poems on two different dates.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.