Poetry News

Game poems, contemporary art, cliches and the promise of digital poetry

By Harriet Staff

At NewScientist's CultureLab, Jim Giles takes a look at the various emerging forms of "digital poetry." Hypertext and electronic literature are nothing new, people have been capitalizing on the interactivity of code to add media to their text (or text to their media, or text to their text) since the discovery that everything sounds cooler when you put hyper- or cyber- in front of it. But where in previous eras the emphasis may have been on the technology, limited as it was to people with highly specialized skills, the ease and accessibility of present software allow the poetry and poets to take back the spotlight. The media and interactivity serve the concept of the poem, rather than the poem being at the mercy of the gee-whiz factor.

Many digital poets weave sound into their texts. In Dakota, a piece by the South Korean-based Young Hae-Chang Heavy Industries, text flashes rapidly on the screen, accompanied by an Art Blakey soundtrack. The rapid-fire sequence of words together with the power of Blakey's drumming combine to deprive the reader of a sense of control. The effect is unsettling, but it echoes the chaotic journey described in the poem.

Young Hae-Chang Heavy Industries are one of those early hyperart adopters who generally work with third party source text, in this case, Ezra Pound. For Jim Nelson, however, the "digital" and "poetry" are inseparable, resulting in the Wall Street Journal calling his work as "alienating as modern art can get" and the occasional death threat.

The form that poetry takes isn't the only area where new technologies are eliciting strong reactions. Even more practical applications like Google Translate have their naysayers, at least for now.

Some have suggested that the role of the poet will be subsumed, or at least altered, by technology. That may explain the uneasy reaction to Google's attempt to extend its text translation system so that it can cope with verse. It is a formidable challenge, in part because the translations need to maintain both form and meaning.

I asked Robert Pinsky, the former US poet laureate, to look at the initial output from Google's software. "These remind me that over the years people have sent me poems generated by computer programs," he said. "It was amazing how much the computers seem to love cliches: the effect of naivety and conventionality. But maybe next week, or month, or year, something dazzling?"

Originally Published: December 7th, 2010