Poetry is not a circumstance of language. Rather, any possible circumstance of language is a possible circumstance of poetry. It is the job of the poet to invest that circumstance with energy. It is the job of the receiver to be open-minded about what circumstances of language may constitute poetry. This is the exact analogue of the idea that the domain of music is anything which may be heard, or that the domain of the visual arts is anything which may be seen. The page may be a wall or a computer screen or a street or a floor with words glued together in a pile so that not all of them can be read. This is not meant in any way to disparage the traditional page. If there can be such a thing as a conscientious avant garde, then surely its purpose must be to expand the field of possibilities for making art, not to replace the existing set of possibilities with a new one, equally narrow. The house of poetry has room for everyone.
It is a common stereotype that the arts "are" communication processes. Communication is a wonderful thing; no one should put it down. Like love, it doesn't always happen when you want it to. What is pernicious in the arts is the view that when communication has failed, all has failed, that there is nothing but communication. In fact there is a layer that underlies communication: the energy transaction layer. The artist is presumably a person who is able to take energies and make them available in concentrated form. The receiver is presumably someone with certain energy needs. What is important is that the transaction take place: that the energy is transferred. (What the energy "is", where it comes from, how it works -- these are all questions on which we will all, of course, differ.) Where the artist has an exactly clear view of just how the energy transaction should take place, and it does in fact take place that way, then we call this communication.
But imagine you have just walked into an art gallery. All about the space are works that you don't understand at all. You find them irritating, perhaps infuriating. You "get nothing" from them. You walk out of the gallery in complete disgust. The artist has not communicated with you at all -- you are certain of this. Then a strange thing begins to happen. You begin to notice that somehow, you are simply seeing much more sharply than you usually do. You find yourself at a heightened state of attention. You find your thoughts making connections that hadn't happened before. Your life seems suddenly more clear. As opposed to that dreadful mess in the gallery!
This is the energy transaction at work -- in a way that perhaps neither artist nor viewer "intends" or understands. And yet, by being energized, by being brought to a heightened state of attention, something useful has happened in your life. Something useful to you. Not an injection or gift of someone else's wisdom, but a connection that was there for you to make all along, something entirely yours, a connection that sprang forward with the impetus of the energy of the works in the gallery. Let us admit that communication failed here, but the energy transaction worked.
The artist is one person, but there are many potential receivers. Simple arithmetic announces who is important here: the receivers! For an artist interested in energy transactions, the purpose of art is to jog the receiver so that resources already there in the receiver's mind are brought together in a productive way. You may not like this idea. You may find it like asking a question and being greeted by another question in response. You may wish for an injection from somewhere outside of yourself. If you do, you may not be happy with an energy that operates on your own resources without giving you new ones.
Communication, by definition, means being specific about what energy transactions can take place. But an art which focuses on the energy transaction layer itself as the primary layer should seek to maximize the energy transactions that can take place. This means the artist should not stand in the way of her/his own energy transactions. For an artist who is not specific about what energy transactions should take place, there is no "thing" to be communicated.
The distance away from the energy transaction layer at which an artist wishes to place the focus is an artistic variable; like any other artistic variable the artist may choose to vary it over a life's work or within a single work or not at all; the artist may seek to make it clear or ambiguous, or even "flip" as our perceptions can flip when viewing an optical illusion.
Sometimes the energy transactions do not come off, but a third party can help to bring them about. This is the proper role of criticism. This is the only proper role of criticism. Critics who actively seek to prevent energy transactions from taking place because they consider them of no value are harm-doers performing destructive acts, and should be labelled as such, like other vandals.
The communication stereotype goes hand in hand with the compulsion to possess "the thing communicated". Possessiveness carried to extremes can have unpleasant side effects. In order to best receive works intended to operate primarily in the energy transaction layer, it may be necessary for the receiver to make the effort to be purged of possessiveness. Some potential receivers will not want to do this. They will find the work difficult. The work may indeed be difficult, but nowhere near as difficult as giving up possessiveness.
Imagine you are in a primeval rain forest, surrounded by sights and sounds that are completely unfamiliar. All at once the most amazing bird you have ever seen flies by. Its irridescent colors look like nothing you've ever seen. Alas, you see the bird only for an instant, for a flash so brief you can hardly be sure you saw it. Then it's gone. Perhaps you will feel that you simply must get a full unobstructed view of that bird. You go crashing through the forest trying to find it. You become manic about it.
Or perhaps you beome very still, surrendering to whatever the forest chooses to show you. You would be thrilled to see the bird again. But you know you may not. You are energized by that one brief moment of having seen it, as you try to be energized by every moment the forest has to offer. You move through the forest slowly, becoming part of it. You see all of it, even though of course you see only a tiny part of it.
Which strategy is more likely to get you another sighting of that bird?
Alas, McLuhan got it exactly backwards: speech is an inherently linear medium, writing is a medium with an inherently non-linear potential. We think of writing as linear only because writing is such a young thing, we haven't figured out yet how to tap even a fraction of its power; mostly we use it as simply an alternative medium for nearly the same languages as are used for speech. I.e. the supposed linearity of writing comes simply from a lack of inventiveness in using writing only for the same kind of language that might be spoken. So we must begin by understanding the linearity of speech. (Or Sign, for that matter; the issues for both are identical.)
Speech is an activity in which speaker and listener are constrained by the requirement that comprehension must take place in real-time. (But word-time is not quite real-time -- it has an oddly retroactive character. We "hear" what the mind has retroactively decoded from the previous so many fractions of a second as though we were hearing it exactly as it happened.) It is the inexorable linearity of time which makes speech linear. (Or makes peformance of any kind linear, for that matter.)
A simple model for language would have the listener decode the message by going through a series of states; the rules for language would tell, based on what was heard and the current state, what the next state would be. This model has the virtue that it requires very little storage: the listener must only remember the current state. This kind of model is known as a finite state machine. It is known that there are serious limits to the complexity of structure that can be built with finite state machines. (In particular, a finite state machine cannot handle "self embedding" structures. A sentence that has another sentence in the middle of it, e.g. "His statement that he has nothing to hide will not wash, and I told him so", is a self-embedding structure.)
Only fairly simple languages can be handled by the model of a finite state machine. When more complexity is required, we will need a model with a much more exacting requirement for storage. Sentences in natural languages require the listener to fit together pieces of what is heard that may be widely separated in time. The method by which cues are embedded in speech as to how the storage should operate is called syntax. You could say that syntax is "speech's way out" of the linearity imposed by time.
But writing is vastly different. First, there is no constraint imposed by time. The reader may reread -- or skip around -- as many times as needed to feel comfortable. Second, a written document, unlike a spoken performance, contains its own storage. The storage burden does not fall so completely on the reader as it falls on the listener. In writing, space replaces time as the fundamental dimension-set for text as opposed to speech. Complex links between parts of a written text separated in space may simply be drawn directly. The method of directly, graphically linking the pieces of text connected by a relationship can be used for syntax itself: Direct Access Communication -- as opposed to speech, which may be called Synchronous Sequential Access Communication.
And yet we seldom find works written to directly exploit these capabilities. Instead, writing tends to be used merely to freeze-dry speech. No wonder there is such a strong feeling in the poetry community that the spoken word is the primary medium, has far more power than writing, that to know what a poet is "really up to" you have to hear the poet read. We haven't yet learned to start writing.
The term "hypertext" was coined by Ted Nelson more than two decades ago to describe a way of organizing text aided by a computer that allows the reader to follow links as well as simply "read forward". "Traditional hypertext" allows a non-linear organization to be superimposed on an otherwise linear document. Or pushed one step further it allows a non-linear organization to be imposed on a locally linear substrate.
Hypertext does not go nearly far enough. The non-linearity should be extended all the way down into the fine structure of language. Syntax itself can operate through the same kinds of operations as the hypertext link.
Hypertext is interactive in that the user makes choices concerning which links to follow. In some hypertexts the user may additionally create links as desired; other hyptertexts are "read-only": the user may follow links but not create them. For read-only hypertexts, interactivity is mainly concerned with navigating the link space of the hypertext. There are numerous unresolved questions in hypertext that are the subject of lively investigation. How best should links be created? How can the structure of the link space be presented to the user without the user getting lost?
Hypertext-like navigation can be used with direct access communication to achieve a virtual page of arbitrary size and complexity.
Navigation is of course only the simplest thing that may be done with interactivity. Interactivity may be used to allow the user to change the entire structure of the text. Interactive text can be said to behave; the only limits to the possible degrees of complexity of this behavior are the general limits to the complexity of behavior of computer programs. (See below, "the animate object".)
The use of juxtaposition -- superimposing elements with no structural relationship whatever -- is taken for granted as a possible artistic device in music and the visual arts. In poetry it presents a very profound problem. Juxtaposition is structural zero. To paraphrase Cage's old critique of the twelve-tone system, syntax is a vocabulary of structural descriptions which has no zero. In a traditional sentence, every word has a structural role, every word has a structural relationship to every other word by virtue of where each word is in the syntactical structure. It is not possible to have a sentence in traditional languages where words are just "there together" with no structural relationship at all. So the poet wrestles with a difficult dilemma: forego juxtaposition, or forego syntax.
In direct access communication, the burden of syntax is removed from the words and carried by the medium itself, through direct links, be they graphical on paper or hypertext links. This allows the use of juxtaposition and the kinds of structuring provided by syntax. The syntax of direct access communication is a syntax that allows for zero, that allows for elements that are juxtaposed without structure to be combined into a larger structural whole. The dilemma over the use of juxtaposition is solved. Syntax becomes an option but not an obstacle.
A visual, diagrammatic syntax is a syntax with all slots open. Any point can be connected to any other point just by drawing the link. Poetry is given the openness that has been taken for granted in the other arts for decades, without giving up the richness that syntax provides as a vocabulary of structural descriptions.
The ability to draw syntactic links directly makes easy for direct access communication syntactical possibilities that are difficult or impossible for traditional grammars. Example: the feedback loop. Feedback loops are among the most ubiquitous and fundamental structures in nature. They are also notoriously nasty for theories to deal with. Traditional grammars do not allow for feedback loops. There may be a loop in the sense that a grammatical rule is revisited, but in mapping out the syntactical parts and their relationship to one another an actual element of a sentence is not structurally revisited. But the openness of a diagrammatic syntax makes this easy. A link indicating a predicate may end up back at an element that's part of the complex being predicated. The eye can see there is a loop, can take in the whole loop as a structure. Things lead back: we all know sometimes life works this way.
A grammar permitting feedback loops would be impossible for a computer to deal with. The computer would hang in the loop, would not realize there is a loop, would be able to form no gestalt for the loop as a whole. Even the mind would have trouble with a feedback loop in the medium of speech: the linearity of time makes it too hard to go back, and back again, and form the gestalt of a loop.
Another structure made easy in direct access communication is the internal link. An internal link is a link between an element and a larger complex in which that element participates. (This is a form of loop, actually.) Consider a clause, and the relationship between the noun and the whole clause. That relationship itself -- the role the noun plays in the clause -- is not available in traditional syntax as a syntactical element. But in a visual syntax, an internal link is as easy to draw as an external link.
The historical "first problem" for computer poetry has been how to get the words into the computer. Of course this won't be a problem much longer: computers will all come with good dictionaries, the words will already be there. But in the past, to use a computer with poetry has meant first getting the words into the machine. But putting all the words of a natural language into the machine is a huge undertaking. So the computer poet had to first give the computer a vocabulary, a vocabulary more restricted than the whole of the language, more restricted than the totality of words the poet knows. This has been a major stumbling block for many poets who might otherwise have worked with computers. The nasty word here is "restricted". Poets do not like feeling restricted. "Vocabulary" is not a conception many poets find congenial with their poetics. (Jackson Mac Low comes to mind as an example of someone who, to the contrary, has worked with vocabularies as an element of his poetics for decades, computer or no computer.)
Is a vocabulary a "closed form" (in the Olson sense)? At least one vocabulary everyone knows is (trivially) not a closed form: the entire language. If the entire language is a closed form then the term "closed form" makes no distinction so we should quit talking about it: everything would be a closed form. So the question must be rephrased: How small must a vocabulary be before it becomes a closed form? We will differ on the answer to this, of course. Personal view: a vocabulary can be amazingly small and still be an open form. That is the hard part, of course: composing a vocabulary which is small but still open.
We should not be bashful about small numbers. (Robert Duncan always said he couldn't count beyond five.) A vocabulary "composed small" will induce repetition in the works composed from it in a way which is musical but not overt.
Precomposition -- composing, prior to creating the visible/audible/readable "ultimate elements" of a work, a "layer" which affects the entirety of the final work -- is a venerable concept. Visual artists have been doing it for centuries. I.e. the woods had to be scoured for materials to be ground into pigments and a canvas had to be stretched and material prepared for gesso and primer coats applied and then undercoats applied -- all before a single square millimeter of the final surface was "painted". Composers, particularly electronic composers, have practiced precomposition extensively. But for some reason, the concept of precomposition seems to be in poor favor among poets. It's as if we are still struggling with a ghost of romantic idealism about the act of composing poetry that looks on precomposition as dirty, somehow. Allen Ginsberg has written explicitly about the act of composition, a kind of real-time theory of composition. Again, the morbid fear of the specter "closed form" haunts the landscape.
Is an arena a closed form? Is the page? The primed surface of a canvas? (That last one sounds silly, of course.) Poets should not be bashful about borrowing methods from the other arts. Why not have layered operations that affect the entirety of subsequent layers in the composition of the poem?
The idea that all writers face the same blank page at the outset is a truism. But with computers and precompositional techniques it isn't even true: one can start with a full page, and then the poet's work is to empty most of it.
The cycle: words are eaten, become compost for the next generation, become the food for pages that spring to life full, not empty. Like evolution in nature, chance may be used but is not the whole story. (Chance and mechanism both exist in nature, typically in close confines.)
Cut-up is a venerable technique. Cut-up usually means cutting up someone else. Another approach is to cut up oneself, to compose for the cut-up (precompositionally): poet as builder of the forest, the whole forest, creator of the evolution game and all of the pieces. One's words take on a different value if you know that "failed" lines will be eaten and plowed back into the next generation, that successful lines are the survivors.
Many poets have written about objects. (Some who have ended up wishing they hadn't.) Computer technology changes completely the "objecthood" of words. On the computer screen, the comparison of moving words with physical manipulation of things which can be held in the hand is simply inescapable. Just as physical objects may be found in the landscape, the poet may find word objects in an arena in which they are, by whatever combination of artistic choice and algorithmic mechanism suits the poet's poetics, presented by surprise. (What an irony that chance becomes just one among many classes of algorithm, that the pseudo-random is programmed. Random number generators have their chapter in Knuth, just like searching and sorting algorithms.)
But the meaning of the word "object" is itself changing. Object has become a technical buzzword in computing. (Such buzzwords now seem to work their way into the general language with frightening speed.) In the computer concept of object, the nounishness of the object is receding in importance; object becomes the cluster of verbs that make sense when applied to the object, with noun properties along for the ride but opaque, unobservable but through the action of verbs. The object becomes the animate object: it behaves. Whole new galaxies of animate word objects await creation.
In the animate object, juxtaposition becomes invitation: the computer may be used to define logical and physical space allowing phrases to be juxataposed and still individually accessible; presentation of the juxtaposed elements may be part of an animate word object's behavior. This type of juxtaposition may be and or or: the poet may be inviting the reader to choose any one of the elements offered, or may be offering the cluster of all of them as a single entity, that each one and the next one and the next one are all there together. Structural zero becomes an empty container filled by participation of the reader.
Evolution: new species in the word forest, an infinity of possibilities. An arena with structure that is still open, that behaves, that invites.
Jim Rosenberg's home page o Poetics