Approaching Digital Poetry

30 Sep
This is reminiscent of early ASCII art.

Digital Poetry Word Art

This week, I shall try to be a little less prolix. My goal is to say something meaningful within five hundred words. Let ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ be my watchword for this blog.

As a lover of poetry and the poetic form, I was pleased this week to read Christopher Funkhouser’s retrospection on the first forty years of Digital Poetry. Once again, as has happened so many times over the past few weeks, I have learned that there is an important intersection between one of my particular interests with the digital sphere. Poetry, like video games, has a long digital history and a promising digital future. But what is digital poetry, and how does it differ from its non-digital counterpart?

Funkhouser’s explanation is not the sort of entirely negative or differential definition I was expecting: rather than defining digital poetry by what it is not, or in terms of how it differs from traditional poetry, Funkhouser creates an entirely new space for Digital Poetry:

“Digital poetry is a genre that fuses crafted language with new media technology and techniques enabled by such equipment, and is a reasonable label to use in describing forms of literary work that are presented on screens with the assistance of computers and/or computer programming. A poem is a digital poem if computer programming or processes (software, etc.) are distinctively used in the composition, generation, or presentation of the text (or combinations of texts).”

When I read this, I began to consider several things:
1) Is a poetic work ‘digital poetry’ if it is written on the computer with the intention of being distributed solely online?
2) Where is the line between ‘digital poetry’ and a piece of digital art that is not poetry?
3) Might works which I had previously considered visual art now fit under the heading of ‘digital poetry’?

The answer to the third question depends on the answers to the previous questions. So, we proceed up the list.

The second question is something that I do not think I alone can solve. In fact, principles of aesthetic inclusion have a large cultural component, so I would appreciate the opinions of others. For my own part, I would tentatively offer the explanation that digital poetry must have a language component which is necessary to its manifestation; digital art need not (my terms here are intentionally broad).

Now this is digital p-OH!-etry.

In this digital poem, a sound is played whenever the reader hovers over the letter “O”.

This leaves the first question. In considering it, I thought back to our earlier readings about how there were forces at work which were trying to establish–that is, to close off alternative readings of–the nature of digital humanities. Might a similarly restrictive methodology be at work here; and, is such an approach consistent with the underlying principles of digital humanism (which seems to value openness and inclusivity)?

Of course, most writing today–whether poetry or anything else–is done using a computer. Is all such work ‘digital’? Perhaps not.

I came back to my earlier conception, from question 2, of the necessity of the digital component. Therefore, if the digital component is a necessary part of the poetic work, it is a digital poem. Or, to put that another way, could the same poem have been composed in the absence of a computer (noting that I include the intended audience as a factor in the composition)?

So, whilst a Tweet poem might just have easily been written by hand on a piece of paper, the same digital audience could not be reached in that way–nor could any analogue to such an audience be reached. Moreover, the very limitations of the Tweet–140 characters–imposes a certain structural rigidity upon a poem which employs the Tweet format. Because these are factors which affect the creation of the content, and which cannot be escaped by the author (or, more precisely, which are deliberately accepted), they are necessary components of the content.

These are still matters which I am considering, and about which I have yet to form firm conclusions. But this is consistent with my conception of the digital humanities as a process, not a fixed destination.

The name may be a pun, but this tart is not a lie.

devianTART by claremanson

The application of these thoughts leads to my wild card this week: deviantART ( deviantART (colloquially referred to as devART or DA) is the single largest social network for artists on the internet. It was founded in August of 2000 and receives over 100,000 submissions per day. Artistic endeavours of nearly every conceiveable form are represented, including digital poetry in abundance (some written by your humble correspondent). One can find writing of every type, and indeed of every style. Any number of studies could be done–including the sort of quantitative studies which were represented in last week’s discussion. In short, I think that deviantART is something with which every digital humanist should be familiar for, more than any other website which I have encountered, it seems to be built upon the fundamental principles of the digital humanities revolution–a fact no less surprising for its grass-roots origins outside of the academy and squarely in the realm of the public.

Well, I was not quite able to keep it to five hundred words–but that goal, like the digital humanities, is also a work in progress.

Bonus Wild Card: ELMCIP (Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice) — a more academic approach to the digital language art medium. (

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Posted by on 30 September 2012 in Essays


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