e-poetry time&language changes

Saturday January 22nd, 2005.


Jean-Pierre BALPE

All forms of literature are always depending on each component of its entire apparatus : historically, literature was so dependant on all the concrete conditions of its oral propagation and it is not so surprising that, during that period, partly because of the necessities of memorization, poetry played the first role.

But memorization was not the only reason for the importance of poetry, indeed the voice is very private, very subjective, very close to a lyrical way of expression, close to a song, and the direct contact with a public is then more important for a poet than for a novelist. This is why, the appearance of books, I mean nor rolls nor the manuscript codex but the modern printed book, allowing private reading, allowing to go back in its reading, to suspend a reading for a while and then to restart it again, to put a distance between the writer and the reader, has provoked a profound change inside the literature field by giving more and more importance to the novel or other, more or less short, stories. It is not here the place to highlight the consequences of all these aspects of literature and to emphasize how the fact that literature was the first cultural industry of all the times was of a major importance to relegate poetry and its overly subjective approach to something as a minor place in literature.

It’s doesn’t matter, this point is not really the subject of my paper; but, to go further, it was important to accentuate it.

What happens now indeed is another change of the same nature than the changes from the roll to the printed codex. The text can now be digitalized, not only digitalized after its production but product in a digitalized form : that means that it has no more respect for strict definite set of laws imposed by the book and by the book industry but that it can take a lot of different material aspects.

The text is now separated from all precise media and can be a text by itself, out of most of the physical constraints that previously contribute to define it.

And that generates a lot of very interesting results. For instance :

-   a text no longer has to be fixed
-   a text no longer has to be definitive
-   a text no longer has to be linear
-   a text no longer has to be always the same
-   the value of a text must be estimate according to new criteria
-   and so on...

This means that all aspects of a text must be revisited and even reinvented.

So, it is today possible to affirm that we don’t know what, here and now, in the digital field, a text really is ; more exactly what is and what will be an e-text. For instance :

-   what are the new relations implied between such texts and memory
-   what are the relations between such a text and reading,
-   what are the relations between such a text and a writer,
-   what are the relations between such a text and the numerous output interfaces of the digital apparatus
-   what kind of text is a text displayed on a screen
-   what kind of text is a text diffused as sound
-   what does it mean
-   how does it signify
-   what form does it take and what happens if those screens are not only pieces of cloth but every possible object of our daily world ?
-   what form does it take when a screen is virtual surface of light ?

All these points and many others are densely related to e-literature.

All these points, and many others, are also, in the same movement, more about e-poetry...

And, moreover, e-poetry plays here a very specific role. Indeed, poetry was always deeply concerned with the forms of the text, and that concern is even one of the most specific aspects of poetry which always tries, within the medium it uses, to work on the peculiarity of its material. Poetry is a specific use of relations between language and the medium by which that language is supported, poetry is something like a trembling, a fluttering, possibly a quavering, inside of language itself, all kind of vacillations allowed by a specific use of the medium itself. Poetry is something as the status of being a language and by the same movement implies to play with all the limits of being a language. That means that poetry has to prove that a language is something totally open, living and always new, that a language clearly is linked to the deepest originality of being an human subject.

For all these reasons, poetry is certainly always on the border line of what the medium allows to do and, for that acute reason, tends always to drive its medium into its corners, to make it express the most it can, to use all the precise peculiarity of each medium : for example, poetry uses typography in an extremely precise way, printed poetry requires at the same time very strange and very accurate expressions, poetry plays on sounds, accentuations and sonorities, performed poetry hesitates between text and song, and so on... Poetry makes so all its effort to plainly use all the specificity of the medium which make it happen. Then, when we speak of e-poetry we have to wonder about what is very specific in the use of digital text, an attitude which, in the case of poetry, implies the taking into account of a lot of new approaches and tend to characterize something specific called e-poetry.

Answering back to such questions are some replies, but not so much... Many people are speaking of interactivity but I don’t know real works of interactive poetry - generally that interactivity is rather poor and don’t deeply implies the reader - maybe somebody here will show me some applications in that field. I know some works of interaction, that means where music and text - or drawings and text - play together a common game, but they are not so many and not so many are really interesting and yet so few involve a deep true use of digital possibilities different from something like a classical use of music or drawing on text (and vice versa). I don’t also, contrary to the novel field, know many attempts of collective poetry. Maybe they are, I will be curious to know them, but, for some of the reasons I have given previously, I fear that good poetry will never be collective. And so on...

So, what appears clearly to me is that the principal contribution of the digital medium to poetry, that essentially defines e-poetry, is the relation to time. Not time as movement, changing in time, but time as time itself. Undoubtedly, e-poetry uses movement too, most of its texts are moving, and according to time their texts are changing, and they have found here a new way to emphasize the trembling I was speaking of before : language becomes something like a show with its peculiar rhythms and expectations and “suspense” and destabilization of common reading... But e-poetry also uses other ways of staging the language wavering, e-poetry performs on the refusal of fixing definitively a part of language, and, in such a case, e-poetry affirms that language is something which, because emphasizing the main role of poetry which is to affirm the liberty of each man in and with his language, never cease working.

In that direction they are many attempts in e-poetry, but to me some seem to be something like a simple prolongation of video-poetry : that is making something as a film, sometimes in the worst works like a movie, of words. Of course, as I said before, any variation in a part of the apparatus implies other levels of transformation, for instance video-poetry implies a different kind of hardware than e-poetry and thus the relationship with its reader is quite different : each reader can have as many reading of e-poem as he wants, situation which is not so easy with a video-poem and such a state creates a different relation to the text, video-poetry plays more in a collective attitude than e-poetry which is something like a private show.

But to present and discuss all these points would take me a lot of time and I don’t have time enough to properly explore them here. What I want to accentuate today is that point : e-poetry has a very specific relation with time and movement different from that which was offered before to poetry ; because this relation to time and movement takes place not only on the displaying of the text but inside language itself. Each text indeed is moving from one state to another, some time like in automatic text generation from one text to another. That relation plays on variation, change, time, ambiguity, hesitation, infinite, and so on... For the first time in the history of poetry, e-poetry set the change and the variation as the central rule of its writing, it strongly underlines the link between similarity and dissimilarity. But the accent on that point is yet very different from that we find in oral literature and then, sometimes but not so frequently, in oral poetry because in oral poetry, the variation is something marginal, something like the adaptation to a peculiar context or the mark of a peculiar performer and these modifications have many to do, as - for instance - show the epic poetry, with memory games ; that is some rules to permit to everybody to remember a full text. In e-poetry, the function of variation is never to support memory but to give a chance to change, to strengthen the full central power of language : its capacity of never express the same thing in the same way and in the same time, to put forward the infinite expressive ability of language, and to call attention to the intricate relations between text, reading, time and contexts.

I apologize but from now I will stress my paper on my own e-poetic work, I hope you will forgive me for such an impoliteness. I will also meet another problem : I have to show you some of my text generators working in real time. What I call a text generator is a software that, based on models of texts, using a grammar and some different dictionaries creates the text you will read. So I never know before what will be written and it is for me a discovery, not exactly as for you, because I know the model underneath - and that is one aspect of the points I’m discussing here - but I’m not able to predict what will be exactly written and these generators are essentially writing in French, so I will have to translate their text directly : that is for me a rather difficult exercise and I hope you will apologize my numerous inelegances.

Now, let me show you some texts :

-   first of all one in English, but very poor and which is not poetry but only to show you how it works (American landscape)
-   then poetry (MeTapolis, poème européen, trois mythologies, nographies...)

Certainly you now understand what I wanted to make evident today : the relation with time and these texts is a very unusual one : each text is a temporary one, it disappears as soon as it has been read, when you read it you read a text which does not want nor to be reread nor memorized, each text is something as the announcement of other possible texts. In fact, what you are reading is not a text but the moving of a text inside a language with which he is written. The reader is always in search of the ideal text, something as a model of language in which a lot of possibilities are engraved. Such a text says something, it has its proper meaning, but you know that this meaning at that precise moment is only one of the possible meanings it has : each text is as the relative moment of a theoretical text which is the real text and that you can only achieve by an infinite reading.

If one text is, for instance :

Things always flying Oiseau du soir Soleil

Things always flying Evening bird Sun

It has a meaning by itself, you can explain it, commentate it, it works as a quite lyrical and melancholy evocation of an instant at the same time fugitive and eternal, time is compared with birds and sun, but the birds will die and the sun will not, and so on. This text is a text which can be printed but, in that case, it would not continue to be a e-poem.

To remain as a e-poem, it has to be compared with this other one, which I will not commentate :

Le temps qui n’est pas ensemble, objectivation des idées intérieures, personne ne peut dire quelque chose.

Time which is not unity Objectivity of inner ideas Nobody can say something

Or yet with that other one :

Quai, rails, horloge, Les enfants: on entend l’éternité.

Platform, rails, clock Children : We are listening at eternity

Indeed they seems to be three different poems and - at a certain level - they are but at another level they are not three different poems but a single e-poem which takes different forms and which is changing for you, in real time, speaking in various manners of your relation to time : real time and infinity of time.

An e-poem is therefore something like a multidimensional text which is changing of meaning depending from the place and the time of its reading and which can be apprehended in its totality only by a great numbers of different readings. More they are possibilities of reading, more they are various manifestation of the text, more the e-poem puts its readers in the heart of that strange relation of language to time : the same thing is never said with the same expressions, and the poetry is there, in that creative ambiguity of language which is capable of saying everything, which intends at saying things the most accurately it can but, since the origin of mankind, because everything is always changing, try continuously to create, to propone, to use new forms of saying, to make itself change and move : poetry is so all in the refusal to agree to the inclination of ordinary daily life to stop life and inventiveness inside of language by using language as a set of formulas, - poetry communication is at the opposite of publicity. And e-poetry, mostly in automatic text generation, is all in such a rejection. The texts of e-poetry aim then to be infinite, not eternal, they want to never cease speaking not to remain in your memory as something unique and perfect. At the contrary such a kind of e-poetry says that it is not interesting to search the perfection of language because if language is perfect, if language import to you it is because it never ceases to bring new expressions even on the same poor subject, because it allows you to live as an unique being with unique and never lived before experiences. Poetry confronts you to the necessity of being the same everlasting subject through the always changing contexts of life, to always find in rather similar experiences new way of being or, in the opposite, in different experiences the unity of your unique personality.

This, because of the gap existing between the poet and the text he dreamed to write but never write, because each individual text is no longer only related to one private personality, was never been said so completely and in such an evident manner before e-poetry. E-poetry uses time and movement to stage the close relation between life and language creativity, its major message is to throw out the caging of language into cultural ideological beliefs like text-value, text-uniqueness, eternity of text, genius, and so on... It affirms that the normal use of language is not, because each text is always a poor one compared to all the potential other, to refer to models but to play with words, to try, to test, to experiment, to dare, to provoke, to hate, to love... to live your language inside the life of language itself.