common critical trope in discussions of new media writing-as in
most discussions of newness-involves the establishment of genealogies,
and by now what Jay David Bolter calls "the connection between
the hypertext movement and the avant-garde tradition" (160)
is a widely proposed connection. Bolter himself lays out what has
increasingly become a standard line that includes Mallarme, Apollinaire,
Dada, Russian Constructivism, Lettrisme, concrete and visual poetry
(most versions of the lineage also emphasize Marinetti). These writers'
and movements' productions, in Bolter's words, offer "expressions
of a growing dissatisfaction with the conventional forms of print."
But they do so "from within the technology of the printed page;
they [stand] as a critique of the conventions of the medium"
(Writing Space 2001:153). This confinement to the page is finally
what limits even such efforts as Marc Saporta's looseleaf interactive
fiction Composition No. 1 "to resist the perfection of print"
(151). It is also, however, what often leads new media theorists
back into a view of print as incorrigibly rigid. Thus Bolter writes
of "the freeing of writing from the frozen structure of the
printed page," of "liberating the text" from the
page (Writing Space 1991: 21). Richard Lanham, considering "what
happens when text moves from page to screen," argues that "the
digital text becomes unfixed and interactive" and that as a
result "the fixed, authoritative, canonical text . . . simply
explodes into the ether" (31)-an imagined effect that is one
social extension of George P. Landow's claim that "hypertext
does not permit a tyrannical, univocal voice" (Hypertext 11)
as print does. For Lanham as for Bolter, print is frozen, digital
writing fluid: "Hot type was set. Digital typesetting programs
pour or flow it" (44). For Landow, "unlike all previous
forms of textuality, the digital word is virtual, not physical,"
and "the resulting textuality is virtual, fluid, adaptable,
open" ("Twenty Minutes" 216, 218).
This view of print's confining fixity is closely connected to opposing
views of "materiality," a source of some debate in the
developing critical conversation about new media poetry. Celebration
of a liberatory immateriality pervades, for example, the1996 special
issue of Visible Language on new media poetry. Throughout most of
that issue, "the immateriality of new media poems" (Vos
222) is held to be transforming poetry. When literary revolutions
have not been claimed in the name of a return to "common"
speech (see Wordsworth on), they have been claimed-at least in the
twentieth century-in the name of an intensified materiality, the
word and letter as such. From the perspective of at least some new
media practitioners, however, we may be looking at our first immaterial
avant-garde, with the twist that it is celebrated in a rhetoric
derived from that materialist Marinetti. Within this particular
line of discourse, poetry is constrained by taking on material or
physical form. In the E. M. de Melo de Castro videopoem, however,
"the page is no longer there, not even as a metaphor,"
so "the words and letters [can] at last be free" (de Castro
141); in Eduardo Kac's holopoetry, the word is "freed from
the page and freed from other palpable materials" (Kac 189).
To anyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with Futurism, this
rhetoric will sound familiar.
In the immaterialist position, a version of the theorizing about
new media that I have cited in Bolter and Lanham, print is associated
with such terms as stiffness, immutability, stability, solidity;
it is given, static, fixed. The electronic text is associated with
such terms as instability, variability, fluctuation, and change;
it is oscillatory, malleable, a matter of fluid signs, of signifiers
in motion. For Mark Poster, "the computer dematerializes the
trace . . . . The writer encounters his or her words in a form that
is evanescent, instantly transformable, in short, immaterial"
(111). To sum up by quoting Eric Vos, "in terms of the labels
often attached to new media, we are dealing with a virtual, dynamic,
interactive, immaterial poetry" (216)-and who doesn't want
to be dynamic and interactive? Other new media theorists, however,
take a different view, summarizable in Matthew Kirschenbaum's position
that "the tendency to elicit what is 'new' about new media
by contrasting its radical mutability with the supposed material
solidity of older texts is a misplaced gesture" when, among
other things, we consider the historical evidence of ephemerality,
unreliability, and fragility that textual studies provides. Loss
Pequeno Glazier rests the entire argument of his Digital Poetics
on the premise that "the e-text . . . is material," and
spends much of his book explaining how. Johanna Drucker and N. Katherine
Hayles both offer helpfully nuanced middle positions. Drucker draws
on Kirschenbaum's distinction between the "phenomenological
materiality" and the "ontological immateriality"
of the electronic text: the "visual form of the letter on the
screen [is] fully material . . . even though the 'letter' exists
as a stored sequence of binary digits with no tactile, material
apparency to it in that fundamental condition" (171-72). While
Hayles grants the perceived immateriality of the digital text and
its "flickering signifiers" ("Materiality" 166),
she also defines materiality as "a selective focus on certain
physical aspects of an instantiated text that are foregrounded by
a work's construction, operation, and content" ("Interview"
4), and as such it can be a feature of new and old media poetry
It is within the context of this debate about the material features
of the print and digital environments that I want to position my
argument. One well-known feature of the writing produced by poets
associated with the Language school is the redirection of readerly
attention to the materiality of the word. (In this way, many Language
texts can be seen as what Hayles calls technotexts, her term for
work that foregrounds its own materiality or inscription technology
[Writing Machines 25].) This interest expressed itself in multiple
forms, but one underdiscussed form involves the visual component
of Language texts. Visual and concrete poetries are widely cited
as historical precursors to new media poetries, but the visual and
(re)combinatorial component of Language writing forms a significant
bridge or transition between these two projects, most especially
in the work of the two writers to be discussed here: Steve McCaffery
and Robert Grenier. In their different ways, these writers point
us toward considering new media poetries as part of the ongoing
project of, in the terms of McCaffery and Jed Rasula's coedited
anthology, "Imagining Language" in all its textural and
material variety. They have worked on the edge of what is usually
called "writing," proposing that work ranging from non-alphabetic
glyph-like designs to hand-produced letter-like drawings to barely
legible palimpsests to simple pen strokes can be seen / read under
the sign of poetry. In their visual works, and in the online re-presentation
of those works, they raise questions about seeing and reading, the
mark and the sign, circulation and distribution, and the meaning
of "materiality" that seem crucial to thinking about new
media poetries. Meanwhile, new media technologies fulfil certain
impulses towards different forms of materiality in Language writing
that were perhaps only nascent or at least partly unfulfilled in
the earlier stages of that movement. McCaffery's and Grenier's work
introduces into the critical conversation around new media poetries
the idea of what I would call "transitional materialities":
forms of visual text that interrogate the material limitations of
the page-based, word-centered poem and look forward to the possibilities
and achievements of digital poetics.
In such works as the very early Transitions to the Beast and Broken
Mandala (1970), parts of Evoba (1976-78), the Carnival panels, Modern
Reading (1967-90) and his video poems, Steve McCaffery has been
insistently concerned with "allowing a type of reading to develop
that was much closer to the classic category of 'seeing'" and
with "a base sense of the materiality of the letter" (Seven
Pages 435, 434). He describes this aspect of his work in terms most
appropriate to new media poetry, talking in terms of "animated
letter shapes," "3 dimensional syntax," "a network
of non-linear signifiers" (434, 437, 436). In particular, the
transposition of Carnival onto the web is a key moment in McCaffery's
effort to make concrete these claims to materiality as the work
"deliberately problematizes the simple distinction between
seeing and reading and offers itself for both distant viewing and
close reading" ("Carnival Panel 2" 70). This web
publication also reminds us that works like Carnival can now be
circulated on a scale and in a form impossible before. Furthermore,
they become readable in ways very different from, and sometimes
in contradiction of, their writers' original intentions, and in
the process of movement from paper to monitor their nature as texts
changes. With these texts, that process involves something more
than or different from remediation, the importing of "earlier
media into a digital space in order to critique and refashion them"
(Bolter and Grusin 53) or "the recycling of different MEDIA
through one another" (Hayles, Writing Machines 5). Their appearance
on the web helps actualize kinds of reading already immanent in
the original. The process could more accurately be termed rematerialization,
a shift in material medium or environment that raises a new set
of aesthetic and theoretical questions about the texts.
Carnival is a packet of sixteen eight-and-a-half by eleven panels,
stapled along the top edge but perforated along that edge to allow
for tearing. One obvious way in which web publication changes Carnival
is that it removes the whole component of manual de- and reconstruction,
radically altering the material nature of the text. In that sense,
it violates McCaffery's original directions for the book, which
are only fulfillable once in any case--the book can only be torn
up once. (Insofar as my library still has an intact copy, it has
to be said that no library user has ever read the "book"
properly.) As McCaffery and bpNichol describe it, "Carnival
is an anti-book: perforated pages must be physically released, torn
from sequence and viewed simultaneously in the larger composite
whole" (Rational Geomancy 65). Peter Jaeger calls Carnival
"a mechanical device that comes complete with its own instruction
manual" (a book-machine, as McCaffery would call it), and those
instructions, on a postcard that comes with the publication, read
as follows: "In order to destroy this book please tear each
page carefully along the perforation. The panel is assembled by
laying out pages in a square of four." There's as much sly
humor in that juxtaposition of "destroy" and "carefully"
as there is in the inclusion of an errata sheet substituting three
non-semantic blocks of text for three others. (The dissident reader,
of course, might lay out pages in various arrangements, much as
Robert Grenier does in the reading of his drawing poems, which I
will discuss below.) As various readers have pointed out, then,
echoing McCaffery's own description, it is necessary to destroy
the book in order to read it; the book comes into being at the point
of its own dissolution as a whole object. Examining closely how
this anti-book fares online by comparing the print and electronic
version reveals what can be lost and gained in the move from one
material environment to another.
Thirty-three years after its original publication, my print Carnival
is somewhat yellowed and rubbed out along the edges. Its slightly
faint grey type and staples announce both its own small press origins
and an affiliation more generally with alternative publishing institutions
of the period. In other words, as a material object it embodies
a particular phase of literary history in ways that its online presentation
cannot possibly replicate. Non-horizontal sections of text are,
not surprisingly, much harder to read online; craning one's neck
to view a monitor at ninety degrees is a tougher proposition than
turning a sheet of paper. I have already pointed out how the book's
original purpose cannot be fulfilled since it cannot be torn up
online; it can be re-integrated but not dis-integrated. From this
point of view, digital presentation is more static, less susceptible
to transformation and manipulation, than the original, and introduces
into Carnival an unintended level of semi-permanence: a significant
complication of the much-vaunted fluidity and productive instability
of new media technologies. And if these are metaphorical losses,
there is also a small literal loss: because of the online version's
slightly reduced scale, about a quarter-inch of the original's right
margin is lost on each panel. Now, if the material environment of
the web loses some semantically significant features of the original,
what does it add? Mostly, the visual "noise" against which
we measure information. At the top left of each panel, we read instructions
for navigating the text: "CARNIVAL [in red] panel 1 map assembled
previous next." At the bottom right, we get the necessary concession
of the small press to market concerns that the original (though
both are published by Coach House Books) could avoid: "order
/ tip online books mail chbooks CARNIVAL [in red]." If we agree
with Jerome McGann that "the way poems are printed and distributed
is part of their meaning" 168)-a principle so fundamental to
my argument that I could well have used it as an epigraph-then surely
the social meaning of Carnival has changed with its entry into an
online context that has attributes both of a gift and a market economy.
I hope it is clear that I mean this account as description and analysis,
not complaint. One has to be grateful for the ability to view in
any form not just both panels of Carnival, in their individual segments
and assembled, but also thirty-five unpublished outtakes from Panel
2. McCaffery published Carnival Panel 2, created between 1970 and
1975, in 1977. "At the time of its composition," he writes,
"I conceived Carnival as a calculated intervention into the
material stakes of poetics" ("Carnival Panel 2" 70).
And what were those stakes? An extension of Charles Olson's ideas
about the typewriter as a writerly tool and "the repudiation
of a breath-based poetics" (70), the principles so influentially
articulated in Olson's classic essay "Projective Verse."
Carnival seeks to offer both immersion in and distance on language,
both reading and seeing: "The panel when 'seen' is 'all language
at a distance'; the panel when read is entered, and offers the reader
the experience of non-narrative language" (Seven Pages 446).
McCaffery says that "the roots of Carnival go beyond concretism
. . . to labyrinth and mandala" (444), and even if we have
a different experience of their scale, those shapes can clearly
be discerned on screen when we view the panel assembled. However,
since Panel 2 in its physical form is even more materially dense
than Panel 1, that dimension of the work is inevitably lost. "Panel
Two places the typed mode in agonistic relation with other forms
of scription: xerography, xerography within xerography (i.e., metaxerography
and disintegrative seriality), electrostasis, rubber-stamp, tissue-texts,
hand-lettering and stencil" (443), McCaffery writes. How to
get all that online? Rather improbably, McCaffery asserts that "my
own personal line of continuity goes back from Carnival to Pope's
Dunciad," but the explanation is revealing. The typewriter
was invented the year of Pope's enlarged The Rape of the Lock and
one year before his Iliad, allowing McCaffery to suggest by association
that "the roots of the typewriter are Augustan; its repetitive
principle is the principle of the couplet enhanced by speed. The
typewriter oracled a neoclassical futurism." This enabling
of a future avant-garde by neoclassicism may seem less odd later
in this paper when we get to the aesthetic and material importance
of the typewriter's regularity and repetitiveness in a certain stage
of the work of Robert Grenier.
The other McCaffery text that I want to discuss is actually a reading
of a McCaffery text: Brian Kim Stefans' shockwave interactive animated
reading of two pages (80-81) from Rational Geomancy, "Rational
Geomancy: Ten Fables of the Reconstruction," a work that allows
us to think of digital poetics not just as a way of writing but
as a way of reading. In the original pages of Rational Geomancy,
McCaffery and bpNichol are discussing Madeline Gins' Word Rain as
"a book about the reading experience that necessarily includes
the reading experience," and with photographed thumb-tips in
the bottom left and right corners they replicate one feature of
Gins' book: "An ambiguity exists between the page & its
photographic reproduction. Some pages are 'held' by thumbs. These
thumbs are photographs which your own thumb holds" (80). Materiality
self-reflexively trumps transparency in McCaffery's Gins; meanwhile
Stefans uses digital (the pun is appropriate in this case) technology
to push this reading and the theorizing of the material book-as-machine
a number of steps further, complicating the thematics of absence,
presence, embodiment and representation that recur in McCaffery's
work. For Stefans' digital image of the thumbs gives us a multiply
deferred or refracted presence: by the time of the online presentation,
the thumbs are simultaneously Gins', her reader's, McCaffery's (as
one reader of Gins), his reader's, and Stefans'-who ends the chain
by placing the thumb image on screen, beyond the reach of further
My point is that this process shows the capacity of a new media
reading to highlight concerns already immanent in a previous text.
On screen, traces of the body (like Robert Grenier's hands holding
his little book Pond I in its online presentation) stand as visible
signs of its absence, a self-consciously rematerialized evocation
of a previously material book, and in this way Stefans honors the
Language writers' investigation of ideas of "presence"
and extends them into another medium. As if to acknowledge that
any reproduction of McCaffery's original will be somehow incomplete,
in Stefans' presentation the top couple of lines are cut off and
a shadow or stain across the book's gutter obscures a certain amount
of text, which remains otherwise largely legible,. Following the
instructions-"click on the book to get a close-up. Click again
to return to long view"-gives a close-up of fourteen or fifteen
lines of text featuring mobile details oscillating against a static
ground to foreground certain themes. Admittedly the results are
not always startling: to have letters dripping down the page from
the phrase "word rain" seems little more than imitation
Apollinaire, though the gesture could be read as homage to one who
is often cited as a modernist precursor to new media poetry. In
another closeup, the words "problems" and "uncertainty"
form a frantic dancing palimpsest over their originals in the base
text; in yet another the first three letters of the alphabet buzz
like annoyed bees over a stable background, as if to reference the
debate over digital mobility and print stasis.
McCaffery, then, troubles the seeing-reading distinction in ways
relevant for our thinking about new media poetry while his materially
intensive texts variously point up the limitations of the electronic
environment (in the case of Carnival) and its potential to extend
the implications of a print text (in the case of Rational Geomancy).
The appearance online of Robert Grenier's series "rhymms,"
"for Larry Eigner," "Greetings," and "Pond
I," barely legible one-of-a-kind handwritten poems rendered
mostly in four different pen colors, raises a different set of issues:
the electronic circulation of unique texts into instant availability
and the consequent tension between reproducibility and aura, between
current and earlier, even ancient, technologies of writing, between
what Tim Shaner and Michael Rozendal have called, in discussing
Grenier, emergent and residual technologies (48 n.2). Some words
about Grenier's process and poetics are in order before moving on
to these issues. It's worth remembering that Grenier has worked
with looseleaf forms of publication, outside of codexspace, throughout
his career, ever since the now almost mythic Sentences: five hundred
minimalist poems on five-by-eight index cards, written 1972-1977
and published in a foldup box in 1978. In the urgent search for
or construction of historical precedents that marks moments of significant
literary and technological change, even Grenier's closest readers
disagree as to whether Sentences is an early form of hypertext.
Bob Perelman argues that "while the lack of binding allows
for any sequence, Grenier's allegiance is not toward any early version
of hypertext" (46) but toward an emphasis on his materials.
(I'd suggest it's not an either-or choice.) Charles Bernstein, however,
includes Sentences in his list of "hypertext avant le PC"
("Mosaic") and even finds it pointing up, by contrast,
one limitation of new media technologies: "you can't flip through
a data base the way you can flip through pages or index cards. I'm
thinking, for example, of Robert Grenier's great poem, Sentences)"
(My Way 78). Barrett Watten calls Sentences "arguably one of
the first (and most primitive) hypertexts in literature," "a
direct predecessor to hypertext's challenge to the physical unity
of the book" ("Breaking Codes"). Complicating matters
further, the original publisher of Sentences, Michael Waltuch, has
to randomize the cards but has also proposed that "the 'boxed
version' allows for a 'freer' mode of interacting with the work
than the online version." Grenier has produced more such publications
than he has bound books. The drawing poems that he began to produce
in the late 1980s, then, are consistent with this pattern.
Grenier describes the process by which he came to write these poems
in a 1998 talk with the characteristically punning title, "Realizing
Things." Language writing's emphasis on linguistic materiality
always seems to have taken very literal form for Grenier. (As he
said in a 1982 talk, "you start writing in relation to . .
. writing materials" ["Language/Site/World" 230].)
In his account, at a certain point in his career typing came to
defamiliarize the letter and immerse him further in the minute attention
to language to which he was always inclined: "in the Selectric
typewriter methodology, each letter is given an equivalent width
-- the i's are the same width as the m's, the l's are the same width
as the w's -- & I was able to count each letter as 'one' . .
. & so that would be a further 'removal', I suppose, & reengagement
with the language process only." Partially handwritten poems
started to come out of textual annotations on typescript that Grenier
wished to preserve as part of the writing process, as in the 1984
poem "May Dawn Horizon Many Graces Pollen" from Phantom
Anthems (1986), at the same time as he also sought intensified materiality
through type: "I got off the Selectric & went back to my
highschool typewriter which made a darker image, with a dark ribbon
-- this was a manual -- & that image somehow. . . I thought
that was more, somehow, 'that of which it spoke' than the Selectric
image . . . it was darker, denser." Apparently dissatisfied
with his "delusion" that the manual typewriter would provide
the sense of "a greater, hands-on tenacity or 'facticity,'"
however, Grenier moved to handwriting or drawing poems with various
combinations of the four-color pens that he used in his proofreader's
If "Grenier is interested in the phoneme as a thing in itself"
(Watten, Total Syntax 9), he has become equally interested in the
grapheme as a thing in itself. Grenier himself offers a revealing
pun when he speaks of "beginning to write letters by hand,
to draw them into existence" ("Realizing Things").
He does literally draw his letters, creating shapes that sometimes
bear only a distant relationship to their alphabetic originals.
But he also "draws them into [discrete] existence" out
of a kind of Platonic ur-letter from which they emerge as much as
they are constructed: "Letters draw themselves out of corresponding
letter shapes . . . AS IF ALL WERE MADE FROM THE SAME LETTER"
("Untitled" 72). This is Emerson as postmodern materialist,
the transparent eyeball now a transparent Uniball pen. Through this
hands-on engagement with the materials of language, Grenier engages
the material of the world: "the 'idea' is, if you focus sufficiently
on the materials of language itself, possibly you'll be able to
bring [yourself?] back to the participation in & with things
a means of actualizing what's happening . . . the farther you get
into the structure of language itself, I've found, the more are
you enabled at times to be able to go into the metamorphosis, the
flow through things that Emerson speaks of" ("Realizing
Grenier's narrative of his process directly reverses N. Katherine
Hayles' account of the increased lightness of touch and the reduced
"material resistance of the text to manipulation" involved
in the move from manual to electric typewriter to keyboard ("Materiality"
164). One could argue that part of Grenier's project is to reintroduce
the resistance of touch (or the memory of it) in the face of this
apparently dematerializing technology, proposing the body as a site
of cultural resistance in much the way that Charles Olson-a crucial
figure for Grenier, and one not infrequently cited as a print precursor
for certain aspects of new media poetics-does in his 1953 essay
"The Resistance." If new "technologies modify the
body's proprioceptive sense," as Hayles has argued ("Materiality"
166) (and proprioception is another key term for Olson), online
presentation of Grenier's handcrafted work puts opposing materialities
and opposing experiences of the body in productive tension. The
question then arises (and it's one I want to keep open): does web
distribution de-materialize Grenier's emphatically embodied work,
or does it paradoxically fulfill that work's project by foregrounding
precisely these oppositions?
A related contradiction involves the electronic circulation of unique
texts into more-or-less instant availability and the consequent
tension between reproducibility and aura, between current and earlier
writing technologies. Behind this tension lies the economics of
production and distribution. Stephen Ratcliffe lays out the cost
of codex production quite precisely, arriving by detailed argument
at a figure of $22, 000 for producing a print run of 400 of Grenier's
current poems. Given the economic unfeasibility of such a book,
Grenier's recent work has had its distribution through limited color
xerox editions (David Baratier's Pavement Saw Press sold 12 from
rhymms for $20 a set in 1996, for instance); through gallery presentations
(five hundred-plus slides of the work had been made public via a
dozen showings and readings as of the time of Ratcliffe's writing
in the late '90s); and on the web (the best way to preserve the
originals' color, among other things). As Karl Young, editor of
the Light and Dust website where Grenier's work appears, writes,
"Robert Grenier's illuminated poems, his main work for the
last decade, present a number of problems in reproduction, distribution,
and, for some, in reading. These poems are written in colored ink,
and require color reproduction. Four?color process printing makes
them too expensive to produce. . . . . I hope that the web will
help bring Grenier's illuminated poems out of the small and restricted
circle of distribution in which they have moved, and make them available
to a larger audience" ("10 Poems"). Especially in
the handling of Grenier's work, however, this reaching out for an
audience is not an unproblematic move. Far too pricey to produce
in book form, these works derive considerable aura from the uniqueness,
individual manual production, and unavailability of the original
"hard" copies. As Bob Perelman proposes, Grenier's emphasis
on his materials leads to "the special poetic or ontological
value or magical potency that [he] seems to be trying to create"
(53), a potency usually comprehended under the term "aura."
Walter Benjamin, then, is not far in the background, and gives us
one set of terms for thinking about the relationship between such
aura and the "mechanical reproduction" of web publication
in Grenier. At the same time, his famous claim that "the whole
sphere of authenticity is outside technical . . . reproducibility"
(220) has been rendered untenable not just by decades of poststructuralist
theory but most recently by the new media. You can't have your aura
and your widespread access too.
In this interface between the most ancient and the most contemporary
of text-producing technologies, as much as Grenier wants to return
his work to the body, it cannot--if it is to be distributed--escape
the machine. In reading Grenier's drawing poems electronically,
we are confronted with the extremes of hand-craftedness and technological
mediation: extremes not immanent in the work but in the disjunction
between its modes of production and distribution. From one point
of view, Grenier's recent work seems the absolute antithesis of
new media poetry. From another, its digital presentation highlights--as
if we needed reminding one more time--the (in this case literal)
inaccessibility of any original: online, we experience the web presentation
of slides of photographs of one-of-a-kind handwritten poems the
originals of which most people will never see. Paradoxically, their
online reproduction can be seen both as a fulfillment and a contradiction
of the originals' impulses towards personalized signature and fiercely
specific attention to material texture.
Grenier's particular form of materiality is a retrospective (not
to be confused with retrogressive) gesture driven by an almost Emersonian
concern for natural origins. As Stephen Ratcliffe puts it, "the
thingness of his writing . . . moves it backward, closer somehow
to where it is that writing must first have come from" (125).
Yet "naturalness" in Grenier is complicated. The artifice
of his own reading style distances his voice from speech, and of
course he's notorious for his contentious but influential manifesto
statement "I HATE SPEECH." At the same time, Ratcliffe
finds the "shape of letters analogous to shape of landscape"
in Grenier, "making the page itself a landscape" (121).
Certainly at the level of content, some of Grenier's graphic work
is almost elemental in its minimalist focus on (to cite the "Pond
I" sequence) "pond," "sky," "ground,"
"wind," "water," "sunshine," "minnows,"
"coyote." (In one nicely ambiguous conjunction of natural
imagery and textual materiality, it's hard to know whether to read
# 28 as "spelling" or [appropriately, mis-spelled] "saplling.")
This evocation of and immersion in the organic seems to sit uneasily
with the poems' web presentation. As Michael Basinski points out,
however, "Grenier has been able to invent a form of poetry
that is suitable for the computer era but also moves beyond the
stagnancy of text based poetry, visual poetry and performance poetry.
His poems best utilize the capacity of the computer. He does this
not by using a computer as a tool to manipulate text but as a medium
to present" the work (33). Grenier's poetics exhibits a kind
of materiality of organic form, as if language (as it was for Emerson)
were at the heart of nature, and he adopts an organicist metaphor
for his highly graphic aesthetic: "I wish more strange young
poets wd dedicate life to making briars and blackberries [a phrase
from Whitman] out of words, letters, etc. for the fun of it"
("Untitled" 73). He wants poems that will embody-including
visually--the prickly entanglements of those plants. The allusion
to Whitman is appropriate, since Grenier's materiality of organic
forms sounds like nothing as much as Whitman's preface to the 1855
edition of Leaves of Grass (that title, of course, itself enacting
a pun between nature and book). But for all its organicism, the
fact that Grenier's work is so hard to reproduce in print pushes
it toward the web as its-dare I say?-"natural" home, and
it fits at least one current if controversial definition of what
Loss Glazier calls "e-poetry": "works that cannot
be adequately delivered via traditional paper publishing or cannot
be displayed on paper. This would include innovative works circulated
in electronic form" (163).
If we neglect the category of "materiality," N. Katherine
Hayles argues, "we have little hope of forging a robust and
nuanced account of how literature is changing under the impact of
information technologies" (Writing Machines 19)-nor, I have
tried to suggest here, an account of how some literature has anticipated
or complicates that impact. Hayles assumes that when the materiality
of the artifact changes, meaning is also transformed: "The
physical form of the literary artifact always affects what the words
(and other semiotic components) mean" (23-24). Her work makes
clear how internally conflicted the category of "materiality,"
and its relationship to print, remains in theoretical analysis.
Hayles argues that the electronic text helps "bring into view
by contrast the specificities of print, which could again be seen
for what it was, a medium and not a transparent interface"
(43). In other words, it should now become clear that "literature
was never only words, never merely immaterial verbal constructions"
(107). Yet the acknowledgement of print's materiality, a positive
for Hayles, is a negative for those theorists and writers who see
the problem with print as being that it is entirely too material
a medium. The concept of "transitional materialities,"
however, places different materialities on a spectrum rather than
in opposition to each other. In what is, to be fair, a list of heuristic
oppositions to which she herself does not necessarily adhere, Marie-Laure
Ryan associates print texts with terms such as "unity,"
"order," "monologism," "sequentiality,"
"solidity." Readers of Language writing will recognize
easily enough the inapplicability of these terms to that writing.
Far more applicable to the poets discussed here are Ryan's opposing
terms for electronic texts: "diversity," "chaos,"
"dialogism," "parallelism," "fluidity"
(102). Looking at both the online work and the work online of these
poets may help move the discussion and historicizing of new media
poetries beyond such binary oppositions between the material attributes
of print and electronic texts.
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