Cherchez le texte: Proceedings of the ELO 2013 Conference

Where is the text, the disappearance of text in e-poetry

by Giovanna Di Rosario


This paper will feature an empirical approach to electronic poetry. Its aim is a two-fold goal: on the one hand it will study the “development” and transformation of electronic poetry, and on the other it will compare e-poems written in different languages in order to see if there are differences of style in e-poetry composition. Of course, this study cannot be exhaustive but it can offer some new directions which electronic poetry seems to take. In order to do so, in the first part of this article, I will analyze e-poems in English, French, and Italian1. In the second part, I will provide a concrete example from the work of Jim Andrews in order to show, through his poetics and works, how e-poetry seems to have entered a new phase and how it has been remodeled.

Digital literature (or electronic poetry) is a young genre - considering its first experiments have existed for over 50 years by now – not long when compared with literature, but what has happened during these 50 years has happened in a fast way. This study will observe the “evolution” of digital poetry during about a bit more than a decade, from 1999 to 2013.

Digital or electronic - two terms used synonymously in this article - poetry is made of two major parts: “poetry” and “digital” or “electronic”. So what should critics look for when studying digital poetry? First of all it has to be kept in mind that the term “electronic poetry” encompasses a wide range of practices which are difficult to sum up. In order to do so, I proposed in my book, Electronic Poetry. How to Understand Poetry in the Digital Environment, to focus on the text and on its relationship with the author and the reader:
1) concerning the text: the different media chosen to “write and thus read” the electronic poem on/from: installations and video-installations, texts created to be read on the desktop or the laptop screen – or nowadays also on smartphones and tablets –, and performances;
2) concerning the text and the author: generative poetry or computer poetry programmed by the author and generated by the machine, and electronic poetry that is not generative (which largely appears to constitute the bulk of the works created);
3) concerning the “nature” of the text and its relationship with the reader: animated/kinetic poetry, hypertexts, interactive texts (but not hypertextual).

In this article, I will only focus on examples of electronic poetry made to be read on a screen, thus neither installation nor performance will be studied in order to create a more homogeneous corpus of analysis. But which are the elements that we should consider for analyzing electronic poetry? Again, what should critics look for when we studying digital poetry? What has been changing in the poetic elements? Is there a new aesthetics put forward by “recent” works of e-poetry?

Digital poetry is made of two elements that characterized it: “the digital” and “the poetry”. Clearly both elements are important, although for the purpose of this paper, the digital aspect will not be as relevant, since this paper will trace the mutations and transformations e-poetry has undergone for around ten years but only from a literary point of view. I think (along with others, such as Roberto Simanowsi) that the code is important but not dominant to read and understand electronic literature. In his book Digital Art and Meaning, Simanowski states that we need a criticism of digital art (and of digital literature): “Eventually, it is necessary to move from phenomenology to semiotics, from description to interpretation2”. He adds that we have the obligation to try to establish a meaning of digital art and digital literature. He seeks a hermeneutic for reading and understanding digital work. And a hermeneutic is necessary to analyze whether electronic poetry has changed, and if so, how it has changed.

While being aware of what Simanoswi says, that we must be careful, or even refrain from discussing specific work as examples of a genre, we need to find a starting point, and the examples that will be offered here are exactly that: a starting point.

In her article “’Living letterforms’: The Ecological Turn in Contemporary Digital Poetics”, Rita Raley tries to track differences in digital poetry and cites as an example that characterizes digital poetics in the past “Lexia to Perplexia” by Talan Memmott and talks about it – as the same Memmott did – as an example of “narcisystem”. Memmott defines “narcisystem” as something that “privilege[s] local space in broad terms over remotional [sic] attachment”3. Raley explains that the ecological system is the new style of digital poetics, referring to the works of Jhave that she analyzes, writing :“if Talan Memmott’s poetic practice, specifically in his well-known “Lexia to Perplexia”, exemplified the self-reflexive engagement with inscription technologies particular to “writing machines” at the turn of the millennium, Jhave’s practice is paradigmatic of work after 2000 in its enactment of a different type of media ecology, one not exclusively concerned with human-computer interactions or computational processes”.

Electronic poetry encompasses works very different from one another. Talking about electronic poetry as if it were just one creative form seems to be inaccurate. One of the main questions concerning digital poetry is the problem of canon definition which should allow critics to “distinguish” it from other art forms, like digital art. However, many digital poems can also be considered as works of digital art. This is due to the hybrid nature of both practices. Simanowski suggests that to distinguish between digital art and digital poetry one should look at how the reader approaches the text4. If the “literary” aspect in her approach to the text is predominant, then the work should be considered to be digital poetry (or literature).

From a literary point of view, thus, how should we approach these texts if not even the canon is defined? Being the associate director of a research group called HERMENEIA5 I believe that a hermeneutic inquiry will allow scholars to better comprehend the novelty of e-poetry and will help the reader to become familiar with poems deeply different from poems she is still used to reading.

The term “hermeneutic” was introduced in philosophy, mainly through On Interpretation by Aristotle. The etymology of the word hermeneutics is unclear. Generally, it is put in relation to Hermes, the messenger of the gods, although it is not certain. The term “hermeneutic” derives from the Greek verb ermēnéuein. This refers to the noun ermēnéus; a noun that brings closer the name of the god, Hermes, in a game of words and thoughts more than under the rigor of science. Hermes is the divine messenger. He brings messages of destiny.

In fact, in his book On the Way to Language Martin Heidegger (1987) emphasizes the relationship between the name of the Greek god, messenger of the gods, Hermes, and hermeneutics. Heidegger insists in this connection with the name of the god, Hermes, because of the role the God plays within the Greek pantheon as a messenger of the Gods.

Hermeneus is the one that communicates, the one that notifies someone what someone else “thinks”, ie. he is the one that transmits and reproduces communication6. On the other hand, Heidegger also emphasizes that the essence of the poet and poetry is to transmit a message: the messenger of messages.

Hermeneutics is known as the theory and methodology of texts interpretation. Again according to Heidegger the human being finds its essence when she realizes her being in the world, this is the reason why it is not enough to deal with its pure phenomenological character, one needs to understand (the messages). In her essay “Against Interpretation” Susan Sontag says that hermeneutics is not an absolute value but that hermeneutics itself should be evaluated, instead of interpreting “[w]e must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more7”, but often in digital literature the reader has exactly one immersive experience that forces her to see more, to hear more, to feel more, at the same time, without understanding completely what the text is telling her. This experience creates what Josette Feral calls - in her essay on “Performance and Theatricality: The Subject Demystified” (1982) - the “aesthetic of frustration”: “the absence of narrativity leads to frustration8”.

To stand against the interpretation paradigm, which can be seen in Sontag’s work among others, had a different meaning in the sixties and seventies. As Roberto Simanowski notes “[h]er critique was an objection in a specific time, when critics constrained art to a particular message often combined with a moral stance9”. According to Simanowski, one should approach digital literature describing what it is and how it works, but also wondering what that might mean. “In postmodern times, interpretation is no longer about control or truth. [...] It is about suggesting, playing with ideas [...]10”, recalling Vattimo’s idea on hermeneutics seen as a meta-theory of the interpretation game. Thus, hermeneutics (and digital hermeneutics) as a tool for interpreting and understanding, to “read”, to “play with ideas” as Vattimo and Simanowski suggest.

Literature is defined precisely by the art of language and writing, but in digital literature there are other constitutive elements in addition to words. In digital literature it is not enough to examine the linguistic elements: the reader also has to examine the other signs that form a digital literary work. Digital literature extols polysemy, the plurality of meanings implied in words together with other semiotic systems. So what I think is needed it is a digital hermeneutics, able to interpret the relation among the various elements of the digital literary texts, to understand its rhetoric and to show the possible changes of its aesthetic.

Words as Metaphors (or Words as Images)

Despite its variety, experimental electronic poetry made around 2000 in Italian or in French have a clear poetic matrix - as in the first text I will analyze: Il fiume delle parole by Elisa Carlotti11 - while e-poems written in English already feature several different elements12.

Il fiume delle parole13 by Elisa Carlotti is a very simple example of digital composition since it is made only of graphic parts. The poem was published without any editorial filter on Elisa Carlotti’s website under the section “Poesie Visive” (Visual Poetry). There is no year of publication14 for this work. Il fiume delle parole is a one page poem, which is not shown in its entirety– only the title and the first 6 verse lines appear on the screen. Two big arrows surrounding a square (like the controls of a video player) placed to the left suggest to the reader that she can activate some function in order to read the whole poem. By hovering the cursor over one of the two arrows the text scrolls forward or backward very quickly, to the point where the reader does not have the time to read it. Actually, once the cursor is positioned on the arrow, the text begins to scroll very quickly, becoming illegible, thus the reading-time depends on the readers’ ability to control the mouse. The text, apart from this, doesn’t interact at any other level with the reader.

The title is written in light red letters in order to mark a distinction with the text which is written in light blue letters, simulating the color of the sky reflected in water (the river); the background is white – simulacrum of the printed page. At the end of the poem, on the right, there is a “word-button” – “ritorna” – which allows the reader to open the text back again. The arrows and the small square in between them and “ritorna” – all three elements are interfaces that allow access to the poem – are a part of the text itself.

The poem is composed of 29 verse lines. It opens with a metaphor: the words flow as water in the river. The flow of words is again a metaphor – words represent life. The syntagm “Parole” (words) is always written in capital letters, which according to Italian rules is a reverential capital letter, meaning that it is used with syntagms that have a “sacred” value. Words, water, and life flow, pass either quickly or slowly, depending on the capacity to control them – to control the text – but an unpredictable event – like a small unwanted movement with the cursor – can change the flow of life.

E le Parole scorrono
come acqua del fiume.
E a volte risalgono
come fanno i salmoni
dentro vortici estatici
di efebica ninfa
rimembrando sardoniche
risatine distratte.
E le Parole scorrono
e il fiume è in tormenta
ribadisce costante
il dominio del ventre
che natura ci pose
dentro fervidi limiti
e carpendo le vite
che si accingono all’onta
di violare indefesse
quell’acqua invitante
ma terribile ed infida.
E le Parole scorrono
e di Parole io vivo
e ricordo le sere
sotto il sole di maggio
a cantare nel brivido
di un pensiero non ruvido
canti poco intonati
canti che scaldan la vita.
E le Parole scorrono
e io scorro con loro.15

The reiteration of both the nominal syntagm “parole” 5 times and of the verbal one “scorrere” (to flow16 – it too appears 5 times: 4 declined in third person plural present indicative – “scorrono” they flow – one at the first singular person of the present indicative – “io scorro” I flow/I scroll) aims to stress on the poem’s theme. Both the use of the conjunction “e” (and) at the beginning of the poem – thus to start the poem - and its repetition – 10 times – highlights the idea of flow. The initial “e” emphasizes the continuum of the poem, the poem seems to start somewhere else, in the white space that is also a part of the text. In fact, by passing the slider on the arrows – in both directions – the reader can make the text disappear, but she cannot make it reappear unless she reloads the text by clicking on the small square between the 2 arrows.

Figure 1: Elisa Carlotti, Il fiume delle parole (the border of the text is mine, on the web page there are just the two arrows and then the white space).

This feeling of flowing is also underlined by the 4 repetitions of the same syntactic construction “E le Parole scorrono” (and words flow). Furthermore, the internal rhymes and the assonances, (for instance, verse line 4 “vortici estatici”), the alliterations (for instance, verse lines 24 and 25 “brivido di un pensiero non ruvido” or verse line 29 “scorro con loro”), the reiteration of the morpheme /s/ (21 occurrences) and of the morpheme /r/ (39 occurrences) reproduces the sound of water rushing or flowing, sometimes whirling the deafer noise of a whirl. The liquid consonant /r/ recalls a series of Indo-European words linked to the idea of “flowing”, as in the Greek verb: ρεω. The liquid consonants reflect liquidity. In linguistics they are considered to be flexible, to flow.

The verbs “scorrere” and “risalire” – the arrows allow the reader to direct the reading in two directions, from the top downwards and the bottom upwards – show the metatextual function, which is the poem's base. I propose to call this figure ciné-gramme, using Alexandra Saemmer’s definition of the ciné-gramme: “animations remembering the calligram on paper medium”. A ciné-gramme is an animation that makes the motion represent what the text says and makes the text say what the motion represents. I propose to differentiate the automatic ciné-gramme from the interactive ciné-gramme. The effect is the same, but in the second case without the interaction of the reader the effect would not exist. The ciné-gramme is often redundant.

The flowing and going-up of words physically calls both the poet and the reader to share the same space at the same time: the reader needs to interact with the text, she physically has to touch the arrows and cause the text to flow; and the poet declares “e io scorro con loro” (I flow with them). The poet and the reader thus share the same space, in a time that does not stop – the reader can cause it to “flow” forever if she wants – both forced in whirlpools (of sense) in which words (and the world) can materially become illegible (incomprehensible).

The metric in this poem is particularly important. The construction of the sense – the flow – is also made by the construction of the metric of the verse lines. The rhythmic accent is mostly placed on the 6th syllable. In Italian metric, this composition is called “verso settenario”, or Italian alexandrine verse consisting of 2 hemistichs (two half verse lines), each accented on the sixth syllable. To this structure, however, there are some exceptions: verse lines 4 and 5 have their rhythmic accent on the 7th syllable – “ottonario” very common in the Italian metrics. Verse line 10 has also another rhythm: it is a “novenario” the rhythmic accent is on the 8th syllable, as shown in the figure below.

1E le Pa-ro-le scor-ro-no8Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineAlliteration sound /r/
2Co-me ac-qua del fiu-me.7Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineSynæresis
3E a vol-te ri-sal-go-no8Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrine 
4Co-me fan-no i sal-mo-ni8Ottonario rhythmic accents on the 3d and 7th syllables"Version Piano"
5Den-tro vor-ti-ci e-sta-ti-ci9 Synaesthesia
“verso sdrucciolo”
Internal rhyme
6di e-fe-bi-ca nin7Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrine 
7Ri-mem-bran-do sar-do-ni-che8Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineAlliteration sound /r/
8Ri-sa-ti-ne dis-trat-te.7Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineInternal rhyme
9E le Pa-ro-le scor-ro-no8Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineRepetition
10e il fiu-me è in tor-men-ta9Novenario rhythmic accent on the 3d, 5th and 7th syllablesSynæresis
11Ri-ba-di-sce cos-tan-te7Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineEnjambment
12il do-mi-nio del vent-re7Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineEnjambment
13che na-tu-ra ci po-se7Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineEnjambment
14Den-tro fer-vi-di li-mi-ti8Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineSynaesthesia
15e car-pen-do le vi-te7Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrine 
16che si ac-cin-go-no all’-on-ta9Novenario rhythmic accent on the 3d, 5th and 7th syllablesSyncope Enjambment
17di vio-la-re in-de-fes-se8Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineEnjambment
18quell’-ac-qua in-vi-tan-te7Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineMetaphor
19ma ter-ri-bi-le ed in-fi-da.8Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineSystole
20E le Pa-ro-le scor-ro-no8Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineRepetition
Alliteration sound /r/
21e di Pa-ro-le io vi-vo7Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineAnaphora
22e ri-cor-do le se-re7Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineAlliteration sound /r/
23Sot-to il so-le di mag-gi-o9Ottonario rhythmic accents on the 3d and 7th syllablesAlliteration sound /s/
24a can-ta-re nel bri-vi-do8Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineRhyme (brivido-ruvido)
25Di un pen-sie-ro non ru-vi-do9Accents on the 3d and 7th syllablesAssonance
Alliteration sound /r/
26Can-ti po-co in-to-na-ti8Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineAssonance
27Can-ti che scal-dan la vi-ta.8Ottonario rhythmic accents on the 3d and 7th syllablesApocope
28E le Pa-ro-le scor-ro-no8Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineRepetition
Alliteration sound /r/
29e io scor-ro con lo-ro7Settenario-iambic meter/alexandrineDeixis
Figure 2: Review schema of Elisa Carlotti’s Il fiume delle parole

This text is particularly rich in rhetorical figures. For instance, in verse lines 11, 12, 13, 16, and 17 we have enjambment; internal rhymes, and alliteration in 1, 5 ,7, 8, 20, 22, 23, 24, 25,2 6 and 28; there is an anaphora in verse lines 21 and 26, and synaesthesia in verse lines 5, 14, 18, 25, and 27. But also rhythmic figures characterize this poem: apocope in verse line 27; systole in verse line 19; syncope verse in line 16; synæresis in verse lines 2 and 10.

Owing to its metric, this poem calls to be recited out loud and not to be read silently while scrolling the words on the webpage, where controlling the text is the most important action the reader needs to do. In this mode of reading on screen, the reader cannot enjoy the musicality, the rhythm of the text. The poem seems to suggest that in the electronic medium the pleasure of reading is somehow lost. The reader is too focused on interacting with the text (the two huge arrows can be understood as a parody of this control) that she lost the real “contact” with the poetic text – based on metric, rhythm, rhetorical figures, and so on. Il fiume delle parole realizes that aesthetic of frustration17 remodelled by Philippe Bootz. In this case it is not the absence of narrativity that provokes the athetic of frustration but according to Bootz this aesthetic is concerned with the text regarding its content, here this aesthetic play is more concerned with the text’s form: because of the concentration on the function of the text the reader can at times be unable to appreciate the text as far as its style and content are concerned.

Another interesting work made of plain graphic text is Marie Bélisle is Figures. It consists of four figures:

  1. “Figures variables”

  2. “Figures parallèles”

  3. “Figures constantes”

  4. “Figures tangentes”

I will analyze the first Figures, Figures variables18. Figures are built as a literary illustration of the Golden Ratio and of Fibonacci's sequence. As an aesthetic and mathematical constant, the Golden Ratio (or Golden Section) constitutes a formal matrix which makes it possible to determine the number of words and lines in the texts as well as the way in which they are arranged and connected with one another. Figures are thus Golden Rectangles where the words are used as horizontal measuring unit and the lines as vertical measuring unit.

Leonardo Fibonacci (1175-1240), an Italian mathematician, is recognized as the inventor of a sequence of numbers now bearing his name. In “Fibonacci's Sequence” each number represents the sum of the two numbers that precede it: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144... The more one advances through the series, the more the relationship between two consecutive numbers converges on Phi, (roughly 1.618): 8 ÷ 5 = 1.6 55 ÷ 34 = 1.617 144 ÷ 89 = 1.6179. Fibonacci's sequence is thus connected with the Golden Section through the number Phi.

The Greek letter Phi indicates a mathematical constant called the Golden Section. Its value is roughly in decimal notation 1,618. It is an algebraic irrational number fully given by the expression (1+5½)/2. Thus, when the relationship between the height and the width of a rectangle corresponds to Phi, one speaks of a Gold Rectangle: it is the case, for example, with a rectangle of 144 mm X 89mm. largely used in art and in architecture, the Golden Section represents an ideal of balance and elegance of proportions. It allows us, by drawing up a constant relationship, to generate forms harmoniously linking one another thanks to their isomorphism.

The Oulipo group and particularly Queneau19 expressed great interest in mathematical properties and also in Fibonacci’s theory. Queneau himself proved several theorems on the behavior of matrices and identified similarities between them and the Fibonacci series. He and the other members of the Oulipo were intrigued by matrix analysis but looked forward to the creation of poems written in columns and rows.

Bélisle’s Figures can be described as “text-spirals” (spiral texts). By scrolling the mouse over the segments, the text advances or moves back in a symmetrical way, for example in Figures variables from an opening verse line: “figures / variables”, the reader can reach in only three clicks the complete poem, which will form a rectangle: “malgré ce qui survit en nous, voilà presque / advenu l’âge de toujours, éperdu de certitude / comme si nous nous étions égarés dans les / métaphores nous croyons que les figures et mouvements / du langage remplacent les mobiles variables du plaisir”. The meaning of the text is already inscribed in the title: “Figures variables”, which are also the first two verse lines: figures that can change. And by clicking on them another rectangle will appear: “figures et mouvements / variables du plaisir”.

At this point the e-poem is composed only of nominal syntagms, there is no verb. By clicking further on the text another rectangle will appear on the page: “Nous voilà presque / éperdus de certitudes, / égarés dans les / figures et mouvements / variables du plaisir”.

Figures and movements are metaphors of pleasure in the second segment of the poem, but in the third they acquire a negative connotation, since we (the poet and the reader) are almost lost “presque éperdue” and mislaid “égarés”. With another click, the last rectangle will appear: “malgré ce qui survit en nous, voilà presque / advenu l’âge de toujours, éperdu de certitude / comme si nous nous étions égarés dans les / métaphores nous croyons que les figures et mouvements / du langage remplacent les mobiles variables du plaisir”. In this fourth segment the poet and the reader are lost in metaphors believing that the language with its movements and figures can replace the pleasure.

The words form and deform the sense of the text by moving in space, multiplying the number of the verse lines and their meanings, creating figures and movements, metaphors, that is to say substituting a part to another, a sense to another one. This mobile language and pleasure is given both by the use of adjectives – “variable; mouvements; mobile” and by the motion of the text that shifts meaning under the reader’s click, creating a meta-textual writing.

Figure 3: Marie Bélisle, Figures variables – the four texts

The click which allows the reader to de-compose the e-poemcan thus be defined a metaphoric click. The transformation both in the form and in the content carries over the meaning of the text. And it is the reader’s interaction that allows the changing of meaning in the text. By he clicking, the reader allows physically the language’s figures and motions to replace the mobile variables of pleasure, the pleasure of another reading of another text: “figures et mouvements du langage remplacent les mobiles variable du plaisir” (figures and movements of language replace the mobile variable of pleasure).

Words, meanings, forms; everything changes in Bélisle’s works, highlighting the dual/multi identity of letters: there will be no more one fixed meaning structured by the rigor of the language, but the possibilities opened up by metaphoric and embodied writing. However, Serge Bouchardon, in analyzing Bélisle’s Alter Ego, pointed out that sometimes interactive texts put forward a rhetoric of manipulation that can be found in this poem.

According to him, Bélise proposes a rhetoric of manipulation. “The figure of appearance/disappearance (responding to an action by the user) is a key figure of the rhetoric of manipulation20”. Apparently figures of manipulation appear to offer more control of the text to the reader but in some interactive works these figures introduce a “loss of grasp”: the reader thinks that she is manipulating the text but she can find herself manipulated by the author.

Both Carlotti’s Il fiume delle parole and Bélisle’s Figures variables are e-poems that are strictly linked to “classic” poetry. They both both composed only of words (neither images nor sound are present); they both use rhetoric figures and poetic constructions (even an excess of them as far as Elisa Carlotti’s poem is concerned); they both insist on the metalinguistic function of language. Most probably this is due to the fact that those texts were published around 1999-2000. Carlotti’s website – as well as Belisle’s website – has existed since 1999-2000, but it is impossible in both cases to date precisely their work (in any case we can suppose that they were created around those because of the browser they suggest using and other technical elements).

Images as Metaphors (or Images as Words)

Rebecca Given and Monica Ong’s Fallow21 and Alexandra Saemmer’s Étang22 are two quite recent examples of e-poetry, where the combination of words, animations, sound, and images creates a text that is still immediately recognizable as a poem according to our Western canons but that can exploit several possibilities offered by the new media context.

Fallow is a collaboration between poet Rebecca Givens and new-media artist Monica Ong. Published in Born Magazine in 2007, this e-poem integrates text with images and sound, even though in this case the pictures are original photographs, found objects and vintage images.

The poem is composed of 5 stanzas, each of them made of 4 verse lines. The text opens with an image, which contains within it another image and the first verse line to the left: “and this is your allotment of freedom”. The poem starts with a conjunction, “and”. There are neither capital letters nor punctuation. It seems as a fragment of some other texts, a story which has already started. As soon as the first verse line appears the sounds of birds twittering, a dog barking, and another dog barking back in the distance start. On the one hand these sounds contrast with the absolute silence that surrounds the countryside, which suggests feelings of loneliness and solitude, and on the other they contribute together with the images to create the idea of an isolated countryside in the reader’s mind. The sounds – constantly the same – is repeated throughout the reading of whole work.

While the sequence is still running, the text invites the reader to interact with it: from a corner of the second image a small black bird appears and moves. it is the only thing moving; a clear invitation to the reader to try clicking on it. As soon as the small bird appears the picture becomes draggable. After clicking on or dragging the image, the birds multiply and they fill the image, simultaneously another verse line appears: “black fog this morning and everywhere”. Animation here – like in Saemmer’s Étang – reproduces a rhetorical figure. This animated figure anticipates and concludes the meaning of the verse line.

The second link the reader finds is “the sun”. This link is a mise en abyme of the narration process; it is a meta-link. It is just on the border of the content/contained image and the verse line says: “knife off gold has”, and now the sun looks like a small blade which seems to slice the screen in the direction of the reader. It is a performative link – links are performative according to Adrian Miles23 – but it is also a new-media figure, an “interfacial retroprojection24” since the interactive gesture, the activatable media content and the activated media content get into metaphorical relationships. The sun is a sort of command to the reader; it invites the reader to go through the text, to go into it physically.

The second part of the text is self-directing. Pictures in this part describe the desolation and the loneliness of the place, for instance one picture shows two men on their knees working an arid and infertile field. The images reinforce the meaning of the verse lines. Then, once again, a link, this time in the form of a red flower, appears. It is the contact point between the text and its reader. This link has a metaphorical value. It is the only vivid color on the screen, the only sign of life in a burnt place, the only hope for the future, the only way to keep on telling a story, since it is the only interactive point on the screen.

Figure 4: Rebecca Givens and Monica Ong, Fallow

The following part requires the interaction of the reader. The reader can read this part of the text as many times as she wants in a cyclical and repetitive way. This repetition constructs a new-media figure that Saemmer defines as “interfacial involution25” since the interactive gesture invariably displays the same media contents. The reader goes round in circles unless she decides to click on the small piece of paper on the right bottom of the page. Actually, she has to touch the images at least three times in order to activate the link. The reader is participating in a cyclical reading practice just when the text says: “everyone said stop writing to him”. The creative process seems to be in opposition with the text. This could be defined as an extension of Saemmer’s “interfacial antagonism26”. The interactive gesture provokes the emergence of a type of content that is contrary to the content brought about by the activatable media.

Near the end, the text is composed of different substrates: the images, the verse lines of the poem, the handwritten words, and even of stamps and mildew, in a space that is not at all empty, in contrast with the previous parts. Narratologically this is the “Spannung”, this is the moment of highest tension, leading to its epilogue.

Now there are no more links blinking at the reader, but scraps of paper emerging from a corner of the art-piece, like ancient memories. In one of the possible combinations a small postcard, contained within the large image, hides another postcard. However, to activate the link the main image (as shown below) is needed. By rolling over the image over the corner, a picture of a young man emerges and the last sequence of text starts.

Even in the other parts of the text the reader has found this stratification, but here the stratification is more evident: the main image now contains a picture of a young man (dressed according to early 20th century style) and over to the right there are other two images where only the margins are visible.

The image on the left contains a verse line “if a prince really he could have found them”. The pronoun “them” appears also on the other picture, and the reader at one point reads “if a prince really he could have found them them”. The second “them” is redundant and underlines again the loneliness that images and sounds have narrated during the whole text. By dragging the picture of the young man on the right to the center of the page, he appears to be looking at the image of a young modern man who seems to be walking.

Figure 5: Rebecca Givens and Monica Ong, Fallow

The picture at the bottom here is the final link, text will ends when the reader touches it. This image of an old isolated factory is recursive: a very similar image has already appeared before, and it will appear in the main image for a few seconds. On this picture the last verse lines “not been crushed with the ceremonies/a rose/two roses/ and the real kid/bleats out a name running/from the pen” appear in sequential order. The e-poem ends with a postcard picture of a young man alone in a more than likely “deserted” seaside.

The poetic narration is delegated more to the images than to the words. The narration continues thanks to the links that are made from images. The images produce figures that are normally created by language, as for instance the repetition and the redundancy of the same images or of very similar landscapes: This redundancy creates a cyclical sense, even though the pictures of first a boy first and later a young man seem to suggest a linear passage of time. This kind of story can happen over and over again.

Alexandra Saemmer has experimented in her artistic work with several new media figures. Étang (pond) isan example of this artistic and theoretical study on how animation, the union of different semiotic systems, summing up the potential offered by the electronic medium, can affect classic poetic constructions.

The interactive and multimedia work Étang is the result of a writing experience Alexandra Saemmer had with a friend. Just like Saemmer’s own father, her friend's father had died from a serious illness. This text focuses on the relationship between life and death and the fight for survival.

The text is composed of pictures (taken from a burned house), sound, and animated text, so – like in Givens and Ong’s Fallow – it unites three different semiotic systems to create the poem. Differently from all the texts analyzed until here, this text does not propose to its reader a more or less pre-established reading path, besides the first click that activates the e-poem. After the first click four white circles become clickable and bring the reader through different reading paths. However, once the reader chooses one of the white circles then the reading part is quite linear, although the final effect is a cyclic reading practice.

This text is particularly interesting from a poetic point of view for its animations. The first one appears immediately on the text “les feuilles mortes”. These words seem to close up one another, according to Alexandra Saemmer, as if we are closing a book. The link given by the animation to another kind of poetry is obvious.

Figure 6: Alexandra Saemmer, Étang – some animations

The verb “respirez” (breathe) is also animated. This verb breaks into pieces on the screen, before they vanish. According to Alexandra Saemmer, this animation should anticipate the end of the text; it should anticipate the implied “expirer” (vanishing). This figure anticipates and concludes the meaning of the verse line.

Figure 7: Alexandra Saemmer, Étang – some animations

In one section of the text six “je” (subjects) fall down in order to get to their position in the text (see figure 7) in falling down they become a single je: all the actions of the subject are summarized in one highlighted “je”, that stays on the page also in the next section. The “je” here is fragmented and redundant. But these fragmented “je” (I) are trying to reconstruct the “je”. It is a “je” fighting against the death: “Je me persuade / Je vois les lueurs […] / Je refuserai […] / Je mettrai […]” (I’m persuaded/ I see the light […] / I will refuse […]/ I will put […]”.

The “je” – as said – is also present in the other section and its actions as well “je les ramasserai […] / Je me lèverai […]” (“I will pick the up […] I will get up”). Moreover, this “je” is anticipated by another “je” (in one of the possible reading paths): “Il faut que je te résiste” (“I must resist you”), which ends with the verb “résiste” flashing, and if the reader clicks on it the decomposition of the “je” will begin. This animation makes visible the theme of the poem: the fight between life and death. By using words and animation Saemmer proposes new rhetorical figures and shows us the potentialties of poetic construction in new media.

Jim Andrews: from Words to Images

In this last part I would like to focus on Jim Andrews’ work which, I think, shows quite clearly a tendency for at least one part of electronic poetry. Jim Andrews is a Canadian poet who has been creating digital poetry for years. The works that I will analyze are Enigma n27, Nio28, A Pen29, and his most recent work Aleph Null30. This poet has always been interested in digital art; thus we can consider his works as in-between digital art and digital poetry. All his works are interactive, so the reader can manipulate the text to some extent.

Enigma n begins with a quote by Phyllis Webb: “The world is round. It moves in circles”. The interface is minimal: at the top, on the left side of the page, there are four other words; the title of the text Enigma n (which is also a link to get information concerning the poem), and three words which allow the reader to interact with the text: “Prod”, “Stir” and “Tame”. These three words are commands for the text, but also reading keys. By clicking them, the text starts to move, it reacts to the prod of the reader, moving in circles: “Prod meaning/Stir meaning/Tame meaning”. The more the reader clicks on the commands, the more other commands appear on the screen. The total number of the word-commands is 8, each of which allows the reader to modify the shape, colorand speed of the text, to pause the text and to reactivate it. So the reader is invited to play with the word “meaning”, changing its form, looking for a meaning which seems to escape.

Figure 8: Jim Andrews, Enigma n – collage

The letters seem to dance on the screen; they seem to be free to move around suggesting various meanings to the reader. The single letters will take on a form and sense, following different entax, which offers the reader altered “meanings”: image, game, or man/men. In semiotic terms, if syntax covers the assembly operations of both figures and signs along the external space of a sign system, entax indicates the system of the operations that assemble the letters inside the figures. The syntax regulates the grammatical relationships between the linguistic signs; the entax takes into consideration the mutual relationship that is created between the characters in an inscribed space. Moreover, “meaning” is quite obviously an anagram of “enigma n”. Andrews defines Enigma n as “a philosophical poetry toy for poets and philosophers from the age of 4 up” which is playful but provocative. So the reader is invited to play with the word “meaning”, changing its form, looking for a meaning which seems to escape.

Nio is an interactive audio work. As Andrews defines it on his website, it is a mix of music, sound poetry, and visual poetry that invites the player to create a little composition from the sixteen audio recordings in it. Nio does not provide the reader with narrative logic as we normally consider it. Nio does not concern language; it is not like Enigma n, where the language game is immediately visible. Nio speaks to another sense: the geometrical shapes imposed by the icons (which, by the way, are made of letters beside each icon), their colors and their movements are visually pleasing. “The lettristic dance” is not related to the meaning, it is an example of the “aesthetics of the sensual” according to Andrew Darley31 which is a tendency for the semantic and visual arts.

Figure 9: Jim Andrews, Nio – collage

A Pen is made of 3 texts. As underlined by Leonardo Flores, “A Pen is an exploration of text as a tool for writing, rather than as the result of writing. It is about the interpenetration of code and language in programmable media to imbue letters and words with behaviors and allowing the poem to emerge from their play32”.

In this text too, many parameters can be modified on the toolbar: you can manipulate the speed of the pen, making the letter go very fast or slow them down until they seem to hiccup on the screen, you can change the size of the letters, the color of the screen turning it from black to white, etc. These poems trace their materiality on the screen, to create new images in a spiral of sense that the same reader has to decode. Andrews studies and experiments with the material possibilities of our alphabet, of single letters taken in their distinctiveness to redesign meaning.

Figure 10: Jim Andrews, A Pen – collage

Jim Andrews’ Aleph Null seems to be the natural result of the previous text. In the description Andrews gives of Aleph Null, he defines it a sort of “color music”. This work is quite complicated. Many elements can be changedsuch as color, shapes, speed, by toggling the mouse-controlled position of the shape.

Aleph Null” from mathematics is claimed as “the first of the transfinite cardinal numbers. It corresponds to the number of elements in the set of positive integers”. Another possible definition is “the smallest infinite cardinal number; the cardinal number of the set of positive integers”. Its symbol is א from the Hebrew letter aleph and the Indian/Arabic symbol for zero. It stems from the contested notion that different types of infinite sets have different cardinalities (or sizes). Here again like in Bélisle’s Figures variables there is a connection between poetic construction and mathematics. Andrews himself has already made connections between art (poetry) and mathematics in his works. For instance, in his poem Enigma n, the “n” is shorthand for the unknown. In that work, we have in our hands an enigma hinting at the unknown, a surplus of significance – and the allusion to this process is by the /n/ and the relevance of all these mathematical concepts.

According to Andrews Aleph Null is a sort of “color music”, although paradoxically there is no audio involved. Visual music, sometimes also referred to as “color music”, refers to the use of musical structures in visual imagery, which can also include silent films or  “Silent Lumia” work. It also refers to methods or devices which can translate sounds or music into a related visual presentation. A broader definition may include the translation of music to painting; this was the original definition of the term, as coined by Roger Fry in 1912 to describe the work of Kandinsky. The idea that music is linked to visual art goes back to ancient Greece. Plato talked of tone and harmony in relation to art. However, it has its origins in the theory, prevalent in the Renaissance and systematically set forth by the 17th-century Jesuit music theorist and mathematician Athanasius Kircher (1602–80), that each musical sound has a necessary, objective correspondence to a certain color. From the 18th to the 20th century, experiments were made by adapting various keyboard instruments in such a way that when a key was depressed it would, in addition to producing a sound, raise a colored tape. Visual music also refers to systems which convert music or sound directly into visual forms, such as film, video or computer graphics, by means of a mechanical instrument, an artist’s interpretation, or a computer.

1 However, those works are more of a finished product (in the same sense that a film is a product), while Andrews’ Aleph Null, in keeping with other examples of Andrews’ works, is more of a tool, a production practice that can become a product, but it does not seem to be its main goal. While visual music artists wanted to show the results of their studies and labor, Andrews seems more interested in his process-as-work.

2 Aleph Null always starts with a black background – unless the user decides to change it – and which is a distinctive mark of Andrews since his other works also have black backgrounds. The instructions are very detailed and quite long: to use Aleph Null you need to have some expertise with digital tools. Many elements can be modified. There is a “central color” that can be changed. By sliding a “color range slider up”, more color variation is possible. Also the shape can be modified. The opacity can also be manipulated, as well as for instance size and t speed. Aleph Null automatically generates its own works. New works are constantly created without any (further – besides the code) human interaction. Aleph Null can produce infinite works. However, the “reader” can always step in and can change what already exists with great ease. This work is more a process than a product.

Figure 11: Jim Andrews, Aleph Null – collage

However, can the critics still call this text a poem? From the moment this work appears on the screen, it is clear that it is creating aesthetic effects and poetic sense: it does have (digital) poetics, but is it a poem? It invites its reader to trace its text, but even letters in this text are missing. Nevertheless, Jim Andrews presented this work in Paris at “&NOW Conference”. &NOW is a biennial travelling festival/conference that celebrates writing as a contemporary art form. What should Andrews’ artistic path and the transformation of electronic poetry that we have seen through the texts analyzed in this paper tell us?


To conclude this article, I would like to suggest some hypotheses of new possible directions that digital poetry has taken others it could take. It seems to me that in digital poetry words are partially disappearing, or that they are taking another form. Their meaning, their poetic construction, even their rhetorical figures are often made of other elements, such as images, sound, animation. Words are more form than content. In Il fiume delle parole or Figures variables, although created in new media and showing the potentiality of using it in the creative act, words were essential and the poetic construction was solely based on them. Carlotti and Bélisle experiment with the possibilities of electronic writing, putting forward a very classical and recognizable form of poetry. This can be explained because those texts were published around 1999-2000. But it is also true that other authors prefer to focus on the graphic text only. In Fallow and Étang there is a strong relationship between images and words. According to Beiguelman “in this liquid reading context the difference between text, [and] image […] becomes relative33”. In these texts other elements, such as animations, can create new media figures, words can be transformed but again one needs to read them. There is still a text to be read.

However, Jim Andrews’ works show that another path can also been taken. In his works, words are images if not traces of images, making the distinction between digital art and digital poetry feebler, unless some precise canons to identify how digital poetry will be put forward by the critics. In his works the digital poetics is obvious, but words have been slowly transformed into images. Electronic poetry, although with some differences, does not seem to be a linguistic element anymore but it is becoming a trans-linguistic element. Our society is moving from an anthropology of words to an anthropology of image and electronic poetry is highlighting it.


  1. 1. Italian e-poetry is not so well known. The reasons are different and they cannot be discussed here, however, the critics has partially neglected Italian electronic literature, although Italy has a very long tradition in experimenting with writing and especially with poetry. Nanni Balestrini’s “Tape Mark” (1961), for instance, is one of the very first examples of electronic poetry. In both the last volume of the Electronic Literature Collection II (2011) published by the ELO (Electronic Literature Organization, the organization that promotes and facilitates the writing, publishing, and reading of literature designed for electronic media) and in the very recent ELMCIP Anthology of European Electronic Literature (2013), there are no examples of Italian electronic poetry; but both volumes contain works in several languages. It is also true that Italian authors of electronic literature have not been very active in promoting and presenting their works, they have remained in their local environment.back

  2. 2. Simanowski, Roberto, Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla, eds. Reading Moving Letters Digital Literature in Research and Teaching. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2010.back

  3. 3. Raley, Rita. “'Living letterforms': The Ecological Turn in Contemporary Digital Poetics”. Contemporary Literature Volume 52, Number 4. University of Wisconsin Press, Winter 2011. p. 884.back

  4. 4. Simanowski, Roberto. Digital Art and Meaning. Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art and Interactive Installations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.back

  5. 5.

  6. 6. Heidegger, Martin. On the Way to Language. 1987. p. 27-28.back

  7. 7. Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation”. 1966. p. 14.back

  8. 8. Feral, Josette. “Performance and Theatricality: The Subject Demystified” 2003 (1982). p. 215.back

  9. 9. Simanowski, Roberto. Op.Cit. 2011. p. 27.back

  10. 10. Simanowski, Roberto. Op.Cit. 2011. p. 27.back

  11. 11. Carlotti, Elisa. Il fiume delle parole. Around 1999. Accessed January 24 2011.

  12. 12. For example the possibility of adding sound, see Faith (2002) by Robert Kendall.back

  13. 13. “The river of words”. back

  14. 14. The website probably came into being towards the end of 1997 or in 1998 since the author suggests the use of Internet Explorer 4 in order to read another poem, and Internet Explorer 4 was released in September 1997. By 1999 Internet Explorer 5 was released. Unfortunately, Carlotti’s website does not exist anymore.back

  15. 15. “And the words flow/as water in the river./And sometimes they return/like salmon/into ecstatic vortexes/of ephebic nymph/ remembering sardonic/ distracted giggles./And the words flow/and the river is in turmoil/it constantly stresses/the belly’s domain/that nature poses us/within fervent limits/and catches the lives/that are about the shame/of tireless violation/that tempting water/but terrible and treacherous./And the words flow/and I live of Words/and I remember the evenings/under the May sun/singing in the shiver/of an smooth thought/songs a bit out of tune/songs that warm life up./And the words flow/ and I am flowing with them.” (the translation in mine).back

  16. 16. It is important to note that the Italian verb “scorrere” means also “to scroll” in English giving a metatextual value to the poem.back

  17. 17. Philippe Bootz, “Digital Poetry: From Cybertext to Programmed Forms”, in New Media Poetry and Poetics, Special Issue, Leonardo Electronic Almanac Vol 14, No. 5 – 6, 2006, accessible online at: (accessed, September 21 2010).
    Bootz, Philippe. “Digital Poetry: From Cybertext to Programmed Forms”, in New Media Poetry and Poetics, Special Issue, Leonardo Electronic Almanac Vol 14, No. 5 – 6, 2006. Accessed, September 21 2010.

  18. 18. Bélisle, Marie. Figures variables. Accessed June 15 2012.

  19. 19. Queneau, Raymond. “L'Analyse matricielle du langage”. Bernard Quemada (ed.). Etudes de linguistique appliquée. Paris: Didier, 1964.back

  20. 20. Bouchardon, Serge. “Towards an art of rhetoric in interactive literary works”. 2008. Accessed June 15 2012. 11.back

  21. 21. Givens, Rebecca and Ong, Monica. Fallow, BornMagazine. 2007. Accessed March 18 2013.

  22. 22. Saemmer, Alexandra. Étang. 2008. Accessed January 15 2011.

  23. 23. Miles, Adrian. “A Web is not a Page”. 2001. Accessed September 22 2012.

  24. 24. Saemmer Alessandra, “Some stylistic devices on media interface”, conference paper presented at The Network as a Space and Medium for Collaborative Interdisciplinary Art Practice, 8-10 November 2008 University of Bergen. Accessed November 10 2009.

  25. 25. Ibid.back

  26. 26. Ibid.back

  27. 27. Andrews, Jim. Enigma n. 1998. Accessed February 24, 2011.

  28. 28. Andrews, Jim. Nio (2001). Katharine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg, Stephanie Strickland eds. The Electronic Literature Collection, Vol. 1, Oct. 2006, accessed February 24, 2011.

  29. 29. Andrews, Jim. A Pen. 2007. Accessed February 24, 2011.

  30. 30. Andrews, Jim. Aleph Null. 2011. Accessed February 24, 2011.

  31. 31. Darley, Andrew. Visual Digital Culture. USA: Taylor & Francis, 2000. p. 200, p. 102.back

  32. 32. Flores, Leonardo. Typing the Dancing Signifier: Jim Andrews' (Vis)Poetics. PhD dissertation, Faculty of Humanities, University of Maryland, discussed in 20 10. Accessed February 24, 2011.

  33. 33. Beiguelman, Giselle. “The reader, the Player, and the Executable Poetics”, in Jörgen Schäffer and Peter Gendolla eds. Beyond the Screen: Transformations of Literary Structures, Interfaces and Genre. Bielefeld. Verlag, 2010, p. 403-426.back