POETRY AND HYPERTEXT: THE SENSE OF A LIMIT
Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza
When we browse the different and multifarious sites that deal with literary contents in the Web, and specially when we read hypertextual theory, there seems to be an amazing disproportion between the attention paid to hyperfictions and to what we could call, in general terms, hyperpoetry. It looks as if the electronic textuality were a more suitable or appealing medium for narrative than for lyric texts. Of course there are plenty of poems posted on the Web, but just a small part of them are explicitly intended for the new medium so that they may profit from the fresh possibilities offered. Anyway we could also be suspicious about the relevance of this sort of contentions and wonder whether we are not simply importing into a new frame a conceptual template that is strange to it. So when a supposed disparity in respect to the presence of these genres (literary genres, after all) is alleged, perhaps we are just in front of the misconception of the categories due to the new electronic environment. And certainly the prefix hyper- is not necessarily a warrant of proper theorizing.
But the hypertext gives rise indeed to a new form of textuality. And doing so, it makes apparent some of the limits and constrictions of the sort of textuality we are still used to. We suddenly realize that literature, including fiction and poetry, has developed in relation to an extremely peculiar medium, that of printing, and moreover that it might be regarded as a product of that historical and perhaps ephemeral medium. And therefore the concern comes up that literature itself might be also an ephemeral phenomenon. Certainly there is hardly anything really new in these assertions. The idea of the very notion of literature having been conceptualized and theorized on quite a restrictive bias has been frequently remarked in the past. As a way of example, let me remind you of the work of Ángel Rama, specially La ciudad letrada, where literacy and alphabetic culture are presented as they spread themselves in Latin-America from the urban centers and the learned social groups sweeping away other forms of culture that were based on alternative models of textuality1. It is an obvious attempt to point out the dark face of modernity, which as a result of its continuous movement onwards tends to eliminate the witnesses of its expansion. Walter Mignolo has also insisted, with regard to Latin-America, on this sort of conflict between different forms of textuality, stressing the character of alphabetic writing as a Trojan horse entailing the introduction of a colonial intellectual and ideological order2.
Most of hypertextual theory is also deeply dependent on this agonistic bias. I mean that the hypertext is more often than not described via negativa through its opposition to printing. In words of Donald F. Theall: “the standard approach to these new cultural formations is to examine them as if they represented a radical, near absolute break with the past by which we are moving beyond history" 3. More concretely, the hypertext has been usually envisioned as the implementation of all the virtualities that printing, and particularly the book, supposedly hinders. And the fact is that, in this game of oppositions, the pretense to overcome a certain view of modernity is hardly hidden.
As a matter of fact there seem to be very good reasons in favor of this vision since there are also conspicuous differences in the way each sort of text fosters the process of interpretation by its readers. Some twenty-five years ago, Wolfgang Iser made two points to this effect that can be of great help in any assessment of the relations between these textual patterns. On the one hand, Iser made clear that there are different norms of interpretation, each one with just a historical validity and with a close connection with specific artistic forms. On the other, he foregrounded the dynamicity and openness of the interpretative process as far as its goal is no longer the apprehension of a certain meaning of but of the conditions of the possible effect of the text on the reader:
There is no doubt about the relevance of these comments both for printed and electronic texts. The emphasis on the conditions that foster a certain effect and on the historical (and ideological) bias of any norm of interpretation absolutely suits the need of taking into account not only the technological and communicative conditioning of the different media but also the implicit bearing that connects different norms of interpretation, specially when they overlap in a common historical context. Both these concerns are relevant for our point, even though the former has been much more frequently noticed than the latter.
Among the observations made in respect to the different attributes of electronic and printed texts, Mary Laure Ryan has pointed out a characteristic that has to do with the ontology of the text4. As she puts it, any printed text is already a virtual object as far as it typically triggers the constitution of potential worlds, emotions and, it goes without saying, interpretations. Whilst the text results in a number of effects, these effects cannot be reduced to the text. Between the effects and the text there is a relation of many to one; in other words, a relation of a set of actualities -the effects- to a virtual object -the text-. It is quite obvious by now that Ryan does not conceive the text as a material supporter of the literary work, but as the literary work itself. And it is not less evident that the dichotomy of text and effects hints to the basic theoretical distinction recalled by Iser between the artistic and the aesthetic pole of the literary work5. A dichotomy which falls back to some crucial reference points of 20th century literary theory such as the works of Mukarovski or Ingarden.
The point for Ryan is that hypertexts enhance the inherent virtuality of literary works (and of any other kind of textual product) to a higher dimension because of the addition of a new pole to the two that were previously acknowledged (if the existence of three poles can be possibly conceived). Together with the artistic and the aesthetic, a third intermediate level emerges by means of the reader, even though, in this case, the frame of participation is clearly restricted by the options foreseen by the author and technically available at a certain moment. In effect, the reader of a hypertext is allowed to choose among different possible linearities through the clicking or not of a number of points established in advance, that call up different words or textual sections. Each of these positions, and the very possibility of clicking them, makes part of the literary work, but the text or linearity resulting from the decisions taken by the reader implies a different level which is, at the same time, concrete and virtual; that is to say, the result of the realization of a possibility and, simultaneously, the basis for a further actualization. And even if it would not be fair to say that printed texts exclude this new level, we cannot but admit that the usual conceptions of the ontology or even the structure of literary works have prevented its consideration.
That goes for description. The question is whether the electronic text, and specifically the hypertext, sustains a completely new kind of fictionality. Jean-Marie Schaeffer has warned us recently against the temptation to presume a radical rupture with regard to the models of fiction and imagination as we have known them for centuries6. But the fact is that the hypertext has been theorized, at least by the first generation of cyber and hypertext criticism, according to a very traditional movement that can be also identified, to put some instances, in the early criticism of cinema, as a new medium, in relation to the theater or to the novel. On the one hand, the new form is presented as the accomplishment of a number of prospects that could be envisioned from the previous medium, even though they were also precluded by the peculiar conditions of this very former medium. On the other, the way of conceiving the emerging form tends to be clearly shaped in accordance to some sort of tenor originating in connection to the form or medium that is to be overcome. As a result, it is also a part of this movement the attribution in retrospect to some of the works belonging to the former medium, as if they were strange to it, of some of the qualities prized in respect of the latter. Let us read in this light the following words of Jay David Bolter:
In short, some works that were originally aimed for printing are presented as if they could only achieve its true condition when rendered into the electronic kind of textuality. And conversely, the new medium appears as the culmination of the possibilities implied by the best of modern tradition. As Richard Lanham put it: “the personal computer itself constitutes the ultimate postmodern work of art. It introduces and focuses all the rhetorical themes advanced by the arts from Futurism onwards"8. The constitutional teleology of this vision is manifest, as much as the fact that this conceptualization does not grow from the real attainments of most of hyperfictions or, in our case, hyperpoems.
Octavio Paz expressed some ten years ago his belief that television would bring forth a new form of poetry. As it is well known he became an important presence in the Mexican television of the eighties and, of course, he could not but feel, as a poet, the appeal of this medium (already a classic of the mass media, currently under a process of deep redefinition). It is worth to recall his own words:
It is not easy to find a description that suits better the enticement of the electronic medium for a poet. A screen that breathes, moves, and changes restlessly in contrast with the steadiness of the printed page. The screen as page, but a page of a completely different kind. We may wonder what Octavio Paz could have said in case he had noticed the possibilities of modern computers to enhance the animated power of the screen and to lend new dimensions and a sense of autonomy to the written word. That is precisely why the main point of Paz results somewhat amazing, even though it somehow makes clear part of the allure that television had for his understanding of poetry. I am referring to the clear phonocentrism involved in his conception of the poem: “En todas las formas escritas de poesía, el signo gráfico está siempre en función del oral ... En ningún otro género literario es de tal modo íntima la unión entre sonido y sentido como en la poesía. Esto es lo que distingue al poema de las otras formas literarias, su característica esencial. El poema es un organismo verbal rítmico, un objeto de palabras dichas y oídas, no escritas ni leídas" (p. 578). At the end we realize that the electronic medium is mainly understood as the confirmation of his own conception of poetry: and certainly Paz is not the only one who adopts this perspective.
If we consider the tradition of Occidental poetry since the XVIth century, the strain of the conflict between writing and voice becomes plainly manifest. It is the tension between two different and simultaneous conceptions of written language either as a form of visuality or as an inscription of the oral word. Undoubtedly modern poetry constitutes the privileged field where this tension shows not only its depth, but also the enormous creativity it implies. It can be readily agreed in this respect that, beyond the mere modification of an oral medium that would remain, in the new context of printing, as a sort of representation by means of the written word, we face one of the founding paradoxes associated to the modern way of conceiving the poetical word. Because writing is not actually a procedure to inscribe the poem in a fixed form, but the condition of the poem as such. There are plenty of poems that, strictly, cannot be said and, in many cases, depend on a concrete conception of typography. Let us remember that Marshall MacLuhan put the poetry of E.E. Cummings as an instance of the incidence of the typewriter on the writing of poetry10. Even so, although modern poetry cannot be conceived irrespectively of writing and, frequently, of printing, the notions such as voice, song, accent, or silence remain, but in a tenor that can only be considered as metaphorical or even mythical. As Jean Cohen noticed, “Le poème est écrit, mais il feint d’être parlé". The result is a dense interweaving of the longing for the presentness and immediacy of the oral word and the lure of the freedom and indeterminacy of writing.
The modern poetic word cannot be understood without taking on this irresolvable tension. And incidentally, it shows how often meaningful art is not a result of exploiting the possibilities of its medium to an end but of challenging its limits and the turning to them in search of meaning. Modern art has always pointed out expressively what was beyond its reach, trying at the same time to incorporate this strangeness. This situation can explain the great importance of the context, or the lack of it, in modern poetry and poetic theory. It has been much repeated the assumption that the lyric poem characteristically tends to an extremely hazy form of being (so a extreme grade of virtuality) since its words appear as detached from any specific circumstance that may fix its meaning. It sounds plausible, in this sense, the presumption that one of the most determining characteristics of modern poetry relies on the stress on the weak contextualization of the discourse and of its ‘speaker’. It has to do with what José Ángel Valente has presented as the “radical detachment of the word": "La forma se cumple sólo en el descondicionamiento radical de la palabra. La experiencia de la escritura es, en realidad, la experiencia de ese descondicionamiento y en ella ha de operarse ya la disolución de toda referencia o de toda predeterminación".11 But again we are confronted with another underlying strain of the modern understanding of poetry, inasmuch as the weak contextualization of the poem must not be understood as equivalent to abstraction. Much on the contrary, the poetic word aspires to singularity and individuality. The French critic Dominique Rabaté has put it straight: "Le circunstanciel joue donc en deux directions opposées: il est à la fois ce qu'il faut dépasser mais concurremment cette singularité absolue que la langue ne devrait pas trahir".12
Poetry depends on the word. It is nothing without language. But there is also in this respect a contradictory inclination that seems to be much allied to poetry. I mean that, by the same token that poetry emphasizes at its highest the presence of words, it also tends to efface and impede the fully appearance of language in a sort of negative movement that is a part of the modern tradition. Túa Blesa has coined a term for this, logophagia, and has studied its different modes in contemporary Spanish poetry.13 Textuality, Blesa comments, destroys itself and, in spite of this self-immolation, survives. Perhaps destruction is the condition for survival in terms of poetic meaning. Destruction, in any case, may be performed in many different manners. One of them is the erasure, the use of blanks, the crossing out of words. A second one is proliferation, the overflow of the text beyond its conventional limits. Reference to a context that is out of the reach of the reader is another way of attaining the same effect. And of course we are not to forget the patent presentation of the text as alien or strange, either because it has been borrowed from somewhere else or because it is just cryptic. The discursive capability of the poem is, therefore, undermined, and yet this denial becomes the main source of poetic creativity. In this vein, the poem is in each case affirmed as a fragment of an inaccessible totality and the basic textual principles of unity and integrity are nullified.
The fact is that the hypertext seems to be quite congenial a medium to embody most these tenets. The form of textuality it fosters is plainly fragmentary. In a somewhat prophetic mood Jay Bolter prognosticated some years ago that “Texts written for this new medium will probably favor short, concentrated expression, because each unit may be approached from a different perspective with each reading. Electronic writing will probably be aphoristic rather than periodic" (ix). Besides, each fragment refers to a whole that does not preexist to each of its parts and, moreover, any whole will always be tentative and provisional. We have also underscored the tendency to prevent oral performance by some trends in modern poetry, and it has also been claimed that, even though they can incorporate oral utterances, electronic texts could be seen as the promise of “the advent of a fully non-logocentric mode of expression"14. Let me add the fact that most of the assertions that tried to make clear the distance between the electronic textuality and printing took the codex-book form as their main target, but the relationship that poems bear to the book are not at all akin to the one held by novels. The principles of linearity, hierarchy, unity or integrity do not apply with the same rigor to books of poetry as to those, which contain novels. And therefore hypertexts are supposedly not so much conflicting with the kind of logic that rules poetry. This would seem to be a downright conclusion.
As a matter of fact, hyperfictions tend to adopt a sort of poetic structure, mainly because of its fragmentary condition and its inherent ambiguity with regard to the ‘voice’. Many of the lexias that make up hyperfictions have the aspect of texts at disposal; that is to say, texts that prompt the need to assume them and find them a use or, better, a place. It is not surprising, therefore, that the lyric quality of hyperfictions had been pointed out on different occasions. George Landow has echoed this idea in Hypertext 2.015. Susana Pajares has recently devoted a brief essay to this issue in which she stressed, as characteristics of hyperfictions, the brevity and discontinuity of each textual unit, the foregrounding of the language materiality, the instigation to explore contexts and the adoption of an associative logic16. And she readily assumes that these all are features that hint to the poetic dimension of hyperfictions.
In a certain way, this attitude reminds of the attempt to conceptualize the break with the classical realistic tradition with the name of lyric novel. Once again the reaction to what is considered as an anomalous kind of narration leads to its rendering in terms of poetry. And who may doubt of the traditional, not to say typographic, bearing of this procedure? In this sense the following words of Susana Pajares are quite significant:
Going a step beyond from the connection of the book with printing, she also identifies the narrative form with the printed text. The implicit claim underlying this remark is, conversely, that the lyric is free from the charges against narration and that, consequently, it can serve as a founding principle for a poetics of hyperfiction. We can easily recognize here a new manifestation of the modern conflict between poetry and narration, poésie and récit, which was brilliantly historized by Dominique Combe in a well-known book.17. And this recognition is not only expressive of the ancestry and nature of important trends in hypertextual theory, but also of its manifest dependence on the typographic tradition of literary discourse.
Besides, there is probably a misunderstanding about the condition of poetry in modern literature. The tensions that were indicated above are significant precisely as long as they remain as tensions. As soon as they are solved, they lose any aesthetic meaning. They are, as such, constitutive of the poetic cultural field of modernity.
Let us examine a little bit closer some instances of hypertextual poetry available on the Web. One first illustration, quite representative of a basic kind of hypertextual poetry, is Intermínims de navegació poètica, by the Catalan poet Ramón Dachs. This work gathers 136 poems of two previously printed books, one in Catalan and the other in Galician: Poemes mínims (1995) and Cima branca (1995), but rearranged in accordance to the new hypertextual format. We, as readers, are allowed to follow a linear reading of the poems, just as they were disposed in the original books. Anyway, readers are also given the chance to activate some links along the poems, which lead to some other poem in the series. Each link coincides with a word and aims to the same word taking part in a different poem. Furthermore there are two additional indexes that beget different ways of access to the poetic texts, being the former a list of the words that function as links and the latter a register of all the lines, not just the first ones, of the 136 poems. Certainly the possibility of undertaking different textual paths and establishing relations among the various poems and lines are open and even encouraged by way of the hypertextual facility. It is also patent the emergence of a new rhetoric based on the word, the isolated word, which becomes a distinct poetical unit at the same level as the line or the stanza. Words achieve, as a matter of fact, a very special dimension in a much more decisive and manifest way than when stressed by means of enjambements or their location in rhyme position. Nonetheless, there is no question about, say, the typographic dependence of this poetry: poems pre-exist any concrete reading. Actually, each reader is just suggested different paths along the poems, which certainly are affected by this emerging rhetoric. It could also be argued that the kind of intertextuality fostered by the nodes may be characterized as rigid, limited and excluding, since the self-imposing quality of the intertextual paths tends to preclude, because of its actuality (they are materially a part of the work), the purely virtual and impredictable intertextuality which enriches the interpretation of texts in the printed tradition. In a general sense, textual units which are made accesible by means of the links may be understood as interpretants, in a Peircean sense. But interpretants that, in very rough terms, are imposed to the interpreter by the design of the textual machinery.
Another example may well illustrate a different hypertextual strategy: the so-called Ipertesto poetico quadrimensionale, a production of Progetto Poetico Machina Amniotica. In line with what Bolter regarded as an inherent tendency of hypertexts, both hyperpoems tend to stress the word over any other linguistic unit. Nonetheless, this Italian sample represents in a certain way the opposite direction to the one addressed by Intermínims. Instead of going from the complete text or line to the word, founding on a number of selected words the possibilities of going through the different poems, the Ipertesto poetico quadrimensionale sets its starting point on a group of words or short strings of words that do not in principle make part of any pre-established text. It is the path itself followed by the reader that gives birth to the actual text, and hence the interplay between virtuality and actuality is much more patent than in the former case.
Here are the main lines of its functioning. First of all we are provided with a bidimensional structure, labeled as La Presenza: or more exactly, a number of single words disposed horizontally and vertically in files within a frame, so that the reader can move along the pigeonholes without restrictions.
Some of the words are conceived as links or gates into a new frame. These words are not marked in any way, but when clicked at, they give access to a new set of words with a disposition similar to the first one. There are up to three different levels with these characteristics (named respectively as La Presenza, La Scoperta and La Assenza) and the reader can always move either forward or backward, according not to a conscious decision but to the configuration of the link clicked each time. A fourth level (Il Nulla) is designed in a different shape: it is made up of four different lines: IL TEMPO / DOVE / IL DOLORE / E’LA FINE. It seems to be, as a matter of fact, a sort of analogue form of what the commiato meant in the structure of the Italian canzone. On the one hand, it acts as a signal of closure, but on the other it also implies a sending to the body of, say, the poem: in the canzone through an apostrophe, in this hyperpoem through a link associated to the last line that calls up a figurative design with an emblematic function.
This latter comment suggests the possibility of approaching many of the features of hypertexts by means of some sort of analogue correlation with more traditional texts. But even with regard to some of the most cutting edge cases, implicit connections to pre-hypertextual paradigms may be easily proposed. The mixing of decisions consciously made by the reader and fixed elements coming out of an underlying structure, together with a degree of arbitrariness, cannot but be put on the light of some of the best known avant-garde proposals. For instance the famous instructions by Tristan Tzara for the writing of a dadaist poem: take a newspaper and a pair of scissors, select an article as lengthy as you want the poem to be and snick it off, cut out each word and mix them all up into a bag, then take out the words, one by one, copy them down so that they make up a poem that will be just like you. If not a literal application of the method, it is not difficult to recognize in such proposals the sort of discontent towards a specific textual pattern, entailing quite definite conceptions of the subject, the voice, time and space, that support many of the hypertextual designs. Indeed, Tzara’s proposal has been alleged in different occasions. For instance, in respect to one of the first attempts I know in the Hispanic world to create a so-called ‘poetry generator’ ruled by a computer program. I am referring to Poemas V2. Poesía compuesta por una computadora, by Ángel Carmona, where, as it was acknowledged, the result was rather more conservative than Tzara’s virtual poems.18.
There is something of a sense of triviality involved in many of these textual constructs. The relation and even the dependence with regard to some of the basic trends in modern poetry is apparent. Let us simply quote the diction en bloc that Gadamer pointed out as one of the most evident features of modern poetry (at least of some kind of it): words are detached from their syntactic and logical connections in order to let them develop all their potentiality (to put it another way, to set off their virtual dimension)19. Words appear side by side with other words showing off the absence of the sort of lineal logic we expect in language and so the possibility of constituting a unity of meaning through concrete relations among the words is up to the reader. Quite plainly Tzara’s or Gadamer’s conceptions, as different as they are, make perceptible the close kinship between some important trends of, say, hypertextual rhetoric’s and certain esthetic ideologies coming from the ‘age of printing’. Perhaps we might even speak of subordination of the former to the latter. I also mentioned triviality. Let me try to explain it briefly. While modern poetry has developed its own sense of identity through an increasing consciousness of the strictures and paradoxes of its medium, hypertextual criticism seems to stress just the way in which the new medium has abolished the restrictions of printing. The rhetoric of hypertextuality hastens to show how hypertextuality is capable of materializing and actualizing what was formerly impeded. Clearly enough, hypertexts still have to seek their own constrictions to make them meaningful.
Ironically, it might well be that the main burden of hypertexts and hypertextual criticism was the deep reliance on previous forms of textuality. Actually, the view that hypertexts are just a transitional form is being increasingly accepted. And voices against the static structure of hypertexts are heard with more and more insistence inasmuch as the links, which typically characterize hypertexts, are perceived as the expression of a fixed textual program. It happens as if the rhetoric of hypertextuality, pushed by its peculiar oppositional bias, had gone much further than hypertexts themselves. As long as the screen is used simply as a framework for a fixed text, hypertexts are bound to depend on a printing mentality. And meanwhile other forms emerge that imply mobility and interart: a promising path leading to new territories: hypermedia, performance texts, hologopoems and so on. But again the challenge is to explore the restrictions they impose and not only the possibilities they open up. We just cannot match the art that is to be developed through the new media with the means supposedly provided by these new media. In different ways, art has always struggled with its medium, with the strictures imposed by the medium, and by the same token has made clear its dependence on these strictures. Otherwise, once the moment of wonder had passed by, we would be condemned to triviality. In this sense, the urge to analyze the discourse on hypertextuality is at least as pressing as the need to explore the new medium. In fact, the ideological discourse on hypertextuality is in many ways previous to the development of a hypertextual literature (assuming it had developed at all). And the particular works tend to be accepted as a sort of fulfillment of an expectation that was conceived long ago as a result of the typographic medium. That is to say, the hypertext, as it has been theorized, is part of an agenda that is not electronic but typographic.
1. Ángel Rama: La ciudad letrada. Hanover: Ediciones del Norte, 1982. [back]
2. Walter Mignolo: Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. [back]
3. Donald F. Theall: “Memory, Orality, Literacy, Joyce, and the Imaginary: A Virtual History of Cyberculture". Postmodern Culture, 10/1 (1999). [back]
4. Marie-Laure Ryan: “Cyberspace, Virtuality and the Text". Marie-Laure Ryan, ed.: Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory. Bloomington: Indiana university Press, 1999, 78-107. [back]
5. Comprobar terminología: Iser, p. 42. [back]
6. Jean-Marie Schaeffer: Porquoi la fiction? París: Seuil, 1999. [back]
7. Jay David Bolter: Writing Space: the computer, hypertext, and the history of writing. Hillsdale (New Jersey): Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991, 132. [back]
8. Richard Lanham: “The Electronic Word: Literary Study and the Digital Revolution". New Literary History, 20 (1989), 279. [back]
9. Octavio Paz, (p. 579). [back]
10. Marshall MacLuhan: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT, 1995. [back]
11. José Ángel Valente: Variaciones sobre el pájaro y la red precedido de La piedra y el centro. Barcelona: Tusquets, 1991, 19. [back]
12. Dominique Rabaté: "Énonciation poétique, énonciation lyrique". D. Rabaté, ed.: Figures du sujet lyrique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996, 76. [back]
13. Túa Blesa: Logofagias. Zaragoza: Tropelías, 1999. [back]
14. Marie-Laure Ryan: “Cyberspace, Virtuality and the Text", 11. [back]
15. George P. Landow: Hypertext 2.0. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, 215. [back]
17. Dominique Combe: Poésie et récit, une rhétorique des genres. Paris: José Corti, 1989. [back]
18. Ángel Carmona: Poemas V2. Poesía compuesta por una computadora. Barcelona: Producciones Editoriales, 1976. [back]
19. Hans-Georg Gadamer: Gedicht und Gesprach. Franfurt am Main: Insel, 1990. [back]
© Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza