Class Thread on Digital Incunabula (Week 2, Prompt 1)

Reflecting on his own work as well as that of bpNichols, the poet and archivist Geof Huth calls the kinetic poems made on Apple IIe computers in the 1980’s “digital poetry incunabula.” Incunabulum (or incunabule) is a word drawn from the vocabulary of book history; it refers to a specimen from the infancy of printing (the Latin “incunabula” means “swaddling clothes). This is the period of Gutenberg and his fellow early experimenters with movable type. [If interested, see here for a longer discussion and images:

Based on your reading of not only Huth and bpNichols but also the more recent works on the syllabus (and you might want to take a peek at one or two of the kinetic texts we’ll be discussing next week), what do you think about Huth’s claim? Are there some elements of First Screening and Endemic Battle Collage that seem transitional? Do they anticipate later works? How do you understand the relation(s) between the various works gathered here–all classed by critics as “kinetic” texts?




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  1. I am not sure if I agree with Huth. The limitations of the earlier works are very clear, especially with the level of technology that is now considered commonplace today (gifs and Photoshop, just to name a few) and with the more recent works of kinetic poetry in mind. There are obvious limitations, such as the style of text (it seems limited to one font), the colors/background, audio, and the type of motion/shape—Huth and bpNichol’s works seem to only employ an up-and-down and a side-to-side motion, while more recent works begin to experiment more with undulations, overlapping, and freer motions. I assume that these limitations are because of the technology available, rather than a personal preference. Yet, there are some obvious foundations of Huth and bpNichol’s works that echo that of the more recent works. For example, the repetition of single words or phrases is a common theme throughout all the pieces and seems to be characteristic of kinetic poetry. Further, the later pieces also hold the same ambiguous and abstract meaning, due to the number of words the authors (creators?) use to convey their meaning or the way they move the words across the screen.

    To sum up my thoughts—I agree with Huth if he means that these pieces are transitional because of the technology available to him and bpNichol at the time of their work. Many of the more recent works’ motion seems to be built on the ideas that they created. However, the themes and general characteristics (that I could gather from our readings from this week) seem to be very similar in both the early and later works, so I am not sure if they could be completely classified as transitional.


  2. I think Huth is right to classify these texts as transitional pieces. They are definitely limited by the available technology, as Tory pointed out, but within their context of early personal computing, these are pushing the technology to yield new and intriguing techniques. The very fact that they are transitional means that what follows should look different, look better even. Contemporary computer users can go far beyond those basic techniques because our technology allows it.

    What I think is more intriguing is that these transitional pieces established or at least preceded techniques that would be used not by literarily-interested parties but by fields at the fringe of text. Contemporary typography, rather than contemporary literature, seems to have taken on much of the kinetic or illustrative emphasis from things like Nichol’s “After the Storm” or Weber’s “Strings” (for example, And videogames, rather than poems or novels, seem to draw on visual puns as from most of Nichol or Huth’s pieces (for example, VVVVVV which Bret and Brian could both tell you all about, whose name is itself a visual pun).

    All that to say, Huth is rightfully calling these transitional, but I question whether or not they’re transitional in the field of literature, given that the techniques they experiment with have moved away from the textual content and more towards other design interests in contemporary creative work.

    As far as how they are classed by critics as kinetic texts, it seems the easiest label given that the majority of these poems or texts have motion inherent to them. However, as the reader/viewer/audience, what is more important to me than the motion is the time implied by the motion. We touched on this briefly in our first class, but these texts are not fixed, and because they are not fixed, I as a reader have limits on my reading experience that I would not have when reading printed material. Whether or not those limits are good or conducive to the text’s meaning is uncertain, but I think that those limits–again, limits of time more than of motion–are what set these texts apart from standard poetic texts.


  3. If you consider the capabilities of the Apple Ile computers and how it set specific parameters for what bpNichols and Huth could have created in their earliest works, it is fair to agree with Huth’s assertions that these works of digital poetry are the “infancy of print”. In both [i]First Screening[/i] and [i]Endemic Battle[/i], the kinetic capabilities are limited to deletion and insertion of spaces and characters. These are the very same limitations that the first printing presses had. There is only ever one layer of text. Furthermore, the linear visuals of these early works are reminiscent of printed text in that the symbols are bound by horizontal and vertical axes.

    The infant of digital literature develops with Michel and Vis’ [i]Ah[/i] and onwards as characters are now superimposed, overlapping each other, a feat that was not possible using the technology and methods of bpNichols and Huth. Furthermore, while it was clear how each “frame” was set up in these early works, almost like a blocky flipbook, the rudimentary animation of later works is much smoother (though “frames” can still be seen).

    [i]First Screening[/i] and [i]Endemic Battle[/i] certainly provided the stage for a new artistic medium, however, and as technology developed, the parameters by which digital literature was bound also expanded. The idea of a “kinetic” text was conceptualized and, to a basic degree, implemented by bpNichols and Huth. With each new work, the movement is more and more refined, combining text and traditional artistic aesthetics (such as Mencia’s [i]Birds Singing Other Birds Songs[/i]. Animation is smoother, new interactive features such as play and stop, and even something as simple as color was added onto to the digital literature movement.


  4. I think the early Apple IIe texts are transitional in a way, but mostly in the sense of technological development. This was evidenced within this week’s readings alone. The later texts (I especially think of the Shower Song reading) already show some technological progression into a more sophisticated form of kinetic poetry, building on the simplicity of works like bpNichol’s by adding (as my classmates have mentioned) far more options in terms of speed, movement, sound, and overlap . However, I would perhaps use the term “transitional” with caution, as it could imply inferiority in terms of poetic power. On the contrary, I (and my non-poetically inclined roommate who happened to view bpNichols’ work with me) found the early work very striking despite its simplicity. Perhaps the “transitional” only applies in terms of basic technical capability, and the early Apple IIe texts would be better labeled “foundational”. They seem to establish a way of working with digital text that (as yet) I do not see being greatly strayed away from. Much like codices printed with modern means are rarely major innovations from printed books of the far past, it seems that kinetic poetry has changed little since its earliest forms. It is still an experiment in controlled perception by altering the design of text and its movement, and which direction or how quickly the text moves seems like a small change in the fundamental nature of these poems. This is why they can be classified together as kinetic poems and read in one sitting without feeling like breaking into an altogether new form. I do, however, admit my limited knowledge of digital literature, which, when expanded, may inform me of greater changes in the fundamentals of the form.


  5. I’d be hard-pressed to call these two early works anything other than transitional – of course, this is said with the aid of hindsight and about 35 years of history behind us to give us context. At the time these works were first put out, they could be construed either be the first-fruits of a new age of hybrid poem-programs artistically rooted in the act of execution, or simply as the logical evolution of concrete poetry. The first option seems more enticing to me, as a consumer of poetry who understands its roots in performance and the necessity of delivery from poem to poet, but of course, at the time, the second choice would be more evident. While some poets would leap at the chance to take advantage of a ‘self-delivering poem’ that just needs a RUN command to be delivered without loss of meaning, others would be excused if they simply continued making concrete poems, only with the added texture of moving, wiggly words and re-arranging syllables to complicate things and add layers of meaning.

    Personally, while I’d like to think that the act of ‘running the poem’ played a large part in these works, they do not. They simply kick off a loop or a short run of the poetry, and then require no input. Meanwhile, other works like [i]Agrippa: A Book Of The Dead[/i] are so entrenched in ‘running’ that they only work once and require extreme attention during the run – [i]Agrippa[/i] self-destructed during execution and required decades of work to reconstruct for future viewings. Therefore, since these pieces are not concerned with being a totally new, bleeding-edge genre of poetry, these are the transition between printed-page concrete poems and virtual kinetic poems.


  6. I think that Endemic Battle Collage and First screening are definitely transitional works. I think that is was probably apparent at the time how fast technology was changing and improving so Huth and bpNichol knew that their works would become outdated in a very short amount of time. One could say that they aren’t transitional because at the time the technology they were using was cutting edge but, they seem so experimental in nature it would be highly unlikely to say that Huth and bpNichol thought that their works would be the ultimate peak in technology regarding the genre. As a reader with no prior knowledge of e-literature, to me Endemic Battle Collage and First Screening were incredibly interesting to experience (I want to say read but I feel like these works are something to be experienced rather than just read) and I have never encountered poetry in this way before. I believe the technology in general at the time was in a very transitional state and seems somewhat rudimentary in comparison with modern technology but, the experience of the poetry is something that I think will stay new and exciting for awhile.


  7. The problem with being late to the party is the worry that your peers have already stated the majority of your personal opinions. I have not read their comments out of worry that I might jumble my own train of that, but I hope that my response doesn’t reiterate theirs too much.
    I agree with the critics that categorize these pieces as “kinetic” texts because, regardless of their, somewhat, rudimentary movement across the screen, they do move. Given the technology of their time period, Huth and bpNichol’s both did a fantastic job in an era where text was confined to a paper. They are, as Huth says, “simple kinetizations,” but I agree with the categorization of them as transitional. Not only do they ‘transition’ across the page, but they also open a new era to the possibilities of kinetic text, particularly with the addition of sound, color, and greater fluidity, as evidenced by some of Week 2’s poems.


  8. Making the claim that these early kinetic texts are “transitional” seems a very safe comment, if we are to define it as my peers have. The mere fact that Endemic Battle Collage and First Screening were some of the earlier works on their platform, would suggest that there’d be plenty of room for improvement and growth. But I think for someone to make the claim that their work is transitional, it requires a modicum of intention and foresight. There needs to have been knowledge that these earlier kinetic poems were, for lack of a better metaphor, the caterpillar; technology the cocoon, and what we see today: the butterfly.

    “Do they anticipate later works?” Is the crux of the matter. Surely, they anticipated more work in a similar genre, but did they think that this new type of poetry would transition into the juggernaut it has today? I’m not sure. One of the main purposes of E-lit is that these pieces are meant to be stand alone works. They are only a part of a genre, in-so-far as their originality prompts them to be categorized as such. Keeping that in mind, it is easier for me to see that some of the later works (post 1980 poetry) could’ve come about without being preceded by Endemic Battle Collage and First Screening.


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