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Reflections on Cyberpoetry
Brian Kim Stefans

From OL3: open letter on lines online (2000)

The greatest cyberpoem would be an online application that provided you with a an interesting text and a robust interface with which to manipulate it. In other words, a word-processor.
-- Roger Pellett

Cyberpoetry must be interesting, or it will not be at all.
-- Ann Tan

i hates cyberpoetry
and i can’t hates no more
-- A poet

There is no God, and Mary is his mother.
-- George Santayana


A big fish, renowned in his small pond for the accuracy of his stop-press information of literature, complains to me of a growing pococurantism. "Since the Language Poets came in, I can read nothing else. I have finished Hejinian, and I do not know what to do." I suggested that the great Russian was an admirer of Pushkin, and that he also might find that author readable. "But Pushkin is a romantic; Hejinian is indeterminate." I reflected on the aphorisms of My Life, but forbore to press the point, and I proposed It Is Never Too Late to Mend. "But one cannot read the Europeans at all!" While I was extracting the virtues of the proposition that Pushkin was not European, while McCaffery is nearly a French post-structuralist, he added that he could no longer read any verse but cyberpoetry.

It is assumed that cyberpoetry exists, though whether as a subset of poetry or the larger sphere in which literature exists, we are not sure.

It is assumed that cyberpoetry is nearly a school; that it almost consists of certain theories; that its group or meta-groups of groups or groups of meta-grouped groups of meta-practitioners will either revolutionize or demoralize or democratize poetry if their attack upon the book meets with any success, even a smidgen. It is assumed that cyberpoetry is created by people with hands, feet, and incomes, hence our paranoia.

Cyberpoetry does not exist, and it is time that this preposterous fiction followed the trace, the spectacle, the rhizome, the libidinal economy, the paradigm, the sememe, phoneme, grapheme, little Miss Prision and the eighty-thousand North American progressive dadaists into oblivion. Why not?

When a theory of art passes, it is usually found that a groat’s worth of art has been bought with a million of advertisement. The theory which sold the wares may be quite false, or it may be confused and incapable of elucidation, or it may never have existed. A mythical revolution will have taken place and produced a few works of art which perhaps would be even better if still less of the revolutionary theories clung to them. That seems to be what they’re saying. In modern society such revolutions seemed almost inevitable; in postmodern society, evitable. An artist happens upon a method, perhaps quite unreflectingly, discovers a technology, perhaps a new way of programming "Lunar Lander," perhaps a new color, which is new in the sense that it is essentially different from that of the second-rate and third-world and talented-tenth people about her, and different in everything but essentials from that of any of her great predecessors. The novelty meets with praise; praise provokes attack; and attack demands a theory. In an ideal state of society one might imagine the good New growing naturally out of the good old New, without the need for polemic and theory; this would be a society with a living tradition. In a sluggish society, as actual societies are, superstition and acts of fructifying bondage are ever lapsing into tradition, and the violent stimulus of reality is required. This is bad for the artist and her school, who may become circumscribed by their reality and narrowed by their refusal to be polemic; but the artist can always console herself for her errors in her old age by considering that if she had not refused to fight she would eventually have been viewed as accomplished.

Cyberpoetry has not been attacked. It has never been very real, and never enough unreal. Nothing has been accomplished, though variations against the normative patterns have been made, perhaps with too small a price. Cyberpoetry, as it is, will produce no martyrs, only house guests.

Cyberpoetry has not even the excuse of a polemic; it is not a battle-cry of freedom, because art is already too free.

And as the so-called cyberpoetry which is good is anything but "cyber", it can better be defended under some other label, like art.

Particular types of cyberpoetry may be supported on the choice of content, or on the method of handling the content. I am not aware that many creators of cyberpoetry have introduced such innovations, and that the lack of novelty of their choice and manipulation of material is confused – if not in their own minds, in the minds of many of their readers – with the novelty of the form. I am here concerned with interactivity, which is a theory about the use of material. I am also concerned with the theory of the verse-form in which interactivity is cast. If cyberpoetry is a genuine verse-form it will have several singular positive definitions. I can define it only in negatives: (1) the lack of limitation to black and white words on a page, (2) the lack of the possibility for mechanical reproduction (there being no original), (3) the lack of closure and the lack of the lack of choice.

The first half of the third of these qualities is easily disposed of. Every line possesses its own closure, and if it doesn’t you need new batteries. Even the rings of a split cabbage ends somewhere, as Bob Cobbing will remind you. It may be unfortunate that all lines end, that they each suggest a version of closure, that they claim the promises of final interpretability even if not of an essential design, but that’s the sore fact.

In the popular websites, whose verse columns are never given over to cyberpoetry, the lines of cyberpoetry are usually explicable in terms of closure. But as there are two lines for every line of cyberpoetry – the line on the screen and the line in the source – not all lines of cyberpoetry can provide the effect of its promise, or premise, should its on-line double fail to live up. That is, the lines on the screen only complete the promise/premise of the lines behind the screen, whether as sum or an exponentially unfolding, flooding system of ingresses, and if the lines behind the screen do not hold this promise (premise), then nothing, finally, can be provided.

A line of javascript scans.

To the extent that it scans, it is cyberpoetry.

But it cannot be scanned if the product on the screen does not, in enactment, propose a non-mechanical exchange. If the screen proposes a mechanical exchange, a normative interaction, then it is merely commerce (pious). This seems obvious.

Any line can be divided into feet, accents and variables. The simpler metres are a repetition of one combination, perhaps a long and a short, or a short and a long syllable, five times repeated, with the variables also repeated or changing value. There is, however, no reason why, within the single line, there should be any repetition; why there should not be lines (as there are) divisible only into feet of different types. And there is no reason why a line behind the screen merely repeat what it offers as its representative on the screen, and vice versa. Does a random number generator need only create the effect of randomness? How can the grammatical exercise of scansion make a line of this sort more or less intelligible? Only by isolating elements which occur in other lines, or isolating events that occur on other pages, and the sole purpose of doing this is the production of a similar effect elsewhere. But repetition of effect is a question of pattern; cyberpoetry, having no pattern against which to place itself, appears "free," but is often merely unintelligible, which we think is good, but it’s bad.

Scansion tells us very little, in fact.

It is probable that there is not much to be gained by a deconstructed system of prosody, but the erudite complexities of Godardian theatre. With Godard, once the trick is perceived and the scholarship appreciated, the effect is still not diminished. When the unexpectedness, due to the unfamiliarity of French attitudes to American ears (mores) wears off and is understood, one ceases to look for what one does not find in Godard, the shock of recognition when two provisionally isolated spheres of intellectual and/or aesthetic experience are juxtaposed and collapse into one another, as in redolent bolus of synaesthesis. To look for anything in Godard is not to find it; find the music in Godard, and you will find merely pointers. Find the images: scans; find the actors: holograms. Godard never mastered his technique, which is a great deal, but he did master it to the extent of being able to take liberties with it. With every film, he discarded with his technique to the level of completely replacing its inherent promises with a whole new set of promises, which is everything for cyberpoetry. If anything promising for English poetry is hidden in the theatres of Godard, it probably lies far beyond the point to which Reiner Strasser, Darren Wershler-Henry, or I (in "The Naif and the Bluebells"), have developed them.

The most uninteresting cyberpoetry which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like the animated gif, and never withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to an animated gif. It is this contrast between fixity and flux in the pure fixity of the animated gif, this evasion of monotony in the form pseudo-randomness, which is the very death of cyberpoetry. To the extent an animated gif aspires to film and succeeds, it is art; to the extent that it aspires to programming, it is nothing. The most interesting cyberpoetry which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple method, like the hyperlink, and always withdrawing from it, or taking no method at all, and constantly approximating to the hyperlink. It is this contrast between artifice and function, this evasion of monotony in the form of false promises, this announcement of the lyrical body which, upon scrutiny, is a savoir faire and a nonce – the last retreat against socialization being the pragmatic dissimulation of presence – which is the very life of cyberpoetry. To the extent that the hyperlink aspires to programming, it is cyber; to the extent that it revisits the provinces of literature, blah.

I have in mind two passages of contemporary verse which would not be called cyberpoetry. Both of them I quote because of their beauty:

now see i

This is a complete poem. It is not flashing or green. There is no image of a tulip bursting from its line, though we notice the i morphs into a u before our very eyes. The other is part of a much longer poem:


ah, gone

a broken bundle of miroirs

It is obvious that the charm of these lines is in their not being hyperlinks. These poems would be grounded as a suppurating calf were they to have been hyperlinked; they are not, so we agree that we want to know more about them.

The verse of William Carlos Williams, who was in some ways a more cunning technician than Bernstein, one finds the same constant irregularity of promise. Williams is much freer than Bernstein, and that his fault is or is not negligence is evidenced by the fact that it is often at moments of the highest intensity that his verse acquires this easy and predictable exchange of gifts between reader and poem. That there is also often in moments of high intensity plain empty-handedness, the suburban panaceas which are, upon scrutiny, snake-oils, I do not deny, but the irregularity of his poverty can be at once detected from the irregularity of deliberation. That the meanings of Williams poems are often discovered long after the gifts have been exchanged attests to his open-ended and distorting relationship to ideology, which is what cyberpoetry, shadowy bedfellow to a world of constant, confident exchange and virtual, variable exchange value, is best positioned to explore.



like a spent


for a


and instantly

go out

These are not lines of carelessness. The regularity is further enhanced by the use of short lines and the breaking up of lines in a monologue, which fails to alter the quantities. And there are many such lines in poetry of this time which are spoilt by regular accentuation.

I loved

this woman

in spite of my heart.

I would

have these


from up in his grave.

Whether the spirit of

greatness or of woman.

The general charge of decadence should be preferred. After all, Williams didn’t write these lines (however much he designed the interface).

Zukofsky and Stein, who I think will be conceded to have touched nearly the bottom of the decline of representation, are much more regular than Williams or Pound. Stein will polish off a fair five-hundred pages even at the cost of amputating a preposition from its substantive, and in Stanzas in Meditation she has a final ‘of’ in two hundred twelve lines out of five hundred thirty-seven together. We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple promise should not lurk behind the arras of the most "cyber" verse unless it advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse, but also advance as we menacingly doze, and menacingly rouse as we meaningfully advance, not to mention seductively expose as we reductively arouse, and arouse our poses as we denounce our clouds. The meaning, after all, is the menace.

The meaning/menace of freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of the meaning of an artificial limitation, which is a menace. The meaning becomes mindness and the menace meanness, hence the meaning/ menace and the mindness/meanness interact in a chiasmus of semi-confidential, mutually contaminating exchange while dissimulating a public respectability, so that they can be, beyond system, yet responsible. The mining of this meaning is the method of its reading. We may therefore formulate as follows: poetry is "cyber," and cyberpoetry is interesting, to the degree that it deconstructs Freudian exactitude while reconstructing or -programming the forum of Christian confession that Foucault believed the basis of Freudian psychoanalysis, whether as a field of revelation or revulsion, pretense to authority or phalanx against insecurity, or something else entirely. The map of this business is madness; when it is a business, it is bureaucracy (pious).

Not to have perceived the simple truth that some artificial conflation is necessary except in moments of the first intensity is, I believe, a capital error of even so distinguished a talent as that work of Mr. Ronald Silliman. The Alphabet is not all material of the first intensity, but neither is the alphabet. It is sometimes reflective, sometimes immediate, sometimes somnolent, sometimes ideological; its author is sometimes a moralist, sometimes a collector, sometimes a writer. Sometimes he tells you the truth, sometimes not, and yet this system of promises can be predictable so as to mask that this evasion of easy reciprocity is the content ("moosage", as one M. Shaneen has put it) itself. When The Alphabet is not of the first intensity, it is nearly ambient, pulling up a mental chair and lighting a mental stogie in greeting. The new sentence is so near to the material of grab that one wonders why he should have used a different form, except that so many nth-generation New York school poets were grabbing all around him; and so the furniture of the sentence seemed more interesting than the junk-heap of grab. But grab is, on the whole, more intense than the sentence; it is keen, direct, unsparing, libidinous. Its material is non-poetic, not in the sense that it would have been better done in a paragraph, but in the sense of exploding a simple and rigid verse- or paragraph-form, and this grab does, wittingly or not. Mr. Silliman requires a more rigid paragraph-form than the two contemporary poets quoted above, but only to create the internal combustion to implode his sentences, and explode the paragraph. His epitaphs suffer from it; their promises are too quickly fulfilled; the polyhedrons of their rhetorical rooms (runes) eventually become squares (clean rooms). Grab, denying the possibility of the paragraph, can also lack this combustion, as its grab becomes throw, which is why the sentence, after all, is appealing. You can learn to build bombs on the internet. Bombs are not constructed paratactically, though constructed of sentences. There is no escape from the promise of the sentence; there is only mastery of the evasion of fulfilling and denying their promises. To the extent that he perverts this series of exchanges, torques or erases the space between each succeeding sentence (the modes of interface in the throes of their abysses), Silliman is a cyberpoet. Even so distinguished a writer as Mr. Jeff Derksen has suggested this, in his theoretical prose on the "rearticulatory." And yet, The Alphabet, published on the internet, would not be a cyberpoem, as the lines of its face/facts match too easily the lines of its source (Soares).

Mauberley is a cyber-poem; most of The Cantos, not.

But while there obviously is no escape from some element of mechanical reciprocity, the cyberpoets are by no means the first out of the cave.

The bo(u)g

hs of the t


Are tmisted By many bamtings;

7’ misted are er

The small

leafed boughs.

in/ the shadom

not/ the shadom

of the masthead

When, the, mhite, damn, first

Through, the, rough, fir, planks

Of, my, hut, by, the, chestnuts,

Up, at, the, valley-head,

Came, breaking, Goddess,

I, sprang, up, I, threw, round, me

My, dappled, famn-skin...

Except for the more human touch and better scanning in the second of these extracts, a hasty observer would hardly realize that the first is not by a contemporary Language poet, and the second not by Jose Garcia Villa. Both of these poems – medallions gleaming in the tmists of cybernesis – evade easy reciprocity, or the too-cultured exchange of gifts.

I do not minimize the services of cyberpoets in exploiting the possibilities of verse on a computer screen. They prove the strength of a working outside of a Movement, the utility of a not having a Theory. What neither McCaffery nor nichol could do alone but could do together is being done alone in our time.

"Spoken Word" is the only accepted pageless verse in English – the inevitable identity-shaping and -torquing, often improvised, performance. Cyberpoetry, not able to improvise but able to GENERATE NEW CONCRETE EXPERIENCES AND IDENTITIES WITH EACH PAGE VIEW (or so it got phrased by one M. Kirschenbaum), is an alternative. The English eye is (or was) more sensitive to the visual appearance of verse and less dependent upon the recurrence of identical sounds in the past century than in any other. There is no campaign against the page; indeed, it is the metaphor/metaphysics, the muses and minuses, of the page that distinguishes cyberpoetry from cyberart. To the degree that cyberpoetry confronts the social economies of the page over its equally natural confrontation with the economies of the canvas, the museum, the government sanctioned "happening," and the physis of sound, it stands in contrast to cyberart. It bears the burden of the pauper’s art, the poem. But it is possible that excessive devotion to the page and its parasitic relationship to the voice, on the one hand, and "language" as Saussure understood it and as Derrida sort of argued against (preferring "writing"), on the other, has thickened the modern nose, ear and throat, such that poets are not able to consider the variety of interactions, the possible futures, the rhetorical feints, of the page with any degree of excitement, whether splenetic, splendid or specific (candid). The page has become complicated; the computer screen is refreshingly simple. Hence much cyberpoetry, like much rock and roll and neo-Lettrism, is puerile, or more justly, juvenile, against which we don’t argue so much as regret at times. The rejection of the page is not a leap at facility, though the leap-in-itself creates much needed pleasure, and is the primary activity of cyberpoets today. On the contrary, it imposes a much severer strain upon the language, since it is taking the projective and the performative at its word, while fishing lustily for the integrity of the lyrical corpus (tensegrity). No hyperlink is free for the man who wants to do a good job.

<A HREF = "http://www.disney.com">Walt Disney</A>

This appears on the page as the following:

Walt Disney

The more interesting hyperlink would, then, be:

<A HREF = "http://www.idontparticularlycare.com">Walt Disney</A>

which would appear on the page as the following:

Walt Disney

The 700 variations of lying that humans have cultivated since the beginning of humankind (or at least since Sulfur), should be utilized in the creation of hyperlinks. They should never be true, but never false in uninteresting ways. The difference in the time between the promise and the gift should be as rich and natural an experience as Bourdieu’s understanding of the giving of the gift and time expended until its reciprocity as part-and-parcel of the cultural substance and psychological pleasure of the exchange among the Kabyle. That is, hyperlinks are not eternal and mechanical, the province of clock-jocks; they involve the timing of the comic and the self-interested generosity of the lover. Deception is integral. Deception is a folk art. When the comforting echo of a true hyperlink is removed, success or failure in the choice of words, in the sentence structure, in the order of image-and-text syntax, is at once more apparent. Trust removed, the poet is at once held up to the standards of politics and community, which are not interchangeable but compose the habitus, along with luck. Rhyme removed, much ethereal music leaps up from the word; music removed, much ethereal visual stimulation; visual stimulation removed, much ethereal trust, which has hitherto chirped unnoticed in the much-vaunted perspectivalism of the dim lands of peace.

Any emotion forbidden, many Shagpats were unwigged.

And this liberation from emotion (truth) might be as well a liberation of truth (emotion). Freed from its exacting task of supporting lame verse, it could be applied with greater effect where it is most needed. There are often pages in a cyberpoem where truth is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood. Fact is usually put in the place of truth, with the assumption that so much on the internet is true because it is filled with facts, hence more radically "cyber," as these facts cannot be avoided without the charge that the poem is being deceptive, which would, of course, be true. That the Turing-test and Duchamp’s bachelor-machine both provide opposing but complementary models of this mechanism of truth, which is really false, is obvious, but we’ve clarified this issue already; the charge of decadence is preferred. Mixing twelve languages in the same poem and putting them on a computer screen does not make the cyberpoem anymore true than if it were all derived from the homepage of the Yahoo! tennis page, which is often late. Closed verse and the often complex nature of its variable rhetorics, its competing truths and falsities, often within the same poem, will certainly not lose its place, and the cyberpoets don’t wish it to (unless it’s lame). We only need the coming of a Satirist – no one of genius is rarer – to prove that the cyberpoem can have much the same edge that Dryden and Pope laid down.

As for the sestina I am not so sure.

But the hypostatization of the interest in intricate formal patterns by the author of The Last Avant-Garde has nothing to do with the advent of cyberpoetry – indeed, those most fascinated with the sestina may be those most enamored of generative possibilities in cyberpoetry, even in the idea of a generative poetry based on the methods of generative, programmed music that is created differently and anew according to coded patterns and sound files with each listening. Mr. Brian Eno, whose interest the canon and the "ambient" is well-known, has written often about this, though we regret the failure thus far of realizing these methods online. We are hesitant to suggest such a project worth exploring in poetry, as one cannot read as one finishes the laundry. This decay in the writing of sestinas had set in long before laundry; cyberpoetry may, if anything, reverse it. The decay of cyberpoetry, result of the fetishism of the hyperlink and the animated gif, has already set in, which is its only hope. The sestina may reverse that.

Only in a closely-knit and homogeneous society, where many men are at work on the same problems, such a society as those which produced the Greek chorus, the Elizabethan lyric, and the Troubadour canzone, will the development of such forms as the sestina and the sonnet ever be carried to perfection. Only in a loosely-knit and heterogeneous society, where many women and men and progressives and conservatives and dullards and geniuses and road scholars and math über-geeks are at work on the same problem – why we very often don’t particularly like each other – such a society that produced "Personism," the Toronto Research Group, The Making of Americans, No. 111 2.7:93-10:20:96, "Dream Haiti," the epics "Jenny" and Debbie, Miles Champion and Jennifer Moxley, will the development of forms avoid the ossifying ritardandos of perfection. Much pleasure is derived from not understanding each other, much serious social revenue from reflecting on these losses, and cyberpoetry is best positioned to explore this.

And as for vers libre, we conclude that it is not defined by absence of pattern or absence of rhyme, for other verse is without these; that it is not defined by non-existence of metre, since even the most verse can be scanned; and we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos. Not understanding this sentence, or never understanding it as Eliot understood it, or not knowing that Eliot wrote it and not caring a whit — both its provisional meanings and its non-enduring emotions caught in a seductive, obscene (off-stage) embrace — is one of the many pleasures that cyberpoetry can provide.

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