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An Introduction to Hyperpoetry
by Edward Picot

    Edward Picot creates and  publishes hyperliterature and criticism on the World Wide Web. In 1997 the Liverpool University Press published "Outcasts from Eden", a book of literary criticism about landscape poetry and the environmental crisis.

    His most recently-completed full-scale project is a new media adaptation of Wallace Stevens' famous poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

    My most recent hyperpoem is something called "blowglow", although the only purpose of this title is to help me find the file on my computer. I probably won't use it when I publish the piece. At first sight the poem consists of nothing more than an empty black square, 200 pixels each way: but when you point to it with your mouse, the word "BLOW" appears, first in cherry red, then brightening to yellow, accompanied by the sound of someone blowing. After a couple of seconds the word fades out again. Point to the square a second time, and the word "GLOW" appears, brightening and fading in the same way. Point a third time, and you're back to "BLOW". Hopefully this will remind people of the way in which a seemingly-dead fire brightens into life if you blow on it, or if the wind stirs it.


    by Edward Picot)
    This is a very simple piece by comparison with a lot of other hyperpoetry, but now that I come to think about it, it probably still involves quite a lot of techniques which would bamboozle someone who didn't know anything about computers. It was made using a piece of software called Flash, but I recorded the sound using another piece of software called Goldwave. Once it was recorded, I had to import the audio file into Flash, create the animation with the words glowing into life and fading out again, and rig up this animation so that it only ran if someone's mouse was pointing at the black square.

    On the other hand you can achieve a similar effect much more simply, using nothing but HTML. For those who really don't know much about computers, HTML is Hyper Text Markup Language, the markup with which web pages are created. At its simplest it consists of a number of tags which tell your computer how to display the text on a web page. For example, if I wrote "Hallo!" in a web page and marked it up like this - "<h1>Hallo!</h1>" - your computer, when it opened the page, would display "Hallo!" in big black letters, because <h1></h1> is the markup for a big black heading. If I wrote "<h2>Hallo!</h2>" the heading would be a bit smaller, "<h3>Hallo!</h3>" would be a bit smaller still, and "<p>Hallo!</p>" would be an ordinary paragraph.

    You can learn the basics of HTML in an afternoon, and you can pick up some neat tricks pretty quickly too. One of these is how to make words to change colour when the mouse is pointed at them. And whereas in traditional printing the background colour on which text is shown is almost always white - the colour of ordinary paper - and it gets very expensive if you want anything else, in HTML you can have any background colour you like, and it doesn't cost anything. You can have the text any colour you like too. What this means is that if you set your background colour to black, and set your text to black as well, then your text will be invisible; but if you set your text to turn from black to red when someone's mouse points to it, it will suddenly become visible, as if by magic, when your reader or viewer points to the right place.

    There's no point in pretending that this kind of visual poetry is going to be for you if you're averse to computers. If you almost never use the Internet, you're still doing most of your correspondence in the form of handwritten letters and you'd rather type out your poems on a manual typewriter than a PC, then hyperpoetry is unlikely to be your bag. On the other hand, you certainly don't have to be a computer programmer to produce interesting work. There is an artist called Chris Ashley who produces geometric abstract pictures using nothing but HTML (, and a poet called David Daniels who produces concrete poetry using Microsoft Word ( My own experience, not only with hyperpoetry but with computer technology in general, is that there's no point trying to learn everything before you start: you learn enough to get going - in my case it was how to create a web page - and then start to experiment. You'll soon find that you pick up a surprising amount of new skills, bits of software and bits of hardware bit-by-bit as you go along.

    Hyperpoetry - which is otherwise known as digital poetry or cyberpoetry - can be deterring to your readers if you overdo the technology, so that they're not sure what to click or where to point or how to navigate their way through a piece; or it can be distracting and annoying if you use technology inappropriately, so that it interferes with the meaning of your writing rather than augmenting it; but if you use it in the right way, it can create a very exciting and involving experience. And the fact is that we're likely to see more and more of this kind of writing from now on, because more and more new writing is now being published on the Web rather than on paper, and it's being created using software (such as Microsoft Word) which allows you to do all sorts of interesting new things, like adding images or sounds to your page. Under these circumstances people are bound to experiment, and the experiments are bound to affect the development of our literature in the course of the next few decades.

    To a large extent the kind of hyperpoetry I have been describing is really nothing new. Concrete poetry - otherwise known as "pattern poetry" or "shape poetry" - that is to say, poetry in which the typographical arrangement of the words conveys an important part of the poem's meaning - has been around for a long time: George Herbert's poem "Easter-Wings", in which the words are arranged into wing-shapes, is one example; another is the Mouse's tale from Lewis Carroll's Alice through the Looking-Glass, which is arranged into the shape of a mouse's tail. Hyperpoetry incorporates new elements which are unavailable in print - sound, interactivity and moving text, for example - but nevertheless it is heavily influenced by the concrete poetry tradition.

    Also, I wouldn't want to claim that hyperpoetry is any better than traditional poetry, and I certainly don't believe that it's going to take traditional poetry's place, any more than films have taken the place of books or electric guitars have taken the place of violins. New forms of technology may make new forms of artistic expression possible, but by and large they don't render the older forms obsolete.

    As I said before, the reason why hyperpoetry seems likely to become increasingly popular in the next few years is because so many poets are now creating their poetry on computers rather than on paper, and publishing them on the Web rather than in books. Their medium now is often the computer screen rather than the printed page, and they are beginning to explore the possibilities which are inherent in this new medium. But there's another aspect of hyperpoetry which is worth mentioning. Because it can't be reproduced in print form, it is usually published on the Web: and although there are various online magazines (or e-zines) which carry this kind of work, and various other places (such as exhibitions) in which it can be shown, the norm is for it to be self-published by its authors: which means is that if you write hyperpoetry, or any other form of hyperliterature, then the most natural way of publishing it is to set up your own website and put it online yourself.

    Self-publication has been a part of the poetry scene for a long time, and it has certainly played an important role in amateur poetry since the arrival of plain-paper photocopiers in our places of work during the 1970s. Nevertheless, access to large audiences has remained in the hands of the commercial publishing companies, because they can afford to print and distribute books of poetry nationally or even internationally, whereas self-publishers cannot. But the Web represents a new and virtually free method, not only of publication but of distribution and self-publicity. If you publish on the Web, and post notices about your work on-line in forums and noticeboards - I now work from a list of about forty - you can build up a sizeable audience without ever having to go through the traditional submissions procedure. My website now gets 10,000 - 12,000 visits per month. This is a tiny number compared to an organisation like Amazon, and it certainly doesn't mean that I'm making lots of money, but it's very satisfying to know that there are people out there, from all over the world, who are taking an interest in what I do.

    Doesn't this mean that anyone can self-publish on the Web, whether their work is any good or not? Well, yes, it does: but I think it's very difficult for people whose work really doesn't have any merit to build up any kind of an audience for it; and I also don't believe that the commercial publishing system has proved itself to be a very good mechanism for sorting the wheat from the chaff, in terms of writing quality. The old myth that if you're any good you'll find a publisher sooner or later is precisely that - a myth. On the contrary, as time goes by the publishing industry seems to be more and more averse to unknown writers and more and more enthralled by celebrity, which means in effect that you can get anything printed once you've been on the telly, but it's always going to be an uphill struggle otherwise.

    The publishing industry - and, as a result, our literary culture - has become increasingly commercialised since the second world war; but all that is changing now, thanks to the Web. The digital environment has its bad points as well as its good, but it does have the potential to put literature back where it belongs, in the hands of writers and their readers. From the cultural point of view, I think we're living in very exciting times.


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