Digital Poetry

Digital Poetry - sometimes called e-poetry, electronic poetry or cyber poetry - is a relatively new area of literature, much of it written since the 1990s. Its boundaries are far from sharp, partly because it remains an emergent form, but also because it overlaps with, or shades into, many other forms of literature and art—for example hypertext fiction, time-based art, installation art, net art, performance poetry and sound poetry—as well as genres not necessarily considered art such as virtual reality, computer games, and MUDs. Within the field of digital process, there can be debate about what we choose to term ‘electronic literature’; and then within the field of electronic literature, there are further questions about what we choose to term ‘poetry’ and what ‘digital poetry’ is. Some might doubt the appropriateness of the term ‘poetry’ in this context but the case for this term rests in part on continuities with earlier forms.

The influence of concrete poetry and visual poetry is very apparent in well-known works of digital poetry such as Brian Kim Stefans’ The Dream Life of Letters' or Jim Andrews’ 'Nio', for instance. Other works, such as John Cayley’s 'overboard' or 'The Set of U', by Philippe Bootz and Marcel Frémiot, include textual elements which are recognizable poetic, though embedded in dynamic, image-rich and acoustic digital environments. Perhaps the only point of general agreement is that digital poetry is not text poetry simply distributed on the web or put into electronic form: it uses the properties of the digital medium in a meaningfully distinct manner. Norbert Bachleitner offers a somewhat spare definition of digital poetry, as ‘innovative works with specific qualities that cannot be displayed on paper’ (303); a better basic definition might be a literary work which depends integrally for its form on the operation of digital processes on an electronic device, and which has poetic qualities of semantic richness and meaningful form.

‘The Dream Life of Letters’ (2000) by Brian Kim Stefans

As signaled by Bachleitner’s use of the problematic term ‘innovative’, a major debate in the criticism and reception of digital poetry revolves around the question of its ‘newness’, and in particular whether it requires entirely new critical terminology. Katherine Hayles, the most prominent scholar of electronic literature, strongly argues for its radical difference, arguing that ‘electronic literature operate[s] in fundamentally different ways than print and require[s] new critical frameworks to assess its reading and writing practices’ (2002 37). Others, such as Glazier, put more stress on digital poetry as being an extension of 20th-century innovative text poetic traditions. There are risks in either approach, as identified by Espen Aarseth: on the one hand, the risk of applying literary critical / theoretical concepts unreflectively, so that they become ‘unfocused metaphors’; on the other hand the risk of ‘technological determinism’ (14), assuming that the material technology involved in digital poetry determines its attributes and makes it radically new.
Much digital poetry is freely available on line: a key resource is the online Electronic Literature Collection.

Further Reading

Espen J Aarseth. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Norbert Bachleitner, ‘The Virtual Muse: Forms and Theory of Digital Poetry, in Theory into Poetry: New Approaches to the Lyric, ed. Eva Müller-Zettelmann and Margarete Rubik. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2005: 303-344.

Loss Pequeño Glazier. Digital Poetics: the Making of E-Poetries. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2001.

N. Katherine Hayles. Writing Machines.  Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2002.

N. Katherine Hayles. Electronic Literature. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.