Keywords: dynamic poetry—electronic

 

It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I was taught, who defined poetry as ‘the best words in the best order’. [1]  

(The internet, by the way, also gives this credit to Pound, Frost, Pope and Larkin. Great minds get misattributed alike. Why not also give the notion to Sappho, or Emily Dickinson, or Sei Shonagon? Those supreme minimalists, those unsurpassed formalists. Really, someone should fix the internet.)  

Back to Coleridge:  ‘the best words in the best order’. 

Emboldened by this credo, might we pose some questions that prompt us into better poetry and canny analytical reflection about the texts one feels compelled to create? And might these questions mesh together and give shape to a productive creative-practice research project? 

For example:

What if the best word order is not only linear but also spatial (not only 2-D necessarily but also 3-D potentially) and flickering and shifting in a temporal-cinematic pattern of emergence, submergence, impermanence?  

In other words, what say you send your words to a dynamic, animated screen rather than to a passive sheet of paper? 

What might such activated, on-screen word-patterns look like when they work most effectively?

What might it feel like when these active patterns works in the best possible ways?  

What might such patterns mean, aesthetically or sensually as well as semantically, in extension of the meanings that already lurk in the words?

Should we care? Just because we can do it, technically, SHOULD we do it, this on-screen animation of language?  

And, what does the Central Nervous System make of such dynamic patterns of words that are also light-pulses, what does it make of them at both the semantic and the aesthetic levels?

In retrospect I can see that before I started creating the screen-based works, most of these questions were already agitating and activating my writing-for-the-page. For example in my book 26 Views of the Starburst World I tried to understand how consciousness must have coruscated within Lieutenant William Dawes, one of the scientific rationalists who landed in Australia as part of the invading First Fleet in 1788 and who was astonished to find that he began to understand and admire what the Indigenous people tried to show him. They helped him know how the world and all its seeming objects are actually a dynamic, relational system in which things morph as relationships alter; how the world with us in it is ever-shifting, not solid and stable, not simply configurable with nominalist measurements and taxonomies. 

Here’s another example. In many of my poems-for-the-page I find myself compelled to evoke a kind of flickering, pulsing energy that strikes me as the foundation of all experience. Take the poem ‘Redfern Now’: 

The hushed stars shiver with a silver riff that looks like the sound of Soweto township jive.

Prodigious bats depart the trees and smack the air to spook the park.

Fig dung mounds in cushioned moulds. A soft miasma rides the breeze.

An iPad glows where skinny kids have hunched about a shitty bench.

Puffs of mist combine, grow thick, then exceed themselves and head for the road.

I find myself committed to this sense that every aspect of experience—matter as well as moments—is founded on a kind of fluidity, which language needs to evoke. In the Western tradition, this is a radical idea that goes back to the pre-Socratic sages. Thales is the most famous. In many Indigenous traditions, especially in Australia, this idea is more or less a given and it informs how language operates to reflect and shape the world with people in it.

When rendered in texts, this attempt to display an activeness, a restlessness and a kind of designed incompletion in utterances can evoke how the world that the text tries to ghost is more wondrous and has more to it than any human system can encompass. Such evocation operates in the senses as well as in the interpretive cognition of the viewer/reader.

This idea was vividly explained in an ephemeral television interview that I saw more than two decades ago. The filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen were discussing their working methods, with particular reference to their gangster opus Miller’s Crossing. One of the brothers explained their approach to the writing and the performance of dialogue in the film. He told a tale about how, on the set of the great 1930s screwball comedies such as Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, there was a crew-member tasked with making sure the lead actors spoke their sassy repartee at a tempo about 30% faster than standard American speech. Thus the dialogue ran past the audience’s cognition at a rate greater than they could take in. The speech became also a kind of quick jazz. The effect was to convince the audience that these characters were more complex and wondrous than ordinary folk and the world they dramatized outreached common-sense parsing. The audience was given a sense, thereby, that their understanding was incomplete, that there was more to grasp in the aural sparkle of the speech and physical activity of the main characters, who were embodied so blithely by Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. It seemed these people came from a coruscating world, somewhere overflowing with energy, somewhere that outstrips the human system we customarily deploy to know it. It’s a wondrous world therefore, more wondrous even than language! And differently wondrous: you can use language to show that fact!

All through his writing life, Coleridge was galvnised by this vision of a world excessively profuse and wondrous, overly energetic and restless. Consider this passage from his 1803 notebooks:

Thursday Morning, 40 minutes past One o'clock - a perfect calm - now & then a breeze shakes the heads of the two Poplars, [& disturbs] the murmur of the moonlight Greta, then in almost a direct Line from the moon to me is all silver - Motion and Wrinkle & light - & under the arch of the Bridge a wave ever & anon leaps up in Light . . . silver mirror/ gleaming of moonlight Reeds beyond-as the moon sets the water from Silver becomes a rich yellow. - Sadly do I need to have my Imagination enriched with appropriate Images for Shapes-/Read Architecture, & Icthyology-   …  [writing halts like] the necessarily restricted passageway of speech.[2]      

The world is quicker, more wondrous than we can say.

With this notion in mind, prompted by the Coens and Coleridge, I have been making multi-screened video loops of active texts comprised of hundreds of one-breath statements that tail around on themselves endlessly, without settling, offering interpretations to the mind as well as stippling to the senses in such a way that the reader senses that there is more to discern here than can be grasped in one quick observation. (Think of a large grid of LED banner-screens scrolling ‘ticker tape’ messages.) It’s a project called ‘Bluster Town’, dedicated to the city of Sydney, to its weather, its landscapes and waterscapes, its ecosystems, its extraordinary human population. All these things are in constant motion and transmogrification. Here’s a screen grab of my electronic attempts to evoke this quality.

 

Dynamic_Poetry_image.jpg

 

If I could play the animated texts for you, you would see how thousands of utterances are available as the texts loop and find different relationships amongst themselves, even as each single utterance says one precise thing.  Examples?

cascading rockwater

cooling coal engine clucking

eucalypt staining resin oozing

glare shudder

indulging then craving then

kerfuffle junction

hubbub kneedeep

muttering thunder

rain spatter wattle dust

sparkle yen bubbling

warning bells lullaby tinkling

There are hundreds of these utterances, circulating on an electronic checkerboard grid. As each word-string repeats itself endlessly within its own ‘tile’ on the checkerboard, the reader might commence interpreting the utterance at any word. For example, commence ‘warning bells lullaby tinkling’ at ‘bells’ so that read ‘bells lullaby tinkling warning’; the meanings can shift accordingly. Additionally, the reader can scan across to other word-strings that are circulating on the other tiles, thereby threading together a batch of unpredictable sense running across the full screen. Furthermore, the reader will sense that the whole system (somewhat in the manner of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn hurtling through their dialogue) offers a plethora of possibilities that extend far past the reader’s ability to comprehend the entirety.

I borrow this idea from my amateur studies in Zen design. One of the best summations comes from the architectural historian Norman Carver when he explains firstly that in Zen architecture, load-bearing elements often establish a ‘heavy structural beat’ which is counterpointed delicately by textures, surfaces and apertures which infuse the scene with a ‘rhythmic complexity’ that relieves or interweaves with the beat[3] and secondly that ‘all relationships [amongst the design elements] are abbreviated and subtle, encouraging the exercise of the imagination in grasping the whole.’[4] Carver thus explains the allure of the stippling activeness that paradoxically jitters out from seemingly serene zen environments. In a complementary manner, Thomas Hoover explains it thus: ‘Perhaps the most noticeable principle of zen art is its asymmetry... nothing ever seems to be centered.’[5]  In the mind of the observer, this asymmetry gets counter-balanced by an imagined in-fill of qualities, such that imagination actively brings some redress to the imbalance. The main affect of all this is an endlessness that appears to be built into the design.

It’s the same with the dynamic poetry that I’m designing nowadays. How to use animated texts that are also just pulses of light? How to use them so that the reader/viewer senses that all relationships are abbreviated and subtle, so that the reader feels encouraged to exercise the imagination in grasping the whole? Or as Donald Keene once boldly proposed, the entire project (of Zen in his case, of dynamic-text poetry in mine) could be organised by these four pre-requisites:

Suggestion

Irregularity

Simplicity

Perishability.  [6]

 

 

[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol. 1, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1835, p.76.

[2] Quoted in  Patricia S. Yaeger,  “Coleridge, Derrida, and the Anguish of Writing” in SubStance, Vol. 12, No. 2, Issue 39 (1983), p 91.

[3]  Norman F Carver, Form and Space of Japanese Architecture, Tokyo: Shokokusha, 1965,  p.65 

[4]  Carver, p. 156.

[5]  Thomas Hoover, Zen Culture, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 9.

[6]  Donald Keene, 'Japanese Aesthetics' in  Nancy G Hume (ed) Japanese Aesthetics and Culture, Albany NY:  SUNY Press, 1995, p. 29.