Fragment from:

Norbert Bachleitner. “The Virtual Muse. Forms and Theory of Digital Poetry”, in: Eva Muller-Zettelmann and Margarete Rubik (Editors). Theory into Poetry: New Approaches to the Lyric (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), pp. 308-310.

Eduardo Kac’s digital poem “Secret”, featuring three-dimensional word-objects moving in space, unites elements of Visual and Kinetic poetry.  But computer programming allows unlimited variety of motions.   DHTML ( = Dynamic HTML) or Java script turn documents into programs and make the words on the screen become ‘alive’.  “DHTML allows writers to make documents in which words hang around together and interact with each other and the reader and possibility with other documents and readers on the Web”  (Andrews,  Infoanimism).  There are already more or less easy to handle tools available which allow the creation of dynamic and interactive texts.  The dynamic functions provided by such programs include:  cruise, explode, move to mouse, snakelike, wave, rain, scroll, throb, fade, swarm, drift, erosion, transparent, lexical (which means automatic glyph replacements), cryptographic (i. e. random replacement of glyphs), and synonym shift.  Many of these features may be programmed so as to be activated by the user’s mouse movements (cf. Lewis and Weyers, Active Text). Like hypertexts kinetic poems are often designed to allow interactivity, even if it is only a mouse click that makes the text move or change its shape.

Analogous to Visual poetry the words in a kinetic or animated poem must be decoded both as signifier and visual element.  The text movements provide additional meaning for a poem.  In most cases the movement reinforces or ‘performs’ the meaning of a word or a phrase but it may also fulfil a rather ornamental function.  Generally speaking, physical mobility of the text stresses the fluidity and instability of meaning.

A variant of Visual poetry is Holopoetry.  Originally not a computer-based form, Holopoetry is now created with the help of a computer but stored on film and shown in exhibitions or performances.8   The idea of holopoems was first expressed by François Le Lionnais in 1971 in the collection La littérature potentielle but the idea has been realized almost exclusively by Eduardo Kac who since the beginning of the 1980s is devoted to creations in this field.   Holopoems are virtual word objects or images in a three-dimensional space made of diffracted light.  A kind of animation, for example a typographic metamorphosis, takes place when the viewer moves in front of or around the object because the relative position to the object changes the diffraction of light which determines what the viewer perceives.  The words disappear, reapper, change their shape, colour of transparency, blend into other words or abstract shapes.  The objects may even merge two words or shapes, an  effect that results from binocular reading in which one word is read with the right eye and the other with the left.  The changes of the object reverse when the viewer moves back to his or her  former position.  Like Kinetic poetry, discussed below, holopoetic signs are pollymorph and polysemantic.   Since in the viewer’s perception the words are distributed in a virtual three-dimensional space, the syntax of a holopoem is discontinous and must be established by the signs.  By the metamorphosis of his word objects Kac wants to demonstrate the “discontinuity of thought” (Key Concepts) and evoke the “thought processes, and not their result” (Holopoetry).

Most of Kac’s computer digital poems are designed for Macintosh systems.   The only digital poem that can be viewed on a PC is Kac’s “Secret”, realized in VRML (Virtual Reality Mark-Up Language).  When opening the screen the user views nothing but a few white dots on a black screen.  By using various navigation tools the dots can be zoomed and their “secret” is partially revealed.  Words appear like space ships out of the dark, these words can be manipulated (e. g. turned, rolled, rotated).   By navigating through the virtual space eventually nine words may be discovered:  tranquil, thunder, like, away, sail, within, that, blows, wind.

Because of their volume and distance from each other not all the words can be viewed at the same time (cf. figure 4).  There are various combinations  of the words that more or less make sense, e.g. ‘sail away like wind that blows within tranquil thunder’.   Even if the words may be zoomed and explored from different perspectives, the poem’s semantic secrets are not entirely unveiled.9

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