Meaning: The Digital Poetry Incunabula of bpNichol — Geof Huth 
that early on, the metaphor was the movies.
bpNichol’s collection FIRST SCREENING presented, to undoubtedly
only a few readers, a dozen or so digital poems—poems that moved, poems
that danced, poems that ran their lifetimes across a screen. These poems
appeared so early in the development of digital poetry that Nichol felt justified
in including “FIRST” in the title to these, but primarily these
were screenings, movies of words. With these poems, the screen became the
focus of the readers’ attention, the place where the action took place.
To read these poems, readers needed to concentrate on that screen, a blank
black canvas upon which white letters moved until the screen turned back
to uninterrupted black and the readers turned off the computer. To make this
metaphor clear, this screening begins with animated opening credits, such
as became common in films from the latter half of the twentieth century.
There is a difference, though, between a cinematic experience and this one.
A film, traditionally, runs for us. We sit, uncomfortable, impatient, in a
theater for the movie to begin, then the projector rattles a picture into
view, projecting images onto a screen that bounces the images onto us, and
sound surrounds us as we sit. But with FIRST SCREENING, we must interact
with the film, not just intellectually, but physically. This is more of a
private experience, a reading experience. We insert the floppy disk into the
computer and turn it on, and the film runs. Or the computer is on and we stick
in the floppy and type an order into the computer: “RUN FIRST SCREENING.” And
the film runs. But we must act as agents of genesis. Or even destruction—for
we can also stop the film in media res, if we only know how.
Looking back at bpNichol’s achievement here—producing among the
earliest of fully realized digital poems—we might find it hard to imagine,
decades after the fact, what the personal computer was like when it first
appeared on our desktops. Among the many wonders of seeing these poems alive
again, in their almost native environment, is to regain a glimpse of what
computing was like a quarter of a century ago. We find it hard to believe
that many of us have been using computers for over twenty years. It seems
equally impossible to believe that we were once beasts of the typewriter and
the pen, people who had to struggle to create and distribute our thoughts.
But Nichol’s work suffered in that regard, too. Only one hundred copies
of his FIRST SCREENING were ever created, hardly a large number for
a seminal piece of writing—but the publication itself was constrained
by the fact that the mid-1980s was still the infancy of personal computing.
During the creation of these poems, non-Macintosh Apple II computers were
common, but so were IBM-compatibles, and Macs were coming onto the scene—all
of this at a time when most people in North America didn’t use computers
in their daily lives, and when only a distinct minority owned these machines.
This era was the initial era of the digital text human, the very beginning
of humans learning to become one with the sign-making machines they had created—and
the texts those machines created. At this time, there was no Internet (with
its required interoperability across computing systems), there were few standards
for sharing digital data, and there was no universal way to present animated
textual data across computing platforms. This world was a United Nations without
translators, and Nichol understood that, and in his introduction to the poems
he put this dilemma into artistic perspective:
As ever, new technology opens up new formal problems, and the problems of
babel raise themselves all over again in the field of computer languages and
operating systems. Thus the fact that this disk is only available in an Applesoft
Basic version (the only language I know at the moment) precisely because translation
is involved in moving it out further. But that inherent problem doesn’t
take away from the fact that computers & computer languages also open
up new ways of expressing old contents, of revivifying them. One is in a position
to make it new.
What Nichol was doing with these poems was taking his esthetic concerns (principally,
a concrete poetry perspective) and playing them against a new set of rules.
Taken one by one, the poems of FIRST SCREENING are concrete poems
set to silent music. They dance, sometimes quite literally, across the screen,
but each of their letters is also trapped in the gridspace of the Apple II’s
screen and BASIC’s limitations. Take this example from the poem “AFTER
2165 VTAB 1: HTAB 14: PRINT "S"
2170 VTAB 2: HTAB 15: PRINT "S"
2175 VTAB 1: HTAB 14: PRINT " "
2180 VTAB 3: HTAB 14: PRINT "S"
2185 VTAB 2: HTAB 15: PRINT " "
2190 VTAB 4: HTAB 15: PRINT "S"
2195 VTAB 3: HTAB 14: PRINT " "
2200 VTAB 5: HTAB 16: PRINT "S"
2205 VTAB 4: HTAB 15: PRINT " "
2210 VTAB 6: HTAB 17: PRINT "S"
2215 VTAB 5: HTAB 16: PRINT " "
2220 VTAB 7: HTAB 16: PRINT "S"
2225 VTAB 6: HTAB 17: PRINT " "
2230 VTAB 23: HTAB 1: PRINT "E"
2235 VTAB 23: HTAB 1: PRINT " "
2240 VTAB 21: HTAB 4: PRINT "EE"
2245 VTAB 22: HTAB 2: PRINT " "
2250 VTAB 20: HTAB 5: PRINT "E"
2255 VTAB 21: HTAB 4: PRINT " E"
2260 VTAB 19: HTAB 6: PRINT "E"
2265 VTAB 20: HTAB 5: PRINT " "
2270 VTAB 21: HTAB 6: PRINT " E"
2275 VTAB 20: HTAB 6: PRINT "E"
2280 VTAB 18: HTAB 7: PRINT "E"
The VTAB command tells the computer where to place a letter in vertical
gridspace, and the HTAB command does the same for the horizontal. (And “PRINT” commands
the text to appear on the screen.) This simple constraint of the computing
system and the 80-column screen compels Nichol to create classic concrete
poems. And he does this for a while until—at the end of the sequence
and hidden from view—he learns that this constraint of verticals
and horizontals, of sequences of squares crisscrossing in space, is not
so much a hindrance as a release that allows him to imagine circles and
loops and twirls and pas de deux.
We begin our journey on an island, or a poem entitled “ISLAND.” This
is clearly a concrete digital poem. The poem that appears consists of a
central column constructed of the word “ROCK” stacked atop
itself over and over—and bounded by the word “WAVE” similarly
aligned. But the ROCK doesn’t move while the WAVE shudders in and
out of view quickly, giving us the illusion of lighter and darker letters,
the illusion of movement, the illusion of waves crashing against the shore.
From the evidence in the code for the poem, we assume this was an early
experiment. It appears that Nichol wrote the entire sequence into the same
computer program, assigning each line of code a number (as per the requirement
of the computer language) so that the computer would know the order in
which to accept the commands. Later, he arranged the poems as he wanted
by squeezing commands into the opening of the code that instructed the
computer to reveal the secrets of the floppy disk in a specific order:
100 GOSUB 300: REM ISLAND
101 GOSUB 360: REM SELF-REFLEXIVE 1
102 GOSUB 600: REM LETTER
103 GOSUB 1375: REM REVERIE
104 GOSUB 1000: REM CONSTRUCTION 1
105 GOSUB 3556: REM ANY OF YOUR LIP
106 GOSUB 425: REM SELF-RELFEXIVE 2
107 GOSUB 820: REM POEM FOR MY FATHER
108 GOSUB 1900: REM AFTER THE STORM
110 REM FOR THE CURIOUS VIEWER/READER THERE'S
AN 'OFF-SCREEN ROMANCE' AT 1748. YOU JUST HAVE
TO TUNE IN THE PROGRAMME.
112 GOSUB 495: REM TIDAL POOL
This simple opening poem shows us that Nichol understood what he was doing
early on. The effects he was after were simple to program, and he did so
quite deftly in fifteen lines of code. He also hews to the standard for
programming code by numbering his lines by divisibles of five. The reason
for this is to allow enough space between lines of code to insert additional
lines if he determined later on that they were needed. From this and every
other poem, we can tell that Nichol inserted the underlines that sit above
and below each title later in the process. At some point, he decided those
lines added some depth to the visual and he slipped them in at even-numbered
301 FOR PAUSE = 1 TO 2000: NEXT
304 VTAB 8: HTAB 18: PRINT "______"
305 VTAB 10: HTAB 18: PRINT "ISLAND"
306 VTAB 11: HTAB 18: PRINT "______"
310 FOR PAUSE = 1 TO 4000: NEXT
By the way, each appearance of “HOME” above leads us to a
blank screen, pure blackness, in preparation for the next movie.
The poem “LETTER” is simply a reimagining of the Proteus poem,
which is an ancient form of poetry that captivated the concrete poets of
the mid-twentieth century. A Proteus poem begins with a line of verse,
and each subsequent line consists of the same words—but arranged
in a different order. In English, where words tend to be unmarked in terms
of grammatical function, these poems can create kaleidoscopic meaningscapes,
where the significance of the poem changes dramatically line by line. “LETTER” begins
with the line
SAT DOWN TO WRITE YOU THIS POEM
but rather than adding lines to the poem, Nichol has determined that he
can create new lines by moving the text one word to the left and moving
the leftmost word to the far right. As he repeats this process, word by
word, line by line, he can move us from the scene of someone sitting down
to write a poem to one of a poem writing to us:
POEM SAT DOWN TO WRITE YOU THIS
ANY OF YOUR LIP: a silent sound poem for sean o’huigin
This poem is a subvocalized sound poem. The screen presents the words
to us, telling us what words to sound out in our heads and how loudly to
sound them. We begin with “MOUTH.” In all caps, it is loud—a
shout, maybe. But it quickly changes to “mouth,” the same word
but so much smaller that it seems quite different. Then Nichol alternates “MOUTH” with
so that the reader (who is also the performer of this poem) compares various
sequences of sounds to the sound of “MOUTH,” each subsequent
word moving farther away from the sound we began with, until the poem ends
by flashing “ing” (the marker of a gerund) on the screen (suggesting
not nothing, but nothinging, or the activity of doing nothing):
At this point in this book that has no pages to flip, the reader might
notice that these poems are short, quite short. Some last only a few seconds.
Nichol has a few reasons for this. First, he’s new at the game, testing
his stamina, and still short on skills, so he’s creating poems that
are simple and brief. More importantly, though, he already has a feel for
digital poetry. He already understands that people have less patience for
movies— especially those that are just words blinking on and floating
across a screen—than they do for swaths of text printed onto the
pages of a book. He understands that the reader can handle only small mouthfuls
of these poems at a time.
This brevity disappears at the end of this sequence of poems, when he
learns to create one poem dynamic enough visually to keep the reader’s
attention, to capture the reader’s eye even when its text is the
most reduced and minimalist of any in the collection.
POEM FOR MY FATHER
Nichol divides this poem into two sections. In section “one,” a
TRAIN moves from left to right, from west to east, leaving behind it a
trail of Ts. Suddenly, the TRAIN turns into a screen filled with a shimmering
RAIN that fills the entire screen in column after raining column before
the screen slowly reduces itself to black. In part “two,” a
TRAIN is traveling east, letter by letter, leaving a trail of Ts again.
But this time a GHOST approaches it, heading due west. When they meet,
they do not crash; instead they meld into one another, creating new realities,
such as the TRAIGHOST.
AFTER THE STORM
One of the more visually accomplished poems in this collection is “AFTER
THE STORM.” Though the visual onomatopoeia here is a bit overwrought,
there is some real beauty in how the wind “literally” blows
itself forward across the screen and in how the letters rumba individually
into place to form the text of this poem. At the point where three Es seem
to wander delicately, but deliberately, into the word “SENTENCE,” we
are amazed at the geometric and kinetic construction of this poem. And
it is interesting intellectually as well, since the sentence blowing into
Nichol’s (and then our) consciousness can be both a sentence the
wind conjures up in his mind as it scatters leaves across his path and
a literal sentence that blows in on a sheet of paper.
After we have read through, watched over, all the poems in the sequence,
Nichol presents us with a door to another world:
For Titles & Gosubs,
type LIST 100,118
Typing in that LIST command, we are taken to a list of all the poems,
a list that includes this note:
110 REM FOR THE CURIOUS VIEWER/READER THERE'S
AN 'OFF-SCREEN ROMANCE' AT 1748. YOU JUST HAVE
TO TUNE IN THE PROGRAMME.
At this point, the reader needs to know to type in “RUN 1748” to
run “OFF-SCREEN ROMANCE” (a poem dedicated to his wife Ellie)
to bring it up onto the screen. This is the most visually dynamic of the
poems in this collection. FRED (Astaire) and Ginger (Rogers) dance together
over the screen. There is some magic to them as they repeat steps, dancing
flickeringly to no music at all except for that that we imagine. That flicker
replicates the duo’s lightness of step, their sweetness of movement,
and Nichol programmed it into the poem by controlling the speed of the
poem and by the necessity that he overwrite each instance of “FRED” or “GINGER” with
the same number of blank spaces.
This poem is a wonder of erasure and rewriting, but more than that it
is an examination of how two people (Fred and Ginger, as well as Nichol
and Ellie) become one. Near the end of the poem, as the pace picks up and
FRED and GINGER’s steps become even more complex, they merge into
one for picoseconds, they merge and disappear into the dance of letters.
Maybe bpNichol was the first poet to create codework, poetry that recreates
the look of computer code, because his last poem in the series is hidden
in the code itself. We are provided only two hints that it exists at all.
One is a note in Nichol’s eye-readable introduction to the collection:
The dozen poems to be found on this diskette (a baker’s dozen if
you include the cover piece) were composed over the period of a year & a
half, from approximately Spring 83 to Fall 84.
The careful reader will notice that only eleven poems appear on the screen,
counting “OFF-SCREEN ROMANCE, and the second hint appears in the
116 REM FOR FURTHER RE-MARKS LIST 3900,4000
What’s remarkable about this is that the best hint is in the code
itself, invisible to our eyes. This hint uses the REM statement, which
is not even a command at all, which is merely how programmers leave notes
(“remarks”) for themselves and other curious onlookers. I
remember first finding this poem, back in 1986, buried in the code, and
feeling a sense of joy. This is a real concrete poem, working with puns
and making simple Biblical allusions:
3900 REM ARK
3905 REM BOAT
3910 REM AIN
3915 REM RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN
RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN
RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN
RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN
RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN RAIN
3920 REM BOAT
3925 REM ARK
3930 REM BOW
3935 REM ARC
The process of tmesis splits “REMARK” into the REM statement
and “ARK.” At this point, we have an inchoate story. In the
next line, we are told that the ARK is a BOAT (to distinguish it, we suppose,
from the Ark of the Covenant). Then “REM” is followed by “AIN,” which
is meaningless alone but which produces “REMAIN” and lays the
foundation for “RAIN,” which is presented to us forty times,
once for every night and day of Noah’s ordeal. We come out of the
BOAT, we leave the ARK, and we see in the sky a “REM BOW” (the
latter half echoing “BOAT,” the BOAT itself causing the BOW),
finally ending with an ARK that is an ARC (specifically, an arc en
ciel, a remark changed into a rainbow arcing against the sky). And
there, at line 4000, but not the 4000th line, FIRST SCREENING ends.
REVELATION AND REVALUATION
Nichol’s poems on FIRST SCREENING arrived in the world
with some, but little, fanfare. Their distribution was limited partially
by the small number of copies available but more importantly by the fact
that they were ahead of their time. The world of personal computing that
Nichol was working in preceded the birth of the accessible Web by
ten years. The standards and interoperability that the Internet brought
the world were absent, and there was no good way to distribute digital
poetry. Simply to view these poems, a reader would need an Apple II series
computer, which were common enough but not ubiquitous. The requirements
for merely seeing these poems were impossible for most to achieve.
Nichol wasn’t the first to create kinetic poems for the computer
screen. Marco Fraticelli and a few others had preceded him into this arena,
but it was still a small place with few inhabitants. Nichol, however, extended
the form. He probably came into the game with the weakest programming skills,
but he studied hard to learn Apple BASIC and he made up for his lack of
programming skills through trial and error. Most importantly, he brought
his keen poet’s mind to the project. Earlier kinetic digital poetry
tended to use the computer to illustrate the poems; Nichol used it to animate
them, to make them live. Where in others’ digital poetry, there was
a clear (though unintentional) distinction between the poem and the presentation
of the poem, the poems in FIRST SCREENING were totally integrated
with their presentation. Each particular arrangement of a poem was, in
fact, the poem itself. Nichol extended his practice of concrete poetry,
where the verbal and the visual were one, into his innovative digital poems.
He became the first master of the form.
The unfortunate reality haunting this achievement is that Nichol died
too young to try anything else. FIRST SCREENING was just his first
excursion into computer poetry. Nichol had much more to do, much more to
explore. He understood, more than anyone, that this new form of writing
required new types of writing. His “REM ARK” shows us that
much, and his “OFF-SCREEN ROMANCE” showed us that he was developing
the skills to expand on what he had begun. His poems were an examination
of the medium. He understood that form always affects meaning, and he was
finding his way through a new world. Best of all, he was having fun, and
there’s a bit of boyish joy to these poems.
Although Nichol’s digital poetry remains the most accomplished artistically
of any of his time, these poems come off a bit quaint to us now. Although
the practice of concrete poetry allowed Nichol the right fulcrum to move
digital poetry upward a bit, it also tended to restrict him to schematic
forms. Only in a couple of poems (“AFTER THE STORM” and “OFF-SCREEN
ROMANCE”) did he show the ability to throw off the straitjacket of
concrete poetry that kept most of these poems in rigid rectangles of one
shape or another. He made almost no use of sound, color, or even lower
case letters in these poems, even though those were available to him at
the time. The visual onomatopoeia that inhabits these poems is too simple
at times, too literal. And maybe “HOErizon” is just a terrible
pun. But some of these poems still have an effect on us. Each time “GHOST” runs
through “TRAIN” in “POEM FOR MY FATHER,” I feel
a bit of excitement. The on-screen dancing that we have to initiate ourselves
is a beautiful dance—a little light on substance, but full of grace.
Finally, bpNichol’s imagination still shines through. He learned
his materials and worked them, using text, movement, shape, speed, and
even reader interactivity to realize these poems. Plenty of the digital
poets of today could learn something about craft from Nichol.
We are left with a great beginning: a dozen poems by a poet who was interested
in exploring all the possibilities of a new form: movement, sound, code.
The poems are simple, but the time was simpler, too. Almost no-one was
writing code for poems. Nichol was blazing a trail with a small band of
others. But why did he give up? Why did he produce no more poems like this?
What really seemed to stop him was that the world of computing was changing
under his feet. The fear of Babel and the long slog that faced him if he
had tried to learn another programming language probably led him to focus
on other pursuits. In his introduction, he tells us of his travails and
As a result, tho the on-screen activity never reveals it, the
off-screen programming moves from brute stumbling to some much more elegant
solutions, a record of how the process of programming, the process of composition,
guided me to the final result. What most surprised me in this process was
how concerns that had been present for me in the mid-60s, issues of composition
and content I was confronting while working with my early concrete poems,
suddenly found a new focus. In fact, I was finally in a position to create
those filmic effects that I hadn’t had the patience or skill to animate
at that time.
But he doesn’t tell us why he didn’t continue. As we know,
Nichol had an expansive imagination, so it’s likely that he merely
moved on to another challenge, to another way of creating and expanding
meaning and expression and experience.
We are lucky just to have these poems anymore, lucky that people have
created emulators to run the code, and triply lucky that two intrepid computer
archeologists were able to extract the data off a twenty-two-year-old floppy
disk I had protected for decades. The chances of that were so slim that
I can find no-one in the world of digital preservation who believed it
was even possible that that floppy could have opened up its secrets to
Nichol was a teacher to many poets. He taught us audacity and daring.
But he was also a student who ended his introduction to the sequence by
thanking Lionel Kearns and Marco Fraticelli for teaching him his programming
skills. At the end of the disk he also acknowledged two people who encouraged
him early on in his career (Lionel Kearns and Cavan McCarthy), concluding
with the note, “In a real sense, they kept me writing.”
Even today, Nichol keeps us writing.