Digital Poetry Incunabula [1] — Geof Huth

Friday, July 30, 2004, 10:39 pm

Yesterday, I heard from Chris Funkhouser, who used to live around here ten years ago, and whom I know because of his connection to David Daniels, a poet and a good friend of mine from college. Chris invited me to my penultimate poetry reading, which was in the 1990s sometime, an interesting coincidence since I’m giving a reading only next week.

Chris is now married and has a daughter named Constellation. What a beautiful name, but all I could think to ask was if he had named her after Eugen Gomringer’s constellations (his personal form of concrete poetry). No, Chris said, the name comes a word from Mallarmé’s famous poem, Un coup de dès—which many people see as the direct progenitor of 20th-century visual poetry. Coincidentally, Gomringer was heavily influenced by this poem, which included dramatic typographic layouts, especially for the late 1800s. As a matter of fact, the term “constellation” as used by Gomringer comes directly from this poem.

You have to respect someone like Chris who is interested enough in visual poetry to pull his daughter’s name out of one of the classics of the form.

Chris didn’t contact me to discuss the onomastic tendencies in his family. Instead, he wanted to talk to me about digital poetry because he’s working on a book, entitled Prehistoric Digital Poetry, which will cover the years 1959 through 1995 (or from the year of my conception to the year my first digital poetry was actually published).

Digital poetry is an interesting subject, but one I haven’t addressed yet. One of the reasons for it is that there’s no term for it that works for me, and there exist number of interrelated terms to confuse our thoughts: digital poetry, e-poetry, computer poetry, cyberpoetry, javapoems, etc. For my purposes tonight, I’m going to define “digital poetry” as “kinetic visual poetry created for viewing via a computer.” Pathetic start at a definition, but it will do.

I started creating poetry on computers in 1984, but all I did was use a computer to create mild visual effects with concrete poems meant for a life on paper—nothing significant, nothing I'd call digital. However, 1984 is a watershed year in digital poetry, since this was when Apple released the Macintosh computer, making much easier the development of this kind of poetry. Although 1984 is significant in my timeline, 1977 marks the birth of the Apple II, which so far as I can tell was the first computer used to create significant digital visual poetry, and which was the computer I used to create most of mine.

My first visual poem that made significant use of the computer was "INCHWORMS,” born on December 28th, 1986. I wrote the poem so that it would crawl across the screen—a simple visual trope. I used Apple Basic and an Apple II computer to create this poem, and it formed part of ENDEMIC BATTLE COLLAGE, one of four series of digital poems I created in the mid to late 1980s. This series was one of my three sets of kinetic visual poems (with occasional aural embellishments) designed for the computer screen.

Most of the poems in ENDEMIC BATTLE COLLAGE were simple kinetizations of concrete poems of mine. My masterpiece was “HAVOC,” a poem designed to fill the entire computer screen space by space, word by word. Faster than a reader could follow, words would appear on the screen, sometimes accompanied by a surprising beep. After the entire screen filled with words, the screen filled again with another sets of words, so the first set was entirely wiped out by the second. (I meant this poem to be a visual experience equivalent to the aural experience of listening to one of Conlon Nancarrow’s complex and colliding pieces of music for the piano roll. I don’t believe I even got close.) All the poems in ENDEMIC BATTLE COLLAGE fit on a 5.25-inch floppy and ran in an unending loop unless the reader intervened.

These digital poems of mine were influenced by bpNichol’s digital visual writing in First Screening (released by Underwhich Editions in 1984). In "A Few Notes,” his introduction to the poems, Nichol explains that he wrote these poems between about the spring of 1983 and the fall of 1984. I always think of him as the father of kinetic poetry written for the Apple II computer, but Nichol explains in this introduction that the Canadian writer Marco Fraticelli—who also wrote poems in Apple Basic and who edited in the 1980s magazine of digital poetry and fiction, The Alchemist—taught Nichol "many of the programming skills used to make these poems." Regardless, I learned how to write my own digital poems by following Nichol’s example and by reading a book on programming in Apple Basic.

All I have left of these early visual poems is a printout of all the code and a silent videotape of the poems. I’m still trying to figure out how to bring these poems back to life, how to run them on a contemporary computing platform. I want to be able to take the code and convert it into modern code, but I don’t know if that is possible or not. Failing in that, I’ll try to digitize the videotape and create mpeg files.

My fourth collection of digital poems was Things Moving Constantly Against Electric Current. Originally, the poems in this series were static full-color visual poems designed to be viewed on the computer screen in a looping slideshow. Since the poems didn’t themselves move, I don’t consider these significant exemplars of digital poetry. Yet when viewed together, they were a series of frames in a movie that was but a single poem. (For the “postface” to this set of poems, see “Endwords.”) The poems in this series now exist only as printouts on paper. Since I have them in a concrete form, I can provide an illustration of one of the frames in this series.

Geof Huth, "INSTANCENCE" (1987)
from Things Moving Constantly Against Electric Current

One of my favorite series of digital poems, and the only one I can still run in its native form, is Dreams of the Fishwife, which appeared in The Literary Magazine’s CD-ROM issue in 1995. This series, based on my chapbook of the same name, consisted of a series of visual and aural couplings: a digital image of a xerographic typewriter poem accompanied by my weird reading of the contorted text of the poem. To replicate this experience, view my blog entry for May 27th and click on the audio link as you read along.

To tie this all together, I’ll be reading one of the poems from Dreams of the Fishwife at my reading next week.


[1]   Originally published August 12, 2004 at

Click to visit