First Meaning: The Digital Poetry Incunabula of bpNichol — Geof Huth [1]

ven 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 THE STORM”:

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:


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 lines:

300  HOME
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
315  HOME 

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


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:


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 other words








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.


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.


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:


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 code itself:


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
3920  REM  BOAT
3925  REM  ARK
3930  REM  BOW
3935  REM  ARC
4000  END 

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.


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 his successes:

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 us.

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.

4000 HOME


[1]   See also Geof Huth's 1987 work in Apple Basic.

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