Digital Poetry and the Transcendence of Print Poetry’s Boundaries

Interactivity and the Reader

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2018

37 Pages, Grade: 16/20


Table of Content



Chapter 1: Defining Digital Poetry

Chapter 2: Transcending the Print through Interactivity

Chapter 3: The Reader as the Sole Authority


Work Cited


I, herewith, announce my deep gratitude to Professor Abdelghani El Khairat whose teachings about innovation and originality motivated the initiation of this paper. Of course, my appreciation and thankfulness go to my supervisor, Professor Lahoussine Hamdoune, for he helped, with insights and criticism, in the betterment and production of my monograph. My thanks extend to all my Professors, colleagues, and family.

Some revolutions occur quietly: no manifestoes, no marching and singing, no tumult in the streets; simply a shift in perspective, a new way of seeing what had always been there.

–Susan Suleiman, The Reader in the Text


Digital literature gains, gradually, publicity in the humongous world of academia, yet its works and criticisms are of little importance to most scholars and studies. On this premise, one needs to remark the production of this literature as dominant, for now, in Europe and America; but, although some works of literature are Arabic, I have chosen to use English examples for the sake of my argument. The challenge of translating a print text is difficult, let alone translating a digital poem. But some scholars began speaking about the universality of English Digital works. Thus, one remembers the colonial tradition in which non-English works were not considered literature. Such racism happened when the print novel was raising to the fore. The same seems to have occurred with the rise of digital literature. Thus, Joseph Tabbi argues that “writing produced in new media might in fact be an emerging world literature” (20). He is arguing that the English digital literature is equivalent to the world literature which clearly denotes that any non-English work is not included, and marginalized under the English umbrella. Using non-English writers, like Wolfgang von Goethe, Raymond Queneau, and others, he supports his claim which, one needs to confess, is truly ingenious. Of course, I, as others, don’t share his claim for “this fact already indicates a great deal regarding the idea of a supposedly world literature that excludes the rest of the world” (Llamas 3). I reason further that there is a worldly aspect, but it is not a certain human language even if it dominates this literature; rather, it is code. Code have the potential to be a worldly language with which the world as a whole could be identified. Thus, I do not use ‘digital literature’ interchangeably with ‘world literature’ and contribute in Tabbi’s preposterous claim.

Digital literature’s beginnings date back to the early 1960s. The first digital literary work was a poem entitled “The Stochastic Texts” by Theo Lutz; hence, began a practical experimentation of OuLiPo’s theoretical approaches to use ‘the machine’ in producing art and literature. The words of this poem were taken from Franz Kafka’s the castle; the words taken were stored in a database from which the program, using certain algorithms, pulls the words and forms verses. One can see, in almost all the generated verses, the repetition of words over and over; the poet with programming can make unlimited verses with different variations from a small amount of words. Lutz’s generative poem, the name under which this type of poetry is labeled, brought a novel, unexploited field to the world of letters. Hence, the perspective of experimental poets, from the 1960s onward, concerning electronic devices and mainly the computer changed drastically. As new improved models of electronic devices were produced, and day-to-day life relied on electronics, authors and artists saw it natural to incorporate them in their works.

The widespread publications of digital criticism indicate the continuous flourishing of this field. With the beginning of the current decade, more poets and critics developed an interest in the novel field of digital literature. Thus, I, too, want to contribute in digital criticism. My argument in this paper blossomed from continuously ‘reading’ digital works; the thought that such Great literature is unknown in the Arab world, and Morocco, have strongly motivated this paper. I truly know that digital literature will fascinate other people and push them to know more about it, for our societies rely gradually on technologies and would use them in creating works of literature. Hence, I believe that we should introduce ourselves unto this field before it advances in the west and we start imitating them as it, normally, is the case in most contemporary print literature.

In this monograph, I argue that English digital poetry has transcended the boundaries of the print poetry through mainly interactivity. Thus, in chapter 1, I will present definitions of digital poetry and argue against their validity (Stefans, Jhave, Trimarco, Bohn, etc.); then I will present Funkhouser’s definition with the intention of demonstrating its accuracy. In chapter 2, I will argue that through interactivity, as a fundamental literary device and tool in digital literature as a whole, digital poetry is capable of transcending the boundaries of the print (juxtaposition, syntax, multipoeticality, etc,.). In chapter 3, I argue that the reader is less involved in the print medium than in digital medium wherein s/he is the primary force in the processes of editing, co-writing, choosing, and existing in the text. Thus, through these three chapters I aim to prove that digital poetry has in fact transcended the boundaries of print poetry. One must note that the digital example in this paper cannot be printed; hence my use of only screenshots to make up for the inability to show them in their original, digital form.

Chapter 1: Defining Digital Poetry

Digital poetry comes under various names which are to be derived from the study conducted by Luiz Antonio. He has formulated a list consisting of varied names assigned by different critics and poets to the same entity I have chosen to follow the term “digital poetry.” The list runs alphabetically as follows: “Autopoem,” “Cine(E)Poetry,” “Computer Poem,” “Diagrampoem,” “Digital Clip-poem,” “Digital poetry,” “electric word,” “Electronic poetry,” “Holopoetry,” “Hypermedia Poetry,” “Hypertextual poetry,” “Infopoetry,” “Internet poetry,” “Interpoetry,” “Intersign poetry,” “Kinetic poetry,” “Net poetry,” “New Media Poetry,” “New Visual Poetry,” “Permutational poem,” “Pixel poetry,” “Poem on computer,” “Poems factory,” “Poetechnic,” “text-generating software,” “3D transpoetic,” “Videopoetry,” “Videotext,” “Virtual poetry (Vpoem),” and “Web poetry.” Then, Antonio states: “The list . . . show many names which have been appearing as the digital poetry is being developed” (Antonio, “Digital Poetry”). I hold that ‘digital poetry’ is the most accurate to refer to this whole genre because the quoted names, as varied as they are, were adequate at a time, but, now, they are not. This is emblematic of digital poetry’s fluidity because of the new, various options and new devices. For instance, Eduardo Kac, among his contemporaries, used ‘New Media Poetry’ in the 90s to refer to this genre. At that time, he utilized multimedia which was novel for the print and the digital audience; the latter was composed of very small number of people alongside the poets. Now, it is no longer new, but became digital because of the improvement of electronic devices and, mainly, the computer.

Before we delve into digital criticism, one should consider this question which is overwhelmingly simple, yet its answer is out of reach: what makes poetry, poetry? We all bother with analyzing so-and-so print poem and try to find its poetic devices, but we have forgotten to ask: what makes it a poem in the first place? Thus, why should the audience classify digital poetry as mere games, and print poetry as an elevated literary form? This essential question is missing in the digital criticism; the latter has immersed in establishing new jargon equivalent to the print’s, but that jargon is of little importance if one doesn’t know what is poetic about digital/ print poetry. Hence, Stanley Fish’s assertion that “If your definition of poetry tells you that the language of poetry is complex, you will scrutinize the language of something identified as a poem in such a way as to bring out the complexity that you know to be ‘there’” (Is There 327). There will always be a metaphor, simile, imagery, and over all a hidden meaning, not because it is necessarily there, but because we presuppose that it should be there. A poem cannot be a poem without someone constructing our presuppositions about the poetic aspect. Therefore, the print poetry isn’t the only genuine poetry; rather, it is perceived as such because the print critics have generally assumed, directly and indirectly, that what is poetic comes only from the print medium. Even some digital critics are influenced by and act according to this belief. Hence, digital poetry is not less poetic than, or inferior to, print poetry because the reader’s presuppositions are mainly based on the print, for it is the medium with which we are all acquainted. So, one should not question the validity of digital poetry on the grounds of print poetry.

Habitually, print critics opt to classify digital poetry as a secondary field under print poetry usually without a sufficient consideration of this field’s potentials. One of these critics is Brian Kim Stefans, a permanent poet and scholar who “claims that digital poetry does not exist and that ‘this preposterous fiction’ (cyberpoetry) should disappear (along with a list of other postmodern trends) into oblivion” (qtd. in Funkhouser Prehistoric 24). One needs not even to refute such a preposterous, naive claim, for if digital poetry does not exist for him, how come he is writing a whole book about it with digital poetry in its title: Fashionable Noise on Digital Poetics. This inconsistency reinforces itself when just pages after his mentioned statement, Stefans gives digital poetry, or, as he calls it, computer poetry, a definition: “computer poetry [is] a textual experience that will be limned based on the source files and the algorithms used for accessing them” (qtd. in Funkhouser Prehistoric 23-24). He does not provide arguments for his claim but does subscribe to the idea of the postmodern Pandora’s box. The latter entails that postmodernism brought havoc to many established concepts, ideas, and even literature. Of course, he claims that digital poetry is postmodernist which is valid. Even if one considers his definition, one can see that it is wanting. It is a textual experience, but not only so, for the digital poem can incorporate in it various forms of multimedia (music, videos, images, lights, etc,.). Thus, the textual is not just a one experience, but many experiences that prove to be more complex and engaging than the textual. This limitation, in Stefans’s claims, of the digital poem’s potentials is a calumnious comment that might, strongly, affect the reader interpretation of this Genre.

David (Jhave) Johnston argues that “Digital poetry … is a subset of visual language that is now fusing with digital technology and is increasingly mediated by networks” (Aesthetic Animism 4). This definition intelligently degrades digital poetry from being a Genre to a subcategory of a subcategory in the print literature. If one considers what visual language is, one would see the flaw in Johnston’s argument. Robert E. Horn, who coined the term “visual literature,” defines it “as the tight integration of words and visual elements and as having characteristics that distinguish it from natural languages” (“Visual Language” 1). The integration in Horn’s definition isn’t related to poetry, but rather to the enhancement of student’s learning; also, Johnston seems to forget that digital poetry isn’t just a combination of images and words, but is about interactivity, programs, and most importantly the vocal level which achieves transcendence by itself. The latter should be stressed, in my viewpoint, because it cannot and will not exist in the visual language or in any print language. Johnston argues that digital poetry is a visual language because it uses digital techniques; this is a well put argument, but it is partly false. For one reason, when someone writes a print poem, a sonnet, using Microsoft Word, his/her product cannot be considered a digital poem because it is written through the print medium; thus, for simplicity, it can be printed unlike the digital poem. For another reason, digital poetry can barely be considered a part of print poetry on the mere account of being composed of words. The digital poem uses the visual, natural, and digital languages to create an intense composition of thought and feeling; thus, it isn’t a subset of so-and-so, but a Genre that encompasses those so-and-sos.

Another implication in Willard Bohn’s Reading Visual poetry, similar to Johnston’s, implies that digital poetry is a visual poem which uses new technologies and techniques (141). This idea, or perspective, is understandable since digital poetry has roots in visual poetry and in print poetry in general; yet, we don’t call it a digitalized print poetry because it is a Genre. We don’t label Blank Verse as a couplet that uses new techniques or contemporary couplets because these two have aspects where they differ and both of them belong to print poetry. Digital poetry and visual poetry are of two completely different mediums, yet Bohn ludicrously befits them together. Even if we consider something as digital visual poetry, it can be only a form under the Genre of digital poetry, not equals or vise-versa. Because, this genre is so diverse that we, as critics, don’t know what to expect; thus, constraining this field to a sub-category in the print is as ludicrous as Bohn’s, and Johnston’s claim.

I’m of the same opinion that argues “there are many ways to misconceive digital literature. The most popular misconception is that all text appearing in digital media is digital literature” (Simanowski 27). Hence, although a print poem might use electronic programs, it cannot be considered as digital poetry because, simply, it can be printed and would still hold all its characteristics. Bohn and Johnson’s arguments are, also, misconceptions based on a presupposed idea that views digital poetry as a form, or a movement in the print poetry. As I have showed this is not the case. Many views digital poetry as a computer-based; that is, it is made and read through a computer. Hence, Paola Trimarco writes that “Digital poetry, or epoetry as it is also called, basically refers to poetic texts produced and read via a computer” (Digital Textuality 76). Many, like Stefans, argue for naming digital poetry, computer poetry, but one should regard this widely dominant belief as a misconception. Thus, this naming, unlike the names mentioned above, excludes works made through other devices. In the beginnings of this field, the computer was not available for everyone, so digital poets utilized other devices to produce their poems. Orit Kruglanski used the Palm Pilot to create her poem “Please” which as she labels it an interactive poem:

As you tilt the palm, the word ‘please’ turns into a string of letters from which a poem hangs, and, with the inclination of the Palm, quickly falls off screen. The poem is ‘please / I do not want to disappear / if you will not hold me / tell me / why am I here? / I only aim to please / not disappear.’ (Kruglanski 79)

For one to experience this poem, or ‘read’ it, one needs a Palm Pilot which is not that available now. The example of Kruglanski is sufficient to make my point: although the computer dominates the digital field now, poets might choose other devices to create their work. We should not exclude these works as not digital poems because we would limit not only the potentiality but also the diverse experience which a device produces. Hence, it is reductive to confine it to one device.

One should then decompose the main question (what is digital poetry?) into separate words to reach an accurate answer. According to the English Oxford online dictionaries, the adjective ‘digital’ means “(of signals or data) expressed as series of the digits 0 and 1.” According to the same source, the noun ‘poetry’ denotes a “literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature.” The poetry defined here is the print poetry; the latter and digital poetry rely on acute wording and emotions, but digital poetry uses more techniques to engage the reader with the poem’s tense feelings on, arguably, all his/ her senses. Those techniques are provided through the digital medium, which is, mainly, code, source files, and programs. With the merging of the two definitions together, P0s1es was formed as a word that shows the essence of digital poetry; it is created through a digital medium to be perceived through a digital medium.

Throughout my research, I have encountered, as shown above, many definitions, but they are fragmented; some have an aspect, another misses it. C. T. Funkhouser’s definition, for me, encompasses the essential elements in digital poetry in a simple manner. Hence, “digital poetry and other forms of electronic literature represent more than a simple technological experience – they are manifestations of Intermedia, in which verbal, visual, and sonic forms merge within projected or interactive artistic structures” (New Directions 31). I also argue that digital poetry is not after a mere technical achievement, for it has reached it long ago, but, rather, it provides up-to-date means and tools for the poet to express himself/herself. He cites the essential levels in digital poetry: verbal, visual, and sonic, or vocal. These three, one can experience through interactive algorithms or structures which is basically the digital poem. His choice of Intermedia rather than multimedia proves adequate; that is, it isn’t just using those different media one at a time, but making them interact between themselves to form one media that truly immerse the reader in the ‘reading’ experience.

Chapter 2: Transcending the Print through Interactivity

“The process of two people or things working together and influencing each other” is the definition of the noun “interactivity” according to the Oxford dictionaries. It derives from the adjective “interactive” which, in turn, derives from the verb “interact.” When we consider this definition, it seems ambiguous and unrelated to digital poetry, or literature for that matter. But, in truth, interactivity stems from the depths of the electronic in general. For example, the cursor with which one moves to select files, clicks on a hypertext, or even plays video-games is an interactive tool which facilitate the cooperation, and work, of two entities: the creator of the code that makes the cursor performs, and the user who uses the cursor. This cooperation is, indeed, a mean for, not only two people, but, rather, for the masses to work together and influence each other.

When more critics were introduced to digital literature, through a conference, website, or luck, the term “interactivity” meant other things than what I have mentioned before. Therefore, the true definition of what “interactivity” is became a new question although it was not so in the past. But, I consider this questioning of the definitions as a positive mean to reinforce digital poetry as a Genre that does not and will not rely on the print. In relation to the world of letters, three main definitions emerge:

On the one hand, digital critics who are usually programmers, or similar, define interactivity as the communication between human beings and machines which, mostly, take the form of a question followed by a response. That is, the machine, be it a computer, a smart phone, a tablet, etc., is now capable of generating its own code in response to the wording of the reader/ communicator. A great example would be “Galatea” which is an interactive fiction novella written by Emily Short. For me, this definition proves to be adequate, but it seems to cover certain other aspects which are not only crucial to the interactive experience of the reader, but shape the very idea of that experience. The machine can generate responses based on the reader’s written words, but that response and, often, the questions too are pre-written by the programmer. Thus, the reader is not interacting with the machine per se; he is interacting with the ‘writer’ whose coding made the program responsive. When, then, a person writes or does an action within these digital poems, he is in fact following the ‘writer’s programing. For instance, in “Galatea”, when one writes an unknown verb, the program simply says, “That’s not a verb that I recognize.”

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1: Emily Short’s Galatea


Excerpt out of 37 pages


Digital Poetry and the Transcendence of Print Poetry’s Boundaries
Interactivity and the Reader
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"I found Benharrousse's thesis well-written and with original, novel insights. BENHARROUSSE truly impressed me with his marked ability to appropriately react to and articulate about various genres of texts. His sensitivity to the nuances within literature makes him worthy of my highest recommendation as an ambitious competent researcher" Because of the novelty of this thesis, Dar America Casablanca chose me to present about novelty in academic research for EMAA Business School students and awarded my research as one of the best produced in the University of Ibn Zohr.
Digital Literature, Digital Poetry, Digital, Poetry, Reader, Juxtaposition, Digital studies, Electronic, Electronic Literature, Electronic Poem
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Rachid Benharrousse (Author), 2018, Digital Poetry and the Transcendence of Print Poetry’s Boundaries, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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