new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Howard



HOLDING AIR, CHANGING PLACE:  notes on virtual poetry


New Zealand is a country with two official languages – English and Māori. My preferred language is Poetry, occasionally in Māori but mainly in English. Jim Harrison has a few pertinent words about this language:

The most ubiquitous misunderstanding of poetry is that it is heightened and energized daily speech. Martin Heidegger said, ‘Poetry proper is never merely a higher mode of everyday language. It is rather the reverse: everyday language is a forgotten and therefore used-up poem, from which there hardly resounds a call any longer.’ Poetry at its best is the language your soul would speak if you could teach your soul to speak.' (Poetry as Survival, 1990)

Sound gets in under the radar of sense to modify its apprehension. However in the virtual world context is inferred rather than observed – and this is why intention, which announces itself as tone, is so difficult to determine online. How much more difficult this is when the work posted is overtly personal, even a type of special pleading – like an elegy for one’s father (‘The Held Air’) or the farewell to a lover (‘The Perpetual Bird’).

Immediacy, which the World Wide Web provides, is often confused with intimacy. At the risk of sounding like a space cadet, I believe the web encourages a kind of 'ventriloquism'. Historically the term involves possession by a spirit: 'There are also many that can form Words and Voices in their Stomach, which shall seem to come from others rather than the Person that speaks them. Such people are call'd Engastriloques, or Ventriloquists' (Hutchinson, Witchcraft, 1718). It is this combination of the remote and the immediate (usually a measure of proximity) that interests me about the cyberworld; it parallels metaphor, which arcs between the material and the invisible. Every domain is symbolic.

Does the Web change the nature of intimacy? Without sensory checks projection distorts our perceptions of virtual correspondents; what is less obvious is that reading in a browser is a different optical and therefore cognitive operation from reading print. Of course, whatever and wherever the relation, there are partial assessments of character. Andre Gide is useful here:

When one has formed a false idea of someone and that person subsequently acts and speaks and writes in such a way as to contradict that original false impression one had formed of him, one is much more likely to accuse him of hypocrisy than to recognise that one was mistaken about him. (Journals, 24.8.1937)

How much easier it is to be mistaken about someone when one's only access to them is through homepages, emails, blogs, and chat-rooms. I am frequently (and happily) forced to refine my image of each ‘character’ by a new post. It is this instantaneous ability, an aspect of its accessibility, which lets the Web bypass (and perhaps start to undermine) cultural hierarchies. But such focus on the moment is also what makes it difficult for me to post a poem about my father; there is a tension between the elusive and the fixed. As Jim Harrison puts it, ‘the whole point about a short lyric is to make the moment durable.’

This may go some way to explaining why I treat the Web as a test-pot, posting drafts because they seem more in keeping with the transient character of the medium. Most poets prefer their current work to earlier material, so numerous versions of a poem may appear virtually. With me this tendency, less pronounced than in bloggers, is complicated by the length of time it takes me to write; for example, ‘The Carrion Flower’ was started in 1984 (Tim Berners-Lee created the Web in 1990) and developed slowly as the decades passed and the lines of my face grew deeper.

This is a roundabout way of saying that there are significant differences between the inchoate piece performed as ‘The Held Air’ at the nzepc symposium in 2003 and the poem printed in The Word Went Round’(Otago UP, 2006). There is a synaptic leap between the recording of ‘The Perpetual Bird’ issued in Catalyst Spoken Word Series 1 and the accompanying text in Catalyst 4. This is not merely a question of gestation; the changes indicate my resistance/attraction to the properties of each medium – and my perception of the intimacy appropriate. Maybe the Web confirms Kafka’s aphorism about form: ‘A cage went in search of a bird.’


Last updated 12 April, 2006