new zealand electronic poetry centre


Dave Ciccoricco

Fugacity 05


At Home on the Screen: Kinetics and Codeworks

Paper presented at the FUGACITY 05 Poetry Symposium, University of Canterbury, 21 April 2005.


Part One: ‘I link therefore I am’

In the beginning it was all about hypertext – the promise and potential of digitally-mediated linkages between words. The ‘beginning’ here means the early to mid-1990s when writers began to exploit hypertext technology for literary ends. There were a lot of hyped up claims: hypertext was said to liberate users from linearity and hierarchy; it would revive a literature that has been exhausted by the conventions of print; it would hasten the death of the book. This revolutionary and utopian rhetoric tempered over time, and it became clear that whatever the technology could do depends quite a bit on what the user does with it.

But what do a few blue and underlined words really do for or to poetry? What lyrical or rhetorical effects can it emulate? Can it give rise to new effects peculiar to its medium? Is there some sort of indelible difference between poetics in print and on screen? Is there such a thing as electro-poetics? Or, is a hyperlink really nothing more than a pre-programmed intertextual reference?

Some writers have gone around this question by broadening the notion of hypertextuality and the hypertextual. For the e-poet Loss Pequeňo Glazier, any text that constitutes ‘an internal system redefining the notion of a bibliographical unit’ is an example of hypertextuality.[1] In this view, anything from Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch to Coleridge's encyclopedia to the I Ching becomes a hypertext. The point that Glazier and others are trying to stress is that the materiality of digital texts allows for greater scrutiny of textual conventions that have been naturalized by books and by the print medium.

At the same time, broad definitions of hypertextuality that are not media-specific leave a difficult question unanswered:

As William Marsh (1997) writes,

[if] hypertext is nothing but text (in the post-structuralist sense) slightly juiced (thus reduced) in the frenzied point-and-click environment of computer hyperlinks, then little is gained by studying its developments. However, if hypertext can be set into motion not merely as text transplanted in electronic space, but rather as an area of high-density hypergrams (beyondwords, words within words), then the work generated out of this ‘motion,’ as well as the critical articulation of its method, would surely invite the kind of enthusiasm merited by the emergence of any new form.[2]

Marsh's use of the term motion vacillates between a literary and a literal mobility, which is necessary given his attempt to show the reciprocal relationship between a hyperlinked word on screen and what he (after Julia Kristeva) calls a ‘paragram’ – a ‘hyperlinked’ word (hyperlinked in quotes) in print. Nevertheless, if it is yet unclear how or if hyperlinks invigorate language, then it is at least clear that the network environment is set apart from the book in terms of mediated mobility. This l eads right into a discussion of kinetics.

Part Two: A ‘machine made out of words’ or a word-making machine?

Kinetic poetry gives new meaning to William Carlos Williams' ‘machine made out of words.’ There are many pre-digital precedents for kinetic poetry, which draw on a rich aesthetic tradition reaching back to the Futurists in the early 20 th century. Such artists were invested in representing or evoking movement on an imaginative plane by using a wide array of typographical and design techniques on a necessarily static plane of expression. This kinetic-poetic drive translated readily into forms of e-poetry that erupted with the use of digital writing technologies.[3] (The online journal Poems that Go is a forerunner in exhibiting the kinetic effects made possible by digital animation).[4]

A crucial distinction with regard to textual kinetics in poetic or narrative texts involves whether the text moves with or without the reader's intervention. This distinction can be broken down further; for instance, movement can occur, with or without reader intervention, from one screen to the next, or within the frame of the present screen. The poem ‘Faith’ by Robert Kendall incorporates both kinds of movement.

The poem raises significant questions with regard to performativity; the debate over whether a poem should be read on a page or performed by a poet breaks down when the performance is predicated on the mobility of visual signifiers in time and on screen. Performativity, moreover, affects the process of interpretation. One concern is that the audience of kinetic poetry sits and watches its ‘special effects’ in a passive manner, and that the medial complexity of a kinetic text can obviate its discursive or conceptual complexity. I'd say that it is important to resist this view: just as there has always been an interplay between a text's semantic and formal elements, the medium simply – or not so simply – becomes another player so to speak in this exchange.

Part Three: Codeworks [the new cryptography]

Days of JavaMoon (2000), by Vietnamese writer Duc Thuan, is a mixture of poetry, prose, and computer code, which inflects, or infects, the semantic space of the text.[5] The work is reflexive, with the implied writer/programmer continually questioning his role in creating the text, which is at once a creation and interrogation of his own identity:

function writing() {
   Duc Thuan = he's a writer();
   myself = his protagonist();
   for(what he writes, i [ myself] am the very first person who would love
   to read) {
       his work(s) =[especially];
   for(Duc Thuan = a liar; often overconstructs a character.often
   overimagines or even lies about my life; +/-) {
       for(myself = (x+1); don't know why he [Duc Thuan] keeps doing it;
       but i like his works; +/-)

The passage follows a command to ‘sort Identities = 1; //Automatically sort identities between Duc Thuan and I … //(1 or 0?)…,’ which is an example of a ‘function’ that reflects the way in which the programming code called JavaScript operates. The reference to ‘Java’ in the work's title, in addition to placing the work geographically, is an overt allusion to the author's own poetic-programmatic style and his use of Java, the code, to script his characters and scene. The reader, in turn, not only plays the role of human interpreter but also that of machine reader, receiving a prompt to ‘sort’ (read: deconstruct) the relationship between Duc Thuan and the writing/narrating ‘I.’ (That Duc Thuan is in fact the pen name of Vietnamese writer Tran Duc Thuan suggests that this deconstructive exercise occurs on many levels).

Days of JavaMoon falls under the rubric of ‘codeworks,’ where the incorporation and recombination of elements of programming language, binary code, and mark-up conventions defamiliarizes the work of art, potentially comprising the majority or even entirety of the text. Alan Sondheim coined the term codeworks in the September 2001 issue of the American Book Review, which, along with the continuing ‘electropoetics’ Thread in the electronic book review, offers a comprehensive critical discourse on the topic.

I'll conclude with a fairly accessible example of how the text ensures a continual dialogue between the technological and the literary. Computer programs are often based on repetitions of a set number of steps, and those repetitions are controlled by a program's main loop. In this text / computer program, repetition is not only a material quality, but a formal and thematic one as well. The narrator at one point offers a description of his father, who is suffering from what is most likely some form of cancer. His father's pain, like so much of the work's pathos, is presented as a function of computer code:

---’painRepeat’ ---’function’ >>> ‘story event’

<!-- Begin
weight = 130 pounds, height = 5.5 feet, painInterval = 30 minutes;
phenomenon = body.pain('The pain circulated inside my father's bones',’red blood cell = millions, white blood cell = millions’);
phenomenon.movedTo(arms, legs);
painIntervalID = body.happened_twice_a_day(‘pain()’, morning and evening);
arm_bones = throbbing.pain;
leg_bones = throbbing.pain;

function painRepeat() {
   painInterval = 30 minutes…


1. ‘Our Words Were the Form We Entered,’ Witz: A Journal of Contemporary Poetics 4.2 (1996).

2. ‘Paragram as is Hypertext,’ Witz: A Journal of ContemporaryPoetics 5.1 (1997).

3. In ‘Moving text in avant-garde poetry: Towards a poetics of textual motion’ (2003), Teemu Ikonen offers a listing of e-poetry genres and a classification of types of motion in contemporary poetry (Dichtung-digital., viewed November 2004).

4. See Poems that Go at

5. Self-published July 2000 (, and later at Cauldron and Net e-zine, Vol. 3 (

Last updated 9 June, 2005