Reading—perhaps experiencing is the better term—bpNichol’s First Screening felt familiar. It was strangely similar to the experience I had when “reading” Between Page and Screen. These two texts feel very much in conversation. They both seem to be finding some exuberance by creating language in this digital space, of making language move. Both texts create poems that are more clever than moving, though. It’s the visual pun that is more the form of both texts over, say, the traditional poem.
bpNichol must have known this, or at least seen the discrepancy between a poem on the page and this mixture of the concrete and kinetic, because he calls the works of First Screening “computer poems.” The term suggests that the medium (the computer in this case) is very much in control of the work. You’re not supposed to read them like traditional, human poems.
There are, of course, limitations to what bpNichol could do in 1984 when programming his poetry, especially when compared to Between Page and Screen (though that text’s limitations will probably begin to appear, too, in the next ten years). But if I’m going to honest, I find bpNichol’s work to be more charming. It could be the simplicity, maybe its retro allure.
Maybe it’s the clarity of the verbal play. FS doesn’t feel academic at all. I can’t say the same thing for BP&S, though I’m hesitant to call one better over the other. I don’t want to privilege the straight-forward poem (if there is such a thing) over the experimental poem1.
While some of their poems in both texts share similar shticks—First Screening’s has a poem where the word “MOUTH” transforms into several words, much like BP&S’s “SHEER” poem where that word changes—I wouldn’t call bpNichol’s poem less suggestive. Sure, “Island” doesn’t offer much more than the visual pun of “WAVE ROCK WAVE” unless you start thinking about how the words, when they’re in motion on the screen, start to slip into a weird space between signifier and signified. They becomes waves. They become rocks. (And why did bpNichol choose the word “rock” over “land” or “island”? The questions keep coming, so, no, maybe I’m wrong about it being just a visual pun.) On an immediate, gut reaction-level, I get more out the repeated phrase “THE BOTTOM LINE IS WHERE THE CHANGE IS” than almost anything in BP&S. Yes, it’s a visual pun, too, with the actual bottom line of the poem flashing, but the poem has shades of the political.
If both texts are gimmicky, it could be the inability of poets to see beyond the medium they’re using. You still the echoes of the page in these works, as if the authors saw the computer screen as a space where motion could be added to language. And it is that but it could be more.
Ultimately, what is that we want in a digital poem? Is it to recreate the experience of a poem (reading it, hearing it, living it) in a virtual space? Is it to make language do things it can’t on the page? Maybe the true digital poem would be one that eschews language for something else. Visuals, audio, interaction. I’ve heard certain alternative games get compared to poems—games like Journey. Could be that digital poets might have to find a new way to communicate.
1. Of course bpNichol’s text is experimental. It is very much pushing boundaries in form. Maybe not so much in how the language gets deployed, though I’m sure if you got me talking, I could convince myself otherwise.