comments + further thought - gaming + poetry

Update 21 January 2010: This post is now complete. The final sections Bringing the ideas together and Further investigation have been added at the bottom. Your comments are invited.

There were several well-informed and interesting contributions to the debate around what poetry might learn from gaming posted more than a week ago. This is the first of what will probably be two follow-up posts. It is a lot longer than I originally intended, hence the delay.

My intention here is first to clarify the various ideas I threw out in the original hastily-written post. I will start by defining terms, then summarise my argument. Second I will attempt to summarise the points made by the various contributors - I hope that they will correct any inaccuracies or misrepresentations. Third I will attempt to pull these two sets of ideas together in order to determine where there is agreement or disagreement, or where there are subjects that have not been covered. Fourth I will identify what seem to me to be fruitful lines of experimentation and enquiry.

As previously I welcome any feedback. I don't claim to be especially knowledgeable in either field and it has been helpful to hear from others who are better informed about many aspects of this debate. Views and experiences will be especially valuable this time as I now intend to spend around a month doing some research ahead of a second follow-up post. And when I say research I don't just mean playing games, although that will be a part of it.

The original post opened, 'Can poetry learn from gaming?' Which was clear enough for the purpose of sparking debate but which needs to be clarified for further discussion to take place. What did I have in mind when I wrote 'poetry', or when I wrote 'gaming'?

By 'poetry' I had in mind two general areas of concern - how poetry is published and how poetry is written. Both thought of in fairly incohate terms.

How poetry is published in particular was vaguely conceived. Primarily I was interested in how poetry is marketed, which extended for me beyond publication into media coverage and public reception. A secondary aspect was what sort of media are used by writers and publishers, in particular use of the internet and digital technologies both for creation and dissemination of work. Dissemination of work belongs under the header of how poetry is marketed, creation is covered under the header of how poetry is written, for which see the next paragraph. It is obvious that the areas of interest here even after this narrowing of focus are enormous and that I can't hope to cover them in any kind of detail. To do so would require serious research and a book-length work. I have no intention of writing a book on this subject, so future coverage here will necessarily be circumscribed, but I will come to this in due course.

How poetry is written covered several aspects. First is how technology impacts on the way poets write, or create their visual and audio works, in terms of making marks or recording sounds, but also in terms of editing. This is in itself quite broad but I will not define it more closely here. Second is how poets think about the structure of their work. It should be clear that there are several aspects to this. I have chosen three broad areas of greatest interest to me. First are the formal concerns of poetry - metre and verbal/written devices like rhyme. Second is the question of how arguments/ideas are presented, which would mainly seem to consist of rhetoric. I have chosen to combine this with related but distinct concerns such as how the reader is guided (or misguided) through the poem. This is distinct because poems can guide readers through their lay-out, alignment, line-breaks etc. But I am joining it to rhetoric because the effects of rhetoric and the shaping of poems can broadly be taken as ways of guiding the reader. Third is one of the main concerns of poetry, the rewards and pleasures the reader derives, which also clearly includes the challenges and difficulties they face.

By 'gaming' I again had two areas in mind, how games are played and how games are created. While I know something about how games are played, what I know about how games are created could be written on a gnat's cock. I am not going to define either of these two areas any further here, but will look at them in greater detail as they arise. This is because the main concern I had related to 'playability', how intuitive and easy a game is to play, how enjoyable it is, and how challenge and reward are balanced. These are mainly the realm of games design, but obviously the player has a role within that process.

My discussions of gaming will be more sketchy and less well-informed than my discussions of poetry, but I welcome corrections on any part of this post.

Original argument
To summarise:

1) I began with a preamble in which I argued that gaming has succeeded over thirty years in building a mass audience for something that is both complex and requires active participation. I also argued that games are an artform, and that like film they require the co-ordination of several disciplines.

2) I then briefly discussed the nature of gaming. In particular I noted that the creation of games requires a number of people and that gameplay is often a social experience. Something that I forgot to mention was the longstanding practice of trading games, often by exchanging them for another game through a shop, which may then resell the first game at a reduced price. There is a secondhand market for books, but that is not really the same thing. I drew parallels with popular musics across the last century. Finally I speculated as to whether the idea of the poet as a uniquely inspired lone individual might be outdated.

3) Next I briefly discussed the nature of poetry. In particular how although the internet has started to change how poets distribute their work and communicate with one another, digital technologies do not appear to have impacted how poems are made in the same way that audio technology and the photocopier did. I did not consider video/film poetry or flash poetry. Video poetry I would consider originating more with the earlier pre-digital technologies than more recent developments. Flash poetry was an oversight. I have only seen a couple of pieces to date (actually using Powerpoint rather than Flash) that go much beyond novelty, but I am sure this will change.

4) Following this I looked at how technologically enabled arts, in particular film and gaming, but music made in the studio would also qualify, has developed new ways to communicate information to the audience. I was especially interested in how audiences had to learn to 'read' new techniques such as rapid cuts from scene to scene in films, and how this originally constituted quite a challenge. I suggested, possibly erroneously, that there was no similar recent challenge in poetry.

5) The question that arose from this was what are the implications of these facts for poetry? Should we for instance think of poetry in terms of being:

a) A social creation?

b) A technologically enabled artform? The obvious examples would be sound, visual, and film poetry.

c) Or perhaps there might be other undefined ways to look at poetry in relation to technology and other artforms?

6) This brought me to the possible parallels between gaming and poetry. These were that like many artform, especially literary forms, games take time both to design and to play. Implicit but not made clear in that was a parallel between the way that you do not automatically have access to content in a game, and how a poem may not immediately reveal itself. I also made a passing reference to the question of the balance between challenge and reward in both gaming and poetry.

7) I finished by emphasising that I was not attempting to identify a crisis with poetry, and that in fact I felt much contemporary poetry is both challenging and rewarding in very interesting ways. What I did not go on to say was that there is a question about how to reach potential readers given that objectively speaking even 'difficult' poetry should be no more alienating than games (or films or music for that matter). Regular readers may recognise this as a question I frequently return to.

Contributions by others
The numerous comments left on the original post helped enormously to clarify my thinking. My efforts above to try and pin down clearer definitions, and the rest of this discussion could not have been achieved without their help. I will therefore attribute the various comments to the individual who left the comment as I mention each one.

My summary of the comments received breaks down into four broad headings:

First I will look at potential problems with a collaborative approach to poetry. The idea of a social poetry was probably the most prominent suggestion in the original post and was the one that attracted most attention.

Second I will look at where collaboration already exists. The comments on this were often the same as those identifying potential problems or in response to those comments. Much of the information under this header relates to areas about which I know nothing and have not yet researched so I will tend to stick close to the comments as received.

Third I will look at ways of creating (mainly collaborative) poetry through technological means.

Fourth because the previous headers effectively impose a narrative on the comments I will quickly summarise the other points that they leave out.

As I said earlier I hope that if any distortions or misrepresentations have crept into my summary the authors will correct me.

Potential problems
Jeffrey Side started the debate by looking at the idea of collaborative poetry. He mentioned that it had been essential in video production, but cautioned that many poets still hold to the idea of 'authorship'. This could cause some poets to be unwilling to be listed as one of a number of collaborators on a poem, or contention over the order in which they are credited etc. Jeffrey then went on to identify that genuinely collaborative forms like film or plays are different from poetry in that specific roles have to be filled for the endeavour to come together and that when you start work in film you are aware that you will be (initially at least) a lighting technician or whatever your specialism happens to be. Poets on the other hand are still used to the Romantic notion of the poet as some kind of artistic Prometheus.

Brian Zimmer started by talking about Asian poetries, and I will cover this in the next section. He then expressed agreement with Jeffrey as regards the problem of ego. A little later he mentioned how an experience of studying renga/renku, a collaborative poetry, was made unpleasant by an egotistic group leader. In a later comment on the thread Brian speculated whether collaboration between sound poets might go more smoothly than between text poets, and observed that between visual poets collaboration is enjoyable.

Jeffrey then commented that anonymity of composition might solve the problem of ego, although suggested not many would agree to such an idea. I agreed with his comment in one of my own, and raised some issues covered in the next section. I then asked if sound and visual poetry are more amenable to collaboration why this might be so. Brian responded by suggesting that perhaps the history of the various practices might play a part, and that questioning of authorship and text might be more integral to sound and visual poetry than to text poetry.

There was not a lot else written on this particular aspect until Brian wrote, in response to another point, that clashes of personality could make collaboration with some writers impossible.

Existing forms of collaboration

Brian was first to look at existing collaborative writing practices. He mentioned his experience of studying renga/renku, a Japanese form of collective poetry. He linked this to different attitudes to leaders/masters and individualism between Asian and 'Western' cultures. He observed that you might hear about one poem being written across centuries. Brian drew on renga/renku to give the example of how if a poet presents a verse that the sensei revises to the extent that almost nothing of the original remains that verse is still credited to the originating poet. A further observation a little was that attitudes to plagiarism are another point of cultural difference, and that it is often considered a way of connecting to and honouring the past.

Replying to the comment by Jeffrey on anonymous composition I identified the only example of collective anonymous authorship I could think of, the Italian novel-writing group Wu-Ming. In response to Brian's comment about visual and sound poetry I wrote that collaborations where different parties have distinctly defined roles may be easier to manage.

The debate then wandered into other areas until Andy Bonjour (poetechie) pointed out that literary magazines and anthologies are an example of collective works by multiple poets that constitute single works of art. But observed that they are easier to divide into separate works than say film. He also identified a potentially collaborative form that I had not considered - video [or film] poetry. A little later he identified the longest poem in the world as an existing collaboration. I will write more on this in the next section.

Technological approaches

Although for me it was an important aspect of the original post it was some time before Adam Cheshire proposed a possible structure for a technologically-enabled performance. He starts by looking at a possible live performance using a number of readers and fairly commonplace technology. Using paddles with a series of buttons the audience vote for a poem from a selection projected behind the reader onstage. An easier and perhaps more reliable system might be for people to send their choices by SMS. A similar approach could be used to select accompanying music/sound. The reader performs the chosen poem, and the audiences choice guides them through a series of thematically linked pieces. Collaboration could be introduced by having several people work on the related poems, and then having them read. This would be fairly straightforward to transfer to the web where video and easter eggs could be incorporated. Adam also suggested it could be a flash game.

Not having read the comment as closely as I should I was initially unclear whether Adam intended a live 'real-world' reading or not, and wrote my immediate response on the muddled assumption that the suggestion referred entirely to an online concept. Therefore I opened by reviving a speculative but I suspect gimmicky and potentially irritating idea of constructing a poem in small sections on a number of webpages. Each section of poetry would have a number of links embedded taking you to other section of the poem.

I was also reminded of a couple of things I'd seen visualising interactive games. The first was from CYOA analysing the structure of choose your own adventure books (not from Information is Beautiful as I thought). The second was the underlying structure of a user-generated level from Little Big Planet shown on BBC Four's Games Britannia. I'd wanted to find a picture I could put here or link to but haven't had any luck so far. This design walkthrough from Eurogamer will have to do instead - it starts playing when the page opens and it is interesting.

Something in the graphic representation of otherwise invisible structures seemed relevant to the argument. However, the fact that one of my examples are the choose your own adventure books of around thirty years ago indicates that this is not a uniquely technological phenomenon. For instance there is a lot of information about how Basil Bunting structured Briggflatts, drawing in turn from past models in music and illuminated manuscripts.

Finally Andy Bonjour (poetechie) identfied the longest poem in the world that I linked to earlier. This aggregates public tweets that rhyme at an advertised rate of around 40,000 tweets a day. No single person could realistically write at that rate. I had in the past seen similar aggregators that collected tweets on single themes, but in a sense by using a traditional element of poetry barely used today the longest poem... manages to create a much more disjointed and contemporary poetry. To me this also echoed the kind of strategies used by Kenneth Goldsmith for instance to use OCR (or voice recognition) to generate large amounts of text from a variety of sources that can then be manipulated.

Other issues raised
Needless to say other issues were raised that related to the discussion. Translation for instance should probably be regarded as a form of collaboration. And as well as choose your own adventure books there have been various paper-based solutions to breaking the linear habits of reading. Various poems and novels have consisted of loose leaves in a box. Other books, Robert Sheppard's Twentieth Century Blues for instance are presented as conventional books designed to be read through in a variety of different ways.

Andy Bonjour (poetechie) referred to my quoting of Dara O'Briain's observation from Gameswipe that when you buy a game you don't have access to all the content you've paid for, but have to earn it. He rightly pointed out that poetry is already like this, that you can read the surface right away, but won't unlock the poem immediately. Basil Bunting is quoted as often saying that poetry began with the sound, and that other aspects should follow. This seems to be making a similar point. He also approved of my somewhat facetious suggestion of a poetry boss fight every ten pages.

Which more or less covers the story to date.

Bringing the ideas together
I asked, originally in a confused and vague manner, whether we should think of poetry as:

a) A social creation?
b) A technologically-enabled artform?
c) Whether there might be other undefined ways to look at poetry in relation to technology and other artforms?

The first two questions generated most comment.

The idea of poetry as a social creation or collaborative endeavour attracted most contributions from those commenting. Curiously except for Adam’s description of a performance, where it was not the central focus, the idea of poetry as something socially consumed was not approached. This is at least partly down to my phrasing of the original post, and even above my emphasis is more on creation and distribution than on reading, listening and discussing. For the purposes of this debate which was intended partly to look at how some forms manage to build large audiences that’s a major failing. Some writers would argue that if you have to chase the audience and explain yourself to them then they’re probably not the audience you want. It could also be argued that if you are trying to reach out to an audience it can lead to compromise as you try to please or maintain that audience. I don’t believe that necessarily has to be the case, and I feel that if readers are given ways to analyse and discuss it they can engage intelligently with extremely challenging poetry.

Poetry as a technologically-enabled artform did not generate quite as much debate and most of what there was came in the form of my own supplementary thoughts. This is because it is the area of most interest to me. But once again except as for a rather brief mention that technology has enabled poets to communicate and distribute their work in different ways there was no reflection that the way readers approach poetry might have changed. In many ways it is a lot easier to find work. Although there are fewer bookshops on the high street with a smaller stock of less interesting books than say twenty years ago, the amount of material available either online or capable of being bought online and produced using print-on-demand services, means that those with an internet connection are better served. Certainly it could often be intimidating to go into small, cramped bookshops to buy books and magazines where you knew nothing about the author or the press, which might well have ceased production. It does leave a gap for people without an internet connection and outside of major metropolitan centres where art centres and poetry readings will carry copies of print on demand books – but that’s a question for another time.

The third question about whether there might be other undefined ways to look at poetry in relation to technology and other artforms was both vague, and arguably not discernible in the original post. Remember these clear divisions and their wording come from my clarification at the beginning of this post. It’s therefore unsurprising that there was no response to it.

Further investigation
Arising from this I can see five major areas for further investigation for the third follow-up piece – which may end up being more than one entry. They are:

1) The reader of poetry. Specifically:

  • Social consumption of poetry. Readings etc.
  • The impact of technology on the accessibility of poetry. This will probably also incorporate accessibility of poetics, enabling readers to get to grips with challenging work.

2) Collaborative poetries. This will include:

  • Historical forms of collaboration.
  • Asian poetries and their approach to collaboration.
  • The differences between sound/visual practices and text poetry.

3) How computer games are designed.

4) The ‘architecture’ of poems, looking at:

  • Structure in poetry and other forms of art.
  • The structure(s) of games.

5) Technologically-enabled poetries. Among others this will include:

  • Flash and other animation.
  • Video/film poetry.
  • Other intermedia forms.
  • Sound and visual poetry.
  • The ability to engage in long-range collaborations.

It will be apparent that these are huge areas and I probably won’t be able to do much more than provide a digest. For the most part these are not subjects about which I know anything, so your contributions and links are absolutely vital. Please let me have your thoughts.

Sorry it's taken so long to complete this post but at around 3,700 words it's 1000 words longer than my final MA commentary - which obviously took precedent.


Brian said…
Good summation, Matt.

One successful western example of collaborative poetry that occurred to me whilst reading was the Surrealist game of "Exquisite Corpse". Quite a bit depends on what the poets are trying to accomplish even if it's only the investigation of the neural firings of a no longer viable "unconscious".

Of course early Surrealist theory and the "rules of the game" removed much of the potential rancor from any such endeavor.
Matt Dalby said…
Thanks for reminding me about Exquisite Corpse Brian, it completely slipped my mind.
Anonymous said…
I'm subscribed and looking forward to the post.
Anonymous said…
collaborative poetry link for you.

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