e-Lit Resource
Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995

A part of the Modern and Contemporary Poetics series edited by Charles Bernstein and Hank Lazer, C. T. Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry traces a nonlinear genealogy of digital poetics, looking back at earlier formal experiments in poetic form to demonstrate the interrelated histories of digital poetries and their print-based counterparts, so often considered separately. But, as the introduction to this now seminal work demonstrates, it is not only useful to understand that digital poetry has its roots in a history of the print-based avant-garde; it is also useful to consider that all poetry—especially experimental poetry—written in the last half-century is necessarily influenced by the radical potentials and McLuhanian obsolescences of technology and the technologization of poetics. Digital poetry, Funkhouser argues, was “mechanically and conceptually built in the decades before personal computers” (1). With roots in Dada, Oulipo, Black Mountain, Projective Verse, concrete poetry, imagism, the French avant-garde, Futurism, and high modernism, digital poetry cannot be understood as separate from the print-based tradition. Anything written in the last fifty years or so is necessarily influenced by the technologization of this practice from the typewriter to the personal computer to the current ubiquity of internet network accessibility.

For Funkhouser, digital poetics explicitly works towards a de-personalization of poetry and a de-individualization of the author by virtue of the networked nature and often randomized elements of digital poetic production as well as the tendency towards active engagement of a readership. As Funkhouser notes, “[d]igital poems are more inclined toward abstraction and are largely depersonalized, especially as the media used in composition has become hybridized” (17). While these effects are not exclusive to digital poems, the processes of
Randomization, patterning, and repetition of words, along with discursive leaps and quirky, unusual semantic connections, are almost always found in digital poetry, though sometimes these effects are so amplified that the poems would not be considered poetry by someone using traditional definitions. (18)

Additionally, digital poems are marked by instability and flux. As Funkhouser goes on to describe, “[d]igital poems do not exist in a fixed state” and thus “[a]ny work that exists in digital form is temporary” (21). Indeed, “[l]ongevity is not one of the genre’s defining characteristics” (ibid). While recent curatorial work has endeavoured to change the way we view the ephemerality of the digital text, Funkhouser maintains that this ephemerality is a hallmark of the digital project in general. As an extension of this ephemerality, Funkhouser argues throughout that the digital poetic project is marked by a rhizomatic linking. “Digital poetry is not a fixed object,” he explains, and “its circuitry perpetuates a conversation” (18). Embracing conversation and discursivity, digital poetry makes apparent the fact that “[p]oetry is a social constructed art form, always situated within other texts ... and extended by readers” (ibid). From this point on, Funkhouser considers a wealth of diverse and complex poetic works ranging from Strachey’s love letters and other early generative experiments to mainstays of electronic literature from the turn of the millennium like Maria Mencia’s "Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs" (2003) or Sandy Baldwin’s “New Word Order” (2003).

As Baldwin’s foreword to the text attests, Funkhouser’s central argument throughout this book is not only that digital literatures and print-based literary experimentation of the last half-century have developed in tandem with the affordances of media technology—always pushing the limits of those affordances, of course—but also, and perhaps more importantly, that this media history is the product not of isolated creative genius, but rather “the actual practices of communities of writers and readers” (xviii). The chapters that follow this foreword demonstrate the communality, conversation, and collaboration that led to the experimentation that necessarily produced the vast corpus of digital poetics we have today.