On Hypertext, and the vanity of human endeavour.

July 27, 2011

I came across a reference to an online poetry magazine called The Hypertexts, and took a look at it. It is a well-presented site, featuring varied work (some by poets who have appeared in Snakeskin). The tone of the whole thing veers a bit too much towards the pious for my own taste, but that’s just me.

There is a puzzle, though. The zine is called The Hypertexts, and I went there in expectation of finding some hypertext poetry. Oddly, there was none. It’s as though one had visited Sonnet Central and found every kind of verse except fourteen-liners.

Maybe the editors are youngsters, and their memories don’t stretch back to the heyday of hypertext poetry. Probably they just like the sound word ‛hypertext’ and haven’t thought to enquire about its meaning and history in the online poetry world.

Back in the late nineties hypertext poetry was a subject that rather enthralled me. Back then, some of us were wondering what difference the Internet could make to poetry, and turned our attention to the defining technique of the new medium, the hypertextual link that enabled a jump from one piece of text to another. By crafty use of this, one could hope to produce work that could not possibly appear to the same effect on a paper copy.

Webworks appeared in which the reader could choose how a piece of writing progressed by clicking on a link, and following where their choice led. Most works of this kind were imagistic, and probably rather unfocused, but fellow-rhymer Kenneth Payne and I chose to create a big narrative work, The Maze of Mirrors, which forces the reader-as-antihero through a series of choices, towards a variety of endings. The form of the piece was inspired by the ‛Choose-your-own Adventure’ children’s books that were popular at the time, and also by the ideas of Queneau, and by some of the stories of Borges. The mood was as garishly pop-gothic as we could make it.

The work has had its fans, but by and large, in the most recent decade, hypertext is not an area that online poets have usually wanted to explore. Maybe they are more interested in self-expression than in the creation of an intricate artefact. And there’s no denying that writing hypertext poems takes a lot of work- you have to draw maps and work out some elementary coding. Ken and I spent about three months on the Maze. A very enjoyable three months, actually, but it was work that was both finicky and ambitious.

Remembering all this with affection, I thought I’d take a look at the Maze again, which I hadn’t for quite a while.

I was horrified to find that it didn’t load into Firefox. Internet Explorer was OK. Chrome was not.

It took a lot of fiddling about before I discovered the problem. The latest version of Firefox is intolerant of some of the HTML created by my 1998 compiling program(I think that’s about the time that I was using something called Hot Dog from Sausage Software to create web pages. The biggest problem came from the fact that what had been intended as a soft line-break in the original code was being interpreted as a hard one in the new browser.

So I had to go through all the pages of the Maze poem (there are about 120 of them), checking to see that all was well. As I did so, I have to tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed the poem’s intricacies again, especially Ken’s bits. (If you decide to try the poem, the most utterly outrageous rhyming is Ken’s.) Anyway, it’s all fixed now, and waiting for new readers.

The trouble is that I suspect the trouble goes beyond the Maze. I’m going to have to check all the early back numbers of Snakeskin. Which will take a while.

So here are two parables about the impermanence of human effort. First, our happy efforts have largely been forgotten, and  the young lads and lassies at The Hypertext can behave as though the Hypertext Poetry movement had never happened. (Ken and I, of course, were not the only toilers in this genre. A list of interesting hypertext works by others can be found here.) And then, pages coded in HTML that have worked well enough for a dozen years can suddenly prove inaccessible to the latest browsers. I’m sure the designers of these try hard to make them backwards-compatible, but they can’t necessarily cope with the eccentricities of amateur coders like myself using non-standard software like Hot Dog.

Everything will pass, and the best efforts of Internet coders are but as grass before the grazing beast of Time.


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