July 27, 2005

An Invitation to Poetry in Motion

by Nick Montfort · , 7:17 pm

Poetry in Motion
CD-ROM
Directed by Ron Mann
Voyager
1992

Poetry in Motion II
CD-ROM
Directed by Ron Mann
Voyager
1995

An Invitation to Poetry
Book and DVD
Edited by Robert Pinsky & Maggie Dietz
W.W. Norton and Company
2004

Watching and reading from some compelling multimedia poetry collections has gotten me thinking about their different approaches. The two Poetry in Motion CD-ROMs espouse a very different view of poetry and its place in culture than does An Invitation to Poetry, and this difference seems more interesting than the differences in interface, format, and publication dates.

Now, I say “very different,” but of course even the most radically different poets actually agree on a lot when it comes to language and poetry: it should be pleasing in its sound, its meaning, and the interplay between these; in general a poem manifests itself on the page, in the voice, and in the mind. It should work to do things that the newspaper does not. If you’re going to throw open the doors to every possible perspective on language and include, say, Joseph Goebbels, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Karl Rove, then we’d have to say that poets are all pretty much allies – it would hardly be worth noting the differences even between poets of very different stripes, such as Derek Walcott and Amiri Baraka.

But, from a standpoint within poetry, these collections of texts and videos are indeed quite different. The poets documented by Ron Mann posit an image of poet as performer, physically present and supplying the expert voice that is uniquely qualified to utter the poem. Pinsky and Dietz, on the other hand, actually don’t even include the poets in their videos.

The videos in the An Invitation to Poetry DVD show how poetry lives in ordinary speakers of the language, in the minds and bodies of those who remember it, those who care about it. Poetry in Motion provides important documentation of performances, of the sort that has traditionally been collected by libraries offline and, more recently, have been collected online. An Invitation to Poetry, a more conservative production on the surface, actually does something a bit more unusual and innovative by documenting the place poetry has in American life.

The Poetry in Motion CD-ROMs are based on Mann’s 1982 documentary of the same name. The small, low-quality video is no surprise for early 1990s CD-ROMs. It works well enough, though, and is keyed to the text of the poems so that a click on a line will take the viewer to the appropriate point in the video. (A decade later, and such a design is still waiting to catch on.) “As printed” and “as performed” text is provided, and some clips from interviews, but little editorial apparatus. While both are good collections, there is a lot of overlap between the poets on the two CD-ROMs: Helen Adam, Amiri Baraka, Ted Berrigan, Charles Bukowski, Jim Carroll, Robert Creeley, Diane DiPrima, Allen Ginsberg, John Giorno, Michael Ondaatje, and Anne Waldman appear in both. Either volume will provide good access to the scene Mann has chosen to document. While the interface doesn’t seem revolutionary today, it works well, which – given the age of these CD-ROMs and the way our expectations about interfaces have changed since the early 1990s – is quite a testament to the original design. Apparently Poetry in Motion and Poetry in Motion II are both still available for purchase, for Windows and Mac System 9.

It may seem a bit odd to compare An Invitation to Poetry, since it isn’t computer software, but a book and DVD. The Poetry in Motion CD-ROMs are certainly more coherently browsable – a few clicks will show you the text of a poem while the video of the poet’s reading it plays. But thanks to random-access DVDs and the random-access codex, the same thing can be accomplished in An Invitation to Poetry with a little bit more shuffling of remotes and papers, and the standard consumer (or classroom) video player is the only required equipment. While less interesting from the standpoint of interactive media design, An Invitation to Poetry is a bit more populist in its platform requirements, and gets the job done. The anthology is an outcome of Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project, and follows two other books that anthologize Americans’ favorite poems. The videos on the DVD were shown on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and are also available online at the FPP site. The anthology ranges over all sorts of poems, not just contemporary American ones.

Neither Poetry in Motion nor An Invitation to Poetry is likely to change the way that anyone thinks about user interface design or multimedia, but they’re quite likely to change the way some people think about poetry, which I think is pretty important to the future of literature, on and off the computer. So, let’s see – I’ll start by assigning Baraka’s students to read and view An Invitation to Poetry; Walcott’s students, when they’re done memorizing today’s Thomas Hardy poem, are to check out Poetry in Motion. That should be a good start.