Richard King reviews Papertiger #02

15 March 2003

Papertiger #02
Paul Hardacre & Brett Dionysius (eds)
Papertiger Media (2002)

A poetry journal on CDROM is apt to raise some absorbing questions about the nature and status of poetry, and in this respect the second issue of papertiger: new world poetry doesn't disappoint.

In an interview with Dorothy Porter, the question of poetry's ability to move beyond its 'established' boundaries – in Porter's case generic boundaries – inspires this little exchange:

Paul Hardacre [editor]: Do you think that narrative verse (i.e. the verse novel) offers more to the reader than narrative fiction?

Dorothy Porter: Depends entirely on the quality of the verse novel. Though readers tend to forget that poetry invented narrative so really a verse novel should read like a duck finally and passionately taking to water.

In fact it would be more accurate to say that narrative 'invented' poetry. For it was the fact that stories were passed on orally in primitive societies that led to the development of such devices as enabled those stories to be easily memorised. That is why Auden's 'memorable speech' remains the best and the simplest definition of poetry that we have – historically revealing as well as descriptive of most of the stuff worth reading. That it very nearly gets an airing in Hardacre's editorial (he plumps instead for Mark O'Connor's slightly embellished version, 'memory and evocative speech') is, I think, an encouraging sign.

So when Hardacre writes, earlier in his editorial, of

the widely held view of many literary traditionalists that Web and other new media publishing is somehow 'lesser' – less valid, less desirable, less representative of all that is good in literary publishing – than print

I find myself wondering whom he can mean. For it seems to me that a 'literary traditionalist' (or a 'poetry traditionalist') should be at least a little excited by a package with the capacity to restore to poetry its oral element. George Orwell (who, in poetic matters, was something of a conservative) certainly saw the radio as being entirely congruent with poetry's traditional 'aims', and noted how, as well as taking poetry to a wider audience, it was having a beneficial influence on the poetry itself (see 'Poetry and the Microphone'). 'Speaking as someone not averse to being called a “literary traditionalist”, I was looking forward immensly to taking a look at papertiger.

The range of content is quite impressive. There is audio poetry, video poetry, flash poetry and textual poetry. Features include the interview with Dorothy Porter mentioned above, to which is appended a generous selection, or 'Retrospective', of her work (some of which is now out of print). There's a work in progress by Peter Minter – an interesting sequence entitled 'Arc Hive' – and a selection from Rebecca Wolff, a poet in the USA. There's also a selection of Singaporean poets, edited by Felix Cheong.

This last is perhaps the most interesting feature. Felix Cheong's introductory essay has clearly hit the nail on the head as regards the peculiar nature of contemporary verse in Singapore, where, as he suggests (quoting Dennis Haskell) 'it would be impossible to be a Romantic'. The city, however, furnishes Cheong with a metaphor for poetry that I think is very striking:

Examine [Singapore's] skyline on a clear blue day and you cannot help but marvel at how well this city-state parades its forms and technique. How well it conceals its fear of chaos beneath skyscraper chrome and glass.

Increasingly, it seems to me, contemporary poetry is less concerned with the tension between technique and 'chaos' (for which read also 'modern life'), and more concerned with the registration of chaos pure and simple. The poetry being written by our Singaporean cousins is sadly no exception: one sequence is entitled 'Songs of Singapore: No Pretence of Rhyme or Reason'.

Rhyme and reason aren't much in evidence elsewhere in papertiger, which – all literary traditionalists will be dismayed to learn – contains the usual crop of poems that seem to have been written down just as they were felt. For once, however, I was rather less interested in the standard of the poetry than in the ways in which that poetry had been combined with the new technology. What I'd hoped for in papertiger was a sort of journal-brought-to-life, where I could read such things as needed to be read and hear such things as needed to be heard.

Naturally, then, the visual experiments interested me less than the audio poetry. Though the videos are nicely shot and the flash graphics often ingenious, neither seemed to me to advance the cause of Poetry-as-Sound. Unfortunately, this was also true of a lot of the audio poetry, much of which is set to music or spoken in that stagy way that tends to reduce us literary traditionalists to fits of nervous giggles. In other words, it was Performance Poetry, and in Performance Poetry it is not the 'texture' of the poet's voice, but the poet's performance that is important.

I did, however, like one of the pieces – a collaboration between Mike Ladd and an outfit called newaural net entitled 'Transglobal Express'. 'I began by writing a poem', Ladd explains in his introduction.

John Gray [of newaural net] then logged onto an Internet phone site and tried to persuade people waiting to talk to read back bits of the poem [-] John managed to persuade some individuals in Turkey, the USA and France to read bits of the poem, which he then recorded on line. He also recorded the objections and comments and questions, such as 'I don't understand what you want', 'I'm hanging up now', 'Who is this person that I'm talking to?', 'No problem', and most poignantly, 'I don't know any poetry.'

These lines are intermingled with lines from Ladd's original poem – 'In the country of the sad', 'All the people you've never known' – and the effect is strangely moving. The project is slightly marred, however, by Ladd's pretentious description of it, later in his introduction, as 'an audio poem on the presence of absence in virtuality'.

There's a bit of a growl in papertiger (it comes through the interview with Dorothy Porter) to do with the 'fact' that publishers will tend to plump for 'established' poets, to the disadvantage of newer, more 'experimental' voices, which, by dint of their being newer and more experimental, are naturally more interesting. So long as the editors of papertiger choose to indulge in this fantasy (so much poetry published now is new, casually experimental and of no interest whatsoever), their project will remain a marginal one, which is to say unknown.

In my view they should rather ask themselves this: what might a multimedia journal offer to those who, not unreasonably, would otherwise choose to spend their dollars on a more 'established' magazine, and the prospect of some decent poems by more 'established' poets? And this, I think, should be their answer: the potential for hearing those poems read, for hearing the voices of those poets.

As it stands papertiger is a paper tiger: it poses no threat to what Hardacre calls (a little unattractively) 'the traditional method of text delivery'. But poetry is an area of literature – the only area of literature as far as I can tell – in which multimedia has an advantage over that traditional method. I remember the thrill and gratitude I felt on coming across the website of the Academy of American Poets and hearing the voices of Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. This website, too, uses music and video, but uses them unobtrusively, as a sideshow to the main event (which is, of course, the recordings themselves).

Now a poetry journal on CDROM with this as its inspiration – that would be something worth having.

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