Where Has All the Hypertext Gone?

For starters, some poetry news from over the weekend:

Apparently, former British Prime Minister Sir John Major wrote secret poetry, though why he was keeping it a secret we’ll never know.

In a truly nasty coincidence, Ryan North of the fantastic Dinosaur Comics, posted this comic after I had already finished my post on webcomics and poetry. Now, on to today’s topic!

Long ago, when the internets began, before they were even a glint in Al Gore’s and/or Ted Stevens’ eye, there was a phenomenon known as Hypertext Poetry. Initially gaining a bit of traction in the poetic community, hypertext poems combined traditional techniques with some very basic hyperlinks, allowing poems to weave in and out of several webpages. Sites like this one and this one made honest efforts to provide collections of these poems to internet readers.

In the early nineties the movement exploded, with scholars at Brown University, including noted author Robert Coover, beginning to take notice and participate. As you can see on their site, they even began to expand into other forms of virtual poetry.

So what happened? Why do some of the links to poems in the sites above not even work anymore? Why isn’t hypertext a class taught in Lit programs at colleges across the country? Why doesn’t every poem posted on a blog today have dozens of links in it?

The answer is complicated. First of all, as you may notice, hypertext can be a little cumbersome to read. After the initial flair of a new technology wears off, it won’t stay popular unless it’s accessible. Take a read through some of the poems above if you can; it’s a safe bet most of you will find the reading a bit cumbersome, maybe even a little frustrating. Even one of my favorites, a compilation piece entitled “The Astrophysicist’s Tango Partner Speaks,” gets to be too much after a while.

Even more than that, the form really only got its sea-legs between ’95 and ’99, just as online video was becoming truly feasible. This made oral poetry and performance poetry easily communicable, and purely visual online poetry started to seem passe.

The final death knell of hypertext was probably Web 2.0. Wikis, blogs, and other user-driven-content sites allowed virtually anyone to self-publish. The need for controlled hypertext projects passed away with the rise of social networking. Something to think about the next time you post your latest as a “note” on Facebook.

Regardless of whether or not it’s still widely in use, the hypertext poetry movement is one that you should definitely check out if you haven’t already. Who knows? You may even decide to bring it back!


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