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POETRY is such a personal and intensely creative process that many poets will be eager to express their passion for this literary form by using the many multimedia opportunities now available to extend their creativity. Poets are the most frustrated of all writers by the restrictions imposed on them by the commercial realities of print publishing. As the American humorist Don Marquis said, publishing a volume of verse "is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo."
The scope for poets and dramatists (that other very frustrated group of writers) to create works that take full advantage of the distribution possibilities of the electronic media are many. Their works can be replicated and distributed on-line and on disk for very little cost to overcome the frustrations of never being able to achieve publication or performance.
Software is now available to make creating these works much easier. Ben Jonson said about the labors of poets and dramatists, "Who casts to write a living line, must sweat." This chapter looks at some very interesting software for poets that takes much of the sweat out of their more mechanical tasks. Dramatists, too, have some great programs available that remove the drudgery of formatting scripts for stage, film, or television production. You can find them in the word processing categories of almost any good shareware collection.
The most exciting developments for both categories of writers are in multimedia. Multimedia enables poets to express themselves visually as well as aurally, and dramatists to mobilize casts of virtual characters and become one-person dramatic production units.
If talented poets really use the new media, they will play an important cultural role in introducing the joys of poetry to a generation unfamiliar with its unique attractions. There are so many new forms to explore, and old traditions to develop.
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Concrete, emblem, or pattern poems, in which the visual shape of the text is also an expression of the content, are ideal for publishing in electronic forms. Many poets have strong political and social messages that they wish to communicate, and the distribution channels open for e-poetry provide opportunities to influence public policy as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle did for earlier generations. Epics and odes are other poetic forms that lend themselves to expression in multimedia formats.
"Everglade," Rod Willmott's hypertext poem, has pioneered a new form of nonlinear poetry in which hypertext links lead the reader from one stanza to another. The reader uses the hypertext links to make a choice where to go next with the poem, so that every reading can be a new experience.
Some poets and authors object to the reader being able to exercise this kind of independence. It might even cause serious concern to a creative writer that his or her work will be released without any controls over how it might be manipulated. If this worries you, various software locks and encryption keys might help prevent your files, and consequently your words, from being corrupted. Personally, I think this is an exaggerated fear. Ever since words were chipped into stone blocks, there has been parody and plagiarism. The electronic media makes this easier, but not, I suspect, much more likely.
You don't need to be a proficient poet to participate in electronic publishing. Those who love poetry and want to spread the good news have wonderful creative opportunities to compile and expand collections of favorite works. Out-of-copyright poetry can be a great basis for creating an original multimedia e-book. The poetry
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anthology can take on a new form in projects like one I am engaged in to pay tribute to the Lake Poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Robert Southey.
These three wrote a number of memorable poems while living in the English Lake District in the 19th century. Their poetry has had a significant cultural impact throughout the English-speaking world, but you can only fully appreciate why this if you have seen this unique mountainous region, with its soft light and muted colors. There are fascinating facts behind the motivation for Wordsworth to write how he "wandered lonely as a cloud" through this landscape. The pictures, sound effects, and music that can be incorporated with the verses in multimedia presentations will help explain to new generations of readers the impact on him when "all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils."
I doubt that the Lake Poets would have any objection having their work transferred to these new media. Southey tended to be rather prim and proper about the sanctity of books as objects, but Wordsworth was more concerned with the content than the packaging of literature. He horrified Southey by cutting the pages of a new book with a dirty butter knife in his hurry to get to the words, while Southey was a dedicated bibliophile who guarded his library and would not allow Wordsworth into it.
"How dead Southey is become to all but books," Wordsworth commented sadly. That is a scathing indictment of the attitude that values books as objects distinct from the creativity that resulted in the compilation of the words they contain. If a work really has merit, its creative integrity and true worth will survive and perhaps flourish if it moves beyond its original covers into new shapes, forms, and media.
I want contemporary kids who cannot relate to poetry at all to know Wordsworth's verses as the friends they were to me when I was growing up, even if I have to add human interest and interactive gimmicks, like encouraging them to download the recipe for the ginger cookies that Dorothy Wordsworth would make for her brother when he returned from his long walks through the Lake District countryside.
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When poetry and drama are given these additional production values, they stand a much better chance of getting into retail outlets. Bookstores are opening their doors to interactive entertainment software, and some of the results are encouraging for retailers, publishers, and writers alike.
The Voyager Company, the publisher that has done most to advance electronic work in the Macintosh environment, has been working during 1994 with Apple Computer and four other electronic publishers to put titles into a cross-section of bookstores on both sides of the Atlantic.
"The best bookstores are wonderful places to browse a wide selection of works, and typically provide a high level of customer service," comments Voyager's Bob Stein. "We wanted to bring that comfort, selection, and service to buyers of interactive software. It makes sense, because these products are as much like books as they are like software, and the shopping experience should be similar."
The test marketing exercise has been accompanied by promotional events and a training program to help bookstore staff understand the new media and be able to give demonstrations to customers.
In a work that embraces poetry and drama, Voyager is publishing a multimedia Shakespeare series. The aim is to overcome the traditional problem when publishing Shakespeare of being able to cater for the larger market of general readers, while also satisfying serious students and scholars.
The confines of the written words and even of the dramatic production of Shakespeare's works are broken wide open in the first title of the series, Macbeth. While reading the play, you can at any time use all the complementary material in the form of additional text
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notes, audio, and even full-motion video. A click on any line in the play brings up on that page a video performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Clicking on underlined words produces boxes with help and definitions. You can search and make notes, access background essays and details of Shakespearean characters, see video clips of other productions of Macbeth, and even select a role and participate in readings with professional actors by using a karaoke feature.
"I've always wanted to have an edition of Shakespeare that lets me see the works both as plays and as beautiful and intricate poetry," explains producer Michael Cohen. (In addition to publishing e-books, Voyager supplies the excellent Expanded Book Toolkit for electronic publishing in the Macintosh environment. For details, call 800-446-2001.)
If you resist electronic publishing because you fear the detrimental effects that the technology might have on the academic and cultural qualities of literature, then it is worth studying the pioneering poetry software created by Michael Newman.
Michael was a protégé of W.H. Auden and, influenced by that distinguished poet's emphasis on technique, has initiated a significant breakthrough in automating many of the technical aspects of writing poetry. The whole concept might worry literary purists, but it is not as academically disturbing as it might sound--unless you are the kind of writer who believes that your pure thoughts might be corrupted by committing them to paper with any instrument more technologically sophisticated than a lead pencil or a nib pen.
There are, on the other hand, many who believe that, if Shakespeare were living today, he would be using a word processor. These people will rejoice in what Newman has achieved. By exploiting word processing technology, he is offering an open door into the wonderful world of poetry for present and future generations. Whether we like it
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or not, most literate people will make computers their medium of choice for expressing intellectual creativity, and this kind of software will have increasing appeal. It encourages more people to write and enjoy poetry, giving writers greater confidence in their ability to be creative in the various poetic forms, and perhaps triggering an aspect of individual creativity that lies dormant for most people.
To be able to create software that helps people write poetry, Newman has had to study the structures and technicalities of the poetic medium, and explain them to users of his Poetry Processor software packages. The explanatory documentation that accompanies the software is a quick course in the history and structure of the various poetic formats.
Michael Newman dreams that his programs might prove to be agents for social change. He hopes to get his poetry software used in prisons to help young, predominantly black, drug offenders develop their vocabularies and reading and writing skills.
"These young offenders have often have tremendous rhyming skills, as demonstrated by the rap phenomenon," Newman explains. "They already have right-brain capabilities, and this software could help them, through writing poetry, develop the more logical left-brain functions necessary for them to get jobs and lead more productive lives. Poetry software could reach these youngsters as no team of do-gooders can, and I believe that poetry stimulates a special endorphin reaction that gives better brain rewards than drugs."
Could two phenomena of the 1990s--rap and personal computers--combine to stimulate young people to write poetry and become more useful members of society? This is a fascinating concept, and Newman got an encouraging response when he proposed the idea to new Clinton White House team. The problem, as with the development of other aspects of electronic publishing, is one of accessibility. Hardware must continue to plunge in price and become more portable so that the creative software that helps people read and write electronically becomes widely available and practical.
Michael Newman thinks that, to unleash the full power of poetry as an agent for social change, his software must become available as low
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cost firmware, programmed onto microchips that can be incorporated into the new portable handheld computing devices. He continues working towards that end. In the meantime, if you have a PC, he will help you become a poet right now. If you are a poet already, a little technological help might enable you to become a better or more productive exponent of prosody.
Poetry Processor displays on-screen whatever structure you have chosen, whether it be free verse, or the distinctive rigid format of a classic Shakespeare sonnet. You are guided to fit your words into the appropriate rhyme and rhythm. There is even the option to load an existing poem in the format you are using to act as a model framework for your own creation. That's a great help if you want to parody an existing work.
Michael Newman has created another program called Orpheus A-B-C (not to be confused with the Orpheus hypertext publishing program). This Orpheus is a computerized course in classical poetry that can be used at various levels. Children can enjoy it as a game, or it can be of great help to serious students of literature at degree level and beyond.
The registration fees and system requirements for these packages are very modest: around 300K of RAM and any version of DOS after 2.1. For more information, call or write
84 Front Street
New Haven, CT 06513
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