Saturday, August 8, 2009


"Cent mille milliards de poemes" (A hundred thousand billion poems), by Raymond Queneau

For a number of years I've been really interested in the possibilities of hypertext as a vehicle for really interesting and complex narrative. I diddled around with writing stories in hypertext, but was never satisfied with the result; they seemed to me either confusing or aimless or simply mechanistic, and at best I came up with something so voluminous that I couldn't possibly complete it in one lifetime.

I decided to try poetry instead.

Poetry has the virtue of being all about simplicity, about using as few words as you can to create complex images and ideas. It's about making little windows into reality, places where the world stops for a moment and you see, really see, something unexpected.

It's really a perfect place for hypertext, being spare and clear and often having a specific structure. And there is a long history of what is called combinatorial poetry, or combinatorial text - the creation of poems that can be changed around by the reader, usually based on some mechanism in the book form. I decided that I would try haiku, since the form is so fixed. This would a) allow me to work within a specified framework, so I didn't have to also create (and get tangled up in) my own system; and b) would keep the poems from wandering off on a tangent, keeping them simple and clear. I also decided I would specify the number of links so as to keep it as structured as a traditional haiku.

What I came up with, using the simplest tools I could, was an HTML frameset system in a set window size. The top frame held the top line, the middle frame held the middle line, and the bottom frame held - well, you get the picture. Then in each line I chose one word which would be emphasized, making that the link word. When the reader clicks on that link, the line changes, creating a new haiku. (more about my process here)

It's difficult to describe it, and I can't actually insert one here in the blog, so I suggest you try one. Here's my little MetaHaiku site, where you can see a few that I've written.

The thing I like about these is that it enlarges the tiny window of a haiku without compromising its essential qualities. By nature, haiku are traditionally supposed to describe a moment, and they are supposed to contain some clue about season, and they are supposed to speak only of small things - which of course capture something much larger. So when you make a haiku with hypertext, you are creating a series of moments, a progression of snapshots which move slightly through time, describing a longer moment than a regular two-dimensional haiku. It's not so much that they describe more as that they describe longer, and the reader can unveil the moment in a way that is pleasingly exploratory.

The haiku have five links on the top line, seven on the middle, and five on the bottom, echoing the syllabic line-structure. The experience is a lot like our experience of real moments - in other words, you can't go back. There is a starting haiku and and ending haiku, and any number of ways to get there. In the present structure, you have more than 175 ways to get from the beginning to the end, so the process is surprisingly repeatable.

What I've decided is that I'd really like to share these, and see if others are interested in writing some. What I'd really like to do is to find a simple way to do it, given that mine are done in a clunky and complicated way, and then broadcast the template for everyone to use. I'm working on having a friend make a Flash interface to simplify things, but in the meantime if anyone wants to know the more lame way I did it you can email me (look in the sidebar for the address) and I'll do my best to define it for you.

Vive la Interactif!


Tyler Hewitt said...

I love this idea, and the website is really enjoyable.

Wood said...

Just a little detail : you forgot the final U in "Raymond Queneau"...

ginsoak said...

This reminds me of a tradition not well known in the West, an 'offshoot' of haiku called "renga". From the "Haiku Anthology" (and please excuse the length, but I think you'll find this interesting):

Renga - also called "linked-verse poems" and "renku" - can be written by one poet (solo renga) but are usually composed by two or more poets writing verses, or links, in turn. In Japan this is done during live sessions, but in the West renga have most often been written through the mail.

Japanese renga alternate verses of 5-7-5 onji (sound-syllables) with verses of 7-7 onji, so most Western renga have been written alternating 3-line links with 2-line links. The usual lengths of Japanese renga are 36 or 100 verses.

Each link should form a complete poem with the link that immediately follows it, and another complete poem with the one that comes before it. Often the meaning of a particular link will change as it is considered first with the one proceding it, and then with the one succedding it. And of these three there may be no relationship at all between the first and the last. The only link that must be able to stand alone is the hokku, the "starting link" of the complete renga.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, the word 'milliard' means billion in French.

Liam said...

Very cool.

Heather McDougal said...

Ah! Corrections duly noted and changed. Thanks all!

Anonymous said...

I'm not too discriminating. I never Metahaiku I didn't like.

Ian James Anthony said...

Fellow Wonderites, I come seeking aid! I've recently acquired three rare books from a garage sale, and have been so far unable to date them with as much accuracy as I'd like. Were they volumes containing anything except animal curiosities, I'd feel terribly awkward posting for help here, but I feel that all three of the books are quite relevant to the interests of anyone who would browse as amiable of a blog as Cabinet of Wonders.

The full story may be found here:

Naamah said...

That is so unfathomably cool.

I absolutely would love to write some if there was a way for a computer-coding dunce to do it.

Anonymous said...

great fun! Thanks for sharing.

Heather McDougal said...

To I.J. Anthony: I believe that's the 1826 edition. I'll comment in more detail on your blog.

To mutecypher: >groan!< Perhaps I should be calling them Hyperhaiku instead...?

Heather McDougal said...

Oh yeah -- and to ginsoak:

That is so incredibly cool. I am tucking the renga idea away to ruminate on, and maybe something wonderful may come of it... I wonder if there are renga societies out there?

Andrew Shields said...

The "Swim" one made me think of your parents' pool, so I was surprised when it was suddenly about the ocean! (Very cool, Meta Haiku!)

Henna said...

haikus are really a wonderful way of poetry and they make it very amusing and good to read, i read about haikus and even wrote about them a few times when i was doing my masters in university..

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