"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!