Manifestations of mediospheric changes, especially the more recent digital turn, in the creation and experiencing of poetry, demonstrated with examples in Afrikaans

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This investigative survey focuses on the ways in which historic mediospheric changes (Debray 2000), namely the establishment of the letterpress industry since the 15th century and, since the late 20th century, the development of digital soft- and hardware, have influenced the creation, mediation and reception of poetry. Examples from the Afrikaans poetry system serve as illustrative material of such manifestations.

While rhythmic-musical structuring so characteristic of oral poetry from the logospheric era has survived in fixed verse forms, the visual prosodic characteristics of printed poems have gained equal prominence in the graphospheric age. The latter characteristics include forms and effects which are often not perceptible to listeners during oral recitals of such poems: enjambments and caesuras in free verse forms (with resulting tension play between syntactic and versification structuring, as well as effectuation of “positional points of focus” in verse structures – Cloete 2013) and visual meaning suggestion, for example in concrete poems (Kleyn 2012a and 2012b). A variety of Afrikaans poetry creations are referred to or briefly discussed as illustrative of the growing awakening to such developments in the graphospheric era. These examples include, firstly, the various forms in which the early 20th-century Afrikaans poem “Winternag” (Winter’s night), a poem by Eugène N. Marais recently voted to be the most popular poem in the language (Leserskring 2013), had been published; secondly, more recent examples of concrete, ekphrastic and visual poems which had often been displayed in exhibition venues before being included in published collections.

Aspects of the latter poem types were often continued in the characteristics of poetry created for, or by means of, the media emanating from the “digital turn” of the 1990’s (Azcárate and Sukla 2015a). The development of digital programs and devices got a next poetry creation and publication trend going: the electronic poetry of the videospheric age. With the qualifier “electronic”, poetry is indicated which is deliberately created for digital platforms, or which is brought into being by means of the possibilities introduced by electronic software. Typically, such poetry creations are of a multimodal, hybrid and interdisciplinary nature (Greyling 2023); regarding the reception thereof, an interactive involvement by the poetry experiencer is prominent (Rettberg 2019).

Neither the development of visuality-driven poem types in the graphospheric era, nor the electronic poetry of the videospheric age has displaced poetry of a more traditional, rhythmic-musical prosodic nature from the canon. On the contrary, the digital turn, through media like the radio, television, the World Wide Web and social media, has played a major role in revitalising song and performance arts. Poetry on paper or on exhibition, and oral poetry, exist as strong currents alongside each other, sometimes in interaction with each other. Furthermore, the re-exploration and integration of both the rhythmic-phonic and the figurative-visual elements of versification traditions, as well as the combining of lingual, visual and auditory material, have been strongly stimulated by discoveries and developments in the field of electronics.

Following the example of, among others, the Electronic Literature Organisation, a leading, representative institution in the field, and using the summary by Greyling (2023) in this regard, three broad developments in electronic literature/poetry are identified. First-generation electronic literature included pre-web experimentation with digital media, like combinatory ways of creative writing and early examples of hypertext fiction. The second generation, a reality since 1995, reflects the flourishing of the World Wide Web and of the implementation of purpose-made interfaces, as well as of the platforms and programming made possible by these. The implementation of multimedia and of forms like animation, kinetic text and sound, as well as interactive fiction with marked game-like elements, became a reality in literature creation; as did experimentation with interaction between digitally presented texts and tactile three-dimensional spaces, for example by means of site-specific installations and locative literature.

Since 2005 a so-called third generation of electronic literary creations stands out (Flores 2019). It involves works in which use is made of established platforms with massive user bases, like social media networks, software, mobile and touch-screen devices and application programming interfaces (Greyling 2023). Where first- and second-generation electronic literature still reflected identification with press- and art-media traditions, third-generation e-literature works, as far as formats and publication models are concerned, are characterised by identification with electronic and digital media, through which video production and interactive works have become possible. Even mechanical creation of texts by means of Artificial Intelligence and natural language processing has become a reality, raising challenging questions regarding prevailing processes and conventions of the literary system (Moll 2023; Van Heerden 2023a).

As, however, Flores (2019) and Greyling (2023) indicate, the third-generation developments with regard to electronic software and hardware have not prevented the revival, albeit in new shapes, of literary forms associated with earlier e-literature generations. The e-literature field contains divergent genres, and the blurring of genre boundaries and the migration of conventions and ideas among genres are strikingly characteristic (Rettberg 2019:117).

Following findings by, especially, Rettberg (2019), and nuanced and supplemented by insights from Funkhouser (2008:320–5) and Stein (2010:127–34) regarding poetry categories of e-literature, the following digital poetry genres are discussed, with reference to Afrikaans examples of these: digital poetry of a kinetic and multimedia nature, often requiring interaction between text and text experiencer in the concretisation process; locative (site-specific) poetry installations; hypertext/hypermedia poetry; network poetry creation; and computer-assisted generative and combinatory poetry writing.

Despite some similarities between certain avant-garde trends from the modernist age of printed poetry and certain poetry developments since the digital turn, it is also clear that many of the characteristics of electronic poetry creations display radical differences from those of much of the poetry on the print-page. Firstly, the options to combine, change and perform various modalities are far more extensive in digital than in print poetry. Whereas, secondly, in print poetry precedence is traditionally given to a single, often auctorial “I”, digital poetry is characterised, rather, by the acceptance of, or openness to, authorship plurality (such as when poets, electronic animators or film artists co-operate in the creation of a graphic poem or a film verse, or when Artificial Intelligence is employed in the process). For this reason, it is experienced internationally (Strickland 2009), including in the Afrikaans literary world (Greyling 2023), that creators of, and researchers into, digital literature mostly find themselves in interdisciplinary environments. Thirdly, fidelity to a fixed text (on paper) is, in many instances, replaced by a pursuance of kinetic, variable and even temporary text – which underpins Rettberg’s (2019:8) emphasis on the fact that electronic literary genre distinctions, like those with regard to digital poetry mentioned above, do not imply fixed genre boundaries; such boundaries should be seen as situation frameworks rather than invariable categories (Greyling 2023). Fourthly, the heterogeneity and multimodality which characterises digital poetry creation stand in contrast to the “unity” of print-text poetry (Strickland 2009; De Jager 2016). Printed poetry’s confidence in a physically closed text-page must, in the fifth place, make way for dependence on readers’ / text experiencers’ interactive contributions in choosing text versions or in adding components in realising certain digital poem types (Stein 2010:117). This is why new-media products should be viewed as processes, interlocutions or projects rather than works in the conventional literary sense (Greyling 2023). Lastly, the traditional loyalty to the performance space of the page is partly replaced by an attachment to the digital device screen or the exhibition/installation site as spaces in which poetry is presented for experiencing (Stein 2010:117).

As scholars like De Jager (2016) and Dera, Posman and Van der Starre (2016) have pointed out, millennial poets conjoin the “multi-medial experience culture” characterising the current way of life. Millennials are, after all, “digital natives” (as Gary Small described them – see Stein 2010:101), a generation strongly experiencing page-printed poetry as falling short regarding the advantages presented by the digital media, namely saving, sharing, linking and consulting from a distance (Hisgen and Van der Weel 2022:188).

Therefore, although T’Sjoen (2015:109) could, a number of years ago, still conclude that rather little had been achieved in terms of digital and intermedial poetry in a smaller literary system like that of Afrikaans, this study has yielded notable evidence of more recent creative developments in this regard in the language. It is probably only the range of expertise, coupled with the use of all the new media resources, as well as the considerable costs attached to programming by new media specialists and to the creation of sound and visual material to accompany and to be integrated with lingual text, that serve as obstacles to digital poetry’s growing into a strong genre alongside oral and print-page poetry, also in Afrikaans.

Keywords: Afrikaans poetry; computer-assisted generative and combinatory poetry writing; concrete poetry; digital soft- and hardware; graphospheric era; hypertext/hypermedia poetry; kinetic and interactive digital poetry; locative poetry installations; logospheric era; mediospheric changes; multimodality; network poetry writing; oral poetry; printed text poetry; traditional prosody; videospheric era; visual poetry; visual prosody


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