Responding in Kind:
Down in the Body in the Undergraduate Poetry Course

)Thoughts on Bakhtin, Hypertext, and Cheap Wigs( 

Cynthia Nichols

Enculturation, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 2002

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"When we first started going out together, she showed me the poem.  In the poem, she recalled his fingers and the way they had moved around over her face.  In the poem, she talked about what she had felt at the time, about what went through her mind when the blind man touched her nose and lips. I can remember I didn't think much of the poem.  Of course, I didn't tell her that.  Maybe I just don't understand poetry.  I admit it's not the first thing I reach for when I pick up something to read" (Carver 210).





 For years I've been alternately intrigued and frustrated by attitudes which students and even teachers bring to poetry.  Friends and colleagues report various degrees of misery in their writing or lower-level literature courses, and considerable hand-wringing, of course, has been devoted over the years to poetry's reputedly shrinking national audience.  Undergraduates in elective courses and even English majors may write interpretive essays which demonstrate the requisite analytical thinking and application of important terms, but their responses often seem strained or mechanical, and they leave a class as alienated from poetry as ever, or possibly even more so.  Students who already love it may go on to further studies in literature and eventually internalize the tools and codes enough to apply them credibly and comfortably.  But the fact remains that, in spite of or possibly because of our efforts, the great bulk of college students are leery of poetry, and remain so for the remainder of their lives.

The wealth of new media resources, applied in tandem with the ideas of Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, may be of some help.  By encouraging hybrid assignments and products, alternative genres and ways of seeing, electronic performance writing can undercut some of the less desirable effects of traditional literary study.  And electronic publication may promote valuable and immersive "responses in kind" from students to the poetry they are asked to read. 

 One caveat: I do not argue in this essay that electronic writing is a panacea for poetry courses. I tentatively explore, in fact, ways in which hypertext may actually undermine  the possibilities of poetry-as-utterance in the classroom and what Bakhtin calls the dialogic creation of meaning. In this regard, my position on Bakhtin/hypertext is distinct from that of most theorists, who tend to endorse hypertext via Bakhtin. Despite my reservations, however, I'll "embrace ambivalence," and argue at the same time that electronic media can help us reconsider what poetry is and does in the classroom; that it can offer intriguing ways to (re)enact the reader-text relationship (Lunenfield xiv).


Rethinking Poetry as Utterance

To best make my case, I'd like to first examine in some detail how Bakhtinian notions may apply to the appreciation and critical study of poetry.   In the latter half of my essay I'll turn again to issues of electronic publication, examining, through a Bakhtinian lens, creative uses of hypermedia for the younger college reader.

Language is made up of words and sentences, but these are only the most mechanical and superficial features of discourse.  For Bakhtin, the fundamental unit of real speech communication is the "utterance."  We don't actually  communicate in letters, or words, or sentences, or syntactical structures per se;  these crude linguistic units don't truly mean until  they are contextualized and oriented socially-that is, until they become utterances, any one of which may be as long as a single word or a whole novel: 

Even when an utterance is one sentence long, something must be added to the sentence's linguistic composition to make it an utterance.  Someone must say it to someone, must respond to something and anticipate a response, must be accomplishing something by the saying of it.  One can respond to an utterance, but one cannot respond to a sentence.  (Morson 126)


Utterances, in turn, can be grouped according to general types which Bakhtin calls "speech genres."   We generally think of genres as static categories or container-like forms; for Bakhtin, however, they are only relatively static and relatively closed.  They are, in fact, ways of thinking, acting, and being, of "seeing and interpreting particular aspects of the world" (5).   These speech genres are profoundly social, existing in a state of continual response or dialogic relation to one another:    "Every utterance must be regarded primarily as a response to preceding utterances of the given sphere," and "[a]ny understanding of live speech, a live utterance, is inherently responsive.Any understanding is imbued with response and necessarily elicits it in one form or another:  the listener becomes the speaker" (91, 68).   It is fundamentally inappropriate, then, to study utterances or genres as isolated monads, "enclosed in their own specificity," because they in fact only exist in dynamic, enmeshed interaction with each other and with other areas of culture (2).


Looked at in this way, poetry becomes something other than a mere text type, a fixed thing external to a fixed reader, which the reader best examines analytically.  As a type of utterance, a living genre, it is instead a process of regarding and responding to the world which a reader enters into.  It is a phenomenon inseparable from the material conditions, interactions, and cultures which produce it.  Students may be better off, then, unlearning what they've been taught in school about poetry in order to discover or recover the generic codes and "dialogic overtones" of poetic utterances. And teachers would do better to focus less on "study" and more on intensified, sustained enculturation.  In other words, we should more aggressively encourage students in every way possible to regard poetry as something meaningful and daily by integrating it into many facets of our lives, both social and personal. Students should experience it as something to be publicly performed as well as privately engaged, something integral to their lives and to their making sense of their lives, "a real link in the chain of speech communion" (83). 

In place of "specification," in short, we should stress instead the "situatedness" and "eventness" of poetry. Even more importantly, perhaps, we should introduce poetry as a genre into children's lives very early, especially when they are first acquiring language itself:

We are given.speech genres in almost the same way that we are given our native language.We assimilate forms of language only in forms of utterances and in conjunction with these forms.  The forms of language and the typical forms of utterances, that is, speech genres, enter our experience and our consciousness together, and in close connection with one another. (78) 

"When the poets repair to the forest of language it is with the express purpose of getting lost; far gone in bewilderment, they seek crossroads of meaning, unexpected echoes, strange encounters; they fear neither detours, surprises, nor darkness.  But the huntsman who ventures into this forest in hot pursuit of the 'truth', who sticks to a single continuous path, from which he cannot deviate for a moment on pain of losing the scent or imperiling the progress he has already made, runs the risk of capturing nothing but his shadow.  Sometimes the shadow is enormous, but a shadow it remains" (Valery, Aesthetics).



          Now, none of this is to say, however, that we need some sort of poetry indoctrination campaign because students arrive in our classrooms with no previous enculturation or experience of poetry.  Quite the contrary:  I think we give them far too little credit for what they have already absorbed.  My primary complaint with the New Critical tradition, in fact, is that it has promoted an understanding of poetry as an exclusively classroom genre.  It has encouraged the notion that, to understand poetry, one must acquire certain critical skills and tools available only in academia.  In other words, any limited but extremely valuable genre knowledge which students do bring to their earliest poetry classes is quickly disregarded, devalued, or otherwise nulled out.   Students adept at code-breaking or who otherwise take readily to common forms of critical study may be happy enough to receive their As and perhaps even continue work in English.  But most disappear into the great mass of people who routinely claim, with a sullen shrug or embarrassed apology, that they "just don't GET poetry."

So:  until some serious changes in our child-raising habits, and in lieu of any whole-scale and of course unlikely cultural shift, what exactly can we do differently in the classroom?  Rather than analyzing specific poems, and instead of the "elements of poetry" approach taken by most college textbooks, we could perhaps be helping younger students enter into poems as genres or "fields of vision" (Problems 73).  Or, if some direct accessing is impossible (either because it requires years of enculturation or because access is always mediated and never pure or direct), we should at least help them to access or experience alternative types of "study." ,

Thus, if we use the word "interpret" at all, I believe we should use it in terms of its secondary Webster's sense of "negotiation" rather than of "explanation." And when students ask, "What does this poem mean?", we should steer them toward alternative questions.  Better yet, we should direct them toward alternative action-i.e., toward a response in kind.   Especially, I should add, toward a dialogic response in kind.   And this brings me to the issue of how we ask students to write about poetry in our classrooms.

". . .Like something thought of so long before it was written/That part of its body had fallen away-"(Jones 1).









"In the poem, she recalled his fingers and the way they had moved around over her face."



Rethinking the Interpretive Essay as Utterance

Just as Bakhtinian ideas can help us resee poetry as a genre, so they may help us to understand and reconsider the "critical paper" as a genre.    The traditional, omnipresent thesis-centered essay, though of course valuable in any number of ways, and though terrifically flexible in the right hands, for the most part embodies and promotes some rather unBakhtinian values: certainty, closure, enclosure, ownership, systemization, abstraction.  In the study of poetry, at least, I think students would benefit from more personal and exploratory writing, perhaps in tandem with the traditional three-part essay, but always with the understanding that any instance of writing is inextricably rooted in ongoing social dialogue. In Bakhtin's terms, the poet turns to the/a reader in anticipation of response, and this turning is in fact so integral to the utterance that the reader in a sense co-authors the poem.  We should ask that students do no less-co-writing their responses to a poem with the poet.  And assuming that many poems are decidedly NOT written with New Critical analysis as the primary expected or even desired response, it is probably misguided in many situations that we ask students to answer in such a way.  Critical analysis is tantamount, in fact, to the illogic or conversational rudeness of a non sequitur.  


          So what, exactly, would be a "response in kind"?  For a recent contemporary poetry course, I came up with a couple of possibilities.  One was to have my students frequently write their own poems in the subgenres we were reading.  I think this may surely be one of the best and most neglected ways to help students engage with poems, even, and especially, the types they find most difficult. Based on admittedly informal classroom experiments, I believe it can restore or stimulate intuitive knowledge about poetry's "generic codes" in a way which no amount of theorizing or study can approach. The very quality of the poems my students wrote attested to how much they were able to grasp about the poetry we had read, where traditional, interpretive essay responses might have hindered and even vulgarized their understanding (through what Bakhtin calls "specification" and "theoretism," as well as a squashing of nuance, ambiguity, resonance, and body-qualities sometimes not welcome in expository writing but central to lyric poetry).

          Another possibility for "response in kind" is what I've come to think of as performance, in Henry Sayre's sense of the term.   I gave my students frequent daily assignments, in which I asked them to freely "perform" selected poems from our texts.  Though class writing and discussion often involved close critical analysis, for these performances I encouraged (I hope) something more dialogic and very open.  In other words,  I prompted them to respond to poems from within the same perceptional space that poems themselves occupy or manifest, to speak back to the poets or poems rather than comment on or analyze them.   I tried to encourage what I understand Bakhtin to mean in some of his early work by "live entering":  a condition whereby reader and text neither somehow mystically merge nor remain empirically separate, but instead interanimate each other (Morson 91, 143).  I wanted them to see the frame of the text as elastic, and to include themselves-in their own lives, in their own skins-within that frame, even in the act of wrestling with the text.  And I wanted them to respond, at least in part, as artists to art, as poets to poetry, rather than as critics or scholars.

















          Students' daily performances took many forms:  reinscribing poems into visual art work; reading poems aloud to the class in a variety of voices or with a variety of props; asking their classmates to free-associate responses to a poem on the blackboard and then reading the poem aloud with the blackboard work as a backdrop; and transplanting poems from the classroom into new and unusual contexts/environments.  (For example, one student put together a video of a poem's text, which scrolled slowly down the TV screen over and over.  He played the video without comment at a college party and observed the results.)

          Another way I asked my students to perform was in a major semester project, which I designed to be partially collaborative.  For Bakhtin, truth is something that occurs "at a point of contact among various consciousnesses" (Problems 81).   I wanted to set up cooperative, polyphonic small-group work that would develop into Bakhtinian-style, potential-laden "events"; events which would allow students to experience how meaning emerges between or among a plurality of distinct voices.  The trick here was twofold.  To satisfy the goals of a traditional college of humanities, as well as to help students clarify their own separate views or "voice-ideas," I needed to devise a traditional essay-writing assignment.  But I also needed something that would hopefully bring these separate voice-ideas into real dialogue, and that would allow students to perform or dialogically respond in kind to the poetry I assigned.  In other words, I needed to devise some sort of hybrid writing project. 

Bugged by Hypertext

          A possibility which comes immediately to mind, of course, for innovative approaches to genre and dialogics is the use of electronic media.  Indeed, scholars have been quick to point out ways in which Bakhtinian thinking is served by hypertext.   What they have been less inclined to consider, however, are ways in which hypertext may actually inhibit real Bakhtinian dialogue. Though I'm a fan of both Bakhtin and new media, I would like to consider, at least tentatively, some ways in which the two part company.

          Before I begin, it's important to note that many of Bakhtin's premises place him squarely apart from poststructuralists, who have deconstructed and disavowed binary opposites such as self-other, and for whom textuality is central.  Bakhtin views self and other, author and reader as real and separate entities which do not and should not merge, and likewise he doesn't believe in dialectical synthesis.  Thus, to make my argument for the validity of Bakhtin's ideas in the classroom, I have to suspend my postmodern disbelief, as it were, in some of his premises. And because much of the hypertext canon draws on poststructuralist thinking, I will likewise suspend any full discussion of that canon here, concentrating instead on the following questions: what does a Bakhtinian perspective suggest about hypertext's strengths and shortcomings, particularly in terms of reader-text or reader-author dialogue? And second, despite some of Bakhtin's questionable premises, what is the practical utility of his views for the poetry classroom?

          A key issue in hypertext studies since at least the late 1980s has been the relative status of author, text, and reader. In his 1994 "Reading and Writing in Hypertext: Vertigo and Euphoria," Johndan Johnson-Eiloa says, "A key difference between hypertext and linear text is the degree to which hypertext readers are allowed to choose from multiple paths through a body of text" (197). And in his 1992 Hypertext, George Landow notes the way in which electronic publication rather dramatically instantiates Barthes' notion of the "readerly text"--the text which encourages a reader as active producer rather than passive consumer of meaning (1-7). A reader can skip around while reading a regular novel, of course, but the author has presented the work in a particular order, and that is how it asks to be read.  Many hypertext documents, by contrast, because of the choices and branching structures they offer, seem to invite a reader-directed reading,  such that a new text overall is encountered or created with each reading.  Hypertext, perhaps more than other kinds of text, thus shifts primary authorship-control-responsibility to the reader (1-7).


          This shift or resultant reading experience may frustrate conventional reasoning and even help to stimulate the kinds of intuitive or associational thinking I personally value.   But a Bakhtinian perspective would call into question how freely the reader is sometimes invited to move through the text.   It's fun to move the magnet letters around on my workplace lounge refrigerator, and I always enjoy playing surrealist games with my creative writing students.   But randomness wears thin after awhile; encounters with one's self wear thin.  At some point I want to feel that I am in fact encountering another than myself, one who also has life, volition, and boundaries. I want addressivity.  Bakhtin insists that without the acknowledgment of a truly separate other, there is no dialogue and thus no growth:  "Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction" (Problems 110). 

          From the looks of it, then, from a Bakhtinian perspective, at least some hypertext documents may not promote the dialogic creation of meaning, because they seem to presuppose no more than one really active consciousness:  that of the reader.   Perhaps the initial created material of an electronic literary text comes from a separate consciousness, but, in at least some hypertext works, it asks to be taken as relatively inert material by the reader, who then basically manipulates or moves through it as she wishes.


         The kind of works I particularly have in mind here include, for one, heavily "constructive" hypertexts (Michael Joyce's term), which allow readers to complete, edit, and reorder a given work (Johnson-Eiloa 206). Such pieces can be perfectly wonderful and creative for the reader-constructor, and, in fact, can probably promote reader-author dialogue. But I have questions about their more extreme form, which erases the boundaries of the author's utterance and reduces it to passive material, available for any appropriation and reshaping by the reader.

          I'm thinking too of hypertexts which rely heavily on random and variable linking. A given word link in Joyce's afternoon, a story or a given "hot thread" in his Twelve Blue, for example, may yield to a different target each time it is clicked. By contrast, in Stephanie Strickland's True North and Seven League Boots, a given word link will generally point consistently to a single target. Strickland's work (like any) of course involves many degrees of randomness, and likewise Joyce's work (like any) involves many degrees of author control. But Joyce's structure seems based more fundamentally on variable chance directions initiated by the reader. As Joyce himself says, a particular reading of afternoon ends simply "when it no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths the story " (578). None of this means that Joyce's works deserve to be labled "inert" necessarily--I find his hypertexts to be among the most engaging and evocative I've encountered--but I'm not sure they ultimately make for the kind of dialogic utterance Bakhtin had in mind.    


          Paradoxically, even as hypertext grants excessive power to the reader, in Bakhtinian terms it may at the same time grant excessive power to the writer.   For Bakhtin, a major defining feature of the utterance is a "change of speaking subject" which provides a frame and sets one utterance acutely apart from another (Bakhtin 76).  This change signals the utterance's "semantic fullness of value" and the opportunity for response.   For an utterance to be an utterance, in other words, at some (key) point it has to stop. 

                My concern is that some hypertext documents, in their celebrated lack of closure, may never really clearly signal that change in speaking subject. The possibility of response is thus restricted or confused.  If a reader doesn't know where a text ends, she can't respond to it as an utterance.  This may be the equivalent, in conversation, to a text that doesn't shut up enough to let dialogue occur. 


          Now, of course, readers may respond to utterances before they are complete, but this would be noncooperation in dialogue, a type of interuption. Likewise, readers may respond legitimately to primary utterances within a larger, more complex secondary one (Bahktin distinguishes between several orders of genres and utterance), but it is the secondary type (as in a "work," or a complete hypertext) which interests me here. A reader of this paper, for instance, would likely begin responding to it well before it is finished. But what is happening in such a case is that the reader is reacting to more minor utterances within the larger statement of the overall essay (76). This is of course inevitable and even desirable, but not if the work as a whole is going unheard. (This concerns me in this essay particularly, since I am here mixing genres and idioms in hopes of eliciting neither a purely scholarly nor a purely aesthetic response from my reader--but rather some hybrid response which is is only possible, if at all, by a reader's attention to the whole utterance. See my note 11 below.)



"Hell is when you know where you are." (Galvin 44).





NYer IN SEATTLE:  Seeking happy soul in slim female body comparable, I mean compatible, with mine; and atrocious, I mean attractive, feet, I mean face.  Great white male, only 5'6", 46, in rural paradise near Seattle.  Also, the idea of having my own kids is appalling and appealing.  Sometimes, I visit NY.  NYR Box 13200.

 --personal ad in New York Review of Books

          Authentic, Bakhtinian-style dialogue is ongoing, unfinalizable, messy. It is "live speech" situated in the always unique particulars of any given social context. It involves multiple voices and "voicings," shot through with traces of both remembered as well as anticipated utterances (Moreson 36-62 and Speech Genres ). But for this unfinalizable dialogue to occur, the utterance--in order to actually be an utterance--must itself be finalized. It must be clearly demarcated. The reader has to hear a semantically full statement before her response to it can be fully meaningful, respectful, or accurate. Again, my concern about any given hypertext is that the larger work-as-utterance may not be heard because it cannot even be identified as such; because, even though such a text has boundaries of a sort, it may lack what Bakhtin frequently refers to as a "specific quality of completion" (Problem of Speech Genres 71-73). And if the decision as to when and where and how the text ends is determined instead by the reader, then the reader is, once again, encountering not a real outside voice in dialogue; she is rather encountering only her own choices, her own shaping of a text.  She is encountering, in other words, only herself.

          Ultimately, when I read a text, and until I perhaps learn some new style of reading, I don't want full control over inert material.   I want to encounter how someone else thinks and feels, so that I can return to how I think and feel enlarged.   I want to enter into what the writer has enacted on the page:  a live process of discovery by a separate being.  I realize that this "other" outside of myself will always be the product, perhaps entirely, of my own vantage point, my own culture, my own will, my own limitations.  And I realize too that much of what I've said presumes presence and the existence of an actual "subject" and "author."   But, though our cultures, our identities, our very bodies may be contingent constructions, we have to function daily as though we were in firmer stuff.  "I" have to believe in "you" and the possibility of communing with you.   I think life in a postmodern world requires enormous powers of negative capability, the ability to both believe and disbelieve simultaneously, to exist within a state of doubts and contradictions and still be at ease.  Or maybe it's a matter of putting even our most cherished beliefs continually under erasure.  For just day-to-day emotional health and personal comportment, perhaps, we have to subordinate reason and privilege our intuition and imagination-whatever those faculties are which admit comfortably to paradox, which find meaning between opposing and irreconcilable truths, and between consciousnesses.

          And so we come back around yet again to Bakhtin and his dialogic relations.
































"It seemed very sad to see you going off in your new shoes alone." 

--Zelda Fitzgerald, in a letter to F. Scott









Less Bugged by Hypertext

          Bakhtin's ideas are much more elaborate than I've indicated here, it's true.  And I suspect that his ideas applied to the great range of ongoing hypertext experiments would be considerably more complex than I'm suggesting above.  For one thing, even as this essay goes to print, hypertexual works are fast becoming more media-rich and visual, and the kind of openness they exhibit can vary considerably. As J. Yellowlees Douglas establishes in her early examinations of openness and indeterminancy in hypertext, even the most structurally open works if read properly may satisfy a reader's need for closure (183). I think it's possible as well that many electronic pieces simply require a special understanding of a speech plan or speech will unique to hypertext--what Douglas calls a "meta-script" which orients us to "the very inconclusiveness" of our readings (184).

          Additionally, though I'm not sure that hypertext necessarily promotes a dialogic relationship between reader and text, very interesting electronic documents are nonetheless being written which do not of course preclude the possibility of Bakhtinian dialogue in their content. Experimental works are underway, for instance, which put multiple voices into interaction, something like the polyphonic interaction in Dostoevky's novels (see the graduate level multi-vocal essay project by Kevin Brooks et al, and see also Bakhtin on Dostoevky in Problems 5-43). We know too of course that chat rooms, electronic bulletin boards, online conferencing, and email correspondance can certainly promote dialogue of various stripes.


          Another favorable feature of hypertext, it seems to me, is recursiveness or repetition in various guises.  Repetition in narrative undercuts feelings of purposefulness, of action moving toward a known or unknown end.  The repetition of events in a circular narrative such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, for instance, evokes a sense of "ritual time" or timelessness, of things not moving forward, of things staying where or how they are indefinitely.  The conception of time which results is contrary to that in most western ideology-The Biblical view of time as moving inevitably toward some final end judgment, and capitalist notions of material progress.  Ritual time structures convey the sense that nothing changes in time fundamentally, that "eternity" is "now," that desire and striving are therefore futile.  And so recursive or circular narrative suggests, reflects, or prompts a possibly alternative world view for students (Western students, at any rate), and alternative experiences in reading and writing. 


     Repetition not only of events, but of particular words, images, and ideas can have similar results, intensifying their effects in fabulous ways. (If paced badly or perceived as mere redundancy, of course, that repetition can unfortunately dilute those effects).  Whenever I read Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story, and when I inevitably return to some of the same short passages at various, random intervals, I begin to feel genuinely as though I'm reading something like a free verse lyric poem, in which repetition is being used without strict pattern.  This makes for a newish reading experience, somewhere between narrative and lyric, fiction and poetry.  In some instances, too, that rhythmic repetition gets felt by the body and therefore intensifies the "eventness" of a reader's encounter with a text.  It honors, in other words, the situated and sensory, horizontal plane of experience-the plane of experience from which I think poems are best written and read.

A related issue which I find especially intriguing from the standpoint of genre theory is the way that hypertext, by linking together any number of similar or dissimilar documents, can mix or at least juxtapose genres; can possibly transform a single document, more or less, into multiple genres simultaneously.  Of course, mixed genres have existed for eons.  Books of poems have included visual art; visual art has made use of language, letters, and poems. Prose and poetry have been mixed in dozens of ways, and many recent and not-so-recent works just do not fit any one category exclusively.  And writers of all ilks have been very inventive with the conventional page, such that different genres coexist in the same space (as in two or more columns of writing on the same page, each radically distinct).  But hypermedia do make new generic mixtures available, or, at the very least, can make them more easily available:  animation, video, and music, for instance, as well as anything involving particular hands-on and interactive features.  This seems to invite new sorts of reader-text relationships, since mixed genres will necessarily involve mixed qualities of attention or new ways of seeing for both readers and writers.

Hypermedia writing, finally, may be valuable for its immersive and performative potential, helping students to explore or answer poems with new forms of verbal and visual play.   Asking undergraduate college students, for example, to respond to poems by playing with mixed media upsets their expectations about how one is usually required to "study" poetry.  (This deprogramming may be a necessary step before, or in tandem with, the kind of enculturation I spoke of early in this essay.)   So hypermedia may be one more way to help students bridge, complicate, question, and otherwise perform the self-other, reader-poem divide. I'm not sure exactly how revolutionary hypertext ultimately will be for literature, but it unarguably offers some interesting and practical possibilities.

  Classroom Experiment

Here, then, is the major project I assigned in my Contemporary American Poetry course: 

"Hell is when you know where you are and it's beautiful." (Galvin 45)

Missed quizzes and other scored work can be made up within one week.  Make-up work, however, will tend to be more challenging, or will be held to a higher standard, than the original.

No work will be accepted after Dec. 18.


As a member of a 3 or 4-person group, you'll collaborate on a Web homepage (25% of  semester grade) which in some way takes up a topic, question, or issue in contemporary American poetry.  This homepage should act as a meaningful starting point for the individual web essay of each group member.  In other words, each student's e-essay will be linked to the group's central site in some relevant way.  Everyone in the group should participate in creation of the homepage, and everyone in the group will receive the same grade for the page.

The "e-essays" (40% of semester grade) will be the creation of each artist/writer and graded individually.  Ideally, these will be essays in the older sense of "to assay" or to try, test, examine and explore.  I'd like to see some intellectual engagement with ideas in your work; your essay should be developed and challenging enough to be of some interest to academics, and it may interpret, persuade, and analyze.  However, I hope you'll see this as an opportunity to explore and open out your understanding of a subject (as opposed to pinning the subject down, "explaining" it, or enclosing your understanding or response in a single statement or "thesis.")  In other words, I see these as alternative "hybrid" essays. I'd like you to make use of any and all resources necessary to accommodate nuanced, uncertain, and even conflicting responses you may have to your subject; to allow for artistic discovery and play; and to provoke a range of responses from your reader.  In the final product, I'll be looking for signs of committed, active engagement with your subject and materials. And I'll be looking for critical thinking more-or-less equally with creative exploration, depending on your personal interests and aims. 















The results were mixed, though the problems, I believe, were readily apparent and should be easy to remedy.  One obvious factor was time.  Most of the students were ambitious in constructing multi-page, multi-feature sites.  The various components of each student's work were often quite demanding in themselves, and not every component (artistic, literary, critical, technical) was as developed or polished as it could have been because of student inexperience or time constraints.  (It's increasingly apparent to me that new media require, or at least benefit from, entire production teams working in collaboration. As with film, perhaps we should assume that any new media project requires directors, producers, visual designers, technicians, its own version of "key grips," and so on.)  I also thought that engagement with ideas got relatively short shrift in most of students' individual projects.  I was not especially surprised by this-the time issue was apparent, again, and I may have given students contradictory signals about what mattered most:  creative exploration or critical thinking.  In the future I would simply make mandatory some traditional, expository component.

          One student's work in particular impressed me for its relatively easy handling of all facets of the assignment.  The group homepage which this student (Aaron) directed is set in a virtual bar, à laCheers, with background music and messages of welcome.  I like how this homepage signals a relationship between poetry and community, poetry and pleasure, poetry and desire (for beer, if nothing else).  It elicits a comfortably intellectual stance from the viewer.  Links to each student's individual sites are located at a table (in the form of various, interestingly shaped bottles and mugs), where the viewer is invited to sit.  From the outset, then, through the particular resources of electronic publication (mixed media and linking), viewers and authors are invited into dialogue.


"Performativity is the process of becoming.that is the very condition of embodiment." (Price 414)




"If there is a worm in the heart, & chamber it has bitten out/I will protect that emptiness until it is large enough./In it will be a light the color of steel/& landscape, into which the traveler might set out." (Anderson 133)

Aaron's own site opens with the heading, "What is Beat Poetry Anyway?  Let the Journey Begin," and a faceless graphic of himself (I think-it could be an image of Jack Kerouac, but the identity is ambiguous), arms spread as on a cross.  At points in a circle all around his body are hypertext links to the various pages of his site:  Critical Analysis, Keeping the Beat, Musical Connections, Major Authors, Quotes, and Links.  This graphic becomes a motif throughout his project, connects each page back to the homesite, and is very evocative.  It is both bounded (closed, iconic, singular) and unbounded (open, referential, multiple). The links-the various perspectives on Beat poetry-appear in the graphic to be almost connected to, or delicate extensions of, his body.  And thus the body here itself, interestingly, becomes hypertextual.

          One of Aaron's better pages is "Keeping the Beat," which features a dozen or so of his own poems, both in the Beat mode and otherwise.  The page opens with a rowdy group photo of some of the more well-known Beat writers, into which he has electronically pasted his own face.  It's comic as well as interesting in its suggestion of ironic identification. The photograph's hot-spot links and indeed all of the site's links reveal the author's mind making active connections. Any kind of writing can demonstrate a student's active , dialoging mind, but electronic writing--with its constant potential for linking--aggressively invites it.

          Aaron's best page, I think, is "Critical Analysis," which opens by questioning the appropriateness of analyzing the antiestablishment, anti-academic work of the Beats.  What follows, then, in place of a thesis-centered critical discussion, is a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti called "Deep Chess," into which Aaron positions hypertext links (icons of chess pieces) to his own journal-like personal reflection.  The reader is free to read through Ferlinghetti's poem uninterrupted; or can link to all of Aaron's commentary in whole; or can alternate between both. The electronic format, in fact, neatly allows and encourages all three kinds of reading. Aaron's approach, throughout his project, is to see himself in or into his subject matter, while at the same time maintaining his, and his subject's, separateness. We get Aaron's "voice-ideas" and autonomous subjectivity in combination with, but not merged with, the voice-ideas and autonomous subjectivity of the Beats.  In other words, with the assistance of electronic publication, he rather amazingly and precisely enacts certain elements of Bakhtinian dialogue. 


"Art is a train of thought wreck." (Brent Stone, from "Art-chives" online)

"Art is a very small, off-duty Austrian traffic cop.  Or a banana."  (SO, from "Art-chives" online)



To better serve our literature students, I think we should exploit the positive potential of hypermedia and teach poetry as a type of utterance, or genre.  Together with collaborative use of electronic technologies, Bakhtin's ideas applied in the classroom may help students re-engage with poetry, and to enter into real-life, dialogic creation of meaning as well.  Likewise, we need to rethink the genres we ask students to work with when they respond to poetry.  Instead of (or together with) Formalist-style theoretism and specification in particular, I'd rather we stress experience, event, performance, particularity, situatedness, body, and negotiation.  In short, we should seek a balance of what Bakhtin calls the horizontal and the vertical planes of awareness-a balance potentially and dramatically assisted through creative new media.

We should note as well that genres are cultural "organs of memory"--they "remember" the past and carry it into the present--and that here at the millennium, in what seems still to be an age of flourishing theory (or maybe post-theory pragmatism) our poetic memory as much as ever needs to be nurtured and honored (Morson 280).

"You'd be amazed at how expensive it is to make a wig look this cheap"  (Dolly Parton)


Works Cited

Anderson, Jon. The Milky Way Poems 1967-1982. New York, NY: The Ecco Press, 1982.

Bakhtin, M.M. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

----. Speech Genres & Other Late Essays. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Battersby, Christine. "Her Body/Her Boundaries." Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. Eds. Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick. New York: Routledge, 1999. 356.

Brooks, Kevin, Dayna Del Val, Mary Pull, and Lynne Devitt. Cooking Up a Multi-Vocal Essay: Dinner Conversations about Teaching and Writing MVEs. North Dakota State University graduate project. 5 Jan 2001.

Carver, Raymond. Cathedral. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Dias, Patrick X. Reading and Responding to Poetry. Portsmouth, NH: 1996.

Douglas, J. Yellowlees. "How Do I Stop This Thing? Closure and Indeterminancy in Interactive Narratives." Hypertext Theory. Ed. George Landow. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Eyman, Douglas. "Hypertext And/As Collaboration in the Computer-Facilitated Writing Classroom." Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments 1.2

Freedman, Aviva and Peter Medway, eds. Learning and Teaching Genre. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1994.

Galvin, James. Lethal Frequencies. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1995.

Glazier, Loss Pequeno. Digital Poetics The Making of E-Poetries. Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Graham, Jorie. "Interview: The Glorious Thing." Poetry Exhibits. The Academy of American Poets. URL unknown.

----. "Introduction." The Best American Poetry 1990. Ed. Jorie Graham. New York: Collier Books, 1990.

Hall, Donald. Claims for Poetry. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1982.

Jones, Rodney. Apocalyptic Narrative. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.

Joyce, Michael. "afternoon, a story." Postmodern American Fiction A Norton Anthology. Eds. Paula Geyh et al. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

Landow, George P. Hypertext The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore, MD: 1993.

Lunenfield, Peter. "Screen Grabs: The Digital Dialectic and New Media Theory." The Digital Dialectic. Ed. Peter Lunenfield. Cambridge, Massachusets: MIT Press, 1999.

Morson, Gary Saul and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin Creation of a Prosaics. Standford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Rosenberg, Jim. "A Prosody of Space/Non-Linear Time." The Well, under Jim Rosenberg's "Poetics and Other Prose."

Sayre, Henry. "Performance." Critical Terms for Literary Study. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995. 91-104.

Strickland, Stephanie. Seven League Boots: Poetry, Science, and Hypertext. 12 March 2002.

----. True North. Floppy disk. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1997.

"Writing and Reading Electronic Hypertexts." The Electronic Labyrinth. 12 March 2002.



Citation Format:
Nichols, Cynthia. "Responding in Kind: Down in the Body in the Undergraduate Poetry Course )Thoughts on Bakhtin, Hypertext, and Cheap Wigs(." Enculturation: Special Multi-journal Issue on Electronic Publication 4.1 (Spring 2002):

Contact Information:
Cynthia Nichols, North Dakota State University
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