About Combinatorial Poetry

Combinatorial and permutational literary systems have a long and rich history.

The Dadaists and the Surrealists were fond of creating texts by cutting up newspapers and other texts and reassembling them; interactive novels, where the reader chooses the outcome, have been around for at least seventy-five years, both as a popular form and as an art form.

Many interesting book-based art pieces use interactive means to create marvelously creative answers to traditional linear narrative and poetic structure. Janet Zweig, writing in the Journal of Artists' Books, says "The book is an especially good form for permutational procedures. Its discrete parts, its interactive potential, its narrative and sequential possibilities of pages and texts - all of these elements make it useful for combinatorial experiments that can operate in a number of different ways."

"Cent mille milliards de poemes" (A hundred thousand millions of poems), by Raymond Queneau, one of a French literary group known as Oulipo, was a book which consisted of ten rhyming sonnets: one per page. Each line in each sonnet rhymed with the associated line on the next pages; the book was then cut between the lines so that each line could be "turned" (lifted to reveal the one beneath it), creating a new and different poem with a different meaning.

Similarly, a novel by Marc Saporta, published in 1962 and called "Composition No. 1", leaves the pages of the book loose, so that they may be reordered and therefore change the progression and outcome of the story.

Interestingly, Zweig points out, "Much has been made of the connection between these two permutational books and hypertext...I think the Saporta book is more closely analogous becasue the pages, when reordered, do not generate something new; they are simply placed in a new order. After all, this is what is often disappointing about hypertext - there is nothing transformative about the new and possible reordering of the pages, just a positional change. The Queneau book is more generative; each new configuration provides a new sonnet with a new meaning."

Although there have been many great books since these that allow the reader to interact in some form to help shape the experience, I find this quote particularly intriguing, because it points out, very succinctly, some of the literary world's issues with hypertext-based literature. The general ennui on the part of the establishment when confronted with interactive writing is, I think, not entirely unfounded. Many well-regarded interactive pieces do have a slight quality of 52-card pickup. Whether this is an integral part of the medium - desirable or undesirable - is the subject of hot debate, and will probably continue to be so.

It seems to me that at its best, hypertext poetry can have the effect of allowing us, as the Cubists had it, to view the same object, or moment in this case, from various directions at once; to bring to the page a variety of glances at something, and thus make it more whole than a single, long look could do. The poems are, finally, fragmented enough to become atmospheric.