Why hypertext Pound? This question can be read two ways, Why hypertext Pound?, or of what benefit is computer technology to the understanding of the Cantos? or, Why hypertext Pound?, of what value is the work of Ezra Pound to the postmodern technologies and the postmodern mind?
The Cantos are littered with obscure and didactic references which require the curious reader to consult a variety of texts which span time, space, and culture. In Canto IV Greek, Latin, Provencal, Japanese, Chinese and American poetry and lore are cited. So to be able to leap from the poem to the cited reference and back again certainly saves the reader several hours at the library and a lot of juggling and flipping of books. And yet there is more to this application than just the employment of a postmodern convenience to a modernist text.
At the time the Cantos were first conceived, Pound was just beginning to define Vorticism and its utilization of Imagism as a sort of building block for a new kind of poetics. "Intense emotion causes pattern to arise in the mind....Perhaps I should say, not pattern, but pattern-units, or units of design....The difference between the pattern unit and the picture is one of complexity. The pattern-unit is so simple that one can bear having it repeated several or many times. When it becomes so complex that repetition would be useless, then it is a picture, an 'arrangement of forms.'" ("Imagisme") Thus a Voticist "picture" is created from the patterned repetition of Imagistic "units". Yet, a "picture" is not the best way to describe a vorticist work, because the notion of movement, so crucial to the appreciation of Voticism, is stultified by the idea of a static image. Pound restores this movement in his notion of a Vorticist work as "a radiant node or cluster;...what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." (G-B pg 92)
This hypertext of Canto IV utilizes similar concepts of pattern-unit and vortex. The poem forms the vortex, the explanatory entries represent Pound's references, the "units" from which the vortex is constructed. More, the ability to "leap" back and forth between the poem and entry animates the vortex. The hypertext leap from poem to entry and back is like a single frame of a film, both conceptually and visually, since the appearance of the text changes in a visual flash. Canto IV follows a progression of introducing concepts, overlapping them, and then recalling several previous themes in a single burst. The reader of the hypertext poem follows this conceptual accumulation in a series of referential flashes. At the moment of one of Pound's multi-referential bursts, the reader is simultaneously reminded of several of the flashing "leaps" explored, and, in uniting these flashes or "frames" in the imagination, a moment of "cinematic" conceptual unification is created. This is the animation of the vortex. This is not to say that this way of understanding the poem is not available to text readers, but simply that hypertext serves to underscore the simultaneity of the moments when time, space, and culture are united, through its swift and flashing exploration of implicit meaning in the poem.
But what would Pound say of this swiftness and ease? He certainly made little effort to index or footnote the Cantos. This was probably due to his belief, inspired by Ernest Fenollosa and Allen Upward, that words themselves carry a primitive power. Fenollosa believed that "the sentence form was forced upon primitive men by nature itself. It was not we who made it; it was a reflection of the temporal order in causation. All truth has to be expressed in sentences because all truth is the transference of power. The type of sentence in nature is a flash of lightning."(12) Upward claimed primitive man possessed a more intimate connection with the divinity of nature, and that the study of the origin of words and language was a way to connect back to "old, drowned thoughts, hereditary thoughts...things you used to know and feel long, long ago." (201) To footnote the Cantos, therefore, would only curtail the primitive power of the imagist references by creating pat interpretations. Pound was trying to refer to holistic concepts through the primitive power of the words and names themselves.
It must be recognized that the failure of the Cantos is largely connected with the failure of this notion of the primitive power of words, and that Pound's attempt to illuminate his poetry by tapping into this power had rather the opposite effect of making the Cantos rather inscrutable. The germinal power of the words was diffused by what could be called a Derridian "differance" between signified and signifier.
Hypertext, however, can provide an alternative power source for the Cantos, using its animated vortex to restore the poem's "divinity". Though this hypertext version of Canto IV is regrettably limited to a sort of flashy footnoting, a hypertext that was true to the promise of the format would not be so. It would be part of a huge hypertext network of information. So that touching "Actaeon" in a true hypertext network would not only bring up a summary of the legend, but would also provide links to passages in Ovid within the entire text of Metamorphoses , as well as links to passages in entire critical texts by and about Pound and his understanding of the myth of Actaeon. The importance is not only in the availability of a wide range reference, but the fact that these citations are leapt to within their entire texts. This allows an understanding of the original context of the passages and permits further explorations of these texts beyond the immediate citations of the poem. This idea, I think, would have thrilled Pound, for, as least as far as the scope of collected knowledge on the network would allow, this format leaves nothing out, and, at the same time, the knowledge is presented as part of the continuum of the poem itself.
In the beginning of his Guide to Kultchur , Pound explains the purpose of the book:
Despite appearances I am not trying to condense the encyclopedia into 200 pages. I am at best trying to provide the average reader with a few tools for dealing with the heteroclite mass of undigested information hurled at him daily and monthly and set to entangle his feet in volumes of reference. (23)Part of the "job" of art for Pound was education. "It's all rubbish to pretend that art isn't didactic. A revelation is always didactic." (Letters, 248) Not education merely in terms of the presentation of facts, but also in terms of the understanding of the value of knowledge. "Naturally there is nothing duller than the results of such digging, UNLESS the searcher have some concept to work to. Not the document but the significance of the document." (220-221) This modernist concern is even more pertinent in the media-powered postmodern era, where technology has only served to increase the "heteroclite mass of undigested information". What role will hypertext serve in this struggle?
Sven Birkerts in his book The Gutenberg Elegies, is mistrustful of the format.
Nearly weightless as it is, the word on the printed page is a thing. The configuration of impulses on a screen is not--it is a manifestation, an indeterminate entity both particle and wave, an ectoplasmic arrival and departure. The former occupies a position in space--on a page, in a book--and is verifiably there. The latter, once dematerialized, digitized back into storage, into memory, cannot be said to exist in the same way. (154-155)Birkerts feels that this "ethereal word" will have a detrimental effect on education.
...these technologies have begun to exert a conditioning impact upon their users. They not only take up the time that might have once belonged to the book, but they make it harder, once we do turn from the screen, to engage in the single-focus requirement of reading. Reading is taught, of course, and books are assigned in school, but any teacher you ask will tell you that it's getting harder and harder to sell the solitary one-on-one to students. The practice itself is changing. Already it's clear that the new reading will be technology-enhanced. CD-ROM packages are on the way--some are already out--to gloss and illustrate, but also to break the perceived tedium of concentration by offering interactivity options and the seductions of collage creations. (200-201)The act of writing will also suffer:
Process. As a noun, "a series of actions, changes, or functions that bring about an end or result." As a verb, "to put through the steps of a prescribed procedure." Although the word is both noun and verb, in this context its verbal attributes are dominant. The difference between words on a page and words on a screen is the difference between product and process, noun and verb. (156-157)
Stuart Moulthrop, on the other hand, argues that "hypertext differs from earlier media in that it is not a new thing at all but a return or recursion to an earlier form of symbolic discourse, namely print."(81) Moulthrop further argues that not only is the hypertext merely an easier to use form of print, but that
hypertext and hypermedia seem likely to instigate a secondary literacy -- "secondary" in that this approach to reading and writing includes a self-consciousness about the technological mediation of those acts, a sensitivity to the way texts-below-the-text constitute another order behind the visible. This secondary literacy involves both rhetoric and technics: to read at the hypotextual level is to confront (paragnostically) the design of the system...(87)Thus Moulthrop questions the value Birkerts places on the "single-focus" aspect of reading and sees the transition from nounal to verbal reading as a movement from passive reading to active reading.
Indeed, closely examining Birkerts model of noun and verb writing reveals an inconsistency. For if it is any kind of writing that stresses Birkerts' verbal "prescribed procedure" it would seem to be that writing process which would result in a static representation on a page. Whereas his nounal "series of actions, changes, or functions" is very reminiscent of hypertextual writing and reading. The standard interactive interface of the book is the index, but this is a flawed interaction at best.
An index in a printed book permits the reader to follow conceptual paths that the author has foreseen, but working from the index requires the cumbersome flipping of pages. Using the index also means reading the book in an unnatural order, for the reader must always be aware of this departure from the serial order of the pages. The computer has no difficulty "flipping" its electronic pages and so moving the reader across thousands or millions of words of the text. In fact, there need be no sense of the distance between two passages in a computerized text...(Bolter 138)Hypertext allows cognitive movements that can go beyond the immediate text itself, allowing explorations beyond the scope anticipated by the author.
Pound discusses a similar difference in the contrast between what in Kultchur he calls "totalitarian" artistic creations, ones which make complete and enclosed use of their subjects, and more modern efforts whose openness and omissions are "the defects inherent in a record of struggle."(135) Pound's concept of the function or "process" of art was clearly a verbal one, a struggle to deal with enormous questions that could not be served by the pat answers offered by totalitarian nouns.
If, as we have said, hypertext allows Pound's Canto IV to more easily achieve its Vorticist nature and reclaim its divinity, we could say that the reverse is also true and the nature of a poem as a vortex provides a guiding concept for the navigation such a vast network. Indeed, such distillation of ideas as attempted in the Cantos seems inevitable in the evolving use of these technologies. Think of the task of an author writing a book in any field. If the work is to be fit into the history of the field the author must make reference to what has come before, in many cases needing to summarize pervious concepts in order to dismiss, deconstruct, or enhance them. On a hypertexted information network all the author need do is provide links to important passages in the works discussed. Readers can make use of these links if their knowledge is lacking, otherwise they could be ignored and only the unique aspects of the new argument need be read.
Further, if Moulthrop's "secondary literacy" is truly a function of the use of hypertext networks, those who would be authors of such texts will need to find new formats to express their idea to so sensitized readers. Future texts may come more and more to resemble Pound's Cantos. Following this model this essay might read: "Pound/ Vorticism , Fenollosa/ The Chinese Written Character , Upward/ The New World "...etc, each of these terms being links to passages which form the units of a "theory vortex". Such "argument poems" would not tell you what to think about the information, conclusions would be made by the reader, the author's opinion would be presented in the choice of links. (Think of the effect upon the reader of the famed Harper's Index.) Keeping in mind that a network is also interactive, another theorist might add a supplementary line to the argument, "Birkerts/ The Gutenberg Elegies " which would point to a weakness in the initial argument poem, or perhaps enhance it in a new way. Such supplementary lines would be differentiated from the original lines by a date of submission and the name of the contributor.
Pound in Kultchur , looks forward to the possibilities that technology might open up in terms of the acquisition of knowledge:
Microphotography (ut dicta) shd. open up vast reaches of music. When one thinks of the number of old buffers ready to copy anything for a couple of lire...there is also a vista of possibility in typewritten copies of documents done with four or five carbons, one say for the local record, one Rome, and Milan etc.(220)A document created on a computer, of course, possesses the possibility of infinite reproduction. But more, as we have seen, the power of words in a hypertext recalls the power attributed by Fenollosa and Upward to primitive language, and even, despite his claims to the opposite, that aesthetic potency which Birkerts identifies with the printed word. It also creates a suture which is a partial answer to Derrida's "differance". Certainly not every text would benefit from being recast as a hypertext. Many forms of art and knowledge rely on a exact sequence of concepts, events, images, characters, etc, in order to build a revelation in the reader which would not occur had the reader encountered these components randomly. This is what a story is, after all, no matter the medium. Pound, in the Cantos, however, sought to have it both ways. He hoped that the power of words as he understood it could allow him to write a story which was delineated and yet left nothing out. Though he created something very interesting, and at times beautiful, in the process, it must be said that in terms of his goal, he failed. Yet, his attempt anticipated difficulties which were to plague the postmodern era. How does one harness vast amounts of information in order to be most useful to the limited human consciousness? As we have seen, Pound's Vortex may be a starting point for the creation of a model for such a system. The record of his Modernist struggle may yet assist us with our Postmodern dilemma.
Birkerts, Sven The Gutenberg Elegies (Faber and Faber, New York, 1994)
Bolter, Jay David "Beyond Word Processing: The Computer as a New Writing Space" (Language and Communication, 9:2/3, pp. 129-142, 1989)
Bush, Ronald The Gensis of Ezra Pound's Cantos (Princeton Univercity Press, 1976)
Fenollosa, Ernest The Chinese Written Character , after Bush (91)
Kenner, Hugh The Pound Era (Univercity of California Press, Berkley, 1971)
McGann, Jerome J. Towards a Literature of Knowledge (University of Chicago Press, 1989) Directed me to quotes in Kulchur and Letters.
Moulthrop, Stuart "You Say You Want a Revolution: Hyptertext and the Laws of Media" (Essays on Postmodern Culture , Oxford Univercity Press, New York, 1993.)
Pound, Ezra "As for Imagisme" After Bush (24).
Pound, Ezra Gaudier-Brezka After Bush (40) and Kenner (146).
Pound, Ezra Guide to Kulchur (New Directions, New York, 1952)
Pound, Ezra The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, ed. D.D. Paige (New Directions, New York, 1971)
Upward, Allen The New Word, after Bush (99)