poetics.ca issue #8
poetics.ca issue #8
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Notation for"Willing suspension of belief"

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Presented E-poetry 2001,  Buffalo 

Copyright © Lawrence Upton 2001, 2007



Italicised words are instructions and are not read by the speaker / performer 

Optional: display a large screen saying “suspend belief” behind the speaker throughout the talk 

… Please wait… 

I apologise for my advertised title, Spondees, Spondulicks and Sponsors! It fitted my abstract. 

My abstract led to a paper over an hour long; and I had to edit. Therefore, this talk is part one of a possible work-in-progress which may have that title.

This talk is called Willing suspension of belief. 

Do while True 

My dear fellow cyborgs, two quotations… 

Lisa Jardine. QUOTE. The practice of science has been... a story of chance, creative misunderstanding, wrong turnings, sudden opportunities taken, succumbing to sponsorship and the inspired ingenuity of individual men and women. END QUOTE. (1) 

Paul Valery. QUOTE. It takes two to invent anything... The one makes up combinations; the other one chooses, recognises what he wishes and what is important to him in the mass of the things which the former has imparted to him. What we call genius is much less the work of the first than the readiness of the second one to grasp the value of what has been laid before him and to choose it. END QUOTE. (2) 

Question. What is e-poetry? Answer. E-poetry. Next question. 

Question. Why make e-poetry? Answer. Why not? 

Question. How can we do it better? Answer. Define better. LINK

E-poetry is new, in some ways; but it is a continuation. Of what, I don't know. E-poetry changes what it continues. LINK 

Can existing criteria enable us to evaluate e-poetry? I doubt it. They don't help too much with many areas of poetry: for example, How loud is my voice when I am reading a picture? What is the audio of an upside-down letter of the alphabet? What happens in a poem, rhythmically and syntactically, as we go through hyperlinks? (3) 

Does e-poetry make any poetic concepts irrelevant? Henri Chopin is quoted as saying that by the year 2000 the artist would be one who controls machines or would be nothing. (4) I disagree; and am prepared to program my computer to disagree. 

Our machines are our peripherals, and we are distributed processes. 

What passes colloquially for personality is often no more than incomplete screen echoes of front end processing for something which believes it is us. 

Computers are QUOTE extensions of the intellect END QUOTE; but most use of computers is mechanisation of hand-written communication, much of it pointless, and the abacus. (5) 

Qualify the idea of extending the intellect with a twist on Mottram's concept of prosthesis of poetry (6). 

Things we have made, including ideas, have their own vectors and consequences; but tools enhance and do not replace creativity. Without a path from our evolved routes, we are slaves; when we could be technologically-assisted citizens of changeable worlds. 

Avoid critiques that discourage the intermingling and cross-fertilisation of praxes. 

Examine old terminology to facilitate odd ideas. Odd ideas tend to yield. 

We can change our functions; and, as recursive systems, we can change our determining declarations. QUOTE Declarative memory... profoundly shapes our every act and thought. END QUOTE (7) 

The physical mode of writing employed need be no great issue especially if one outputs a diversity of writing modes. Variety of writing encourages a diversity of methods of writing; and the process of writing is likely to be easier if the poet matches the poem to method. Tools appropriate to the task! Digitally, writing media are beginning to converge. LINK 

In 1988, I wrote a poetry generator - my stepson named it Ian - a generator of haiku - I call mine 575s - which produced a few remarkable 575s. Now I cannot always be sure which I wrote in my head and which I wrote indirectly, by first writing program code and then running it, stopping it, adding to or changing the vocabulary files, modifying attributes of polysyllabic words and so on. 

Here's one written by Ian:

Let me hold you, now, 

you do the talking

just stay 

if it pleases you 

To get that took a lot of fanfold stationery. LINK

The use of the word-processor has enabled me to explore the idea of multiple valid versions of the poem. The labour of retyping is largely taken care of. A well-designed directory structure and file-naming system, a matter of routine, takes care of filing; and one concentrates on following writing-rewriting processes down multiple divergent and convergent routes. I find that more interesting than narrative link mazes, yet it is only using the computer as an assistant. 

I keep relatively few poems in multiple versions; but the possibility is there.  

There may be much to be done creatively with the hyperlink but, from my point of view, it is the A led to B led to C approach which bothers me in a way which A led to B or C does not answer. 

Much of the most interesting literature for many years has taken for granted jump cuts. One of my disappointments with the hyperlink is that it hardwires where the jump will be and some of the what of it. LINK 

Web publication of hypertext allows making an element of improvisatory reading available as a multiple and I cannot think that is anything but good. However, I regret the lack of the physical presence of the poet. The writer has greater scope for improvising their route through a text with a stack of papers. 

I look forward to the day when it is common place – pun accepted – that I walk through a hypertext by gesture –

performer points upwards
link 1

performer points to left or right
link 2,

performer points left and right
random link,

performer waggles fingers
change colour,

performer hides behind lectern, if available, else covers face, and then reappears
blank page.

Physical presence in performance / realisation is important to me. I feel the same about audio and video recordings and about reproductions of painting and sculpture. 

Distinguish between poetry made for the page and / or the ear and / or the physical presence and then put on the web as a distribution system; and poetry made for presentation on the web as a medium. (8) It is a matter I have begun to try to address in my Game on a line (9) and I shall not repeat myself here. LINK 

Distinguish between what can be done and what it is appropriate to do in a particular situation. I am not about to give any rules. 

Because one can do something, it doesn't mean that one should do it. The power of some concrete and visual poetry has been the way it implies movement and to add movement would, in some cases, diminish the work's power... LINK


Here's another, but modified, 575

in her hand, blue cards,

a woollen up to the wrist,

chubby calves, bare feet,

in her hand

I feel that is my poem; but I would be very unlikely ever to have written it unaided.

Later I worked with my version of Themerson's QUOTE Semantic Poetry  END QUOTE, phrases propagating longer restatements apparently conveying the same meaning more verbosely but inevitably bringing in new overtones of meaning. (10)

And I was doing the opposite, seeking out QUOTE constellations END QUOTE and breaking them open. (11)

I thought the combination of these approaches might help make a poem I desired to make in praise of John Coltrane if I used them for lexical exchange using synonyms and antonyms. The variations would be based upon arithmetical progressions, as would the timings of breaking apart and recombination. (12)

Where it didn't work, I would change it.

The task was wearisome and the pleasure of production was dwarfed by the accountancy of the process.

One day, lecturing, I heard myself say QUOTE if a process is frequently repeated then it is ripe for computerisation END QUOTE; and took it seriously...

Some word-processor files (with file structures I knew), together with surprisingly few routines, released me from what had been destructively repetitive.

There was nothing innovative in the coding. Every part of it was a fairly standard example one would want a student to know; and the program never got beyond prototype.

It enabled me to substitute the cursor moving across onscreen word grids for my fingers manipulating a pile of physically heterogeneous books whilst trying to write down what I read and keeping track of my reading and my hands and the books they were opening and closing and the note books in which I was transcribing my selection. I had a team of animate ushabtis doing my unwelcome work without their going beyond the status of avatars. (13)

Instead of one arithmetical progression, I employed multiple differing progressions. No trouble!

The program wrote my decisions to disk while I concentrated on what the whole thing was sounding like. Easy!

I stopped and started. I was the only one who tired. I was at large. I retained multitudes.

I generated alternative versions. I was able to improvise. LINK

Creativity is somewhere between luck and fortuna. It cannot be summoned, but it may be prepared for. LINK

I call that prosthetic mental process auto-collaboration. It is different in feel and in output from solo writing, though the two processes belong in the same set. It isn't anything inherent in the computer; but nothing can match the computer for speed and consequent potential intensity of the experience. LINK

I distinguish this process from Burroughs' "third mind" though the two are closely related. The other is myself and the intellect is artificially extended prosthetically rather than socially or procedurally. LINK

James and Presley's Neither the one nor the other, gained from being abstracted for publication from its creative medium. There's a disembodied quality to it in print like the location of a sound between speakers projecting that sound in a hifi system. The voice is out of its heads, an effect that, I like to think, cris cheek and I achieved to some degree in our Is moving the television. We sat at a table, snatching pages, crossing out and changing lines without too much permission. One needs to be sure it won't get nasty; and the computer with a mailbox can implement the process in cyberspace. LINK

I have experimented with talking to the dead in my piece for a which utilises my email correspondence with the late Alaric Sumner. (14)

Joseph Hyde's digital video recently enabled me to share the stage with Sumner in Sumner and Hyde's Nekyia (15), which had been scored for Sumner in his retrospectively uncanny dialogue with the dead.

Not that any of this is disjunctively new.

What is new is the ability to have accurate and repeatable random access to vast quantities of words, of the living and the dead, written and, increasingly, spoken in conversational mode, if not without rhetorical camouflage and enhancement; but camouflages are a part of a person's image and so of their operational self.

E-poetries won't necessarily lead to better writing, but they will lead to somewhat different writing; and let us remember that the settlement of new areas has always resulted in the destruction of what may not even be perceived by the settlers to exist...

The global village is being subsumed into globalisation. We may find ourselves disoriented, somewhere in a shopping mall, with headless messages from nowhere identifiable saying that we can do what's never been done and win what's never been won.

As ever, we can pay to avoid some of it. LINK

Payment assumes the ability to pay... I recall the entirely innocent and good-willed proposal that we should bring our laptops. I have the money for a laptop?… Or new software? My digital work is limited to javascript and html. LINK

There is one major reason that I am not working in digital video, apart from the shortness of the day, and that is that I cannot afford to buy the kit. LINK

It isn't all free; it isn't all available; because it isn't all there. It's getting there, but cyberspace is becoming the sprawl (16).

The web is being used for purposes that are inimical to its ability to empower while freedom - as opposed to liberty - is being allowed to extend.

My dear fellow cyborgs, before putting faith in the transformative power of what we have wrought, realise that the tree of the golden fleece is one of the places you cannot go any day, even if you want to, this side of the end of history. LINK

I am concerned by acquisitive and restrictive moves being made in the name of protection of intellectual property, and not just in the domain of software; but people should be paid for their labour, if only because they have to eat. LINK

I am dispirited because constrained by the cost of connection in Europe. LINK

The programmer is worthy of her hire. LINK

Economic space intervenes in the creative process, like the lights coming on early in a cinema, and we succumb, one of many things modified but not changed by the I.T. revolution. LINK

Negotiating with one's vocation is not a value-free activity. QUOTE Eating at someone's table, places you in their power END QUOTE. (17)

Free the computer from the embarrassment of enslaving its users as it offers us an ever-growing encyclopaedia of supposed choice and disguised restriction via compendia of images.

QUOTE Can these bits and pieces of a culture be put together to make a coherent whole? END QUOTE

Yes. Embrace contradictions. The computer is binary but we are fuzzy. We can say maybe. We can bootstrap algorithms. Keats called it Negative Capability.

I sum it all up with three cuts from my abstract forming two questions and one answer. 5 words.

Who says?

What says?



The title is a reference to the conjectured process described in Chapter 14 of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria: "to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."


(1) in Ingenious Pursuits

(2) quoted by Daniel C Dennett in Why the law of effect will not go away, 1975; from The psychology of inventing in the Mathematical Field by Jacques Hadamard, 1949 - original citation not known

(3) This idea I owe to an essay by Jim Rosenberg

(4) but I have been unable to locate the quotation

(5) Brian Wheeler

(6) In a 1972 article on Bob Cobbing published in the magazine Second Aeon

(7) Steven Rose, The Making of Memory

(8) See the text-image section of Riding the Meridian, edited by Alaric Sumner, for a comparison of the paper and screen versions of my poem house

(9) Published by PaperBrain Press, USA, 2000, o.p.

(10) see his On Semantic Poetry

(11) Gomringer

(12) Part of the eventual result was published as As sent, dedicated to Carlyle Reedy, in the magazine Talus

(13) I am thinking of the ushabtis in The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, an inhabitant or one time inhabitant of Buffalo, I believe

(14) In Riding the Meridian, edited by Jennifer Ley

(15) Michael Tippett Centre, Bath

(16) as in Neuromancer by William Gibson

(17) Marina Warner, No go the bogeyman

Lawrence Upton

Born 1949. Poet; sound and graphic artist; performer: has been making poetry for over forty years, prolific in a variety of genres. The diversity of his artistic practice increases with the passing of time.

Previously a computer professional (networking, database design & an academic head of department), he has been a full time artist since the mid 90s when he resigned his academic post.

He divides his time between Greater London and emptier places, particularly west Cornwall and Scilly. He continues to perform and give talks; and welcomes professional invitations.

He made solo and collaborative sound works (1974 - 1978) at Föreningen Fylkingen, Stockholm, then West Square Studio, London. In that decade, too, he co-founded jgjgjgjgjg; and, later, Bang Crash Wallop.

His collaborators include cris cheek, Erik Vonna-Michell, Lilian Ward, Bob Cobbing, Alaric Sumner, Jennifer Pike, Rory McDermott, John Levack Drever and others. His wide-ranging collaborations with the composer John Levack Drever are continuing, his second largest collaboration so far.

Upton worked extensively with the late Bob Cobbing, first in the 1970s and then from the early 1990s until Cobbing's death, producing 12 collaborative poem / books, including the massive, sometimes infamous, visual poem “Domestic Ambient Noise”; and co-editing “Word Score Utterance Choreography in visual and verbal poetry”, a primer on performance from visual poetry, all from Writers Forum.

He was elected twice as Deputy Chair of The Poetry Society in the 1970s, resigning the second on principle. He directed the reading series, Sub Voicive Poetry, from 1994 for ten years. He has been co-convenor of Writers Forum Workshop and co-director of Writers Forum since 2002.

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