1990: Robert Kendall’s It All Comes Down to _______

Kendall’s early DOS work ‘It all Comes Down ________’ is still (circa 2008) downloadable from his website, with the caveat that “the program will not run at speeds above 33Mhz; sorry, it was written a long time ago” In this contemporary era of dual core 2G laptops, Moore’s law has effectively sealed off Kendall’s creation inside a vault guarded by emulators. Funkhouser (who evidently went to the trouble of seeing these works on an emulator) writes:

Kendall was exploring textual experimentation in a manner similar to Bootz, Dutey, and Maillard and Papp by using a hypermedia narrative that combines linear words and phrases in various fonts, sizes and colours. […] For Kendall working with the computer provides the opportunity to utilize a uniquely contemporary set of tools … “Soft Poetry” is, he writes in the readme file, ” an update to the ancient traditions of the word as art object –the tradition of calligraphy, illuminated manuscripts, visual and pattern poetry […] by making serious poetry more tangible and just plain fun,” Kendall writes, “it can serve as a great introduction for students. Again and again it has captured the imagination of young people and those who don’t like poetry“. (Funkhouser, p. 137-8)

20 years after Kendall wrote these words, in a mediated ecosystem filled with frenetic-kinetic text, where TVs everywhere are exploding with information bars and motion graphics (think CNN transitions with 3D audio-synched glow-strobed ribbons of DNA-style headlines), and many simple advertisements (for soap, toilet paper, cosmetics or cars — racing over a desert of letters, chased by a swirl of gracefully chaotic logos) feature the aesthetics of a film’s credits, it seems probable that the awe and wonder effect of kinetic text might face a steep threshold of boredom in a media-saturated consumer. The wow-moment of a student introduced to poetry requires greater and greater labour and budget to compete with the coalesced output of hollywood and ad agencies. Independent poet-designers (the contemporary equivalent of the small-press of yore) cannot really compete against big-budget team efforts.

Video poems (the descendants of kinetic poetry) which feature extraordinarily rich motion graphics are also almost-invariably conservative in their poetic choices. Heebok Lee’s lush beautiful sensitive-yet-epic-3D setting of Yeats’ poem He wishes for the cloths of heaven is a typical glossy professional example of how graphic art outpaces the conceptual in sheer aesthetic magnetism:

Nevertheless (to return to the 1990s and Robert Kendall), it is also feasible to glimpse the contours of Kendall’s mind by exploring his online writings. In his entertainingly sardonic intro to his 1996 hypertext A Life Set for Two, Robert Kendall probes what was the sore nagging cavity in the tooth of 1990’s digital fiction: the page-pixel transition, the lack of stuff, the missing book.

So here I am, the poet anxiously coming to you with my illusionist’s act, hoping you’ll wink and look the other way at just the right moment so I can make the handkerchief of disbelief disappear. Ahem . . . Please direct your attention, if you will, to . . .

Where’s the page?

But, you nervously ask, where’s the page? Well, I nervously reply, there is none. Instead, there are pixels, semaphores of colored light on a screen invoking ranks of virtual print. There is nothing to hold in your hands. There is nothing solid and changeless. There is no single linear sequence underlying the text, no page numbering to guide you.

The dilemma of virtuality and absence is succinctly repeated in aphorism form on Kendall’s Word Circuits homepage:

This is a place for poetry and fiction born to pixels rather than the page–writing that’s digital down to its bones.
Art is the technology of the soul.

Apart from having created some of the earliest DOS poems, published hypertext with Eastgate, taught digital poetry, created a small collection of early web-poetry on his site Word Circuits, and created installations with original music, Kendall offers up some of the most acerbic intelligent discourse in the genre. Before reading Funkhouser, I had never heard of Kendall: not surprising in an era of 7 billion simultaneous sentient humans.

Occasionally a mind resonates with our sensibilities and Kendall’s lithe kinetic prose evokes Vonnegut mixed with drafts of Derrida. Plus, his musings on the nature of how the brain constructs meanings are in agreement with contemporary psychological models and tangentially support my tentative hypothesis of the irrelevance of media. Current theory is populist-intelligentsia-expressed in this New Yorker article on itching:

The account of perception that’s starting to emerge is what we might call the “brain’s best guess” theory of perception: perception is the brain’s best guess about what is happening in the outside world. The mind integrates scattered, weak, rudimentary signals from a variety of sensory channels, information from past experiences, and hard-wired processes, and produces a sensory experience full of brain-provided color, sound, texture, and meaning. (Gawande)

Kendall, jubilantly, expresses a very similar cosmology in his 1996 “Words and Mirrors: an introduction to A Life Set for Two.” He compares a digital poet trying to emulate or represent the mind ( an ephemeral constructed fluctuating, writhing quality which evolves in each instant) who utilizes branching dynamic digital media to the ancient craft of playwrites who use flesh and blood actors to “shore up” the illusion.

Our view of the world emerges not so much from the immediate mechanisms of perception, with their (we assume) direct lines to physical reality, as from the alchemical processes of mental reflection and recollection. Perception resides only in the fleeting moment of the present, that pinprick at the tip of the mind. We’re forced to grasp the world by groping through the vast, cluttered repositories of memory and knowledge that we’ve culled from it.

So from the chaotic striving and narrow sensory-channeled sifting of memory and perception our instantaneous presence in the world generates the thick discourse of experience. What does this insight mean for digital poetry? Well it puts in question the whole hierarchy of values that cluster around which technologies are better: HD video versus YouTube becomes a mute point. Consider how the paper page of the novel is an irritatingly static thing covered in black glyphs, yet it has and continues to provide many moments of exquisite lusciousness, provocative emotional launch points for reveries and epiphanies. The small screen of a laptop can be as absorbing as an IMAX theatre. A moment standing on the edge of the grand canyon may be truncated by the need to pee and petty irritants like a noisy bus, yet a rich multi-faceted experience may emerge for someone who sees a grainy morsel of film. Why? Because it is the brain which generates experience, fillng in the gaps, and often replenishing deficits in the source perception. Like in the fairy tales where poor orphans imagines themselves prince/princess, the capacity of our organic bodies to extrapolate beyond the limitations of media is vigorously active.


Gawande, Atul. 2008. “Annals of Medicine: The Itch.” Reporting & Essays: The New Yorker. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/06/30/080630fa_fact_gawande?printable=true [Accessed August 27, 2008].

Funkhouser, C. T. 2007. Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms. 1st ed. University Alabama Press.

Kendall, Robert. 1996. “Words and Mirrors: an introduction to A Life Set for Two.” Eastgate Systems. Available at: http://www.eastgate.com/hypertext/kendall/Mirrors.html [Accessed August 27, 2008].

He wishes for the cloths of heaven. 2006. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmKjZX3A-ow [Accessed August 27, 2008].

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