I scatter the words of the old-fashioned poem across the screen with my mouse, much as my toddler relishes throwing her lego blocks willy nilly across the floor. The words, unlike the lego blocks, remain neatly contained within the spinning disc that holds the poem. Remembering the instruction (“Both the poem and the disc are playable”), I pull at the disc, and I am delighted to find that jiggling the disc changes the sound of the remnents of the poem that are being read, like when a DJ pulls at an LP.

I always mean to read more electronic literature. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to write about at least one piece of e-lit each week on my blog. I’m not intending lengthy in-depth analyses or reviews, just little blog posts about my immediate responses to the work. This morning I read (or played) Alan Bigelow’s “This is Not a Poem”, published in 2010.

screenshot of Alan Bigelow's This is not a poem

Why such a very hackneyed poem, though? A poem I know I have heard, that really isn’t a very interesting poem, which is probably the point. It is, however, a poem about being a poem. The title of the remix is “This is Not a Poem”, which, I suppose, makes it very much about being (or not being) a poem.

The starting point for the remix is “Tree”, by Joyce Kilmer, who died in 1918:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Reading as destruction seems to be a fairly constant trope in electronic literature. Noah Wardrip-Fruin et.al’s Screen is for me the standard against which I measure such works. Screen was made for a cave, so you stand inside it with your 3D glasses and use a glove to hit words back against the wall as they fall off it. Your attempts to keep the text intact are doomed though, and soon enough all the words fall all over you (it feels fantastic). The text of Screen is also about how hard it is to hold on to memories, to moments.

But what is “This is not a poem” about? Maybe it’s enough that it’s about the simple fun of tearing apart old poems, just as my toddler loves to scatter her blocks all around the room.

2 thoughts on “reading as destruction

  1. Jena Habegger-Conti

    Whew! That made me dizzy! But I like very much this idea of “reading as destruction” and some of the e-lit projects that I have seen remind me of some of the earlier 20th c. projects like that of William Carlos Williams who was so fascinated with the way type looked on a page that he would type a poem hundreds of times in different ways until he was satisfied. But he was interested in the *construction* of the poem and compared poetry writing to industrial labor. Here’s a video on this connection that I used in my 100 level American lit class (excuse the goofiness of the presenter!):


    But I think there might be a connection in these poem = machine (industrial or digitalized) experiments of the early 20th c. and late 20th c. /early 21st c.

    Do you know if this has been explored?

  2. alan bigelow

    Well, I gotta give a hint on what this piece might be about….

    Hint#1: The background image is a give away, and so is the video of the tree…

    Hint#2: Think media of publication…

    But maybe I have said too much!

Leave A Comment

Recommended Posts

Triple book talk: Watch James Dobson, Jussi Parikka and me discuss our 2023 books

Thanks to everyone who came to the triple book talk of three recent books on machine vision by James Dobson, Jussi Parikka and me, and thanks for excellent questions. Several people have emailed to asked if we recorded it, and yes we did! Here you go! James and Jussi’s books […]

Image on a black background of a human hand holding a graphic showing the word AI with a blue circuit board pattern inside surrounded by blurred blue and yellow dots and a concentric circular blue design.
AI and algorithmic culture Machine Vision

Four visual registers for imaginaries of machine vision

I’m thrilled to announce another publication from our European Research Council (ERC)-funded research project on Machine Vision: Gabriele de Setaand Anya Shchetvina‘s paper analysing how Chinese AI companies visually present machine vision technologies. They find that the Chinese machine vision imaginary is global, blue and competitive.  De Seta, Gabriele, and Anya Shchetvina. “Imagining Machine […]

Do people flock to talks about ChatGPT because they are scared?

Whenever I give talks about ChatGPT and LLMs, whether to ninth graders, businesses or journalists, I meet people who are hungry for information, who really want to understand this new technology. I’ve interpreted this as interest and a need to understand – but yesterday, Eirik Solheim said that every time […]