Detail: William Harris, "Armistice", n.d.
W illiam Harris (1926-2009) taught classics at Middlebury College in Vermont for thirty-two years. A sculptor, composer, and poet, when he retired in 1990, he worked with computers -- compiling an electronic Latin dictionary, Humanist's Latin Dictionary, that was published by Centaur.
During the ensuing years, Harris created Humanities and the Liberal Arts a website that is in itself a narrative of a Vermont life spent in the study of the classics and the making of art. In an online essay about his life he wrote:
"I am still surprised how much varied thinking went into that website. In high school I was bookish, I eagerly perused Jowett's Plato and fastened on Hippias the Elean with pure delight. He wove his cloak, made his sandals, composed an ode to commemorate the race he won, and sang it with his own lyre in hand. Plato looked askance at him, but I was delighted and got his message immediately: Do everything you can yourself, in short become what would eons later be called a Renaissance Man. In this age of specialization there are costs to all this but I held to my ideal firmly. The proof of the pudding is found in the materials in this website, which people often remark has the mark of the work of a Renaissance Man. Yes, that is what I always thought a teacher should be like. a person interested in more than his discipline, a citizen of the ideas of the world."
In recent years, Bill Harris created a series of evocative electronic poems and image/text works. "I want a poem to be meditated, not read through," he writes in his authoring software essay. "So by taking it off the page and making it a variable field of words, I think we are trying something new and something possibly very interesting."
A World War II Veteran, Harris, who had been battling cancer for several years, died at the age of 83 in February 2009.
William Harris: Hyper Poems
Authoring is done through MS "marquee" program, which was introduced in early version's of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Deprecated because of difficulty of web spiders to scan a moving text, it now works on IE 5/6, on Netscape 7, on iCab for Mac and elsewhere, and is retained for legacy files on Mozilla Firefox, Opera and Firefox.
M y primary concern is with text and what can be done with it in a poetry medium. We often think of poetic text as composed first and permanently written in ink or etched in stone, missing the possibilities of a poem in fluid text medium. Here I have used a very simple program which has often been used for minor and even frivolous purposes. I hand code my material for html as I always do, so I have complete control over the primary level. The poem is not written out first and then transferred into the motile form, but written line by line on the screen as I compare contrasts and inner meanings for each group of two or three lines. But the order of the lines is not changed, only the internal organization of each line as it confronts another.
The Microsoft program offers a short list of variable elements, including speed of horizontal travel, right and left, a possible but useless up and down, a frame delay, and some screen color possibilities. Using just the text basics, I can concentrate as an author on the content of my text, avoiding complex programming and some of the problems which complexity involves.
This would sound all too simple except for one factor. Since the lines of text are uneven in length, this affects the scrolled repetition which is thrown into its own seeming quasi-programmed a-synchronicity. So lines will never match up as with the first reading, they will continue to get further and further away as individual components from my "ur text". Thus the reader is given more and more discrete projections of recurring poetic motions, which in a ten line piece with perhaps three nodes of meaning or "events' per line, will be displaying to the reader's eye about twenty groupings of words continually appearing in different conjugations.
T hus each poem is continually evolving out of its own internal history, which at times may give a very different appearance to the whole display on the screen. The first appearance will be even like any text. Next some lines will start to go in different directions, and some will have a different programmed speed while others re-speed themselves later. Later, as a surprise, groups of words may possibly arrange themselves to the right and left of the screen leaving the center empty, or they may all congregate centrally before starting to wander sideways. The interesting thing about this variability is that as the poem progresses, more of the text obeys the internal patterning generated by the running program, and less and less the initial pattern which I have set up.
In the last twenty years, our visual comprehension of momentary chunks of text has developed to a remarkable degree. A tenth of a second on a typical TV display will give a real sense of a picture or of a chunk of advertising wording. Everything has speeded up as we learned how to scan rather than to read, how to intuit ideas rather than investigate them. Look at the slow text sections of an old silent movie and you will see the difference in reading speeds in less than a century.
A desire to break out of the fixedness of text appeared already in the later 19th century, when Mallarmé in his "Coup de dés. . . . ." tried to imitate something like fortuitous reading on a printed page. In the world of Dada, words appeared everywhere, in designs and by pure chance, always suggesting that they were loose and mobile in some sense. But little could be done with real mobility until we moved into the electronic age; these new HyperPoems which I have been working with are the front fringe of a very different new set of sensibilities.
Some people who have been heavily schooled to be linear, cannot "read" these new motion poems, which are as if one were walking into a flowering meadow and standing a moment taking it all in bit by bit. There is no order but just what you see, and your eye will rove rather than classify as it moves from edge to edge. When you come back tomorrow there will be changes in the meadow and also in your perception, because all is in change as Heraclitus well said. So the walk in the meadow or the perusal of a HyperPoem for several minutes might be considered as an investigative essay in changeability and variety. It could be in the world of nature, while in these poems it will be in words and text.
I want a poem to be meditated, not read through. So by taking it off the page and making it a variable field of words, I think we are trying something new and something possibly very interesting.
Silvia Stoyanova and Ben Johnston