Words on Works

The Mind as Poem: A Life
Set for Two

                               Robert Kendall

Language arises through a process of refinement. The raw materials of mental activity, the thoughts that well up in the brain, are distilled into words so we can communicate, record and analyze them. There is inevitably something lost in the refining process, however---namely, that which "can't be put into words." Poetry is an attempt to put back some of the natural psychological fiber that is normally sacrificed when language is made. Literal signification is replaced by metaphor and implication. Words are chosen not for their aptness as labels but for the way they resonate in dimmer regions of the psyche. The meaning door is left open for a better chance at glimpsing the flickering intangibles that are felt rather than known.

Like any poem struggling to get back to preverbal basics, my electronic poem A Life Set for Two [1] (Fig. 1) dwells in the realm of the figurative---but not just through figures of speech. It taps the multiple layers of symbolic language underlying computer software, the electronic tropes behind the virtualities of interface and process that glow on the screen. The reader's interaction with the poem and its own predefined algorithms combine to create a malleable text that changes with each reading.

		Fig. 1

The metaphorical workings of computer code are of course different from those of the English language. It is precisely these differences that give the former their uncanny poetic depth. Binary code structures bear a greater similarity to the neurological instruction sets for producing thought than they do to the language that is the product of that thought. These mental codes buried in the depths of the psyche create the psychological impetuses and tensions at the root of personality. What little they reveal of themselves to the conscious mind through their workings indicates a remarkable complexity and beauty---a low-level poetry in its own right. A Life tries to reflect a little of the brain's poetry of procedure and input handling and to unite this with the poetry of text. In the workings of the program itself I hope to capture something of the psychological makeup of the poem's speaker, a man ruminating upon botched love.

Images and thoughts of this man's ex-lover still rattle around loose in his brain, reluctant to resolve themselves into a merciful closure that might dissipate their power over him. It is in this volatile form that the reader encounters these reminiscences---as discrete textual moments that present themselves in no fixed order and with no fixed content, transforming themselves in response to different juxtapositions. In this way the reader seems to glimpse the random-access mechanism of memory trying to get a grip on its slippery holdings.

These remnants from the character's past are inseparable from the conflicting feelings they arouse in him. They cannot be viewed in any objective light but only as illuminated by the shifting gels of ambivalence. Some images are pushed into the shadows at the back of his mind where they loom invisibly and then emerge to cast their own shadows on everything that passes through his head. The script for this neural play of color and shadow is embedded in the software of A Life.

Each section of the text comes in several variants, representing competing emotional states. The reading progresses by shifting among these parallel states and slanting the perspective accordingly. Certain obsessive themes emerge at times, altering long stretches of the text. The reader has some power over these emotional shifts and obsessions, though much of the emotional maneuvering remains beyond reader control, managed by the software behind the scenes. So stands the opposition between our mastery over our feelings and their mastery over us.

As an exploration of thought processes, A Life attempts not just to put these processes into words but also to put them behind the words, which is where they naturally belong as the rootstock of language. The poetry is in these (computer-simulated) processes as much as in the text itself. As the reader learns to read the processes as well as the writing, perhaps a way may open toward a new type of literacy--one that involves not words but rather the sources from which words arise.



1. Software for Windows, Eastgate Systems, 1996 (134 Main St., Watertown, MA 02172, U.S.A., info@eastgate.com). This work was written in Visual BASIC.

| Copyright 1997 ISAST |

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