Was Finnegans Wake really an example of hypertext web fiction avant la letter? The Guardian, via its new Bookmarks e-newsletter suggests as much.

Maybe I’m a Philistine, but I can’t say I really get the point of writing in ways which people can’t understand. Well, maybe not “I can’t see the point”, because I suppose I can really. You want to shock, disorientate and thus cause some sort of fundamental reevaluation of the reader’s relationship to the world and the word. Maybe I’m just complacent, and don’t think I need my viewpoint refocussing. Conceptual poetry just gets my back up. Cutting words out of a newspaper, putting them in a bag, shaking the bag, and taking out a word at a time will of course produce something, which if you lay it out in short lines will look like a poem. But what’s the point? Are you suggesting that poetry is a dead convention? That the sense isn’t what’s important, it’s the rhythm (though how you ensure a good rhythm with random withdrawals is hard to figure)? If you really think so badly of poetry, just don’t do it. Nobody’s forcing you to compose. One could of course program a computer to select random words and plonk them down in lines of about five syllables, and in the end we might say, isn’t that clever. (Well, I wouldn’t, but some might.) But that doesn’t mean computers can write poetry, or even that programmers can, though I suppose one might find the odd programmer-bard. The verses in the quiz about machine writing are admittedly hard to identify as not human-written, but a few lines may enable the computer to get away with that. The Turing test is one thing: a Tennyson test would surely be a horse of a very different color.

Difficult literature does of course appeal to some. I guess they are puzzle-solvers. I remember a dinner guest many years ago assuring me that he just like to let Joyce’s words wash over him. I’ve never cottoned to literature as intellectual testbed or as verbal massage. It’s often said the way to get Finnegans Wake is to read it aloud — so what could be better than hearing the author himself administer the massage. Geoff Wilkins’ website gives the recitation along with the text. (Make sure your speakers are on before you follow this link: he starts right away.)

If you liked that you may be ready to move on to the entire work read here at UbuWeb by Patrick Healy. It’s a feat: how does he read it so fast? I find it hard to keep up with him just following along. Still at 35 hours total I guess you feel the need to up the pace. Hyperlinks would be a nightmare it seems to me. If you stop to check everything you’ll never get anywhere — the journey’s long enough without detours. But paradoxically without the detours maybe the journey’s not worth taking? Do we have to devote a lifetime to this one work?

 

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