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Parthenogenisis of Propago by G. Michael Palmer

Modernism and postmodernism, coupled with the creation of electronically produced and reproducible imaging, have fully birthed a third form of literature. Its main generation was in the earliest typed texts though truly it was born at the same time as writing. Its predecessors, poetry and prose, existed before the written word—it is impossible to know if they predate our first records of communication, cave painting, but poetry and prose certainly existed before there were tools (i.e. writing) to record them. Once it became possible to record text by writing, text became manipulatable not only sonically (as it always had been) but visually as well.

Acrostics (an early manifestation of visual manipulation) can be found in the Hebrew text of the books of Jeremiah and the Psalms. Dante employs them in his Divine Comedy. Concrete poems (those in which the typography is as important as the text) have examples dating at least back to the 16th century.

Poets, when hand-writing poems, have always been able to infuse their texts with additional meaning as image. However, the production of such images was tedious, and distribution was limited. What electronic production enables that is different from previous centuries of writing is the more rapid production and distribution of these works and the endless ability to recreate and edit each work, as each new work does not require physical recreation, only a manipulation of the previous iteration.

When this manipulation of text was limited in scope and distribution, it was a curiosity. Now, with the advent of both simple electronic creation and distribution, however, this third mode of literature beats its head against the names of its literary predecessors, poetry and prose, like a linguistic Athena trying to break out of Zeus’ skull. As such, we must search for an old term made new, full of the linguistic history of poetry and prose and sufficiently unwielded as to be able to accept such new and comprehensive weight.

Propago is a Latin word meaning a layer or a shoot of the vine. It can also mean offspring, when used in reference to humans or animals. As this third form of literature (the only literature which can truly be called “writing”) is the offspring of the layering of language and visual stimulation, propago is chosen as the sign that can most readily carry the full intent of the signified.

We now have three terms with which to discuss literature:

Prose: “plain-spoken” language. Language that is largely free from form, flourish, and ornament. Though it may be concerned with its sound and often uses imagery to elucidate its meanings, the conveyance of its meaning is not dependent upon either of these.

Poetry: distilled language. It can convey the same content as prose, but it must do so suspended at the syzygy of image, sound, and form. A poem does not exist independently of image, sound, or form.

Propago: visual language. Propago is language that exists primarily in visual form. Its meaning is derived from the experience not of hearing the literature but of viewing it. Propago may use many of the textual tools of prose or poetry but the message that it conveys is dependent upon a visual presentation.

Propago, like poetry and prose, can be created at all levels of artistry. We measure poetry by the beauty of its language balanced with the effectiveness of its meaning. We measure prose by the effectiveness of its meaning balanced with the beauty of its language. Propago, on the other hand, must be measured by the beauty of its image balanced by the effectiveness of its message. It is this nearness in definition to poetry (the replacement of language with image) and its un-namedness up until now that may account for the standard confusion of poetry with propago. Indeed, such terms as “concrete poetry,” “visual poetry,” and “e-poetry” have all been used to name what we have here named propago.

This division of terms allows us to have a rational discussion of propago without having to subject poetry to redefinitions that leave it a meaningless and vague catch-all of any written work that is not obviously prose. This is especially pertinent in light of Language and Concrete styles of writing and hypertextual writing. Calling these forms of writing by their proper term, propago, alleviates the question “what is poetry?” that seems to create endless problems for literary theorists, thereby enabling the far more productive conversation “what makes great propago?”

Does Hypertext Equal Propago?

All literature is by nature hypertextual. That is, all literature has the ability to continue its meaning beyond its text. Once it became possible to include direct links to other texts within a written text (as opposed to allusions, which require physically obtaining and separately interfacing with referenced texts), authors began to experiment with the limits of each form. This experimentation has included not only hypertextual links but also the addition of hypertextual illustrations.

Propago has been the form of literature most readily adapted to the possibilities of hyperlinked and/or illustrative presentation. This is because propago is already dependent upon visual presentation. The addition of further visual complexity does not destroy its cohesiveness. Hypertext links and computer illustrations can be used both to randomize the nature of the propago’s presentation and to reform the image of each propago. The difference between hyperlinked and/or illustrative prose or poetry and hyperlinked and/or illustrative propago is that while any addition of hyperlinks or computer illustrations only serve to more deepen the interactive and visual nature of propago, they must not be allowed to overcome the aural nature of poetry or prose.

Poetry and prose can have hyperlinks and illustrations if they are, by nature, illustrative of the text—centuries ago, monks and scribes made Illuminated Manuscripts. For decades now we’ve had illustrated children’s books. Since the 1990s there have been hyperlinked glosses of (especially Modernist) works available. These illustrations and links do not make poetry and prose into propago. Neither must propago have hyperlinks and illustrations—they are simply the most common forms of creating the third form of literature. Poetry and prose are made into propago when the inclusion of hyperlinks and/or illustrations recreates the previous text in such a way as to infuse the visual dimension of the text with an inextricable element of that text’s meaning. That is, if the visual presentation substantiates rather than illustrates meaning, one has produced propago.

We measure the effectiveness of illustrations and hyperlinks, whether in prose, poetry, or propago, by the value that hyperlinks and/or illustrations add to the work as a whole. In this way, illustrations and hyperlinks become, in poetry and prose, ways to add to the meaning of the text. In propago, however, they are part of the text itself, inseparable in meaning from the written word.

So What Makes Propago?

Though hyperlinks and illustrations are often used in propago, it is clear that poetry and prose can be illuminated by their presence. What propago is, then, is writing that exists first and foremost visually. “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” by e.e. cummings is an early example of propago. The works of Darren Wershler-Henry, for example, are electronic (hypertextual) in nature and also propago. Poetry and prose require us to think like we speak. Propago requires us to think like we see.

Some Examples of Propago on the World Wide Web

Robert T. Balder’s comic strip: PartiallyClips. (All comics are inherently propagic; this is just one of the most basic and best.): http://www.partiallyclips.com/index.php?id=1120

Two versions of Eliot’s “Wasteland”:
http://world.std.com/~raparker/exploring/thewasteland/table/explore5.html
http://eliotswasteland.tripod.com/

e.e. cummings’s “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” poem: http://plagiarist.com/poetry/270/

My own experiment with turning a villanelle propagic: http://home.bellsouth.net/p/s/community.dll?ep=16&groupid=295058&ck=

View bio for G. Michael Palmer Published in Spring 2006

About HDM

Half Drunk Muse was one of the first poetry ezines. It was founded in 1999 and ceased publication in 2006.

Questions/comments? Email samiller@halfdrunkmuse.com.