Text on the Web?

The internet and the world-wide-web are a rapidly evolving collection of services and access methods. I would not be the first to note, however, that most of the material on the internet is text based, nor would I be the first to note that studies have shown that reading text from a computer screen is significantly less efficient than reading it from a traditional physical format.

As the net and the web continue to evolve, we see an increasing emphasis on graphics, sound, and even video, leading some people to describe the environment as an ideal 'multi-media' environment. Closer examination reveals that the graphics and multi-media pages on the web are mostly just 'hooks' into text pages or directions to FTP sites: fancy ways of indicating 'click here!' If the net and the web are really places of ideas and concepts, today most of those ideas are still expressed in text. And reading text off a computer screen is still an inefficient and often unpleasant experience.

I believe that the difficulty of presenting text on the web is two-fold: poor or limited formatting options, and the difficulty of coordinating the common visual navigation of line and paragraph breaks with the physical navigation of the visual 'window.'

The formatting limitations of HTML are well known, and I won't belabor that point here. Suffice to say that even very clever use of HTML options can be defeated by a poorly configured web browser. If the reader has chosen ugly fonts, or chosen a window size or position that is less than ideal, then the best formatting in the world is ineffective or, worse still, counter productive.

I believe that the second limitation of 'electronic' text is even more significant. When you read a physical document you are constantly moving either the document of yourself, shifting your view in a natural series of subtle adjustments to the reading process. For example, you might raise the page as you read down a column. Subtle physical adjustments are impossible to achieve with scroll bars and page-down keys. Your physical relationship to the 'electronic' page is fixed. The lack of easy adjustment to the logical movement of reading tends to make the reader uncomfortable, decreasing the efficiency of the reading process.

So if these are my opinions, what is the Fine Arts Bluesband doing on the web? The FAB&PP web site is largely about poetry, and I believe that poetry is relatively immune from the two deficiencies I have described. Indeed, I am coming to believe that the web is an almost ideal medium for most poetry.

With some notable exceptions, most poetry is broken into groups of relatively short, well defined lines: natural 'blocks' which can be seen and read as whole entities. Even longer poetry usually has enough breaks between stanzas or lines to provide entirely natural points at which the reader can page- or scroll-down. Moreover, with some even more notable exceptions, most poetry has no formatting content beyond the simple line and paragraph breaks provided by HTML. The integrity of the poem usually doesn't depend upon a certain typeface or on careful spacing. While it is true that many poets (including myself) are deeply interested in typography, the goal is usually an elegant but 'plain' presentation of words and phrases, structured line by line and stanza by stanza. Much of the poetry on the web is even formatted with HTML tags which attempt to specify a non proportional, typewriter like font: a deliberate effort to appear as 'unformatted' as possible.

[I might add here that the developments in page formatting on the web which have taken place since I wrote most of this little essay don't make much difference to my basic point. The 'browser wars' have produced a bewildering variety of specialized formatting tags, but insofar as they specify fonts which are not universal, and special effects which work differently in different browsers, they don't help much.]

[ Here on this site I also refrain from Java in any form, other proprietary scripting effects, exploding logos, cookies, counters and all most of the other doodads and paraphanalia of the modern web-site, just on general principle.]

Some of the other potential advantages of presenting poetry on the web includes intriguing options such as using audio and video to present actual readings. For those of you interested in such possibilities, I strongly suggest a pair of CDs called Poetry in Motion and Poetry In Motion II by Ron Mann (The Voyager Company, ISBN: 1559404361 & 155940647X.) The problem of using audio and video effectively over relatively slow internet links, however, is significant; and even when the material is on a local CD-ROM drive there are technical limitations and presentation compromises involved which limit the universality of the format, especially when compared with simple, traditional text presentations. [That was in the early 90's; things are much easier now.]

So I would contend that the net and the web have created a haven for poetry, and that's why I'm here. I'll explore and experiment a bit, but mostly I'll just show the poetry.

Richard Minutillo

contact rgminutillo at fabandpp.org.

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