H. M. Franking, Ph.D.

Second-Generation Hypertext in A Life Set for Two

A Life Set for Two: A Hypertext Poem
by Robert Kendall
Eastgate Systems, Inc.; Windows software; $19.95; Fall, 1996
Reviewed by H. M. Franking, Ph.D.

Robert Kendall calls his book-length hypertext poem, A Life Set for Two, a lyric. He should know. He’s a print-published, award-winning poet, who teaches writing on-line for The New School of Social Research in New York. But if “lyric” makes you think Shelley and Keats or Hallmark, don’t. A Life is lyrical in the sense that it is a personal meditation.

The narrator recalls a past lover. The lover is an intriguing woman who is passionately right for him but wrong for him in every other way. Kendall even uses a romantic setting—the Café Passé—where the reader makes selections from two main menus: WHAT FED ME and WHAT FED HER. Items from the first menu include the following: Fall’s Fruit, Seasoned Heart, Manna from the Stars, Seefood, Wild Game (In Season), Handouts, and from the second menu include: Fruit’s Falls, The Juicy Part, Dainties Under Glass, Naughty Treats, Prison Rations, and The Recipe.

There, however, obvious comparisons end between A Life and the traditional, print lyric. For one thing you need a PC with a color monitor and Windows to “read” this poem. Kendall, you’ll find, is playing the long, rich history of the lyric form against the hard-wired, disparate form of computer hypertext.

Hypertext to most is that ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous computer code used to link computers on the Internet. To others, it’s a harbinger of the end of print literature and of the concepts of “author,” “reader,” and “text” as we know them. For instance, Robert Debray, in The Future of the Book, fears that hypertext will create a kind of “fatherless and propertyless, borderless and customs-free text, which everyone can manipulate and which can be disseminated everywhere.”1

A Life should be placed between these two different views of hypertext. When a reader clicks menu selections in this poem, new screens open with delightfully vivid and often emotionally charged lines that literally move onto and around the screen. Here are some examples:

          “The sticky dialogue of our bodies/ wound down into silence.”

          “Sometimes I just had to get out of the house/ and walk through her intentions.”

          “I was looking for a way in/ from her cold/ when our eyes met/ by accident/ in that back-alley doorway behind desire,/
          clutching their dirty pictures.”

          “We didn’t know where we were headed./ Give me a child,/ she said,/ and we’ll be able to see the future.”

          “There was a life set for two, somewhere,/ a steel-jawed trap.”

By connecting screens in this way, Kendall uses hypertext as a simple link. But to prevent his poem from becoming Debray’s worst nightmare, an interactive-reader-dominated-authorless-closureless text, Kendall creates what I would call “second-generation hypertext.” As Kendall points out in his essay, “Hypertextual Dynamics,” typical hypertext lets readers choose different paths through a text. Consequently, he adds, “the text of individual nodes remain as fixed as pages of print.”2

Using the Visual Basic programming language, Kendall changes this earlier “static” hypertext into a more dynamic medium with a combination of “floating links” and “variable nodes.” “Floating links” record and alter the reader’s progress through the poem by a mix of variables chosen both by the software at runtime as well as by the reader before and during the reading. For example, Kendall provides an Option screen that lets the reader control certain functions, such as text display (kinetic or static), kinetic text speed, and the duration of pauses between lines. During the reading, the links are determined by previous menu selections, their chronology, and other factors programmed into the poem, for instance, the appearance of a new menu once the reader has read a predetermined portion of the poem. “Variable nodes” change their text according to the context, depending again on reader choices from various menus. Once into the poem, the reader, for example, can change the mood of the speaker by choosing BLUE, RED or BLACK from the AFTERTASTE menu. A change in mood affects the text even within the same menu selection.

Below are some lines from the menu WHAT FED ME - Fall’s Fruit displayed under the BLUE, RED, and BLACK options:

          BLUE: “Ah, the fruit gone by…/ it’s always nicely chilled/ by the lengthening shadows./ I try to remember walking/
          through her/ promises/ in their autumn,/ their colors so crisp and delicate,/ her need rustling gently/ through her

          RED: “Ah, the fruit gone by…/ it’s always/ nicely chilled/ by the lengthening shadows,/ bitter/ though it may be./ I try to
          remember walking through her/ intentions/ in their autumn,/ though their sharp colors cut into me.”

          BLACK: “Ah, the fruit gone by…/ it’s always/ nicely chilled/ by the lengthening shadows,/ however spoiled/ it may be./
          I try to remember walking/ through her promises in their autumn,/ their plaintive tints flecking/ the breeze.”

Kendall also uses independent “variable nodes,” which alternate certain words every few seconds as in the following examples:
          “The pain/ came from a great distance/ and arrived under a distinguished name/ (‘Trust,’/ ’Tenderness,’)/ but was really
          just the feel/ of lies against the flesh” and

          “Come in search of/ my (well-meaning/ hard-to-please/ willful) past.”

The “hypertextual dynamics” with which Kendall programs A Life creates a second-generation of hypertext specifically for this poem. At this time it cannot be used either by Kendall or other poets for other poems. But that limitation aside, A Life, as a result, is a more coherent and complex form of hypertext poetry than offered by most previous hypertext. It gives the reader a wonderfully high level of choice and interactivity without diminishing the vision and voice of the poet. A Life is an excellent model for future hypertext poetry.


1. Geoffrey Nunberg, ed., The Future of the Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, 146.

2. Robert Kendall, “Hypertextual Dynamics in A Life Set for Two.” Proceedings of the Seventh ACM Conference on Hypertext, Washington, DC, 1996. See copy on Kendall’s website at http://www.wenet.net/~rkendall/ht96.htm.

Copyright 1997, H. M. Franking, Ph.D.

H. M. Franking’s most recent work is CELEBRITY INK, a free on-line tabloid satire at www.diskotech.com. She also writes books and software and publishes multimedia novels and nonfiction on CD-ROM and the Internet.

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