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"Midwinter Fair," by Peter Howard

Garth Graeper

"Midwinter Fair" is, as its subtitle notes, a hypertext poem. More appropriately, "Midwinter Fair" is a sequence of poems that are interrelated in various ways; to move through the sequence, the reader chooses one of the hyperlinked words in a given poem, which then sends the reader to another poem*. Interestingly, more than one word or phrase is often hyperlinked to the same poem, so the reader must be prepared to synthesize a number of different relationships for each poem. In a few instances, some words are actually hyperlinked to poems by other authors on the Internet; these poems follow the same system of hyperlinks and almost always return the reader to a poem directly within the "Midwinter Fair" sequence on the first link. Many of the poems work slyly within the conventions, diction, and form of poetry written long before digital literature, baring perhaps the strongest resemblance to the tradition of 17th-century British literature (although they mix elements from many literary eras). The poems seem aware of their status both as historical "re-creation" and as contemporary hypertext poetry.

"Midwinter Fair" has, at its core, one central poem that narrates the details of a strange "year-long / midwinter rosy-cheeked / Santa Claus feast." This is the poem that begins the "Midwinter Fair" sequence and has, by far, the most hyperlinked choices. It is worth quoting in full, as it sets the tone for the entire sequence:

Midwinter Fair

A hypertext poem...

Nowhere but in London, rebuilt
for the occasion, on a Thames
months in the freezing: a year-long
midwinter rosy-cheeked
Santa Claus feast. Oh, the team
that planned it, built it, watched
as it grew from crazy notion
to wobbling impossible rickety
ginormous this-cannot-possibly-work,
but somehow it did.

The architects, alchemists, farriers, stone-masons,
nuclear scientists, blacksmiths and forgemasters,
earthmovers, wood-carvers, armature winders,
coppersmiths, crane hirers, rubber stamp makers
all pitched in with a shameless nostalgia
for something never remembered
and never had been. But, Lord, it was fun.

Then came the breath-bated, long waited
royalty graced, televised, and over
extravagandised day of opening. Well,
in from all nations (terrestrial and extra) flew
princesses, dictators, duly elected state
chairmen, prime ministers, viziers, caliphs,
duchesses, dukes, and baronets, kings,
tyrants, grand panjandra, sultanas, presidents...

and the problems of protocol: who should go first,
or sit at the front, can just be imagined.
Diplomacy cobbled a working solution,
and finally somebody lit the blue touchpaper.

Then there was eating and drinking.
Then there were games for all to join in.
Then there were fire-eaters, tumblers and jugglers,
clowns and stilt-walkers, acrobats, tight-
rope walkers who'd almost (but not quite) fall...
Then there were secrets and laughter and romance.
Then you could wander a week and not find
an end to it all...

The central poem establishes many of the tropes and devices that will occur throughout the sequence. The opening stanza does well to set the tone: almost immediately, elements of ancient and modern are juxtaposed in a way that calls attention to both the absurdities and pleasant surprises of the fit. The idea that London would be “rebuilt” for the occasion is telling. The reader’s sense of time is not clear yet, but the very notion of rebuilding in order to anachronize and refit introduces the sense that the world of the poem will be a pastiche of elements from different times and with differing sensibilities. This combination seems unlikely, an idea “wobbling, impossible, rickety,” but ultimately it works.

The second stanza introduces the genre of list-poem into the sequence, enumerating the various workers who operate together to make the festival possible. The list, as the reader might expect, presents simultaneously professions like “alchemist” and “nuclear scientist,” which cover a wide span of historical time but still have a link—not necessarily obvious, though entirely tenable—between them. All of these tradesmen are working “with shameless nostalgia” to bring into existence “something never remembered” and that has never even existed. The artisans employ their various crafts to create physically a manifestation of previously amorphous and disparate cultural desires; this creation arises not from actual memory but from a desire to conglomerate the perceived ideals of various past eras into an actual presence—in a word, “fun.”

The third stanza discusses the opening day, “televised and over / extravagandised,” and again uses the list to introduce the ruling-class attendees with a number of titles that must encompass most of the world’s regions, past and present. Modern media hype and the vitality of celebrity work here in association and in contrast with anachronistic notions of royalty and power. The fourth stanza humorously speaks to the timeless need for organization and the inevitable struggle to establish "who should go first."

The final stanzas list the amusements to be found at the festival. The description of the entertainment seems most fitting for a London of past centuries—perhaps the reach backwards toward nostalgia has been successful. Certainly the “secrets and laughter and romance” speak to an idealized notion of life that one might only genuinely expect to find in the verse of an earlier age—still, this description, the culmination of the poem, succeeds in establishing an ambiguous and wonder-filled sense of time.

While this central poem establishes the pastiche of romantic elements from times past and present, it is the hyperlinked connections to the central poem that really fill this notion with vitality and potential. The festival may originate in the central poem of this piece, but it is gloriously and often ridiculously borne out in the hyperlinked poems. If the goal of the inhabitants of the poem’s London is to create a celebration that embraces a diverse nostalgia, rooted in the culture of a "lost" England, without abandoning their sense of the present, then the author’s use of archaic forms combined with a self-aware notion of hypertext is an appropriate choice of form.

It is difficult to speak of the poems in the "Midwinter Fair" sequence—which here must be considered productively in tension with the traditional static notion of a sequence—in terms of quantity. There are perhaps twenty-five to thirty poems linked together, but the reader must navigate extensively via hyperlink to reveal them all. As previously mentioned, the number of hyperlinked words exceeds the number of poems in the sequence, so that certain poems must form associative connections with more than one phrase or word—thus the idea of pastiche is even more firmly engrained in the sequence.

It may be useful to investigate one example of progress through the poems. If the reader follows the sequence in terms of the hyperlinked duke in the central poem, the next poem becomes “Memoirs of a Duke,” ostensibly a satirical account of the foppery of royalty. The content of the poem, in addition to furthering "Midwinter Fair"’s theme of variegation in its own right, further illuminates the reader’s sense of the disarray of royal figures and attitudes on opening day in the central poem. “Memoirs of a Duke” recounts, in appropriately doggerel verse, the brief adventure of a duke who “grandly” coerces his men into climbing a mountain; the climb is cut short by fog and physical difficulty, though the men do briefly experience the breath-taking view of land spread out before them “like buttered toast.” When the climbers can no longer ascend, the Duke, after some consideration, decides with the same enthusiasm that began the abortive quest that their only path can be “downwards, at a gallop!” The reader must look to the conflict between the ridiculous Duke and his less-than-stalwart men for a sense of the poem’s place in the sequence: the men are disturbed by their indeterminate position on the foggy mountain, “Not up, not down,” and force the Duke to push on. The reader must be prepared to wade through the sequence’s indeterminacy with more sense than the Duke and less trepidation than his men.

Following the only available hyperlink, "buttered toast," leads to a poem that provides a list of gustatory delicacies available at the fair. As might be expected, the list contains foods from here and there, now and then, enriching the mélange. From here, following the "drink" hyperlink, the reader arrives at a series of short poems entitled collectively “Drinking Songs.” The various songs generally make humorous use of alliteration and fantastical diction—the song titles are all a mix of famous Old Testament biblical figures and exotic alcohols (ie. A Jeroboam of Pink Champagne); the variety of drink and containers certainly adds to the sense of festivity in the sequence. One of the songs, “A Rehoboam of Gunpowder,” offers imagery of a different note:

There's a three-bottle man on the end of a rope;
the masked face is breathing malt whisky and fear.
There's treason in vodka if you know where to look,
pennies on eyes of wormwood imbibers,
and a spread-eagled man in a sip of retsina.
You can't be too careful whose health you're drinking.

The insinuations of the dangers of alcohol here simply inject another perspective into the allusive mix. The reader can imagine such a song being sung before Marlowe met his untimely end, or to a crew of drunken sailors. Not surprisingly, this poem links to a bacchanal dirge; following the dirge’s "snow" link through the sequence, the reader arrives back at the central poem.

Many of the poems in the sequence simply serve to add depth to the atmosphere and heighten the reader’s sense of anachronistic verisimilitude. Some of the poems, however, make more radical moves. The long and bawdy morality tale, “A Country Dance,” tells the story of Thomas and Miss Brown and their romantic entanglement, but more importantly, the link on the title of the poem brings the reader to the following message: “Many of the words in this highly scurrilous verse are taken from Captain Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue which you will need to refer to if you want to know precisely what is going on here…” For the first time, the reader links to something unexpected, a gloss of a poem; this conflating of poetry that attempts to establish a historical pastiche with historically relevant criticism has some serious implications. For one, the reader may be persuaded that a model of broadly defined literature like Jerome McGann’s is the appropriate critical stance to bring to this series of poems.

At this point, form and content merge to remind the reader, if a reminder is needed, that this is indeed a hypertext work. The poem “A Response to Some Objucations,” which consciously indulges in an outrageously lofty diction, makes a similar move. It links to a Response (one would suppose fictional) to complaints about the poem. The response itself is written in an overblown style with hints of Drydenesque satire; the passage, however, written in prose, offers another kind of commentary on the poems and again succeeds in blending formal British literary tradition with a self-conscious use of hypertext "editing." In perhaps the most extreme example of this kind, a link on the word "done" in one poem directs the reader to the author’s personal Web site, replete with personal information and links to poems and hypertext projects not connected with "Midwinter Fair." Peter Howard here shatters the conventions and repeated expectations that cause the sequence to cohere; while a modern audience has grown accustomed to the convenience of linking to accessible information about an author, this link, in the context of the sequence, is akin to something one might find in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

Other poems, too, break with the conventions that "Midwinter Fair" works to imitate and revise. The "London" link in the central poem is a prime example. While hypertext form is democratic in a way that codex-based reading cannot be, it still must follow the restrictions of physical space: "London," because of its positioning in the central poem, is the first hyperlink that the reader crosses. This is an important position. This link is one of the few that leads the reader to a poem by someone other than Howard. Following the "London" strand of the sequence, the reader comes to two poems in modern diction—the first about rats and the second about paranoia—both of which emphasize the idea of contemporary urban angst. These links to poems outside the sequence proper serve to open "Midwinter Fair" to a further degree of penetration by aspects of postmodern culture.

Howard does supply links to a past and future of the poem. The poem’s history, under the "A Hypertext Poem" link, reveals the inspiration for the sequence: “The idea of a hypertext poem was suggested to me by Lloyd Alan Fletcher. I think he was joking, but some good ideas come out of jokes. I hope this is one of them.” Howard also claims that "Midwinter Fair" is a work in progress: “The poem is not complete, but there's enough of it in place to make exploring it interesting, I think. Who knows what the future will bring.” The "future" link offers a call for possible collaborators: “This poem doesn't belong to just one person, and isn't located at a single site. If you want to join in, write a section of your own, or use a poem you've already written. Doesn't have to be a poem. This is multimedia territory. A picture, sound file, whatever.…” These links raise a further compelling question: the reader must decide how broad a definition of literature to employ—are these instructions, perhaps hastily written, to be taken with the same weight as a preface or afterword in a codex, or are they a part of the poem itself? These two links seem possibly the equivalent of the information readers generally eschew when engaging a text, such as publication data. As a whole, "Midwinter Fair" sustains an impressive degree of tension in its goal to create a cultural pastiche: content and form both join and clash. The esthetic indeterminacy established in the sequence through both verse and links between poems, however, faces a new indeterminacy itself as new poems are attached to the sequence proper. Thus, this reading may suffice for the current iteration of "Midwinter Fair" only.

*Perhaps use of the term "sequence" defeats the purpose of declaring "Midwinter Fair" a "hypertext poem," with its comprehensive connotation, but the project’s nature seems more precisely to connect distinct poems in a way that avoids certain limitations of the codex, rather than creating one ever-changing whole. Despite the use of hyperlinks, "Midwinter Fair" seems an evolution more of the collection of poems than the poem itself. This is still a distinctive accomplishment. back to text

Works Cited

Howard, Peter. "Midwinter Fair." April 2003 <>.



copyright © 2003 Garth Graeper.

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