Technology center and Muldoon create online poetry initiative

By Cynthia Yoder

Princeton NJ -- What's the connection between a high-wire walker and an award-winning Princeton poet? Members of the Princeton community can find out in a new online adventure that brings readers and poetry together in an entirely new way.

An Educational Technologies Center team led by Anca Niculin has collaborated with Paul Muldoon in creating an online exploration of one of the Princeton professor's poems, "A Collegelands Catechism." The project, an interactive, celebratory study of the poem's meaning and structure, was unveiled in April, National Poetry Month. The courseware is available online and on CD without charge to alumni and members of the campus community.


"A Collegelands Catechism" may be accessed by 56K dialup modems, but DSL or higher speed service is recommended for smoother audio and video and faster loading times. Visit and choose the NEW item. For members of the campus community unable to access the coursework online, a CD-ROM is available when registering on the TigerNet site.

The poem is from "Moy Sand and Gravel," for which Muldoon won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. He chose the poem for its inquiring nature: It presents a series of unanswered questions related to the poet's life.

"The catechism is a series of questions and answers, but this particular one has no answers, at least none that are given directly," said Muldoon, who is the Howard Clark '21 University Professor in the Humanities.

Instead of answers, viewers who visit the Web site will find linkages between the poem and its hidden meanings and connections. The interactive exploration includes a reading of the poem in Muldoon's conversational style, a chance to see a video of Muldoon discussing the work, information about the formal elements of the poem, and lots of places to click in order to delve into the elements that bring vibrancy to the work.

In the online video with the poet, viewers can hear Muldoon discuss how the poem represents for him "a great deal" about his life as he now lives it. The poem is emblematic of the divide, he says, between his boyhood in Ireland and his life now as a Princeton professor. In the poem, that divide is conveyed in several images, including Charles Blondin, a high-wire walker -- the "who" in "Who cooked and ate an omelette / midway across Niagara Falls?"

Poetry's voice box

Niculin, ETC's senior multimedia/instructional designer, is an enthusiastic reader of poetry and was inspired to do the project for National Poetry Month. "I love explaining poetry to my children and I love explaining things through multimedia," she said.

Niculin holds that poems aren't written for specific materials -- poems are first and foremost sound. Whether the medium is stone tablets, papyrus, parchment, leather, inexpensive paper or computer, she said, what matters about the poem is what one hears from one's own reading voice or from another's lips.

"The first poems were transmitted orally," she explained. "Their effect depended on the actor's voice, on his gestures, on his pauses."

The interactive exploration of "A Collegelands Catechism" relies on this ancient experience of poetry and combines it with graphics and interactive opportunities only available through multimedia.

A chance to linger

Niculin said she chose Muldoon's work because the author's poems are rich in references and, therefore, benefit from explanations. "He also was open to having his words reach the audience in ways other than on paper," she said.

Muldoon said he was "delighted" by Niculin's treatment and noted that the project collapses the distance between a read poem and a heard poem.

"One of the things about reading poetry and hearing poetry is that the two are often unconnected," Muldoon explained. "This is an opportunity for connecting them in a way that is plenty more leisurely than the conventional way in which that happens, which of course is at a poetry reading."

Readers have the opportunity to linger over a word or a phrase that they might not have understood the first time around, with the full text of the poem displayed at all times. The exploration also is driven by the site users, so that they have the opportunity to hear the poem just how they wish to hear it. If so desired, a user could even hear the poem read line-by-line in reverse.

"In that way, someone could have a DaDa experience," mused Niculin, referring to the early 20th-century art form that sought to demolish current aesthetic standards.

New tool for teaching

Both Muldoon and Niculin hope that the interactive exploration of "A Collegelands Catechism" will catch on as a teaching tool. Creating such tools is at the heart of what ETC does, offering consultation and development services for faculty wishing to explore the use of new technologies for their teaching and/or research.

Niculin pointed to the ability of new media to present material in a completely new way. "We used the ability of the media to layer, to juxtapose, to branch," she commented on ETC's work on Muldoon's poem. "We created an adventure in which around every corner, something new happens."

The project development team also included Jill Moraca, the graphic designer and artist responsible for all ETC artwork, and Douglas Blair, who collected and edited the explanations. Michael Pettit, a poet and 1972 alumnus, provided notes and commentary on the poem.



June 16, 2003
Vol. 92, No. 29
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Summer calendar

Commencement 2003
Tilghman counsels graduates to have courage to take action
Four faculty members recognized for their outstanding teaching
Commencement highlights on Web
Commencement snapshots
By the numbers

Engineering school in good hands with Klawe
Technology center and Muldoon create online poetry initiative
New collection documents travels with President Woodrow Wilson
Tuition grant increased
University picnic

Bialek, Johnson named to endowed professorships
New faculty members appointed
Board approves 22 promotions
Faculty resignations
Three faculty members transfer to emeritus status
Professor had eclectic mix of interests
People, spotlight, briefs, retirements, obituaries

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