Animated textflow: experiencing old poems in a new way

A good poem is highly compressed in its language. You can’t skim through it and hope to get anything out of it. It’s the antithesis of most online reading, which provides more content, more links, more options… and less likelihood that you’ll read one thing slowly and thoughtfully.

Poets.org has a large collection of animated textflow poems, classic poems that are “animated” in the sense that the text appears a few words at a time, so that one line of the poem is broken into a stanza of just a word or two per line, and which fades away when complete.

Here’s a still of the first part of Emily Dickinson’s “A lane of Yellow led the eye” (#1650):

a lane of yellow

Big deal, right?

But here’s the thing: by doling out a poem a word at a time, textflow animation forces you to slow down (you control the pace of the playback). Go ahead and try at the link above. The words appear large even on an iPhone screen (and yes, there is an app), and they’re huge if you view them on a computer monitor and set the display to full-screen.

This tiny-bites approach significantly changes the experience of reading the poem. It makes you linger on each word. And all the white space around the type has a simplifying and calming effect — sort of like the effect of listening to a really good reader, except now it’s the quiet voice inside your head.

They’re the same words as before — but even this simple animation changes their presentation enough to make them seem new.

In other words, it isn’t just about the content of the experience. It’s also about the mind’s receptiveness to that content. One of the little secrets of experiencing a sense of discovery and wonder is that you can improve your mind’s receptiveness by making relatively small changes to the way you receive or interact with the content. It isn’t that textflow is better than a book, it’s that it’s different (especially if you’re a fast reader). Maybe you’ll like the difference and maybe you won’t, but it provides an opportunity for discovery.

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44 thoughts on “Animated textflow: experiencing old poems in a new way

    1. Kelly J. Doran

      Whoops! Hit enter too soon. I love this idea of forcing the reader to slow down and breaking the poem up into bits of meaning, rather than just into lines. I’ve always had to read poetry aloud to myself before I can “get” it, in part because it makes me slow down and think about the sounds, but this seems to be just as helpful.

      Reply
      1. thecuriouspeople Post author

        Thanks – yes, poetry requires a different kind of reading, and I think of reading a poem in textflow animation as a mini-lesson on how to do it. Reading aloud is a good idea, too – a lot of poetry is meant to be spoken.

  1. songmistress

    Poetry should be savoured. So should all good stories, for that matter. If text-flow helps people to do it, then it is a very good thing.

    Reply
  2. thoughtsatintervals

    An interesting concept, and nice write-up. Thanks!

    I wrote about another poetry app called What We Mean, on my blog here: http://thoughtsatintervals.com/2013/01/26/do-i-say-what-i-mean/ .

    The design of this app raised the same question about the pace at which we consume media, poetry in particular, and how perhaps we need to be helped to read them at a more suitable pace. In these instances, technology can act as as both friend and foe.

    Best wishes,
    Andrew

    Reply
    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Thanks, Andrew. Not having that kind of phone, I’ll have to take your word on the app, but I’m really interested in the ways people are using technology to nudge us toward deep, thoughtful reading… exactly the thing that technology is usually said to be taking us away from! You’re right – it can be friend or foe.

      Reply
  3. Ursa Bowers

    I’ve actually come across the reader before, in my perusing of the archives at Poets.org. While I do think it is a useful tool for training your brain to slow down, and to appreciate the line itself as a unit of language and meaning, it isn’t a complete substitute for reading a poem presented as a whole on the page (physical or digital)– nor, I’m sure, is it meant to be… though some readers may grow to prefer reading poems in this way. The fact is, in many poems, the use of the white space (strophe breaks, indentation, etc) contributes significantly to the understanding and appreciation of the piece. Just the experience of seeing a poem on the page can tell you a lot about it; help you spot a form or pattern/ make connections. Seeing a poem with a poem laid out with a lot of short, terse lines and no strophe breaks will give you a vastly different experience, as opposed to a poem with longer lines, odd spacing, etc. In this way, you can get a “feeling” from a poem before you even read it.

    Obviously, some poems will be more successful in this new format than others. Concrete poems, or other poems that make thoughtful use of white space and breaks, will lose a significant portion of their impact this way. More traditional verse will suffer less. I’ll also be on the lookout for poets who have written pieces that were /intended/ to be presented this way, from their inception. I’m sure that, already, there are writers out there using the format in surprising and clever ways.

    Reply
    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Thanks, good points. I agree, I don’t think this is intended as a substitute, but I think it can affect how you read – something you can take with you when you return to the good old fashioned printed page that we all know and love.

      Reply
  4. Tommy Vowell

    Yep, I like reading poems like this as it does slow me down to rethink and rehear the words. As a life coach, I also appreciate the way this gives insight for a person trying to figure out life–be still, meditate on your circumstances, consider what is happening, & then make the change to your life or decide to remain the same. It’s simple. Thanks for this piece!

    Reply
  5. W E Patterson

    I like this idea. I am trying to slow my reading pace, and it is hard. I read a lot – not only for pleasure, but for my job. I have to plow through tons of stuff and when you do that you sort of prioritize, reading the more urgent material first and skimming the rest. You can’t read poetry like that, or at least you shouldn’t. Thanks for posting this!

    Reply
  6. Dennis Downey

    As the creator (and sustainer!) of Poem Flow, I appreciate this discussion and David’s highlight of the flow experience.

    A flow is a new way to read on an electric light screen, and one defining aspect is the way it slows the reader down, and calms and focuses their attention.

    A flow does some of the work of reading for the reader (i.e. parsing the text into semantic phrases and propelling the reader forward through the thought of the text)…making the reading easier to do. The text is easier to see and understand.

    The original, conventional block text is always nearby…separated, at worst, by a simple toggle.

    Through our collaboration with poets.org, we’ve featured work by a few hundred contemporary poets, and many have written to us with excitement about the approach.

    In addition to easing an initial penetration of a text, a flow is simply beautiful. Poets, and readers, like it.

    Poem Flow just celebrated its 3rd anniversary as an Apple app. In that time, we’ve had more than 60 thousand downloads, and a few hundred people around the world read poems in the app each day.

    All of the poems featured in Poem Flow (more than 1100) can be found here:

    http://www.poemflow.com/poems

    We also display each day’s poem, and additional information about each day’s poem, on FaceBook:

    http://fb.com/poemflow

    Each day’s poem is also posted to Twitter: @poemflow

    Thank you for the discussion and comments.

    Reply
    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Thanks, Dennis, it’s great to hear from the creator of Poem Flow! I hadn’t heard of it before finding it on poets.org, and figured it would be new to some other people as well. To my surprise, WordPress featured this post on “Freshly Pressed” yesterday, leading to quite an outpouring of interest, which has been a lot of fun to experience.

      Reply
  7. Tommy Vowell

    Reblogged this on Man With A Cause and commented:
    Apparantly “Animated Textflow” isn’t a new idea, but its a concept new to me. As I was reading this blog, I couldn’t help but notice how practical this could be if we could animate life. Imagine how people would react to stress, to pain, to joy — all by looking at their lives from a new perspective. What are your thoughts?

    Reply
    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Thanks, Tommy. That’s a very interesting question. I think the main purpose of art in general (meaning visual arts, music, literature, etc.) is to “animate” life in the sense that it gives us new perspectives on our experiences. Maybe that’s just another way to describe your creative work, whatever that is – “I’m animating life.”

      Reply
  8. Kate's Bookshelf

    This is a fascinating thing. I tend to read poetry a bit quickly, forgetting to slow down and taste the words. Forgetting to read out loud occasionally and take my time. I would have never chosen to read Tender Buttons [Milk] by Gertrude Stein, as just glancing over the poem, it seems strange. But you slow it down, not anticipating the next words and it becomes this thing of beauty. Thank you for letting us all know about this very cool thing.

    Reply
  9. Jred

    I love this idea! Thank you for introducing me to it. This would be a great tool to remind someone to take a moment for a mindful meditation and just shut out the craziness, breath and read. That is such a luxury now days.
    Thanks again-great post.

    Reply
  10. jaschmehl

    Thanks for sharing this! I don’t normally read poetry – I have a weird thing with the way I read – my eyes kind of dart all over the page of the screen, I see words and phrases and even the occasional paragraph in chunks. You can imagine this tendency hampers my ability to appreciate poetry. Now I have a new way to ‘see’ poetry! awesome.

    Reply
  11. Zoe

    I’ve had the Poem Flow app for a couple of years on my iPod and really like it, though it’s the first time I’ve gone to the website and experienced it on a computer screen. I agree it’s a wonderful way to read and experience poetry. In a way I think that it nearly makes us read it the way that the poet intended, with emphasis on certain words and pauses before the next, as the lines fade out and into each other. I also write poetry, so this concept is of great interest to me. How a poem is read (whether silently or aloud) gives as much meaning to it as its interpretation does with its words.

    Reply
  12. poetjena

    Why does it not surprise me that the ‘curious people’ can’t help having the eyes of a cat who’s appearance seems somewhat bleary eyed due to what I can only suspect may have been long hours of blog writing…. ?

    Auden said something along the lines of – “a poem is not what is said, it is how… ”

    An enjoyable and especially, most instructive, post!

    Reply
  13. Brandy Desiree Collins

    I can’t believe it. All these brilliant people (you, me, and an entire generation of others) :) and yet nobody thought of this until now. What an incredible idea! Between my ADD and my fixation with words, and my also-fixation with re-reading a poem ninety-four times just to manipulate each word’s feel by weight of the other words’ feel, this will reduce my poetry-reading time spent and inflate the depth of my poetry-reading time spent. Hey hey! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  14. thecuriouspeople Post author

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments, likes, and follows. It’s been a lot of fun to be featured on “Freshly Pressed.” It’s also fun to hear from people who are excited about poetry and slow reading. You are all very weird people :-) and now I’m curious to see what sort of odd things you’re writing on your own blogs.

    Reply
  15. Pingback: Two Voices, One Song

  16. Pingback: Emily Dickinson, animated | The Curious People

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