C.T. Funkhouser's Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995 works to map the landscape of digital poetry from the period when the first “computer poems” arrived until the advent of the World Wide Web. By defining the major forms of digital poetry, examining their technological methods of production, and performing detailed analyses of example works, Funkhouser exposes the foundations of contemporary digital poetry and narrates a journey from a few relatively simple programs to the radically open space that the WWW provides.
Funkhouser, an associate professor of humanities at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has deep roots in developing and situating digital poetry scholarship. Funkhouser refers to his collection as “prehistoric” because, in the period he examines, “no masterpieces or ‘works for the ages’ emerged to lodge the genre into the imagination of a larger audience” (6). While using these criteria to define these artifacts as “prehistoric” is certainly contentious, that Funkhouser calls his method “archaeology” seems appropriate. In the ten years that Funkhouser researched Prehistoric Digital Poetry, he worked not only with poets and scholars but with programmers and computer scientists to gather and analyze the material artifacts of digital poetry, many of which were only partially functional as computer programs.
Digital poetry is frequently considered an emerging or emergent genre dependent on the material and aesthetic convergences enabled by contemporary digital composing. However, Funkhouser's primary argument is that the basic forms of nearly all contemporary digital poetries were developed and solidified before the advent of personal computers and widespread access to the WWW. As such, his concern is less with forming a monolithic definition for digital poetry than with excavating and classifying the works that fit into a group of more or less expansive categories which represent not just aesthetic or theoretical principles but material conditions for the production of work.
Prehistoric Digital Poetry is important to rhetorical scholars not only because poetry is a powerful form of rhetoric, but because the intersections between digital, visual, and literary rhetorics detailed in the book can offer new directions of study for rhetorical and media scholars. Digital poetry's history is thoroughly described in Funkhouser's text, offering scholars a unique opportunity to rhetorically examine this kind of writing as a product of shifting technologies and cultures.