Selfies and Borges

Of Star Wars “crawl” poetry and the weirdness of our attention spans

Yesterday I saw a picture on Boing Boing: A “behind the scenes” shot of how they made the iconic opening “crawl” text for The Empire Strikes Back. I’d always assumed, naively, that the crawl was done with computer graphics, but no: It was a steampunk affair, with the text printed on a piece of glass and filmed at a steep angle by a camera. But what really struck me was the quote from George Lucas about the formal properties of a crawl:

“The crawl is such a hard thing because you have to be careful that you’re not using too many words that people don’t understand,” Lucas has said. “It’s like a poem.”

Poetry! Full on! This immediately made me think of an idea, which I tweeted:

Heh. One of the things I love about poetry is that because it a) is often a pretty short form, b) is more structurally varied than prose and c) has basically no economic value, it’s more amenable to screwing around with in nutty new-media settings.

Anyway, only minutes after I tweeted this, my friend Max Whitney set about hunting down a Star Wars “crawl” generator — which of course exists — and creating a version of the famous William Carlos Williams poem “This Is Just To Say”, which you can see here. Thank you, multiples! (That was A PLUG FOR MY BOOK: You can read the section on multiples here.)

The gauntlet thus thrown down, I immediately set about trying to find a poem to crawlify myself. I thought of Emily Dickinson, and after a bit of hunting ran across “I took my power in my hand”, the crawl-version of which you can see above. I’d hoped to find something resonant with Star Wars mythology, and man o man, Dickinson kind of knocks it outta the park here: That poem reads like a spec sheet for Darth Vader’s psychology. Frankly, you could reskin the entire original Star Wars trilogy by taking out all of Vader’s existing dialogue and substituting Dickinson poetry. I would not be surprised if someone is actually doing that.

So the ball is now rolling: This morning, @WaxEBuildup did a version of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”. And by Amy Burvall, here’s a version of Pablo Neruda’s love sonnet XVII!

What I particularly dig about crawl poetry is how it riffs of the pace of reading. Reading is a weird act of attention. The way we look at text is constantly revving up and down the mental gearbox: We skim rapidly, then suddenly stop and stare to reread and reread, we peek at the end of a piece of text to see how much farther we have to go, we briefly zone out, our eyes saccade along in little bursts. In contrast, there’s some hilariously submissive and unnatural about subjecting ourselves to a poem being read out at a steady pace by a machine. It foregrounds just how slithy our actual attention really is — and the fact that while it’s obviously bad for our cognition to be constantly distracted by shiny objects online, the converse isn’t true either: Attentive, absorbed reading isn’t really crawl-like. Truly absorbed reading is a strange, strange process.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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