Sunday, November 20, 2005

Poetry and the Calculating Engine

German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger has explored the use of computers to create poetry. There's an account of his work at Jacket, an online poetry magazine.

Jacket
, by the way, is one of the best resources on the New American Poetry (and the new New American Poetry) I've come across on the web. It's published, of course, in, or from, Australia.

Not only did Enzensberger conceieve the program, he arranged to have the system to implement it built. Here's part of the Jacket account, which seems to have been written by John Tranter, Jacket's editor.

It is one thing to write a program, and quite another to built the hardware needed to execute and to present it. In June 2000, the machine was presented in Landsberg, Germany, at a poetry festival. Measuring 5,65 x I meter and constructed by Solari Ltd. of Udine in Italy at a cost of US$200 000, it looks like one of the displays used in airports to announce departures and arrivals. When an onlooker pushes a button, the lettered flaps turn with a whirling noise and a six line poem appears. At the next push of the button, this poem disappears forever and another one is produced.
The program is not only designed to guarantee grammatically and semantically correct texts; it aims to create an illusion of ‘sense’, since it would be facile to settle for an arbitrary mix of words in a kind of neo-dada replay.
And here a glimpse at what the English version of the system might produce:
To give the reader an idea of the kind of thing the machine will have to offer, here is a sample produced on the basis of random numbers gathered from the last digits of 36 Berlin phone numbers listed on page 802 of the directory:
I miss you, hot girl! Don’t lock me into the ash-can, and help me to sleep no more.
Gorgeous treasures all over the place. The others might hardly notice it.
Sloppy confessions: ‘The public are to neurotic basically.’ Women are perfect.
Silent businessmen fill our lives, and common sense runs amuck.
I listen. My magic is perfumed with rage. I giggle, I sing:
Fear not our parents glowing in the dark! Downstairs the country is doing fine.
Our spam poets seem not to be moved by Enzensberger's concern that the machine's operation produce "grammatically and semantically correct texts"; perhaps that's deliberate, or perhaps they're just not that far along yet. We'll see!

Incidentally, I've realized that the created texts embedded in our spam poets' messages are also visible, at least in two non-Microsoft email clients, in the HTML layer of the email; I'm not sure whether this is a bug, or, as they say, a feature.

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