Class Thread on Poetry Generators (Week 6)

From Phillip:
My prompt is:
we have discussed in class multiple times on what it means for a piece to be a poem (or even literature as a more general term). Since we are dealing with e-poetry generators this time, do you consider Montfort’s “Taroko Gorge” a poem? what about the works that his friends had produced using the same coding? If you do consider these to be poetry, explain and expound on why the medium affects the (presumably nonsensical) content. If you do not consider these to be poetry, what is necessary for them to become poetry, keeping in mind the restrictions of the Python coding?
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8 Comments

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  1. I’m not completely sure what the question is exactly asking, but I’m not sure if these pieces generated could be considered to be “digital” forms as in poetry in digital forms–I know we have discussed the definitions/limitations of poetry at length and haven’t really been able to come up with a concrete definition regarding structure, etc.–but considering that there are forms where the “poem” will potentially not carry a meaning, I am hesitant to call this a poem in digital form. Other poems that we have judged not to hold any meaning have held some sort of meaning to the author/writer/creator. In other words, it is not a human technically writing the poetry and ascribing meaning to words but a code (albeit written by a human) merely following commands…furthering my conclusion that it shouldn’t be considered poetry.

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  2. I’m also not entirely sure how best to approach the question, because I’m also not entirely sure how best to define the involved terms.

    If the emphasis of the question is on, what do we make of these as *digital* then I would probably return to many of my previous comments on other digital forms and formats that we’ve seen. The fact that as the poem generates over time, it becomes inherently impermanent–any given line exists on screen for 26 ticks and is gone–and thus inherently time-constrained. The structure underlying the generator is intriguing as a digital echo of the piece’s themes–the JavaScript appears to reference classifications of “cave” and “site” and “path” which are the navigable features of the actual Taroko Gorge. What makes these uniquely digital compared to the other works we’ve discussed is, as Tory has pointed out, the lack of human ‘author’ beyond human ‘coder.’

    This maybe gets at the other emphasis of the question on, what do we make of these as digital *poems*. To answer that, I might point to a particular example from the Taroko Gorge revisions, “Camel Tail” by Sonny Rae Tempest. Functionally similar to the rest of the Taroko Gorge revisions, “Camel Tail” rather uniquely includes the author’s reasons for creating it as a digitally randomized piece. Tempest suggests that the piece “is my attempt to find an overall narrative within Metallica’s work.” This is the closest we’ve come to a declaration of poetic intent in a long while, and I’m glad for it. That said, I think Tempest misunderstands what the code of Taroko Gorge does to that poetic intent.

    As soon as the lyrics of Metallica are broken from album to song, from song to stanza, and from stanza into individuated lines, then there is an effective breakdown of exactly what would define narrative, poetic or otherwise. Tory gets at this with the phrase “ascribing meaning to words,” which, if I may presumptuously qualify, could be rephrased as “ascribing meaning to the ordering of words.” Taroko Gorge, as a collection, depends upon words bearing with them the original, lexical meaning. At the same time, Taroko Gorge refuses to allow those words any form of relational meaning. The latter condition is a consequence of these being code experiments, randomized and processed by a system that orders only by basic grammar and basic linguistic units. If there is a narrative in Metallica’s lyrics, that narrative arises out of the explicit and careful patterning of language, sequencing of it, ordering of it, such that each word very intentionally relates to the next and the next after that, and indeed the next throughout the rest of the band’s body of songwriting–that intentional relationship comes from, indeed cannot exist without, the intention of the author. Randomize the lines and the intention is forsaken in pursuit of some elusive moment of linguistic harmony in the midst of uncaring chaos… a pursuit that strikes me as tremendously futile as a poetic aim.

    All that to say, very long-windedly, that if these pieces had poetic intent, that intent is necessarily defeated by the randomization inherent to the way the piece is coded, such that poeticism itself is defeated by the process that generates these lines and stanzas.

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  3. To clarify the question if anyone has confusion: Why or why aren’t the pieces involved in “Taroko Gorge”, including its remixes, works of poetry? If you think they are works of poetry, how does the medium (Python/JavaScript) add to the work. If you think they are not works of poetry, what changes would you want to see that would allow you to categorize them as poetry, keeping in mind that they were created with a “Poetry Generator”.

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  4. I think they are poetry inasmuch as they are words placed with intentional care in a certain structure to create meanings. Those placements are random and computer generated, but they are watched over by the code which requires certain parts of speech occur in certain places. The poet still chooses the vocabulary and basic structure and the reader still experiences the text as one might experience a poem written by randomly selecting words from a list- something not unheard of in experimental print poetry. The medium does not, then, preclude these works from the definition of poetry.

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  5. In error I thought there were two blog questions this week but I was wrong, so I have a few ideas I’d like to further express and they sort of fit under this prompt.
    I was really interested in the pieces “Fred& George” and “George Takei”. In answer to the question about how the medium affects our interaction with these “nonsense” words, I would bring up these examples. These words are tantalizingly NOT nonsense- anyone even slightly familiar with the original series of Star Trek immediately understands the George Takei poem’s source. It is fascinating to see how the text of concepts like the Prime Directive and names of star trek officer positions are interspersed with references to Takei’s real-life gay activism, and the jumble of words holds quite a bit of sense, if in a non-linear way. The combination of these two worlds is done randomly in a way that highlights how different they are and plays with the brain’s ability to draw associations.
    Similarly, Fred & George takes the charming prankster characters from Harry Potter and mixes them with words and phrases that are hallmarks of erotic literature, creating a truly uncomfortable blend of childhood, fantasy, and incest. The fact that a computer is generating the text creates sometimes hilariously awkward phrases that could never actually be found in text attempting to make sex seem, well, sexy. Instead, the discomfort is increased by this unnatural (twins seeemingly having sex) situation by having broken, unnatural phrases fill the screen to create an impression and a feeling that is uncomfortable but definitely memorable. In both of these poems, meaning is added by the somewhat nonsensical nature of the text, as words that are highly charged with connotative memory are put together in new and different ways.

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  6. This is a really difficult question to answer, in my opinion. Grace said something that I think is important to this discussion. She said, “I think they are poetry inasmuch as they are words placed with intentional care in a certain structure to create meanings.”
    That, to me, is crucial. Intention is a necessary component of poetry. Otherwise, it is the same as throwing a can of alphabet soup on the table and pointing to a couple of words that have formed and asking “is this poetry?”
    However, I also need to mention that I believe poetry requires something more than just intention and proper format. There needs to be a bit of the author’s self poured into it. What is an art piece? Why are some impressionistic pieces deemed worthy and others trash? If I dump a bucket of paint on a canvas, it seems to me that it is quite similar in appearance to a bunch of the other works that are being sold for millions. However, there needs to be intention behind the meaning as well. Yes, my canvas/bucket of paint has the same format as many impressionistic paintings, but it doesn’t have the same depth of meaning. In fact, it has none. I just wanted to chuck some paint at something.
    I think the same can be said for “Taroko Gorge,” and similar generators. It has the format down, but there is absolutely no meaning to it. At best it is the hallmark card of poetry. At worst it is an impressive bit of coding work that belongs in a computer science class, not in English Literature. One may argue that there is intention to the words put into the generator. But the same can be said for Mad Libs.

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  7. I scrolled around a few figuring ‘oh wow, /another/ setting change,’ until I found ‘Camel Tail’. To quote the author, “Camel Tail is my attempt to find an overall narrative within Metallica’s work…. a generative poem using lines from Metallica’s 9 major studio albums.” How could I resist? Of course as the poem ran its course, using syntactically cohesive bits of Metallica’s lyrics laid against one-another without context, I began to see that it was more than the novelty of a metal band being turned into a procedurally generated poem. The code of the poem is fairly simple – a set list of inputs, put up randomly one by one in stanzas of four lines each. However, this allows the computer to serve one of its core strengths; permutation and mass repetition in calculation. By making Metallica poems over and over and over again, and going over the results stanza by stanza, lexia by lexia, one can actually see that ‘Camel Tail’ is an effective tool at deriving core themes and meaning from the work of Metallica without being bogged down in the details of the songs individually and the topics they cover. By removing subject from the lyrics, and by working with these lyrical units computationally through repetitive permutation, ‘Camel Tail’ proves that computer poetry can be just as functional as it is artistic.

    BONUS POEM
    So low the sky is all I see
    Just call my name, `cause I’ll hear you scream
    The farther you fall
    Yeah, I feel you too

    Or just the light that lights this dead end street?
    Better than you
    Dealing out the agony within
    threaten no more

    Those people who tell you not to take chances
    Fall onto your knees
    Locked away in his brain
    On through the mist and the madness

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  8. I’m also not entirely sure how to respond to this. E-Literature, as a whole, pushes our definitions of any and every type of literature. In some senses, the digital aspects of some of the pieces that we have read have truly “broadened our horizons,” if you’ll pardon the cliche, because of how they show us what technology can add to a piece. However, it can also potentially detract from a piece. However, I agree with some of my peers in being hesitant about calling this a poem in a digital form. Because it is a computer-generated poem, I don’t know if I would even really call it literature. Does that make me a heretic…
    I have so much to say but don’t know how to express it, so I’ll do my best to articulate my thoughts in class.

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