Poetry and Technology
Part 3 of A Critical Examination of 21st Poetry by Ada Wofford
The image above is from the website libraryofbabel.info, which is a true digital library that consists of pretty much everything ever written and anything that ever will be written (But in a limited sense—If I wrote two pages worth they may not be consecutive in the library and there are limited characters. For instance, it only consists of the Latin alphabet and there is no apostrophe character). In fact, it took me a minute to put together that last sentence but that sentence, along with the one you’re reading, is also in the library. See:
If I had an impossible amount of time I could find each page of this entire essay in the Library of Babel without typing a single word.
The idea for the site comes from a short story, of the same name, by Jorge Luis Borges who imagined a universal library with every possible combination of letters, consisting of everything that has ever been written or will be written. Of course, this means there would be a lot of random combinations as well, which you can see in the example above. In a sense, the Library of Babel is useless. I can’t look up anything by subject, all I can do is type in a phrase and see where it exists in the library. The thing you might not expect is that a single phrase will pop up in lots of places, making the chances of beating your writer’s block next to impossible.
Figure 3 Search results a libraryofbabel.info
But if it were useful, if I could search for a paragraph on poetry and technology to insert into my essay, the site would stop being fun. It would become far more frightening than it already is, having said everything that can ever be said. It would make writers question the validity of their writing, perhaps even the validity of their thoughts.
Modern technology has already changed how we write. Word processors with their easy formatting, spell check, and grammar check have made it easier than ever for a poor writer to appear more professional. Sites like Grammarly and Hemingway seem hellbent on making everyone a competent writer, despite a lack of talent or training. A new site called QuillBot attempts to rearrange words so that plagiarizers can avoid getting caught. Below is a paragraph taken from a New York Times article on Bob Brown (who we’ll discuss later) that was pasted into QuillBot. The right side is the original and the left side is the modified paragraph.
As a control test, I ran the original paragraph through duplichecker.com, a site that checks for plagiarized material, and the results came back as 100% plagiarized material. Once I knew it worked, I put in the modified paragraph from QuillBot and it came back as 100% unique!
Granted, the modified paragraph is terribly written but the fact that I can “create” writing that will not be detected by anti-plagiarizing software and never type a single word is pretty scary.
You’re probably thinking, “I bet QuillBot couldn’t write a poem though.” And you’d be right. Putting Shakespeare’s fourth sonnet through QuillBot was like putting it through a woodchipper. Here are the first two lines of the original:
Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Here are the first two lines on QuillBot:
Complete of elegance, why waste your elegance on the reputation of yourself?
The legacy of nature gives only loans, and being frank, it loans to these people are free.
Not only does it eschew the iambic pentameter, but it loses all of its meaning as well. If you’re a poet, this might make you sigh a breath of relief. But QuillBot is not the only program trying to steal your job.
Poem-generator.org.uk is a website that generates poems. And yes, it even does sonnets! But it does a very poor job of it. The generator presents you with a form to fill out. I wanted a sonnet about this article you’re reading. This is what I put in:
And this is what came out:
It kind of works but certain things seem prerendered such as the closing two lines, which have nothing to do with my subject. Also, what’s a mcever? As of right now, it appears that despite the machines’ best efforts, poetry is still a human endeavor.
But inevitably the technology will get better, the machines will grow smarter, and human talent will seem less and less important when it comes to the written word. This fear of the future has existed in the visual arts since the invention of the camera but it also liberated artists from antiquated notions of what it means to create a painting. The invention of photography forced artists to think outside of tradition and inspired a century of movements dedicated to creating works of art that could never be made with a camera.
Writers should have the same mindset and embrace these new technologies. We should use them as a way of furthering the medium, to express what only a human can express. These new technologies are not obstacles for us to overcome but tools for us to create.
In this article, we will explore some of the ways technology has influenced poetry. We will consider early computer writing, the profit of the e-reader, poetry created for the screen, and discuss how these ideas relate to Insta-poetry.
Sound Poetry and Visual Poetry
The documentary, Sons of Captain Poetry, is a portrait of the poet known as, bpNichol (Barrie Phillip Nichol) and explores his unique take on poetry. Nichol worked in sound poetry, which is a type of performance poetry that is not written down or at least, it is not written down for others to read. Of course, Nichol worked in other genres of poetry as well but his work in sound poetry is the most fascinating to me because of its immediacy and spontaneity.
The documentary opens with Nichol performing an original sound poem and though he’s staring at a notebook, the poem is loose and feels primarily improvised; almost as if he’s reading from a few notes and constructing the poem on the spot. Nichol’s references concrete poetry as making the distinction between visual and sound poetry more pronounced. For Nichol, all written poetry is visual poetry and this is the idea that really intrigued me.
In part one and two of this series we explored the significance of line breaks, punctuation, and overall formatting. These are elements that heighten the reading experience of the poem through the use of visual cues. Concrete poetry is poetry that uses text to create a visual experience beyond merely reading, such as the example below:
Sound poetry goes in the opposite direction and focuses on the vocalization of the poetry, sometimes to the point of eschewing words and instead employing ambiguous syllables or completely non-speech sounds. These two genres of poetry highlight the distinction between poetry you hear and poetry you see. Any written poem, is a form of visual poetry.
What’s fascinating is that the computer is perfectly situated to facilitate both extremes. Traditionally, the immediate and fleeting nature of a sound poem makes it a once in a lifetime event. That’s a large part of what makes sound poetry beautiful. The issue is that once that moment is over, the poem is lost forever and may never be studied or enjoyed by a future audience. By documenting Nichol’s poetry, some of the beauty is lost but the work now exists in a form that allows more individuals to experience it and for scholars to study it.
A video from the Sound & Syntax International Festival of Sound Poetry 1978 shows Nichol performing through a microphone. The audio on the tape is heavily distorted, clipping and cutting out, the whole experience reminding the listener that what they’re experiencing isn’t purely Nichol’s art, they’re experiencing technology as well. In both videos we become aware that Nichol’s art is tied up in the technology used to preserve and disperse his art. We hear his voice filtered through wire, distorted by tape, translated into binary, and recited by our speakers. This process, the process of the technology affecting the art in a unique manner, serves to inject a new form of immediacy and uniqueness that had been lost through the act of recording.
Whether you prefer the recording over the live performance is irrelevant, the point is that the method of recording (whether on paper, film, or hard drive) becomes an integral part of the art itself. The same way putting a poem on the page makes it visual poetry, putting it on film makes it film poetry—The medium integrates itself into the work.
From Gertrude Stein to The World Wide Web
If you listen to some of Nichol’s sound poetry your initial reflex might be to compare his style to Gertrude Stein’s writing. Nichol played with repetition in his sound poetry and the opening performance from Sons of Captain Poetry remind one of the vocal recording of Gertrude Stein reading her poem, “If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” which Stein wrote down as a visual poem. Here is just an excerpt:
Exactly do they do.
Exactly do they do.
And first exactly.
Exactly do they do.
And first exactly and exactly.
And do they do.
At first exactly and first exactly and do they do.
The first exactly.
And do they do.
The first exactly.
At first exactly.
First as exactly.
As first as exactly.
Read it out loud. There is an attention to rhythm in this poem, so much so that it almost forces the reader to perform the piece, not just read it. Even in this short excerpt we can see Stein’s attention to formatting, which is more pronounced in other aspects of the poem.
A lot of Stein’s writing though isn’t actually supposed to be read but skimmed. In the book, The Poetics of Information Overload, author Paul Stevens explains that Stein stated that some of her work, “…cannot be read, but can only be ‘read at’” (3). Stevens goes on to quote poet Kenneth Goldsmith who suggests that Stein, “often set up a situation of skimming, knowing that few were going to be reading her epic works straight through” (3). Stevens continues:
Much of Stein’s writing was never meant to be read closely at all, rather she was deploying visual means of reading. What appeared to be densely unreadable and repetitive was, in fact, designed to be skimmed and to delight the eye (in a visual sense) while holding the book. (3)
To demonstrate this, instead of pasting a page of Stein’s “Patriarchal Poetry,” I’m going to play to the fact that it is not meant to be read closely and provide you with a photo of my print copy:
The reason this technique of Stein’s is so significant is because of how prescient it is when we compare it with the concept of writing for the web. The article, “How Users Read on the Web” by Jakob Nielsen explains that 79% of users skim webpages, as opposed to reading them word-by-word, and that users skim email newsletters even quicker than they skim webpages.
There are different ways that we skim too. One common pattern is called the F-pattern, which is when a user reads in the shape of an F—reading progressively less each line down. Those who write for the web have adapted to this by constructing their articles to match the skimming of their users. You’ll primarily notice this on websites that cater to particular interests (i.e. cooking, gambling, etc.) and on company blog posts. Writers employ techniques such as using bulleted lists, headers, one idea per paragraph, no more than three lines per paragraph, and something called the inverted pyramid, which means you start with the conclusion first.
Now, I don’t see these techniques being employed by Stein but her goal is different. Web writers demand simplicity and clarity. They also write for clicks, they’re not attempting to enthrall their audience or stun the critics. Stein wasn’t necessarily interested in clarity, she was attempting to create something new and something modern.
Stein wasn’t the only one working along this line of thought though. The writer Bob Brown, who was well known in the literary circles of the time and worked in every conceivable genre from cookbooks to avant-garde poetry, wrote a manifesto outlining his idea of a reading machine. But Brown’s idea didn’t resemble a Kindle the way you might have thought. It more so resembled a ticker-tape. Brown coined the term “readies” as in talkies and movies, and the idea was for the text to move and be consumed quickly. Stephens compares Brown’s thinking to the 1932 Futurist Cookbook, and the often-parodied concept of containing an entire meal within a single pill. The New York Times quotes Brown stating, “To continue reading at today’s speed I must have a machine…A simple reading machine which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred-thousand-word novels in 10 minutes if I want to, and I want to.” It might still sound like an e-reader but it’s different. Stephens explains Brown’s thinking:
It’s impossible for a human to keep up, “to continue reading at today’s speed.” The solution to the problem can only be to go beyond the technology of reading, to get rid of “useless words,” to get rid of useless languages, to view words as vectors and images rather than as mundane combinations of letters. Commas and periods only slow readers down, whereas arrows, equals signs, and hyphens—like flashing cursors—accelerate the transformation of symbols into thought. (74-75)
If you want to experience an attempt to realize this futuristic reading, visit readies.org. On the site, you pick your poet, set your speed, and read away. It’s fascinatingly the opposite of Stein’s prescient skimming-texts as the reader is made to consume the content one word at a time.
The poems from the site are partially taken from the anthology which Brown produced, Readies for Bob Brown’s Machine, a compilation of experimental poetry that was supposed to be designed by the poet to work with Brown’s hypothetical machine. As Stephen’s states, these poems, “…tend to conform to Brown’s notion of accelerating language either through altering or omitting punctuation, or through the ellipsis of words” (81). But as Stephen highlights, many of the contributions are poor attempts at humor or simply illustrate the poet’s lack of understanding regarding Brown’s philosophy.
For instance, Stephens describes William Carlos Williams’ contribution as an entry that, “… seems not to treat the reading machine seriously—or rather to treat the machine as the reduction of poetry to exact rhyme, producing a meaningless total equivalence between words” (82).
Although the medium was hypothetical, or perhaps because it was hypothetical, the poets struggled to conform to it and quality and meaning were both lost in the process. Of course, how can we know what constitutes a good Readie if such a thing doesn’t really exist?
But the idea of poetry losing quality and meaning when forced to conform to a new medium can be seen in the highly criticized works of Insta-poets. Instagram is a horribly constraining medium with which to deliver poetry. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Instagram functions so similarly to Brown’s reading machine—Poem after poem scrolling by in succession.
Now that we have seen the ways in which the computer and the World Wide Web have constrained writing (simplifying it, constraining it, encouraging skimming over reading) let’s explore how this technology is expanding poetry and liberating it from the page.
Racter is a computer program developed in the early 1980s by William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter and first revealed via a book, written by the program in 1983 titled, The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed. The book consists of short pieces of text. Some appear as prose but others have the guise of poetry. All of the text is written by the computer program and the pieces are accompanied by collages done by, Joan Hall.
Figure 11 One of Racter’s poems
In the article, “Computer Poetry: An Act of Disinterested Communication” Josef Ernst writes of the above poem,
What looks like a poem and reads like a poem is not a poem. It is a Racter piece which the reader may identify according to a formalistically pragmatic understanding of literature…Before readers attempt an interpretation of the text, they need to interpret their superficial identification of the piece as a literary genre. (455)
Ernst’s claim here is quite bold as it essentially states that the motive behind the creation of a poem is part of what makes it a poem. Ernst continues:
The form and content of the output, although beyond any immediately recognizable rationale, trigger a highly intellectual identification process: before asking what it means, the question of what it is has been answered. Here the reader is not dealing with simple clichés, which are meant to compress meaning so as to economize output. Rather the reader is confronted with the cliché of a literary format which itself may be devoid of meaning. Yet it is this void alone that gives Racter its attractive glimmer, because the disinterested program cannot economize its output through the compilation of meaning. (456)
Ernst has a good point though, we’re looking at the output of a computer program and calling it poetry because we recognize elements within the output that we associate with poetry. Now, what I don’t know is how much of Racter’s output was used in the book and how much was tossed. This is important because by picking certain texts to include and leaving out others, the book is no longer a record of Racter’s output nor a book entirely created by a program; instead, it is a collection of found poetry. Chamberlain and Etter created a program that produces pieces of text and the pieces then become poetry through the act of selection and printing. Just as found poetry becomes poetry only when its author selects it and prints it (and by printing I don’t mean publishing, I mean placing it in the confides of visual poetry whether it’s a page or a screen).
This begs the question—Will there ever be a computer that understands what poetry is and can therefore produce it on its own? But if The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed teaches us anything, it’s that there is no clear definition for poetry. In fact, it suggests that such a definition might be impossible. While Ernst makes a decent argument claiming Racter’s output is not poetry, it’s completely debunked when we introduce the notion of found poetry. In this case, Racter is not a poet but the writing it produced became poetry. It is now poetry.
The Future of Poetry
When people say things like, “poetry’s dead” or “the written word is dead” they’re not just wrong because it’s untrue; they’re wrong because they have a fundamental misunderstanding of what poetry is and how it functions. Poetry is not a medium or an occupation, it’s an intellectual and artistic space. It’s an environment where certain things can be created and manipulated and other things can’t. The rules of this environment are unknown as are the limitations. When we are able to bring new ideas and new creations into this space, we don’t contradict poetry nor do we damage it, we augment it and grow it. From speech, to pencil, to print, to radio, to film, to code—These technologies serve to expand and enrich the space of poetry.
Projects like code-poetry.com and thelastperformance.org are attempts at creating poetry that can only exist in the digital realm. Code poetry uses the aesthetics of programing languages to create visually stunning pieces. The image below shows an example of a code poem. The wave or swirl is the output of a program that runs when you first arrive on the site.
The Last Performance is a digital poem by Judd Morrissey that is inspired by architecture. Altsalt.com writes:
Specifically, The Last Performance is about the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine cathedral that was converted to a mosque and eventually to a museum. In Morrissey’s textual cathedral, though, words don’t only provide meaning – they also define space.
The piece is interactive and takes the reader through a series of lenses that contain poems by different poets. Users can respond to a particular lens and add to the overall structure. The response page reads: “Collaboration as architecture.”
These two projects demonstrate that digital poetry can be so much more than combining video with text. Digital poetry can be interactive virtual spaces that express emotions and ideas in ways that are only possible with a computer.
The 21st century has proven that poetry and technology are inextricably intertwined. Alt-lit was a literary movement with one foot in the past and one in the present. The writers idolized canon authors and aspired to earn publishing deals. Technology was alt-lit’s muse, providing both a context and a language for the movement. Insta-poetry flipped this dichotomy, relying on poetic clichés while pioneering a new form of poetic medium and delivery. Both movements are distinctly 21st century because of the technological influences found throughout the work.
While both movements have been either ignored or heavily criticized by academics, these works have reached audiences far larger than the avant-garde experiments of Brown, Stein, Racter, and others. And now, at the dawn of a new decade, we ponder what the next movement will be. Instagram poetry seems to be as popular as ever and the experimental digital poetry projects that are pushing the boundaries of what poetry can be and what it can accomplish remain woefully unknown; lost somewhere in the vast digital ocean of the Internet.
A digital ocean of information, giving birth to content at a speed even Brown’s imaginary machine could not keep up with, churns and bellows before us. To explore it in its entirety is impossible. To dive into the infinite information and extract the gold from the endless stream of poetry, the endless stream of words, is a job akin to scouring every page in the Library of Babel. So instead, let’s broaden our concept of poetry, of art, and allow ourselves to be receptive of whatever might wash upon the shore next.