Sunday, January 04, 2009

Poetry Machines

Two years ago, I created a course at SFSU called Poetry Machines that began with the Futurisms, Italian and Russian, and concluded with Kenny Goldsmith, Caroline Bergvall, and Christian Bök. I had expected that Constructivism and a strict compliance with materialist philosophy might dominate the discussion, and for some students that was the case. Every week for three hours they removed their prosthetic devices of expression, lyricism, transcendence, depth, and "creativity" and allowed the machine / procedure / concept to have its way. The final class project was to present a poetry machine of their own. Along the way, I realized that my sympathies were with Khlebnikov's numerological prophecies, Jarry's math-driven Pataphysics, and Malevich's Suprematist period--art, in other words, that has a mystical and spiritual element. There's nothing wrong with machines; what matters is how they are designed and put to use. Ted Berrigan's sonnets were so alluring, because they put a 'new' machine, the cut-up, inside a worn-out but reliable old one. It's the same with contemporary musicians, who, through sampling techniques, offer an old song a new rhythm and cultural context. Think of Hal the computer from 2000: A Space Odyssey, down on his luck and drunk in a tavern, singing "Fly Me to the Moon" and "My Funny Valentine."

Here are two excerpts from a machine-driven poem of my own, joined for brevity and counterpoint (machines are often prolix and repetitive). Otherwise, I've not smoothed out the burrs and misfits. The fuel for the machine consisted of my own words (previous poems), placed into a word randomization program that allows the machine to be "tuned" before singing. I'm a little jealous of this work, because it is more radically lyrical than my other works and uses words like "adenose" and "cometits" I would never have considered.


All you’re indeed.inhumanity, god’s prettier movings
adenose willseeing, and rice, creation’s motherland,
and melodious cometits have their time. So of Oedipus
he painted ten sentences from enduring space,
the young under-familiar fence, songs its mouth-sign
and plain bad luck. Our shadow misbehaves, as if it couldn’t.

Beyond belfry, something crying. clearly mind.

Tragic. hair.
Myrtles. Calm Ricardo magic. Them, should plotwear.
Lyric reason imitates season, earthbrook distraction, has contradiction than poetic double Portuguese hole that lines pain. Will feeling, along beyond itself.
Consciousness still plays. For sharpeningdogs may aloud clearly,
cries merely being,
to demand a beautiful breakway, all.

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At 8:08 AM, Blogger Ben Parker said...

I particularly like the first 6 lines of Mouth-Sign. Could you tell me more about the system you used to construct it? Or is that a secret you would rather protect?

At 9:08 AM, Blogger Paul Hoover said...

Ben: Thanks for your comment. I'd like to keep the inner workings secret, but you can find a number of Markov chain word randomizers online, the simplest of which is Travesty, 1984, a DOS program available online from shareware sites. If you have a MAC, you might be interested in JanusNode, which is more complex but not necessarily more user-friendly. My experience is that the simplest machine is the best.

At 10:21 PM, Blogger Sam said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11:42 PM, Blogger Sam said...

Hi Paul,

Your concept of 'Poetry Machines' is wonderful. I was searching for poetry related blogs for my project and accidently clicked on your blog. I must say this is a wonderful idea to create a platform where poetry lovers line me can hook.

You can get some more reference material for your blog from


At 5:24 PM, Blogger Jake Hajer said...

Not sure if it is a help in research/study/creation, but Beard of Bees is a press that I cyberlly-stumbled upon a few years ago that has published modern poetry of poetry machines. As a matter-of-fact, they speak to it in their manifesto. Cheers.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Paul Hoover said...

Jake: Beard of Bees is a great site. I had a chapbook, "At the Sound," published there a couple of years ago. The long poem is procedural, thus a machine, to the extent that its fifteen or so pages were written under the constraint of a 24 hour day.

At 9:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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