Do you know about gnoetry? It’s the use of computer programs to write poems. Before you recoil in horror, have a look at this video demo of the Gnoetry 0.2 program in action. You’ll see how much of the “writing” is done by the person and how much by the program. (Actually, Gnoetry is the name of one computer program used to write poetry, and not the name of the movement of writing poems using computer assistance, but since I don't have a short phrase for that, I am going to use gnoetry as the name of the movement throughout this post. It is not correct. Don't copy me.)
Specifically, in the Gnoetry 0.2 program (here I am using the word Gnoetry correctly) the writer picks a form (haiku, renga, tanka, free verse, or a variation of syllabic forms) from a list, then chooses a number of existing texts that the vocabulary and grammatical syntax will be patterned after (in this video the writer chooses the haiku form, and the texts of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture.)
Next the writer generates the poem by allowing the computer program to fill in the words subject to the constraints given by the selected form, and by the syntactical patterns and vocabulary from the text sources. In this case, the writer regenerates the poem many times without saving any lines at all, before hitting on a version ifrom which he decides to save a phrase. The writer at this point chooses which portion of the poem to save, then continues instructing the computer to regenerate the rest of the poem, around the one phrase he did decide to keep.
In this example, previously saved lines are abandoned when better ones come up, and regeneration continues many times until the end product in no way resembles previously saved versions of the poem. Which happens to resemble a lot of what I do in the rewriting process.
This Youtube demonstration showed me that gnoetry is not all that different from any other kind of writing in which the limits set by the writer generate the content in an evolutionary way. For example, consider Kay Ryan saying that she follows the sound of words, so that when two words have a similar sound and she has already used the first, she might insert the second into the poem, taking it off in an unexpected direction. Allowing the randomness of sound to change the content of a poem is not all that different from introducing randomness into a poem through computer intervention.
Recently I learned about poet Aaron Kunin’s book The Sore Throat and Other Poems, in which the poet limits himself to fewer than 200 words to be used recursively throughout the book. This kind of limitation generates all kinds of unexpected wordplay and a surprisingly vast array of content. How different is this from what gnoets do when they let a computer generate some of their limits via vocabulary (and, as in happens, syntax)? (Interestingly, one of the words in Kunin's limited allowable vocabulary is "machine," and in his poems his narrator builds machines for all kinds of purposes, including ending the machine-building impulse. One wonders what Kunin would make of gnoetry.)
Does gnoetry sound a bit like what was practiced in the Oulipo movement to you? Then you might want to check out the Gnoetry Daily blog, which lists (scroll down to the bottom right) different forms of gnoetry, including eOulip-esque and the recently-much-discussed Flarf movement. (This site also has everything you want to know about gnoetry.) These kinds of rule-based poems have a long history of being compused by individuals and groups. The difference here is that the group includes a computer program.
While I’m probably not going to be writing any gnoetry soon, I have used a random number generator in a poem before, and I am not averse to the idea of introducing randomness in ways outside of the chaos of my own mind, to see what happens, to serve creativity. As counterintuitive as it may seem initially, computers (like any good limitation) can enhance human creativity, when used properly.