Tuesday, October 07, 2008


One remarkable feature of the Internet prank that is Issue 1 is the effort among poets I’ve talked with or read on the blogs this weekend to make the generated text somehow fit them. Was the source text grabbed from their web pages? Did the writing under their name use characteristic words or images from their poems? If not, were the algorithms still somehow keyed to them—this figure or that line a comment on the particularizing tics of the poet whose name was attached?

The poems, it turns out, were produced by a high-end word generator hosted by U Penn that may use Emily Dickinson or Heart of Darkness as source text. They had nothing to say to us as individuals at all; only in the mass as 3,164 names.

Many have said they like the poems that appear under their names (though I haven’t heard anyone say they like them better than their “regular” work). A few who’ve bothered to read the work attributed to others say they like it better than the authors’ “real” poetry. Others have mentioned how, despite the sophisticated range of tonal variations the software produces, it sounds like “all one poem” distributed across different names, a comment on the sameness of real world, non-punked poetry.

What I like about the stunt is the way it exaggerates the features of writing in the Internet age, like a caricature exaggerates a politician’s brow or nose. That 3,164 poets could appear in the same collection but silo themselves off from the other contributors so completely—that they could find the site via Google Alerts, ‘Control-F’ search for their own piece and, sniffing out the writing as computer generated, scan their own blogs and poems for source text—seems like something that could happen only now, online, where the author functions largely as a search term. I don’t think “ego” is as relevant here as the structural features of Internet presence, which offers at the same time the possibility of total inclusion—why not 30,164 poets? 301,640?—and the power to weed out anything not relevant to us. The special anxiety of the Internet is in that contradiction, I think: that we might be simultaneously included and utterly ignored, like a poet name-checked in Issue 1.

Clifford Geertz believed cockfighting was so popular on Bali because in all its structured horror, it enacts what it feels like to live within Balinese village society. How much of our American lives, online and off, feel like being included—or not—with a list of 3,163 others in a project like for godot?


Chris said...

Would it be too much for me to suggest that those who didn't realize that the connection between poem and name was more-or-less arbitrary basically don't know how to read 21st century poetry?

Well, of course it would; but there is perhaps some truth to it. (Would it be too much for me to suggest that Ron Silliman's reaction to these poems places him closer, politically and artistically, to his beloved SoQ than to anything I'd recognize as belonging to the experimental traditions of poetry?)

Your post here comes closer to what I've been waiting for (read: too lazy to write): An analysis of how the attachment of people's names to poems serves as a force that guides your reading of the text, impelling you toward reading a bit more of an otherwise self-similar text that seems immediately understood (i.e., "conceptual") (i.e., "read") upon "getting the gimmick"; but looking up and analysing the poems with one's friends' names attached brings you back to actually reading the text, actually thinking about what is going on in the text (as a text) rather than referring back to your pat conceptual understanding of the text. This motion, which undermines our sense of how a "conceptual" text operates, is what I'm really digging about Issue 1 right now.

What would be really brilliant: If they had someone actually write their own poem in the style of the other poems and insert it amidst the 3000+ poems. Who would find it?

Stephen McLaughlin said...

Hiya Rodney. I must hand it to you -- you're one of the handful of poets in this behemoth I was actually familiar with before Issue 1.

Between this post and Chris's comments above, I find the five or six points I'd been specifically hoping (in the best case scenario) that this project would accomplish before I posted it. So far the response has been better than 'best' --

The one element I couldn't have foreseen was that so many people would find connections to their own work in the bot-crafted verse. Somehow, in these shiny shards of language, people see themselves reflected. That's been the most fascinating element of the project for me so far.

Then again, such a phenomenon isn't much different than reading a horoscope and being like "o my god, that totally connects to where I'm at in my life right now ..."

Bryan Coffelt said...

A few of us are turning the list of poets into a giant link farm. It's actually kind of cool seeing a block of text like that and thinking of it in terms of connections/links between the people behind the names.

If anyone wants to help, I have a shared google doc going. Email me and I'll add you as a collaborator.

rodney k said...

Appreciate the comments, all.

One thing I haven’t been down with so much is the moralizing tone of those who see this as a “gotcha” moment for anyone who sets Google Alerts, or “ego surfs” or whatever. (Have you noticed this reaction, too?) This isn’t about narcissism I think so much as the particular kind of self the Internet tends to produce. Anyone who thought the poem might be culled from their blogs or online poems was right—it could be, we have that technology. Just like we know that pop-up ads are tailored to our gmails, or that credit card companies know everything we’ve bought since like 1982, or that Google has a cache somewhere of every term you’ve ever searched, or that we’re all of us in some demographer’s anthology of 8,204,530 names with our likely habits, predilections, politics, and buying patterns nailed cold.

The race to find the text source was interesting, too. Why so anxious to know the engine was Erica? Did the news come as a disappointment or a relief?

DUSIE said...

every one things their fucking Joseph Dickinson/Emily Conrad, et al!

DUSIE said...

it is still there btw, the file still accessible if you go to the base url... i am bored at work, obviously!

Gary said...

This really was a brilliant analysis, Rodney.

Thank you.

Bryan Coffelt said...

Forgive my ignorance, but what's "Erica?" A journal?

rodney k said...

Hi Bryan,

"Erica T Carter" is the name of the poem generator that produced the poems. I hadn't heard of it either until this dust-up. The URL for it's here, and in Susana's comments above:


phaneronoemikon said...

I thought my poem really did reflect something about me, something both unflattering in one sense, and hopeful, and in short, it sort of touched me. I though the whole thing
was just as nifty as Stephen's Cheese harp. Used to when something penetrated my peacock armor of self arranging rose-oppossums I would get paranoid and fearful, but now, I just think, "O Cupid, your magestic calculator is the white shite of beaming briar-arias, the shinto bowman of infintely weird doodads.." Is it just me, or do people not understand how rare all of this is.. It is sort of sad for me that poets of all people do not know of our rare jewely-ness, and practice an abundant gratitude based in some impossibly layered
'surrealist blankness'.. If a grasshopper in a storm was snatched
by an intrepid entomologist, wouldn't it be happy in some unspeakably valuable way before the pin went in? Ron and alot of the naysayers seem not of this Tweird EARTH, but of some grey flannel sofa, which in actuality is pretty weird too.. I can only marvel at all the vivid responses of everyone to everything..

Oh Vorbrajeont Orcean,
you problong minnies
are kraaleidoscorpic


listening from within the jarbled
grots of the molecs,

DUSIE said...

ummm, i meant, everyone thinks! i love that at Tom Raworth thinks this all is entertaining!