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?
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