Unaware of "The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed," supposedly written by the program Racter, I made the post below about virtual poetry. The book is in fact available on Ubu Web. Bill Chamberlain, Racter's creator, wrote disingenuously, "With the exception of this introduction, the writing in this book was all done by a computer." It's interesting that he chose to highlight the novelty of a computer-written book, to present what was essentially his own poetry. Whatever you make of Chamberlain's writing, this book failed as a concept, as conceptual art, since Chamberlain never adhered to his own concept.


Patrick Herron said...

When I wrote Lester's book _Be Somebody_ from 1999 through 2001 I generated and assembled the work according to algorithmic practices, practices that I irregularly violated for poetic purposes. Well, at least what I thought at the time proxied for poetic practice, to be more precise. The work was a sort of exercise of the ghost in the machine. I never implemented any software to automate the processes; assembly by hand of these repetitive practices led me to find the places to break the rules and in the, um, process do something that was hopefully interesting. Heck I even *graphed* emotive ebb and flow, plotted highs lows and mids, and "scored" the overlapping series in such a way. I ended up using a representation of that score as the table of contents. the construction of a poetic network, of bringing the complexities of _After Lorca_ into the digital age.

It has taken me a long while to find much appreciation for the manuscript. Ron Silliman said some glowing things about it a few years ago (http://tinyurl.com/ykq4yg), but otherwise it has languished in finalist status, "yeah but no" responses, blank stares. One publisher actually responded by asking me if it was a joke.

But hey man it looks like it's finally coming to press! Effing Press is looking to bring it into print this spring.

Basically computers cannot do some things human can. Exploring those differences in a way allows us to deconstruct and reconstruct both in myriad ways. Pursuing anti-generative (degenerative) processes led me to new spots of generative practice, new dimensions of language, etc.

Computers in 1999 were and at the start of 2007 so far away from being able to reproduce what we do as humans with language. Between then and now I've finished an advanced degree studying text mining and computational linguistics. I can say with some certainty that the shortcomings aren't necessarily computational but rather how unable we are to represent and codify the complexity of language. We can represent semantics but we still don't implement semantics well in linguistic representations. And even is we represent the semantics we then begin to realize all the other things we are leaving out. Computational linguists regularly (and wrongheadedly in my professional opinion) leave out function words and reduce ambiguity. Those approaches significantly reduce complexity, making computation easier. but in the process they eliminate the very pulse of language.

I believe language can be represented dimensionally. I also believe that language is far more complex than the most complex phenomena we have modeled to date. The only real barriers are time, patience, vision, and money to leverage very large computers. Of those barriers, the biggest one is vision. There wherewithal to actually execute. Poets are generally afraid of or unknowledgeable about computers, while computational linguistics typically have little reverence or appreciation for the finer points of language. This lack of vision, or rather this fear of computing on the one end and fear of language on the other, is the big hump to get over.

Linh Dinh said...
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Linh Dinh said...
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Linh Dinh said...

Yo Patrick,

One reason for this "fear" of computing is a distaste for yet another medium/mediator. Like Bruce Lee, we've got to get out of this house of mirrors.

Congratulations about Lester going to press!



Murat said...

Dear Patrick,

After all the linear optimisim around the computer I have been reading or listening to the last months, it is great to hear your insightful, visionary voice.

Also, many congratulations for the Effing publication.

I agree with what Linh is saying. It is not, at least for a number of us, that we are afraid of computers; it is that we (or I) suspect the illusionary nature of the unfettered (seemingly frictionless) freedom which the computer seems to promise. I think the computer has to reinvent, to reimagine itself to become creative, an agent of freedom.In other words, one has to put the "ghost in the machine." I think that is what you are referring to when you talk of "vision"; what does "code+vision" mean otherwise?

The way you describe the Lester poem (graph of emotional charts, etc.) made me think of science fiction, even Hollywood or Dr. Calligari or Frankenstein. The idea of a science fiction poem is deeply original.

The long poem I am writing and am near finishing, "The Structure of Escape," has also a graph in it, not computer or algorithm created, but simple. It charts the progress of desire and the body through the years. They start together. The desire line progresses more or less horizontally; the body line gradually going downwards almost joining the x-axis.

The poem also has references to and reworkings of many movies, including Spielberg's A.I. The question in that movie, which is one obsession in my poem and also, I think, very relevant to the discussions here is: science may, or will create, an exact replica of a child who will love his/her/its mother; but will the mother love it/him/her back? The anguish of that unrequited love, the longing are what we are talking about.

Will we long for the computer, will it long for us?

Many more things to talk about. It is almost 3 A.M., and I have to try to go to sleep.



Your description of "Lester

Patrick Herron said...


Why fear the medium/mediator? That's age-old in poetry, the engastromuthoi seated on the tripod inhabiting the pythia. Inhaling the vapors of the earth and spewing forth what is considered poetry. Fundamental, arguably. Perhaps, if we believe Jaynes, the sort of psychic origin of language or even consciousness itself.

Computers don't make this sort of transmission any less mysterious no matter how much of what it does appears to be determined. Let's face it, the Hal 9000 is a pretty eerie dude even if he's all silicon and copper.

Nothing but mirrors. Maybe. Indeterminate state.

Patrick Herron said...

Hey Murat -

If you want something literally Frankensteinian check out Allyssa Wolf's Frankensex Scrolls. Talk about the detached becoming reattached. I'm not sure if her work is hot or cool (I suspect a little of both) but it sure is unique and worth a good read.

I think the computer is best taken seriously as a tool. What I mean is that you leave imagination in the hands of imaginers, yet you allow computers to take up some of the more repetitive and time-intensive elements of that task. But for me poems have always descended not out of thin air but out of the material of language itself.

While I'm not too worried about computers being confused for sentient beings any time soon, I do believe we are already able to make computers help us do some really amazing things with language. we can use computers to deduce high-quality scientific hypotheses from research papers and data bases. (check out Stephen Muggleton's "robot scientist"). it's not hard to imagine such a system being applied less rigorously, more manically, toweards more poetic applications. And the way i've always used such systems is that i allow them to suggest new ideas to me, and then i edit and sculpt them, and then maybe resubmit the edited work back into the process. like a process of collaboration, only with the sort of dumb productive collaborator i prefer for my poetry.

Thanks for the congrats.

Samuel Vriezen said...

"I think the computer is best taken seriously as a tool... And the way i've always used such systems is that i allow them to suggest new ideas to me, and then i edit and sculpt them, and then maybe resubmit the edited work back into the process."

And here's the devil's advocate!

This position, while familiar to me, has always seemed a little bit like a cop-out. part of it is my belief in the organicism of formal processes that are planned according to imagination, whereas you describe formal processes guiding the imagination - which puts the imagination as a capriocious emperor at the end of the production line as well as the beginning. I wonder, what is the computer for in such a case, if you're not willing to take the one thing it is really strong at - discipline - seriously?

I'm all for computer generated, for complexity, for process stuff, but when you feel you have to change it afterwards, I would say there's something not sufficiently deep, not sufficiently imagined, about the process you've chosen itself. The results apparently are vague somehow, not sharp.

If the computer is just there to generate malleable stretches of some vague kind of complexity, then I wonder what the imaginative use of that complexity is. Changing the result after the fact gives me the impression that complexity is a fetish, an idea of some cool quality and not that quality as such. First you generate complexity, and then you "use" it. But what for? And why not do that thing in the first place?