Urine interface update

Automatic poetry pt. 2

In the wake of my recent posting about Rob Malda’s automatic poetry generator, Alfred Cloutier sent in some interesting comments about other auto-poetry engines online. It reminded me of a funny story from one of my previous jobs.

Back in the early 90s, I worked for the League of Canadian Poets — the country’s national poetry association. One of my jobs was to sift through the applications for membership. To apply, you had to send in a bunch of poems, a literary history, and the membership fee, which ran from around $50 to $180 annually. Possibly because we had a very tight budget and those fees were pretty important, we accepted virtually anyone for membership, no matter how horrid their poetry was. And believe me, some of that poetry stank with virulent, pestilent force. So I’d sit there, grimly reading this godawful verse from prospective poets, then photocopying it to send off to our membership committee, where it would invariably be rubber-stamped.

One day while taking a break at lunch, I wandered by a local computer store and found a bin of shareware on floppy disks. (This was 1992, when floppy-disk shareware was pretty l33t.) There was one called “Automatic Poetry Generator”. It was about $5, so I bought a copy, installed it on my machine at the League, and fired it up. It would produce stuff like this:

you know they’ve got you now

stop dreaming about
the choir members
with plans for you
they are constantly plotting
and you remember
no matter what you do
broken cherry blossom lie beneath the trees

Not bad, eh? The poems were fairly rote — it seemed to have a pretty limited vocabulary of a few thousand words and phrases, so the more poems you generated, the more you’d see the same stuff repeated. But in way, that almost made it seem human; real poets frequently have images and words they return to, too (though not usually with such robotic regularity). Anyway, I was pretty impressed. Jesus, I thought, this program’s better than half the sludge we’re approving for membership.

At which point I began to wonder: Hey, could I actually enroll this piece of shareware as a poet in the organization? If I generated a dozen poems, printed them up, gave the “poet” a name and wrote a fake letter of introduction, I figured it would breeze through the application procedure. So I printed the poems, and even went so far as writing the letter of introduction. I think I claimed I was a suburban Toronto poet in his mid-40s or something. But I chickened out, and never sent it in.

By the way, that poem above? I don’t actually have that piece of 1992 shareware any more, but I downloaded a similarly simple generator here — from R.K. West’s site. I found it using a Google search for the string “automatic poetry generator”, which produced 5,610 hits on Google. There’s quite a boom, it seems, in generating poetry via Pentium chips — heck, everyone’s getting into it!

All of which makes for a lovely irony: While geeks have become increasingly interested in automatic poetry generation, the audience for the stuff written by actual humans has massively declined. I’d hazard a guess that there may now be more people reading verse authored by computers than by flesh-and-blood bards.

Maybe we need a technical fix for the readership problem, too! Instead of creating programs that generate poetry — maybe we should develop some that read it.

UPDATE: I emailed Rosemary West, who created the poetry program that I used above. She wrote back to tell me she suspects the application I used back in 1992 was hers also! That makes sense, because if you look at all the stuff on her site, it’s clear she’s a veteran of shareware.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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