The sonnet has been around for centuries. Petrarch wrote sonnets. Shakespeare wrote sonnets. By now there are probably enough sonnets to wallpaper Westminster Abbey several times over. Haiku is an even older and (deceptively) simpler form. To number haikus would be to count grains of sand on the beach at Fontana. These poetic forms are merely a set of formal constraints and conventions of content, yet those restrictions, those boundaries, prove to be so highly generative.
Of course, the quest to create new poetic forms has likewise produced its own vast bestiary. In fact, the challenge to create a new form has been so attractive poetry collectives, like the Ouvoir de Literature Potential (Oulipo), have made the creation of new forms, or Synthouliposm, their primary raison d’être. As Oulipian Raymond Queneau explained, “We call potential literature the search for new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit.” Obviously creating a new form is one task, convincing other writers to use that form is another.
Enter onto that pitch digital computers, engines of procedural creation, and now the potential for the creation of new poems has increased beyond measure. Poetry generators have been around arguably since the first computers. Christopher Strachey, who worked with Alan Turing on the Manchester Mark I, developed a program to generate love letters. While the output was not specifically poetry, per se, this program did point the way for countless generators to come.
One branch of the Oulipo, the ALAMO, developed the primarily paper and print-based approaches of the group for the age of algorithms and digital computers. As the Oulipans declared, “This is a new era in the history of literature: Thus, the time of created creations, which was that of the literary works we know, should cede to the era of creating creations, capable of developing from themselves and beyond themselves, in a manner at once predictable and inexhaustibly unforeseen.”
With the advent of the personal computer and the rapid development of creative networks across the World Wide Web, the number of computer-based poetry generators has multiplied like our lists of sonnets and poetic forms.
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One generator, Taroko Gorge, has proven to be particularly generative. Taroko Gorge first appeared in January 2009 as a one-page python poetry generator on MIT Professor and poet Nick Montfort’s web page. The program is an elegant piece of code that builds on Montfort’s previous experiments with generators.
Elegance refers to an aesthetic aspect of its code, its beauty, and the way that it reads. Elegance is a kind of x-factor, a je ne sais quoi, for code, no more an objective measure of the code than elegance is in the grace of a stride or in the fall of a hem. Elegance is in the eye of the person reading or writing the code – computational devices, as far as we know, are largely indifferent to such aesthetics.
It was in his Turing Award Lecture, that computer science pioneer Donald Knuth argued for “Computer Programming as an Art.” In that essay, Knuth argues that programming should be elegant, where elegance is not so much about adornment as a kind of Strunk & White highly clear prose, simple, straight-forward, legible, easy to adapt and re-use. It is this last property that Taroko Gorge demonstrates so well; but its elegance may not be readily apparent.
Montfort’s own brand of elegance grows out of his love of concision. One of his prior creations, the ppg256 (256 character Perl Poetry Generator) exemplifies this aesthetic perfectly. Two hundred and fifty-six refers to the number of characters (letters, numbers and punctuation marks) in this Perl program. Here’s an example of a poem it generated:
the nunelf and one hip gungod hit it.
The generator works by drawing from sets of syllables and combining them in a poetic structure. This poem may not read like something by Natasha Trethewey, but such poems are a fete for a program that looks like...