- Mr. Rubenking’s “Brekdown”
[This essay was originally published in Meanjin no. 4 (1991), Melbourne University, Australia.]
In magazines and seminar rooms from Fife to Fresno, from Michigan to Melbourne, you can hear the raised voices and the breaking glass—they’re arguing about poetry again. A recent issue of Verse (an English/US magazine edited from Fife and Glasgow, Scotland and Williamsburg, Virginia) was devoted to “The New Formalism in American Poetry.” Sulfur magazine, emerging from Ypsilanti, Michigan, transcribes the shifting tides of battle as an old Modernist orthodoxy faces up to contemporary deconstructions. A recent Meanjin magazine from Melbourne, Australia, was devoted to an examination of “language” poetry.
Among other issues, these debates have drawn attention to the irrational and disorderly aspects of literary production. The courting and harnessing of disorder— deconstruction and reconstruction, breakdown and buildup—is of course as old as the ancient Greeks, and as contemporary as Shakespeare. In its various modern phases it can be traced in the theory and practice of writers including Coleridge, Rimbaud, Stein, the French Surrealists, Raymond Roussel, the print and audio tape cut-up experiments of William Burroughs, and the theoretical and practical deconstructions of the American “language” poets.
Australia’s “Ern Malley,” a hoax poet concocted by the young poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart in 1943, was built to self-destruct and take the experimental magazine Angry Penguins with him. But like Frankenstein’s monster he stubbornly lived on, stalking the periphery of Australian literature, haunting his creators and troubling generations of readers with the contradictory beauty of his “meaningless” poems. Two of his “best” works appeared in the Summer 1961 issue of the Paris magazine Locus Solus, not as examples of hoax poetry, but of collaborative writing. So order can emerge in spite of the author’s insistence on chaos.
History works through hindsight, and the spectacles of hindsight are tinted with irony. The model of art versus disorder was renovated early in the Industrial Revolution in the service of a Romantic idea: the construction of a role for the author as a unique creative presence rescuing spiritual value from chaos—the aristocracy were dead, God had fled, and Nature was covered with factories—and whose job it was to certify the value of a literary work on behalf of its consumers, the bourgeoisie. The project has seen strange and powerful acids attack this central role as the twentieth century progressed, until the structure is now almost reversed—it’s now the reader who validates the work which constructs the author—if she’s lucky.
One of the incidental but apparently intractable problems unearthed by this theoretical juggernaut as it ploughs up the Highway of Style goes as follows: How does a writer create a writer-free literary text? A text free of authorial intentions, buried cultural, social, economic and political values and hidden personality agendas, giving forth only “literature” in its pure state?
Automatic writing, nonsense writing, collaboration, formal rules for sentence-building, found poems—they’ve all been called into service. The current strategies of postmodernism include quotation, parody, collage, disassembly, bricolage, and so forth; but the hand of the stylist—not to mention the theoretician—is always evident as it arranges the exhibits.
It’s usually thought that an “unintended” poetry was either impossible or “unreadable.” But there is a way of constructing practically any form of literary material that will embody many of the traditional values of “literature,” which will be curiously readable, but which is free of authorial intent. An energetic computer programmer, inspired by articles in Scientific American and BYTE magazine, has developed such a method—but not in the severe service of modern literary theory.
Like a poet, he did it for the fun of it.
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“Brekdown” is a text analysis and text generation program written in Turbo Pascal for IBM-compatible personal computers, devised in 1985 by the San Francisco programmer Neil J. Rubenking.
What does it do?
First, Brekdown requires a typed text to work on. For example, you can feed it several pages of a sermon on brotherly love, or a set of instructions for building a kayak, or a short story written in...