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»» / 3 / T H E S I N C L A I R Z X 8 The first computer I ever owned was a Sinclair ZX81. It was apretty remarkable machine. If you built it yourself, it cost $49.95; in 1981 a "serious" computer might cost a hundred times that. It had one kilobyte of memory. That means that it could deal with about half a page of data at any one time, or a few hundred computer instructions , or a little bit of each. Desktop computers now hold thousands of times as much. External data storage was on a painfully slow cassette tape; the keyboard was a membrane about the right size for a two-year-old; its output was a fuzzy picture on a television set. Yet the CPU (the calculating heart of the computer) was the powerful Z8o chip, and the clever use of specially designed circuits called gate arrays allowed for a decent built-in BASIClanguage. The directions for assembling the ZX8i were good and clear asfar as they went, but it was a long afternoon I spent putting mine together . After several hours I figured out the main trouble. The instructions had omitted any step that connected the power supply to the computing circuits themselves. I picked a plausible spot to join them and for the hundredth time tried plugging the machine in. The screen of my old Heathkit black-and-white TV (another gadget I'd built) was still full of snow. I fiddled with dials and wires, trying to get the little white-on-black letter K (the ZX81's cursor) to appear. Quite suddenly what did show up was the beatific Mr. Rogers, crouched down behind his fish tank, wearing a skin diver's mask, and talkingin adreamy voice about allthe colors of the fish, which to me looked gray on gray. Eventually the computer worked as advertised. Besidesthe built- in BASIC, you could use low-level assembly-language programming to fit somewhat larger programs into that nutshell of memory. Still, nothing veryelaboratewas going to come out of the Sinclair. It was a learning computer. And of course it was all mine; it was the first computer I could learn inside out. One of the last programs I wrote on the ZX8i, before I replaced it with a much roomier IBMPC, was a poetry composer. I choose the term with some care. Inkeeping with the idea ofjuxtaposition, modern poets sometimes talk about the poem not asaprocess or speech so much asacomposition. Poetswho do so are usuallythinking in terms of an analogy with the visualarts.The artist'sjob is to compose, to place together in a meaningful arrangement a number of independent elements . Painters compose planes of color, shapes, collaged objects, and so on. The poet's equivalents might be words, lines, phrases, quotations—any pieces of speech thatcan be treatedasseparableand rearranged in some poetic "space." What my poetry composer arrangedwas lines; the BASIC program was called RanLines. It let you type in twenty short lines, which it stored in an internal array. Then, each time you pressed a key, the computer chose one of the lines at random and printed it on the screen. This isabout the simplest possible kind of "computer poem." Yet even this beginning exercise raisesa couple of points that remain important in far more sophisticated programs. One of the Greek oracles, the sibyl at Cumae, used to write the separate words of her prophecies on leavesand then fling them out of the mouth of her cave.It was up to the suppliants to gather the leaves and make what order they could. The products of my first experiment were a little like that: THE RAMIFYING SUNLIGHT FOR A NEW NAME AND ADDRESS DEMANDS MINOR DISCRETIONS BIRCH BRANCHES OF A PIECE WITH THE LONG HAUL AND THE TREADMILL PRETENSE OF URGENCY KEEPING BEHIND IT ALL, ON TOP OF THE WORLD T H E S I N C L A I R Z X 8 I [29] AND THE TREE IS LILACS AND THE TREE IS LILACS WHATEVER YOUR PLANS, THE AFTERNOON DEMANDS MINOR DISCRETIONS THE OVERPLUS OF PLENTY BIRCH BRANCHES KEEPING BEHIND IT ALL, ON TOP OF THE WORLD What the ZX81 program contributed to the act of writing poetry was a simple sort of randomness. This has alwaysbeen the main contribution that computers have made to the writing of poetry.A little book calledEnergy Crisis Poems, published in 1974 in "an addition of 500 copies" with thesubtide "poetry...


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