Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Why Algorithmic Poetry Is A Let-Down


By the 1980's, the ubiquity of computers made the encroachment of the computer into the territory of the Arts inevitable. It is only natural for humans to see if the computer's powers can be used to help them in artistic endeavours. Computer-generated art, music and poetry have been around for decades but it is only recently with the advent of high-performance personal computers that developments in this field has accelerated. Powerful computers allow for more sophistication in the algorithms that generate the poetry. Whereas earlier poem generators, used very simple rules-like picking a random verb, noun and adjective and stringing them together into sentences, the new poem generators may use artificial intelligence and pattern recognition, and 'learn' from the stylistics of real poets. Thus, it is able for example, to read dozens of poems by William Wordsworth, absorb the vocabulary, try to identify if there are any patterns in Wordsworth's use of words and sentence structure, and apply them. Also, computer scientists, mathematicians and artist/musicians have been exploring the use of algorithms based on natural and human social phenomena, particularly the characteristics of Complex Adaptive Systems viz: Power laws [logarithmic], feedback loops, chaotic Strange Attractors, part- deterministic part-random, fractals and self-similarity, 1 minus F noise, catalysmic, autocatalytic thresholds and so on.
However the more sophisticated programs are only available in the realm of academia. Nevertheless based on my experience with music, I do not have much regard for algorithmic poetry and music. In music, I have tried countless algorithmic generators and they have all failed to generate a piece of music that was 'genuine'. In other words the music sounded unmistakeably like music generated by a computer. The music software Band-In-A-Box [www.pgmusic.com] is a marvelous tool for music education, and it is capable of generating jazz improvisations in many styles, mimicking the jazz greats like John Coltrane,, Django Reinhardt, Antonio Carlos Jobim etc. It does a fair job of it, but still, the music sounds cold and mechanical. The subtle phrasing, nuances and dynamics of a good human musician are missing.

In poetry, countless web sites have poem generators. They do have a useful function, and that is to kick-start you or clear your mental block when you are trying to write a poem. But reading a purely computer- generated poem can frustrate you. They are in many instances, nothing more than meaningless words strung together. Forget what some claim to be the original, surrealistic Dadaistic imagery. Like all human artistic endeavours, the end-product must be contextual, that is, within the framework of reference of human experience. And that is where algorithmic poetry fails. Below are 4 examples of algorithmically-generated poems. Two have been slightly edited by me, and two are pure and unadulterated. I think it will not be difficult for you to guess which are the ones which were edited.
1. CITIES: generated with:http://thinkzone.wlonk.com/PoemGen/PoemGen.htm

FAST, DRY CITIES QUIETLY PUSH A DEAD, NOISY JOB.
SHRIEK LOUDLY LIKE AN OLD SUBWAY TRAIN.
MACHO, NOISY GUYS LOUDLY GRAB A SMALL, WET CIGARETTE.
WHERE IS THE BIG DOOR?
ACTION IS A DEAD WORKER.
DRY, OLD CORNERS QUIETLY FRAME A DEAD, SMALL STREET.
JACKHAMMERS BUILD STARK GHOSTLY SKYSCRAPERS.
THE CITIES WORK LIKE ANT COLONIES.
JOBS RUN!
JOBS TALK LIKE SMALL GIRLS.
DAMN, LIFE!
THE SIDEWALK SHRINKS LIKE A BIG FLOWER.
THE COLD, DARK FLOWERS THAT LURK MENACINGLY.
AND CARS GOSSIP LIKE FACELESS MACHINES.
STREETS GOSSIP!
WORK, DESOLATION, AND ANGER.
LIFE IS A SMALL STREET.

2. Gloomy Thoughts On A Spring Morning. Generated with
http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/hitchhikers/vogonpoetry/lettergen.shtml
See, see the operatic sky
Marvel at its big fuschia depths.
Tell me, John Keats do you wonder why the Raven ignores you?
Why its foobly stare makes you feel ecstatic.
I can tell you, it is worried by your Fiskeparotzik facial growth
That looks like a pizza remnant.
What's more, it knows
Your mouldy potting shed smells of glow worms.
Everything under the big operatic sky
Asks why, why do you even bother?
You only charm the hoi-polloi.

3 and 4. Haiku [or is it Tanka?] generated by Haiku Generator http://www.hphoward.demon.co.uk/haikugen/framset1.htm

3.Cold love clashes.
Snow sets yet wonder flutters.
Boats leave gold hatred.
Sad scolding stanzas move ice.
Greenly, the children return.

4. The hard, tough dogs run.
Priests turn then young earth loiters.
Fairly, cats retire.
Perfumed stupidity walks.
Strange spices set yet breasts melt



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