Meaning Lurking in the Corner of My Eye
The first haiku my computer ever wrote was:
exclamatory hurst smash
I had written a very simple program that would put random words together with a 5-7-5 syllable count: computer-generated haiku. I did this because I had a very simple thought: “Wouldn’t it be neat if…” But I quickly realized that my little program had a lot of potential in to explore questions of meaning, association, authorship, readership, and more.
The program was christened Poesytron 575 (“poesy” means “the art or composition of poetry”), and I started to show its poems to others. I thought of those first, entirely random haiku as completely nonsensical. But when I showed them to Jared Demick (poet and curator of the Jivin’ Ladybug), he said, “Weirdly enough, some of these create strange emotional resonances with me.” Another example of what I showed him is:
bandog periclinal throat
I’d stumbled across a discovery that many experimental poets have made before: most of the meaning found in poetry comes from the reader, not the author. This is readily apparent in forms like haiku, where the structural limitations make it necessary for the poet to invoke the use of juxtaposition—combining unrelated words or phrases, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. In his book Virtual Muse: Experiments in Computer Poetry, Charles Hartman says, “Juxtaposition makes the reader an accomplice in the poem, forging the links of meaning. In the process we supply a lot of energy, and that involves us in the poem.”
This became even more apparent to me when I incorporated a database of human-written haiku into Poesytron 575. Suddenly I had haiku such as this one:
end the first meeting
and out the easter, say salt
When I read poems written by humans, I am not aware so much that I’m an accomplice in the poem, or that I’m reading habitual relationships between words rather than the words themselves. But when I read Poesytron’s poems, I’m conscious of the active role I have to take—even though I suspect that I’m not doing any more than when I read “real” poetry, or maybe even any text.
Because the program was referencing human-written work, the haiku were beginning to seem more like something a human would write. I was starting to wonder if I could fool anyone about their authorship. Roughly half of the poems seemed to make a little sense to me, so I took a selection of those and presented them to a group of writers as surreal haiku that I’d written myself. In fact, I had only added some punctuation and formatting to Poesytron’s poems.
The responses ranged from “I just don’t get it” to “Holy hell—these are wonderful.” For example, this haiku:
The anew. The
prettiest biggest. The
saying a of lie.
received the comment, “I think I just find surrealism inaccessible,” from one writer, while another said, “This is like a tiny, compact, impenetrable puzzle that keeps me fascinated with the prospect that, just out of the corner of my eye, there’s a meaning lurking.”
I find that I, myself, waver between these exact sentiments. Some of the haiku Poesytron creates seem to be utterly inaccessible nonsense—but others seem to be packed with meaning that I can’t quite see clearly. Sometimes, the same haiku will seem to be one or the other depending on which day I look at it.
The great risk of this type of poetry, I think, is that it might be quite ugly, or meaningless. The great experimental poet Jackson Mac Low said that, when using methods that incorporate chance or randomness, the poet “is neither the dictator nor (when he participates in the ensemble) the primary soloist. He is willing to risk moments in performances that he will not perceive as beautiful…. That is a risk I am deliberately taking.”
This idea of deliberate chance, or stochasticity, is one that, I think, really stretches the boundaries of modern poetry. It transforms what the poet is able to say within a poem, and transforms the intention of communication within a poem.
Charcoal evening, cats
shed single. Takes alone with
withered, the room filled.
Wounded parents from
a crematory smoke. The
to— is the— it— bar.
married signs, name signs
his dragonfly— the sun mist
voices in moths, his
rootless clouds rootless
paddies clouds, a family
canes and moon by lose
berries breath, red shreds
bag sails, white witch’s, of over of
scraps the blade flesh to
Meaningful or meaningless? It all depends on the reader.
There’s at least one person out there who sees the Poesytron project as completely pointless. Charles Trumbull, a lauded haiku poet and editor, asserts that, while a reader might make some sense out of computer-generated haiku, they do not have enough meaning or the right kind of meaning for him. He might be right in that Poesytron may never produce haiku to rival master poets (and if it does, the poetry will be entirely derivative), but I question what the right kind of meaning is.
Poetry doesn’t have to be limited by the poet’s imagination. We can push at the limits of language, letting a computer program create new word combinations that explode with meaning in the reader’s mind.
You can see more poems written by Poesytron at Poesytron575.blogspot.com