Markovian Parallax Generate: On digital writing and poetics

THE SAME is at Gnoetry Daily

Posted in Gnoetry, Poetics, Publication by Eric Goddard-Scovel on September 2, 2009

REPOSTED from what light already light:


You can read my current poetic project, The Same, currently being published serially at Gnoetry Daily. I might be pulling five or six of them soon so I can send them out for publication in print journals, but for now they’re all available to read, even the ones I’m not going to include in the final edit.

The poems are all written using the Gnoetry 0.2 program. There is currently a pool of 19 source texts, of which I more or less arbitrarily select three for each poem. The source texts are mostly from the mid-19th century through the early 20th century, and focus on islands, continental philosophy, religion and scientific discovery. The form I have chosen is three eight-line stanzas in blank verse. As a further constraint, I have barred all personal and personal possessive pronouns to the best of my ability. The titles are taken from each poem’s first two words, which are “the ______.”

As each poem develops, stanza by stanza, several themes arise from the beginning object (“the ______”) and are explored semantically and/or aurally and brought into relationship with each other. Syntax is broken or twisted to suit the building of these relationships, with the hope to creating an impression or understanding that rises above – while dwelling within – the words and ideas.

Currently the project is being influenced by Jean Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil, whose themes and perceptions seem to be eerily in line with my own. What is meant by “the same” in this project is meant to be multiple, but I think it is something that is wrong, perhaps the “profound indifference” of contemporary consumer culture; and possibly a solution, already present, ubiquitous, secret. Are these poems definitions? The opposite? What is the opposite of a definition, and would the imposition of anti-definitions be a meaningful act? These are the questions I’m working through right now.

In any case, enjoy the poems!

Customizing Source Texts with Google

Posted in Gnoetry, Poetics, Thought by Eric Goddard-Scovel on April 19, 2009

I’m starting a new Gnoetry or Mchain project, it would seem. I’ve been compiling a list of “pleasingwords” for a while now, but I haven’t known how to use them. Now I’m planning to begin searching for text using Google (or other sources) that contains these pleasingwords and creating a source text to use with Gnoetry or Mchain.

Just an idea.

Gnoetry Project Update, Thoughts

Posted in Gnoetry, Poetics by Eric Goddard-Scovel on October 17, 2008

My Gnoetry chapbook, a light heart, it’s black thoughts, which is a sonnet cycle using only Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as input, is coming along, and will likely figure prominently in my M.F.A. thesis.

Lately it has turned to darker territory than before, and I’m finding that violent scenes of rape and exploitation are becoming the norm.  It may be partially a consequence of my teaching postcolonial theory along with Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart to my English 106 students.  I’m sure it has turned away from the love poem focus it had before because I am no longer separated from my girlfriend like I was when many of the other obsession-driven sonnets were written.  It is becoming much more obviously a postcolonial text itself of sorts, although the positive sexual reversal of the cunnilingus poem (my favorite still) remains the center piece of the whole sequence.

I’m trying to not make the work conform to any one focus, but for the work to be a diverse collection of disparate happenings.  Phillip Whalen’s idea of the poem as a “sitting” is on my mind now, along with Kenneth Goldsmith’s assertion that truly contemporary poets are essential “word processors,” working with language and data and constructing them into new works.

The chapbook won’t be ready for several months then, it seems.  I’m working on four large scale poetic works (three of them computational, one somewhat visual) and an assortment of scattered individual poems, so work on all of them has slowed down.  They will get done.

Wish me luck!

Digital poetics reading list now under construction

Posted in Computational Poetics, Personal, Poetics by Eric Goddard-Scovel on September 26, 2008

Haven’t posted since June, but I’ve been busy, trust me. I’ve begun a new mchain project (his&hers, available online as it is written), a series of one line visual/aural poems (Lines) and I’ve gotten closer to completing the Heart of Darkness Gnoetry Sonnets (still no set title). Carrots and Sticks is still in the works, and will likely be done in 8 or 9 one-page sections.

Work on my thesis has begun. At this stage it will likely take the form of a collection of chapbooks (five or so), most of them long poems or sequences. Some of the pieces are computer-assisted, some are not.

I’ve recently expanded my collection of books on general poetics, digital poetics and hypertext theory, so I’ve decided to keep some record of these in case any readers of this blog are interested in or unaware of them. I’ll likely post more about individual essays or sections of the books later on.

Reading List [last update 10-26-08]:

  • Contemporary Poetics, edited by Louis Armand. Northwestern University Press, 2007. An excellent collection of essays focused mainly on concrete, language and digital poetics (or technopoetics, as the back cover calls it). Also contains essay on “Precursors” for valuable literary-historical context.
  • Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995, by C. T. Funkhouser. University of Alabama Press, 2007. A detailed “documentary study and analytic history of digital poetry.” I just got this one, but I already love the Chronology of Works in Digital Poetry. I had no idea that Robert Pinsky was involved in such work until now.
  • Virtual Muse: Experiments in Computer Poetry, by Charles O. Hartman. Wesleyan University Press, 1996. Hartman developed the DIASTEX5 program that Jackson Mac Low used compose his Forties and Stein Poems series. This is only one of his contributions to computer poetry. This book documents and reflects on all of his experiments in this field.
  • My Mother Was a Computer, by N. Katherine Hayles. University of Chicago Press, 2005. A posthuman exploration of the intersections of language and code–human and machine–and the effects of this on “creative, technological, and artistic practices.” I haven’t got to this one yet, either, but it sounds exciting.
  • Hypertext 3.0, by George P. Landow. A landmark update of a landmark book in hypertext theory.
  • p0es1s: Asthetik digitaler Poesie. The Aesthetics of Digital Poetry, Block, Friedrich W., Christiane Heibach and Karin Wenz, eds. Hatje Cantz, 2004.  A bilingual (or is it multi-lingual?) collection of poetics articles on digital aesthetics.
  • Einladung zu einem Poesie-Automaten, Hans Magnus Enzensberger.  This is in German.  I don’t know German.  If anyone knows of an English translation of this, let me know.
  • Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries, Loss Pequeno Glazier, University of Alabama Press, 2002.  Glazier founded the Electronic Poetry Center with Charles Bernstein in 1994.  If you want to know just about everything about that, you can get a copy of his PhD Dissertation.  This book covers a wide range of topics in digital poetry and theories behind its practice and propagation.

EBR: electronic book review

Posted in Computational Poetics, Hypertext / Web Art, Poetics by Eric Goddard-Scovel on April 10, 2008

Thank you again Wikipedia.  I found this article on Digital poetry that contains a great list of links to “examples” on the Web.  One of these is EBR: electronic book review, which is filled with essays and  reviews on a range of topics associated with the development of electronic media and publication.  The setup of the website is innovative along with its content.  I’m just discovering it, but its exactly the kind of resource I’ve been looking for.

Description, Inquiry, and Selection: Hejinian’s essay “Strangness” (Part 1)

Posted in Poetics by Eric Goddard-Scovel on March 12, 2008

8352.jpgI’ve been doing some research lately, both to prepare for my MFA thesis next year and to help me get a better sense of what I am doing. Lyn Hejinian’s collection of (for the most part) essays, The Language of Inquiry, has been sitting on my bookshelf since October, and it seems certain that the library will be asking for it back pretty soon. I chose to read “Strangeness” wanting to hear something fresh and intelligent about the term, which is thrown about too often in creative writing circles without carrying any clear meaning. I didn’t finish it yet, but here are my thoughts on it so far.

The essay uses as its examples mostly entries from dream journals and travel journals, and begins by establishing her definition of description as it will be discussed:

Description should not be confused with definition; it is not definitive but transformative. Description … is a particular and complicated process of thinking, being highly intentional while at the same time, because it is simultaneous with and equivalent to perception, remaining open to the arbitrariness, unpredictability, and inadvertence of what appears. Or one might say that it is at once improvisational and purposive. (138-8)

I’ve been writing without the assistance of mchain or gnoetry for a few months now, and I have felt a greater sense of the “improvisational” spirit of description, and a clearer perspective on how the process of writing without computer programs (or other processes using found texts or source texts) differs from processes that use them; it almost seems that one is the inverse of the other in terms of what roles purpose and improvisation play. Though I’m still not quite certain about what this means, I do feel they both work similarly on this next level, what Hejinian calls apprehension:

Vocabulary and grammar are themselves an intense examination of the world and of our perceptual relations within the experience of it. One may agree with Ludwig Benswanger’s aphoristic comment, “To dream means: I don’t know what’s happening to me,” but the description of a dream is intended as a means of finding out.

Description then is apprehension. (139)

Going further with the “specific writing problems” (139) of dreams:

The attempt to describe a dream raises a challenge to selection, questioning not only the adequacy or accuracy of what one (or one’s memory) has selected but the very act of selecting itself, since peripheral items may turn out to be central after all, and because details may have been lost in the instability of the dream terrain or in one’s own forgetfulness. (139-40)

This quote more than any of the others seems especially relevant to the process that I have been employing with mchain since last Fall. I suppose that I could describe it as the purposive and intuitive selection of language and phrases in conjunction with the imposition of missing or lacking pieces added by the author. I could also say that the goal of this process is to construct a dream, or to bring into some kind of focus or framing the vague sense of being found in dreams that is often strange, often lacking “binarisms like form-content, male-female, now-then, here-there, large-small, social-solitary, etc.” (140).

What I am curious about now is how much this process tends towards a poetry that is more about the process of selection than what has been selected and arranged. At some point I need to find out whether this is a problem or a strength; then I can work out what to do about it.

(Post continues in part 2)

Jackson Mac Low

Posted in Poetics by Eric Goddard-Scovel on February 1, 2008

maclow.gifI was just reading a 2001 conversation/interview with Jackson Mac Low in the current Jacket. I’ve been reading through the recently published Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works too, and have become increasingly enamored with Mac Low’s poetry, especially his later work. This blog focuses on my own methods and uses of chance and mathematical procedures (in my case with the assistance of computer programs), so it makes sense that I would be drawn to a figure like Mac Low.

What I found surprising, though, was the words he used to speak about his poetry. When using a program, it is natural to use terms like input and output. I did not expect Mac Low to speak of his chance-operations in such similar terms, though it makes sense to do this.

Here’s a bit that I liked from the interview. When asked about connections between the Twenties and Forties poems and his Stein Poems, which employed different methods [I’m trying to find some more on what those differences are], part of his response was:

There’s a definite relation in the fact that I’m making similar revisions in the raw output of the methods. The choices in revision are like the choices in making and revising The Forties. I no longer tried to escape myself but to work with myself.

I feel similarly now about my work with the mchain and Gnoetry 0.2 programs. In both cases, there is this similar feeling, that I am working with myself and my own judgment, intuition, feelings, problems, etc. I used to tell people that working with Gnoetry was like wrestling with the program and with the input text(s), but this doesn’t seem accurate. It may start like that, but for the most part, it is like most other methods of writing poetry (even the standard one of putting a pen to paper): one ends up working with or struggling with oneself more than anything else.

More on Mac Low later.

Another Thought

Posted in Computational Poetics, Poetics by Eric Goddard-Scovel on July 27, 2007

I’ve been having a lot of thought “moments” lately when I space out.  Tonight I drifted off and had the thought again (I had forgotten about it) of the mchain program and programs /tools like it (Gnoetry, Google Poem or Erica T. Carter) as learning tools.  Computational poetics obviously brings up issues of authorship, but it also questions ideas of what a poem is in a way that is very approachable and immediate.  I know that I have discovered a lot of authors and poems that I would not have even thought of looking into if I had not been working with Markov chains, and I wonder if this has been an even greater benefit to me than my work with the program itself.  I think young poets could learn a lot in a class setting from demonstrations and discussions of computational poetics and its implications.  Of course, I’d have to first figure out what those implications are myself.

The Prosthetic Imagination: A Response and a Reflection

Posted in Poetics by Eric Goddard-Scovel on July 4, 2007

I was just over at my other blog mulling over one of the titles of blogs that I’ve recently added to the blogroll here: The prosthetic imagination. It is a place for, as the blog explains, “Jim Carpenter’s ruminations on computational art and the art of computer programming.” That’s right up my alley these days, now that I’m writing more and more often with the help of the mchain program. I’m also beginning to wonder, though, how much that program may be serving as a prosthetic, and what it might be replacing.

I guess this is a reaction I’m having to a post I read on The prosthetic imagination when I was over there earlier today. In the post etc4, the title of which refers to the author’s own poetry generating program, Carpenter wrote the following:

My goals in the etc project include making software whose first draft is the final draft. Since Charles Hartman, folks in this field have held that their generated poetry was a dropping off point, that the work wanted a human touch. But the problem with that approach is that it gives the human-centric critics, with their socially constructed and entrenched intelligism, what they see as a reason to dismiss us. The argument goes that if a piece requires editing, the machine isn’t really doing the work. I’ve been working to get there. And I’m reasonably satisfied with etc3’s results.

One note I might make, first, is that it is a rare thing for any writer that the “first draft is the final draft.” We’ll see how that works out with the first draft of an mchain poem I just posted below. It might be an even more interesting thing if a program could in some way revise it’s own work, although the complexity of such a thing is so beyond my understanding that I am having difficulty completing this sentence. I think, too, that the argument you speak of, “that if a piece requires editing, the machine isn’t really doing the work,” is a completely ignorant and unfair one to make about any artistic work by anybody or anything. A poem is not a weld made by some programmed robotic arm, and a poem generating program is not simply assembling the same thing over and over, completing some single repetitive assembly line task.

Also, I’ve never read the phrase “human-centric critics” before, but I’m delighted to have it ready at my disposal now. It’s conception signifies for me that, at least for some in the field of poetry, computers have become such an important tool that a term like that has become necessary.

Getting back to what initially bothered me, I think it was about what has become a common occurrence for me, that the “generated poetry was a dropping off point, that the work wanted a human touch.” For the mchain program, which uses an algorithm to produce Markov chains from text–something that must seem extremely crude to those working in the field of computational creativity–I think a “human touch” is a necessary thing. But I’m all for anything to do with Artificial Intelligence, even if it leads to the creation of intelligent programs that can write amazing poems or novels. I don’t feel any sense of competition rising about such a creation. At the very least, it can teach us humans more about our own “intelligence” and creativity; and maybe even something about what we call soul, spirit, heart or essence: as you prefer.

No, what is bothering me is what has brought me to post this on both of my blogs, to bring my two halves back together for a moment. I like the idea of calling my use of the mchain “prosthetic,” although it is not much different in essence than using any number of poetic techniques for separating the poet a bit from his text. But what would happen if I no longer felt content with simply writing a poem out of my own, … what? mind? imagination? words? That comes back to the question of whether any of these things are really mine at all. And the threat of calling it prosthetic is that I might want, as I am feeling now, “my own” imagination back, or whatever part of it was replaced by the mchain.

It seems that the last few times that I really felt something coming out of me that I wrote straight down in my own words, it was a reaction to something intensely moving about the state of the world today: you know, the one that’s burning out of control all around us? The last time that I can recall a very strong NEED to write something, it was a reaction to some things that Patricia Henley read about child soldiers, and some of the realities of war that we so often filter out of our daily news, or just don’t mention.

I notice from time to time, being the observant and informed kind of fellow that I am, just how desensitized I am to almost everything going on these days. Terrible things are occurring so often that it is just no big deal, it is nothing new to me; and it so often seems that nothing can be done about it, as everybody else is either ignorant about it or feeling impotent too. I’ve gotten worked up so many times about some of the more terrible crimes of our government, global institutions, and corporations, etc., that more bad news doesn’t seem to affect me much at all. And it doesn’t help that there doesn’t seem to be any kind of possible action at my disposal to take against it that has not already been co-opted or effectively marginalized.

So, is it this desensitazation that draws me to the “prosthetic” mchain program? Is it some sort of “awakening” about my relationship to the rest of the world that draws “real,” “human” poems out of me? Is the mchain program, as my graphics sprinkled throughout this post suggest, something analogous to an artificial heart? [You can see them here.]

I’ll just say no to that right now. First, I would never assume that, being a white male that has hardly left the Midwest and has never left the US, I have established any kind of real, deep emotional connection to the rest of the world. Second, I’m being far too much of a human-centric critic of my own work for my own good. And this attitude displays, for all to see, my own lack of understanding about what I’m doing, about what poetry is, and about what really motivates me to do whatever it is that I do. But this is as close as I can get to my feelings on this subject. And that’s where I’ll have to stop for now.

“Processing Our Databanks”: an aesthetic metaphor for the Computer Age

Posted in Poetics by Eric Goddard-Scovel on July 1, 2007

While browsing through my Blogroll to ensure the highest standard of quality for the links on this blog, I fell into the library that is UBUWEB. Naturally I gravitated towards the poetics section where I discovered this paper, After Language Poetry: 10 Statememnts[sic]. Within the first few paragraphs of Christian Bök’s statement, I had found this nugget:

Wershler-Henry has at times remarked that, because Langpo seems to have exhausted itself without generating any innovative successors, what Langpo needs is “a good swift kick in the ass” – a new mandate that might jumpstart our creativity, exploiting the lessons of Langpo on behalf of some other, as yet unimagined, practice. Langpo has pushed poetry as far as poetry on the page can go; now poetry must find new avenues of thought beyond poetry itself, seeking inspiration, for example, in the work of architects and musicians, scientists and engineers. Recent, poetic trends suggest that, in order to avoid sounding completely outdated, many poets may have to learn a new catechism, acquiring competence in domains far beyond the purview of literary expertise. Poets may have to become advanced typesetters and computer programmers – technicians, polyglot in a variety of machinic dialects: HTML and Quark, PERL and Flash. Poets may have to learn the exotic jargon of scientific discourses just to make use of a socially relevant lexicon, and now that cybernetics has effectively discredited the romantic paradigm of inspiration, poets may have to take refuge in a new set of aesthetic metaphors for the unconscious, adapting themselves to the mechanical procedures of automatic writing, aleatoric writing, and mannerist writing – poetry that no longer expresses our attitudes so much as it processes our databanks.

For the past few years, I have wanted to do several things outside of poetry that, thus far, have been repeatedly pushed aside.

  1. Learn how to improvise on my trumpet.
  2. Reach the state of most sublime Enlightenment.
  3. Actually learn how to speak and write Spanish.
  4. Learn how to program in Python.
  5. Become competent as a Web Designer.

It seems that, according to Mr. Bök, I have the right idea, and I should work harder at making some of these become realities. I often wonder (as I had wondered before I entered one) if an MFA program is just what I need to become a competent writer. So far, it has proven to be a large step in the right direction for me. Still, I would like to be able to put together other programs like the mchain script that do any number of linguistic operations.

I have dreamed of a program that could improvise alongside live musicians, that could work off of the music they are playing in a creative and innovative way: something with a real musical intelligence. I don’t know how long it will be before an artificial intelligence can do that, or how long it will be before one writes a poem or a novel that is truly its own (whatever that may mean–and what standards would we judge its quality by, too?) Hell, that may have already happened years ago. But if I could in any way assist in the development of such a thing, I think I would be contributing to something that would enrich our understanding of intelligence, creativity, and probably meaning itself. And as our own sense of consciousness grows metaphorically closer to concepts of machine intelligence (referring to thought and reflection as “processing” and the storage capacity of the mind as “databanks”), maybe we will be that much closer to appreciating the literary works of a computer.