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Flashback: Computer poetry from 1985

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Flashback: Computer poetry from 1985

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1985, The Syracuse Newspapers

Comedian Bob Newhart did a routine many years ago based on the notion that an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of keyboards for an infinite amount of time would come up with all the known works of literature.

Newhart realized the monkeys would come up with something else, too:

"To be or not to be—that is the gezorkenplatt."

I put the monkeys to work myself the other day, and I didn't get Shakespeare—I didn't even get Newhart, for that matter—but I got a few interesting lines.

Of course, I didn't use actual monkeys. They're expensive, especially an infinite number of them, and besides they would have made life miserable for my dog. So I used a computer.

To act like a zillion or more monkeys on an equal number of typewriters, a computer generates random numbers and keeps rearranging them into different patterns. The patterns are never the same; like snowflakes, each one is different. (And I've generated some computer-graphic snowflakes that work the same way, each one unique.)

But back to my artificial monkeys. I ran a program that would string words and phrases together to make poetry. The last time I tried it, a few months ago, I reported here that the only poem I got was a two-liner. It was:

 Beep! Beep!

But this time things worked out better. Here is a selection from the Technofile's Computer Poetry Corner, with some ocassional comment. The first poem has a misplaced the," but otherwise it's not bad:

  Pretty young dogs

  Pass henchmen crunchy.

  The in the wind as naked

  Silvery priests fight.

The next one shows a little more promise:

  In the box while bags

  Talk flowers to the death,

  And our lives, while glowing,

  Pass happily drinkers.

The first two lines of the next one could almost qualify for a contest, but the last two fall short of the mark:

  The blue giants

  Run loosely to the death,

  When lively, plastic, sparkling

  Loud priests noisily.

So what does all this mean? Are computers going to write our poetry for us someday? No, not ever. For one thing, computers are never going to have the element of wry surprise that good poetry offers.

For another, computers will have an awfully hard time developing a real sense of humor—and many poetic works, Ogden Nashian verses aside, are based on taking things a little lightly.

But what computer poetry (or computer music or computer art) really means is that our society is finding entertainment in a different form of creation—a lower form, no doubt, as you can see from the verses my monkeys" coughed up.

And this is just as it should be. Technology, after all, is a servant, not a mistress or lover. There is no real mystery to it. We sometimes ascribe too much importance to the meaning of things and not enough to the simple pattern.

Which reminds me of the European who was on a safari and heard distant drums beating out a rythym. He turned to the African chief who was standing beside him.

"What do the drums say, chief?" he asked.

"They say," the chief answered, "dum di dum di dum."

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