Like any other no-longer-nascent form hardening under academic and critical gazes, the exact inception point of digital poetry is contested. Florian Cramer postulates that the “oldest permutational text” is “Optatianus Porfyrius’ Carmen XXV from the fourth century A.D.” R.M. Worth’s “Auto-Beatnik” in 1962 is also another oft-mentioned touchstone, as is Max Bense and Theo Lutz’s 1959 remix of bits of Kafka’s The Castle. (The term “digital poetry” is itself a contested term. In his 2007 survey Prehistoric Digital Poetry, C.T. Funkhouser cites 29 potential terms collated by Jorge Luiz Antonio.) Alison Knowles and James Tenney’s 1967 “A House of Dust” has proven, however, to be most integral to cultural memory.
“A House of Dust,” written on Fortran, is an early example of a “slotted work,” one which keeps the grammar of the stanzas intact. This form allowed the titular opening line to repeat occasionally (although not always: early iterations were published under different “A House of --” titles.)
A HOUSE OF WEEDS
AMONG SMALL HILLS
INHABITED BY VERY TALL PEOPLE
An “original” print-out of “A House of Dust” was on display at MoMA’s recent “Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age 1959-1989,” and it was the focal point of a 2016 exhibition at The Center for the Humanities’ James Gallery. The various permutations of “A House of Dust” continue to be available on Twitter until such a time as the platform is banned for acceleration of memetic warfare.
So vital is Knowles and Tenney’s contribution that the phrase “Using Electricity” has become the title of a series of computer-generated books published by Counterpath Press. The third entry in “Using Electricity” is, somewhat surprisingly, Allison Parrish’s most recent poetry-programming project, Articulations (January 2018). Parrish’s previous output tended to be screen-only, with the notable exception of a dead-tree copy of her early, extremely successful Twitter bot @everyword (2007). Any potential audience alienation created by her presentation, or the very nature of procedurally-generated text, was typically addressed via user interface, as in 2014’s “A Travel Guide,” and/or by Parrish’s emphasis on reading her poems out loud. Parrish is an excellent public speaker, and reader, and the various processes she uses to create her texts, especially the poems, create highly rhythmic repetition which break down language to great, often comic, effect. For instance, about 31 minutes into this video, she reads Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” rewritten in the framework of synthesia-theory terms “kiki” and “bouba,” sound-shape connections which exist across cultural and linguistic barriers.
Despite or possibly because of its situation within a long history of experimental and generative poetry, Articulations throws the reader, again and again, onto the essential dilemma of the nature of authorship. The most immediate precursor of Parrish’s method is the minimalism of the mid-twentieth century. Knowles was both a student of John Cage, who created “indeterminate music” which could be “performed in substantially different ways,” and an early member of the “Neo-Dada” Fluxus movement. While Fluxus “events” appeared anarchic, they were, especially compared to contemporaneous “happenings,” deeply ordered, with “scores” and strict direction by the movement’s self-appointed founder George Maciunas. George Brecht’s early Fluxus piece “Three Lamp Events” (1961) bears a similarity to the minimalist poetry of Aram Saroyan:
Parrish’s work is deeply inflected by some of the concrete and minimalist poets of the ’60s and ’70s, including Saroyan and Ted Berrigan (whose Sonnets she mentions in the syllabus for her “Reading and Writing Electronic Text” class at NYU’S Interactive Telecommunications Program.)
Jeffrey Perkins’ 2017 documentary George contains footage of several Fluxus events from the early ’60s. Knowles, alongside video-art pioneer Nam June Paik and others, performs similarly simple instructions before the repulsed fascination of onlookers. This is the human body as an input-output device, a flesh module waiting for its punch card. The glee that shines from the Fluxus actors’ faces as they perform the show belie the cheap Skynet-predicting doomsaying which could potentially haunt this realization, that we are so easily rendered mediums for computational-style expression. “We are the tools” can be liberatory, as easily as enforced humanist-art can be cloistering.
Following the Dada spirit, Fluxus sought to divorce human communication and action from sense and intention, a tradition that Parrish’s work moves one step further. In this, Parrish has a new kind of edge: the intelligences she deploys are even more unconcerned with “saying something” than any human agent could be. In the 1983 essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Frederic Jameson writes, “in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” Parrish’s work interrupts this formulation. The masks are still there, but they speak, if not of their own accord, then at least not with our lips pressed against their fabric.
The poems which comprise Articulations were composed via “random walks” through, as Parrish writes in her Introduction, “over two million lines of poetry from Project Gutenberg.” Part 1, “Tongues,” is comprised of a single 72-page prose poem whose line vectors were determined by pronunciation, leading to such sections as:
Clatter, spatter, dash and patter, in tattered cloak of army pat-
tern, pit, pat, patter, clatter, in flat patterns scattered in flight.
Together with the archaic source-poems’ vocabulary, this crashing onward rhythm helps “Tongues” feel like an epic poem. Also aiding is the fact that “Tongues” is the result of a single walk through a vector space. The mostly-vanished oral-poet tradition, the kind The Iliad descended from, involved composing, live, a new iteration of the same tale each time. As Albert B. Lord puts it in The Singer of Tales (1960), “every performance is a separate song.” The iteration of “Tongues” into a static form mirrors the historical transcription of epic poems into print.
Unsurprisingly, given the means of its production, “Tongues” does not hold together as a single narrative. Occasional lines tell condensed, if obscure, stories:
In any name, n,n. ni/nu Then an end. N man, n tent, and many slain.
More rare are sections that hold together for more than just a few stanzas. The following is a selection from about an entire page of unbroken semi-sense:
...Behind the hill, behind the sky, behind
the hill, the house behind, -- behind the house the house behind
the tall hill; for all behind the houses lay by my house and thy
house hangs all the world’s fate, on thy house and my house lies
half the world’s hate.
In thy house or my house is half the world’s hoard; drive the
herd towards the household, homeward drive the household
cattle, catch the child up to her heart. His eldest brother, who had
heard he heard her breath, he saw her hand, seize her hat, and
snarl her glossy hair. He sang: As once her hand I had, as once
her hand held mine; in the world His hands had made and his
harvest in her hands.
This certainly doesn’t disqualify “Tongues” for inclusion in any kind of pantheon of narrative or epic poetry. The three-act structure has little to do with traditional epics, which were cobbled together from a plethora of sources generated by semi- or anonymous authors. The Iliad begins in media res and covers only a fairly short section of the Trojan War. Non-scholars encountering The Poetic Edda will be hard pressed to find anything resembling internal cohesion without footnotes and copious additional reading and referential texts.
The “vector representation” of Articulations’ second part, “Trees,” was built around “the structure of the line and its component parts of speech,” and the results bear a close resemblance to cut-up, though Parrish’s lines are not yanked intact from disparate sources. Take the second half of “9.”:
That wrapped her breathless clay.
All give him joyous greeting.
Sure these denote one universal joy!
Wring one repentant moan.
Thinking one serious thought.
Put up superior evidence.
Give up dead beat.”
As Alice Notley explains in her introduction to Berrigan’s Sonnets, in the early ’60s Berrigan began to use “Dadaist cut-up and Cageian chance methods, transforming not-so-good poems into an astonishing and original structure.” Necessarily, incomplete lines were (re)arranged to create new associations and rhythms. See Sonnet “XXX”:
Into the closed air of the slow
Now she guards her chalice in a temple of fear
Each tree stands alone in stillness
to gentle, pleasant strains
Dear Marge, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.
Andy Butt was drunk in the Parthenon
There is, obviously, a significant difference in Berrigan and Parrish’s processes, but, in both cases, juxtaposition is all. Beyond technology used, the central difference seem to be that in the cut-up method, the poet remains composer and often partial-author. Even if the text is found or overheard material, the poet is still transcribing. In Virtual Muse: Experiments in Computer Poetry (1996), Charles Hartman defines composing as placing “together in a meaningful arrangement a number of independent elements.” In Parrish’s process, the poet is neither author nor composer: the poet is the author of the program which composes as well as the selector of the authorial corpus it scrapes for material.
Parrish would disagree with this authorial division of labor. In an interview with Motherboard, she stated, “It’s just my poetry that I wrote in the same way that Jackson Pollock doesn’t attribute his work to Jackson Pollock and Paintbrush.” This reframes our conception of the author based on functionality, and begs the question: when does an algorithm get co-author credit? When it generates the process, or amends it significantly? When it is used by the author but not written by her? When it has self-spawned out of a neural network bath?
There is an inherent humanist pushback to computer-generated work presented as Serious Literature (as opposed to the experimentation with algorithmic limitations), since, despite the Death of the Author, the End of the Novel, the Barbarity of the Continuation of Poetry, and so on, the artist is still seen as one of the few roles which remains immune to automation. “The human” and its various subcategories (artisanal! hygge!) are primarily subsets of a marketing campaign designed to distract from the ongoing computational reorganization of society along the lines of logistics. Does the inhuman feel inhumane, or have we reworked our concept of the latter to reflect the context of the former?
Dehumanization has its place within various algorithmically-generated micro-genres, though it currently reigns supreme in Unconditional Accelerationist circles, which restarts where neo-reactionary thought stalled out in the wake of the 2016 election not ushering in Immediate Genocide and. or, Nuclear Self-Deletion. (Unsurprisingly, u/acc takes aesthetic cues from the Decadents, Modernists, and, um, Cyberpunks.) As the varied horrors of Nick Land’s career have shown, we don’t need algorithms to create the inhuman.
Compared to the usual precooked media diet of the Overdeveloped World, many computationally produced texts do read as inhuman. “Tongues,” after all, has a rigorous internal cohesion, but one so obscure as to be alienating. The reader knows, due to Parrish’s introduction and reputation, that the poem’s source code exists, but outside of repetition and alphabetization, the true order of the text is even more hidden from the reader than in the Great Modernist Metanarrative Texts.
Modernism is another influence on, and prefigurement of, computationally-generated text. Parrish prefaces her Introduction with a Gertrude Stein quote, and Funkhouser observes that modernists and digital poets alike use “the atomization and hybridization of texts to both subvert and reflect” their contemporary “social and artistic fragmentation.” (Or, as Virginia Woolf put it, “all human relations have shifted.") Comparisons between Parrish’s work and modernism will be as a fruitful, or as frustrating, as the narrowness of your definition of modernism. The non-movement was catholic enough to include Ezra Pound’s diktat that poetry be the undogmatic “result of long contemplation,” as well as Stein’s conception of “an excess of consciousness.” It contains both the proto-minimalism of Imagism and the Total Vision of Joyce.
Articulations depends on by the “textual pilfering” which Raphael Rubinstein declares is integral to any definition of modernism. Pound creatively mistranslated huge swaths of Chinese poetry. James Joyce’s nonsense-pinnacle Finnegan’s Wake sucked in a wide variety of cultural detritus, including newspaper headlines, the then-canon, and toilet gags, then spat out Serious Literature, though it was not widely regarded as such at the time. Articulations switches out Joyce’s input, harvesting Gutenberg’s poetic corpus. Some of the better lines of “Tongues” feel extremely Joycean: “A nightingale for its delight while in age sedate I clear sib, related.” “In rank licentious idleness beleaguer yet sadness rise in me like the flood, of course, I just fell asleep where I sat, such eyes.” Thomas Jackson Rice argues that when Ulysses is read, “the individual reader’s response alters the behavior of the ‘system,’ the book, with each ‘iteration.’” Such a feedback-loop seems to prefigure a potential next phase for Parrish, a combination of her longer texts and her textual interfaces (such as “Gutenberg Poetry Autocomplete”).
Arguing about exactly when textual pilfering has gone too far remains a Very Serious Side Project of the contemporary art world. “Postmodernism” is, if anything, an even more nebulous and contentious term than its predecessor, but suffice to say that contemporary poetry’s most virulent strains remain highly conceptual (please see: Flarf).
It is an obnoxiously obvious nostrum that the avant-garde’s name prefigures its eventual recuperation, but it is easier to see this in its history than its future. In a generation or two, if we all manage to survive the ongoing heat death of the political, Parrish’s works will most likely be recorded in the post-canon canon as formal experimentation, rather than acknowledged for the at-times-hilarious, often deeply strange reading experience they offer: one is constantly worrying at her word orderings, wondering from which processing system them came. An annotated edition would, by isolating Articulations’ various inputs, reconstrain them back into their original contexts and, by defeating their new purposes, defeat Parrish’s purpose, just as surely as any scholarly explication of Finnegan’s Wake does Joyce’s.