Silicon Poetry

Not long after my first experiments in random text generation (a Basic program that pretended to be a psychic), a friend got into a squabble with the Maine State Arts Commission. He had applied to be a “writer in the schools.” Unfortunately, his credentials consisted of several science fiction novels, and the Commission was dominated by poets with a strong tendency to sneer at commercial writers as “not real writers.” Not surprisingly, the commercial writers won the battle of the press, but my friend still did not get to be a “writer in the schools” (although, much later, he did coauthor a novel with Newt Gingrich). I just adapted my program to write poetry–over half of the resulting poems were eventually published–and discovered that the need of the program’s products for a good deal of editing finally made it possible for me to write genuine novels, the first of which was Sparrowhawk (Ace, 1990).

I also wrote an article about the program. This version appeared in The Leading Edge in January 1989; related ones appeared in Analog and Pulpsmith. The program itself, along with a creativity manual, was available for a time on the shareware market.

Where on the typical American campus will you find all the computers?

If you answered, “In the science and business departments,” you’re right on target. Over in the English Department, chips always have salt on them and screens are large expanses of white that pull down over the chalkboard (you aim movie projectors at them). And CPU is what you say when you wish to call attention to someone’s rude behavior.

Let’s be fair: Humanities types, on campus and elsewhere, do use computers. But they use them mainly for word-processing, rarely for business applications, and never for anything remotely creative. They seem to believe that because computers are artificial, mechanical things, they are alien to the human condition.

And that’s a shame.

It’s a shame because a computer is ideally suited to generating new combinations of words, images, and ideas. For example, a simple computer program can take words at random from word lists and plug them into sentence frames (such as, The <noun> <adverb> <verb> the <adjective> <noun>). Such programs are almost as old as computers. If you have never heard of them, that is because they generally die a quick death. The programmers announce that they have invented a “Poetry Machine.” Unfortunately, the poetry they offer in evidence makes no sense. The computer is flipping coins, not thinking or feeling, and it shows.

The programmers have missed a bet by trying to make the computer do all the work. The computer can build sentences, and with sophisticated programming it can even produce grammatical sentences that make considerable sense. But no computer (so far) is self-conscious. No computer can deliberately construct strikingly apt images, or tap the springs of emotion. It is–it has to be, in the current state of the art–an essentially random device, endlessly generating random combinations of words which, because they are random, are not poetry.

But they permit poetry. This is what the creators of poetry programs have not in the past realized. The computer’s random output can be winnowed, sorted, filtered, and enhanced by a human mind, and then it can become poetry. Every creative mind begins, just like a “Poetry Machine,” by generating vast quantities of random garbage. Then, from all that garbage, human creativity winnows the gems. The final step in human creativity is to assemble the gems into a coherent whole.

For many people, the first of these steps–generating the raw material of creativity–is the hardest. But it is also the one that a computer can handle. The individual sentences produced by a “Poetry Machine” often contain vividly original images. And though the images are random nonsense, they nevertheless evoke clear, and even poetic, statements from a human mind–from your mind. Once you have corrected the computer’s punctuation and grammar and imposed sense on its random nonsense, you have poetry.

At the drop of a hat–or the push of a button–you too can turn out items like:


Fresh porpoises,

Leaping shocks,

Make me think that

Falling whales

Would flatten hawks.

You’re not convinced? Before I wrote my “Poetry Machine” computer program, I had written only two poems. I was not a poet. But in the next nine months, I “wrote” “Newton at Sea” and over 100 more poems as well; one was a semifinalist for the 1988 Odyssey Poetry Awards, and over thirty others were soon accepted for publication. And every one of them would have been impossible without the program to feed me randomly generated raw material. My mind just doesn’t work that way by itself.

How does the “Poetry Machine” work? The first time you use it, you give it a vocabulary by filling its four word lists with up to 200 nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. The words can be anything you like, even phrases, but they should be restricted, at least at first, to a single topic.

Next you tell the “Poetry Machine” to generate some of that raw material. It then picks random numbers, uses those numbers to pick words from the lists and to choose one sentence framework from the several it has available, plugs the words into the sentence framework, and displays the result on the computer screen. At the same time, it stores a copy of the result in a file that you can later work on with a word processor.

Once that file contains, say, 200 lines of poetic raw material, I turn off the “Poetry Machine,” turn on the word processor, and begin to mine those lines for poetry. I look for lines that contain interesting images, that spark some association in my mind, that seem to pair intriguingly with other lines. I throw away whatever seems like total garbage. I keep whatever looks like it might become a poem. I arrange the lines I have chosen in what seems a likely sequence. And then I begin to edit these lines to improve their grammar and sense. I free associate and interpolate. And the result is a poem. Often, it is a poem which owes itself in large part to the computer. At least, I would never have thought of it on my own.

The process is precisely that of human creativity. There is the random generation of new combinations of words, images, and ideas, many of which are garbage. There is the critical winnowing of this raw material. There is the focusing of the process that comes, for the computer, with the restriction of the vocabulary to a topic and, for the human mind, with the restriction of attention.

There is also a crossover effect similar to what happens when you shift your creative attention to a new topic: The ideas you generate for the new topic often have some connection to the old topic, which is still in mind. With the computer, when I wish to switch to a new topic, I add just a few words having to do with that topic. All or most of the old vocabulary remains available, and as one should expect, the randomly generated sentences now mingle past and present topics. The results can be remarkably original.

You’re not convinced? Then let’s see how it works. I was recently using the program to produce poems dealing with the coast of Maine (where I live). When I tired of that, I added to the program’s vocabulary a number of words relating to space. Later, I added some medical words, and when I turned it on again, this is what it gave me (the >>>> tags are markers explained below):

>>>> An galactic doctor save helpfully in waters.

The spontaneous fantasy practically help a mangled dream.

The moon enable, subtle, from an tree.

A pink thunderhead eat drunkenly in childs.

An youthful tail logically waver the soaked doctor.

A nurse spread our comic bedpan.

Tempt the disease the bedpan slow!

An expensive water privately fall a sick downpour.

Who secretly brighten the door ?

>>>> An motel enable, bright, by a needle.

A systemic tent save peculiarly in injections.

They comprehensively coddle the injection.

>>>> The sentient salvation politely bring a electric tension.

An political pine uniquely describe a efficient spine.

>>>> Land the health the work expensive!

An generous love stupidly choose the slow health.

An wise woodchuck notoriously argue an foolish clinic.

Who elegantly explode the ambulance?

>>>> Coddle the dream the ocean red!

An speedy friend deceptively disable a generous medic.

I hatefully decline a muscle.

She assiduously listen the mist.

A medicine hold its healthy quarantine.

>>>> They smoothly seduce a ocean.

A religious ocean blast tastefully in boats.

A map show, comic, over a agony.

>>>> Argue the lover the life efficient!

A equal leader briefly disable a roaring machine.

>>>> Cause an needle an plague reluctant!

I politely torment a woodchuck.

An distant award astonishingly mistreat the loud tourist.

>>>> Sing a work a death reluctant!

Nourish an hay an fantasy spirited!

Who amusingly journey an crime?

>>>> A military emergency artistically disable the religious operating room.

A ambulance deliver its bloody friend.

Save a liver a ambulance red!

>>>> A grudging lobster disable studiously in fantasys.

Jump the park the beach foolish!

An sick leaf shine anxiously in navys.

Coddle the tube the spine ill!

>>>> An arm spread, reluctant, nigh a muscle.

It subtly blast an leg.

The boat burn, elegant, over a life.

A lobster describe your diseased library.

She ideally land the tumor.

Repair a tmor a sweat gregarious!

A window land its generous needle.

>>>> A expensive floor record thoughtfully in surgeons.

There was a lot of garbage there! But that very first line resonated for me (I am a science fiction book reviewer, and at the time I had just reviewed one of James White’s Sector General novels). Other lines promptly began to click into place, and I began to drop those >>>> tags to mark lines I might use to write a poem. I worked on the grammar. I free-associated a bit. I added and subtracted and monkeyed around. And finally, I had:


In James White’s age of Sector General

Medics dream of oceans red with lobsters

Ill with a nasty plague

That they can cure

While all the sentient worlds huzzah!

White’s mind is clean of ills venereal.

Nor do BEMs bare muscled arms to needles

Filled with strange forms of death,

Drugs or virus,

Such as we know too well on Earth.

His aliens do not live in corners,

Do not contaminate all those they love,

Or poison medicine

With blood they give,

Intending life but spreading death.

He knows the work of health is expensive,

But he ignores this economic fact

For ideals of service

And tolerance

Among the stars at risk of war.

Should our author turn to Earthly hazards?

I think that all along he has, for though

He seems to advocate

The fight for health,

He really means to fight for peace.

The relationship between start and end is clear, even though I have imposed form and sense. What form? What sense? They emerged from what was within my mind, in response to what the computer provided. Given the same raw material, you would surely come up with a very different poem. But you would come up with one. All you need is the kind of open-mindedness that lets you look at the computer output and say not, “What utter nonsense!” but, “How can I make this make sense?”

Want to try again? The other day, just to see what would happen, I took three poems by Robert Frost (“Mending Wall,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and “Birches”), listed their nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, and gave the lists to my computer program. The program then picked words from the lists at random and plugged them into fill-in-the-blank sentence frameworks to give me some “Frostian” garbage. Among the results were the following lines:

A lovely village make again in fences.

I rather mean a place.

Drag the flake the hill crystal!

A winter heap firmly load a afterwards farmhouse.

A sweep please, likely, off the farmhouse.

We again subdue a bracken.

An boulder please your far place.

The birch let, better, from an shade.

Take a promise a winter lovely!

A far wood move wilfully in darknesses.

A love play, sunny, by the wind.

The easy stiffness weep again in lines.

Learn the snow-crust the work clear!

The birch eat, better, beside an boulder.

A spring hand exactly load the broken breeze.

An easy ice-storm wi sh again in birchs.

Among these lines are some images that Frost might very well have used himself. Granted, they are a function of a very restricted vocabulary, not of highly poetic thought processes, but they are there.

And there is a poem within them. To find it, you have to be an intellectual dump-picker. Don’t reject the garbage. Look for the sense. Rearrange the lines and fill in the obvious gaps. Add and subtract and monkey around, and even work on the grammar.

Surprisingly quickly, form and sense emerge from what is within your mind, in response to what the computer provides, and you have the poem:


Winter is a lovely promise

Of forests of green darkness,

Of love playing in the sunny wind,

And watchful eyes above the hill,

All from harm preserving still.

Those birches that promised summer shade

Were last week wind-sprung hands sweeping

Crystal hours on the snow

By those boulders in a row.

Then came the storm to weigh them down.

And bend them stiffly weeping.

Crystal flakes pile high the farmhouse roof.

Let’s sweep them off to cover up the fences

That make this lovely village scene.

That’s the place I rather mean–

All hills, stone walls, snowy woods,

Winter airs subduing bracken,

High-piled white goods,

Clean snow-crust slate

Awaiting work to write its lines.

The task can be very easy, as in the case of “Newton at Sea,” whose five lines were selected almost as is from the computer’s raw material. The task can also be more challenging, as in the cases of “Criticism” and “A Dream of Frost,” in which the computer’s contribution becomes almost invisible. In all three cases, however, the computer is essential. Yet the computer by itself is not enough. The human mind is a crucial part of the system and is in fact the major limitation of the system: Those minds with the greatest tolerance for ambiguity will respond best to the computer’s random gabble. To them, the computer’s raw absurdities, and even the repetitiveness of sentence structure (the program has only six sentence frames to use, after all), are opportunities, not obstacles. Minds with less tolerance for nonsense will catch fire less readily and less deeply. Those with the least tolerance will take one look at all that computer-generated utter crap and say, “The hell with it!”

When I sit down to write a poem using my “Poetry Machine,” I never know what the poem will be about. I have a vague idea of the general territory it will occupy–medicine, rural winter, gardening, robots,…–because of the vocabulary I give it, but that is all. The specifics emerge from–and in response to–the computer’s random gabble.

The result is computer-aided–or computer-catalyzed–creativity. It works very much like ordinary, unaided creativity, with the advantage of reliability and speed. No more writer’s block. No more waiting for inspiration. The “Poetry Machine” is an electronic muse that never fails to come up with ideas–immediately.

It is sad to think that the humanists never will catch on, even though the “Poetry Machine” is hardly artificial intelligence. Creative intelligence is still a human monopoly, for all the computer can do is shuffle word lists and deal out fresh combinations at random. It is up to a human being to pick out the interesting combinations and turn them into poetry.

One thought on “Silicon Poetry

  1. Tom, that was profound. You have explained the creative process in brilliant detail. Your poetry is wonderful; it reveals your depths. I am moved. Thank you! Mona

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