First published in Meanjin magazine, Vol 50, No 4, 1991, in PostModernCulture (an Internet magazine), and in Jacket magazine on the Internet
You can read two stories by John Tranter on this site, Carousel and Valéry’s Room, both written with the aid of the Brekdown computer program discussed in this article, and also two or three sample pages from each of five other stories.
In magazines and seminar rooms from Fife to Fresno, from Michigan to Melbourne, you can hear the raised voices and the breaking glass — they’re arguing about poetry again. A recent issue of Verse (an English/ US magazine edited from Fife and Glasgow, Scotland and Williamsburg, Virginia) was devoted to “The New Formalism in American Poetry”. Sulfur magazine, emerging from Ypsilanti, Michigan, transcribes the shifting tides of battle as an old Modernist orthodoxy faces up to contemporary deconstructions. A recent Meanjin magazine from Melbourne, Australia, was devoted to an examination of “language” poetry.
Among other issues, these debates have drawn attention to the irrational and disorderly aspects of literary production. The courting and harnessing of disorder — deconstruction and reconstruction, breakdown and buildup — is of course as old as the ancient Greeks, and as contemporary as Shakespeare. In its various modern phases it can be traced in the theory and practice of writers including Coleridge, Rimbaud, Stein, the French Surrealists, Raymond Roussel, the print and audio tape cut-up experiments of William Burroughs, and the theoretical and practical deconstructions of the American “language” poets.
Australia’s “Ern Malley”, a hoax poet concocted by the young poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart in 1943, was designed to self-destruct and take the experimental magazine Angry Penguins with him to the grave. But like Frankenstein’s monster he stubbornly lived on, stalking the periphery of Australian literature, haunting his creators and troubling generations of readers with the contradictory beauty of his “meaningless”poems. Two of his “best” works appeared in the Summer 1961 issue of the Paris magazine Locus Solus, not as examples of hoax poetry, but of collaborative writing. His entire poetic works, some seventeen poems, are collected in the Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry as part of Australia’s literary heritage (published as the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry in Australia). So order can emerge in spite of the author’s insistence on chaos.
History works through hindsight; and the spectacles of hindsight are tinted with irony. The model of art versus disorder was renovated early in the Industrial Revolution in the service of a Romantic idea: the construction of a role for the author as a unique creative presence rescuing spiritual value from chaos — the aristocracy were dead, God had fled, and Nature was covered with factories — and whose job it was to certify the value of a literary work on behalf of its consumers, the bourgeoisie. The project has seen strange and powerful acids attack this central role as the twentieth century progressed, until the structure is now almost reversed — it’s now the reader who validates the work which constructs the author — if she’s lucky.
One of the incidental but apparently intractable problems unearthed by this theoretical juggernaut as it ploughs up the Highway of Style goes as follows: How does a writer create a writer-free literary text? A text free of authorial intentions and without buried cultural, social, economic and political values and hidden personality agendas, giving forth only “literature” in its pure state?
Automatic writing, nonsense writing, collaboration, formal rules for sentence-building, found poems — they’ve all been called into service. The current strategies of postmodernism include quotation, parody, collage, disassembly, bricolage, and so forth; but the hand of the stylist — not to mention the theoretician — is always evident as it arranges the exhibits.
It’s usually thought that an “unintended” poetry was either impossible or “unreadable”. But there is a way of constructing practically any form of literary material that will embody many of the traditional values of “literature”, which will be curiously readable, but which is free of authorial intent. An energetic computer programmer, inspired by articles in Scientific American and Byte magazine, has developed such a method — but not in the severe service of modern literary theory.
Like a poet, he did it for the fun of it.
Brekdown is a text analysis and text generation program written in Turbo Pascal for IBM-compatible personal computers, devised in 1985 by the San Francisco programmer Neil J. Rubenking.
What does it do?
First, Brekdown requires a typed text to work on. For example, you can feed it a few pages of a sermon on brotherly love, or a set of instructions for building a kayak, or a short story written in Italian.
To analyse a text, Brekdown looks at it in “chunks” of a particular size — the “chunk size” can be set from two to seven alphabetical and punctuation characters. Brekdown keeps a record — in the form of an index and a frequency table — of which character occurs immediately after a particular “chunk”. For example, after the “chunk” THE, the letters N, R, Y and M and the character <spacebar> are likely to occur frequently in a particular text; the letter A less frequently, and the letters X, K and Q and the character <full stop> very infrequently if at all.
Then the chunk is shifted one character to the right, and the process is repeated — that is, the chunk’s first character is dropped, the current next character is tacked onto the end, and the index and the frequency table is updated for the character that follows that chunk of characters. The chunk is moved one character to the right again, and again, until the end of the text is reached.
Once Brekdown has constructed an index and a frequency table for a sample text, it can generate a “reconstruction” of that text.
To generate a new text, Brekdown selects at random a key chunk that begins with a space (i.e., one that doesn’t start in the middle of a word.) It then looks up the frequency array for that Key and selects the next character at random from the characters with non-zero frequency, weighted by the frequencies listed in the table. This character is added to the current output line, and to the current Key chunk, and the process is repeated. The program continues generating characters, words, and lines of text until you ask it to stop. It could go on forever.
It looks simple — if you can put aside the immense computational, statistical and design complexity — but the implications are intriguing. The “style” of a piece of writing (which encodes the author’s intentions and indeed the society’s values as far as they are manifest in the language) can be described in virtually value-free terms by the frequency table generated by Brekdown. The likelihood of a particular character following another group of characters can be seen as a function of the language’s “personality” as much as the writer’s “personality”. Because of its design, Brekdown can never generate an illegal sequence of letters; that is, the texts it generates may not make grammatical sense, but they follow pragmatic rules of word-formation.
For example, in the English used in mid-nineteenth century London, the letter combinations krzy and qan are not only “illegal” (in linguistic terms), but impossible for a British writer of that period to include in a normal text. In the English of contemporary Australia, the first letter combination forms part of the name of an Australian poet (Peter Skrzynecki, born in Poland), and the second, part of the name of the Australian national airline, Qantas. Both are thus linguistically “legal” and available in contemporary English-language texts in that country. In a non-trivial and quite important way, Mr Rubenking’s program “knows” this specific fact when it needs to; until I thought up and wrote this paragraph, hardly anyone else — not even Mr Rubenking — did.
Let’s get to work and construct two different texts in the “styles” of two poets whose work I enjoy. First, three poems written by Matthew Arnold (“The Buried Life”, “Dover Beach”, and “The Scholar-Gypsy”) are typed as one continuous text, and loaded into Brekdown. The same is done separately with a dozen pages of poetry by the modern American poet John Ashbery. Brekdown is instructed to analyse the texts.
The resulting “Matthew Arnold” Data and Index files add up to half a million characters, and generating the index and frequency tables takes half an hour on a 80386 personal computer. Generating a “reconstruction” of the Matthew Arnold text takes about fifteen minutes to construct 1,800 words. Let’s gather the thirty or so “best lines” of that raw text. Let’s clean them up to make them less garbled, and print them at the end of this article. Then let’s do the same for Mr Ashbery.
The Matthew Arnold example is printed as “What Mortal End”, by “Tom Haltwarden”, at the end of this piece, and the John Ashbery as “Her Shy Banjo” by “Joy H.Breshan”.
Both the poem titles and the bogus authors’ names are anagrams of “Matthew Arnold” and “John Ashbery” respectively, created by another Neil Rubenking program, Namegram. (Is there no end to the man’s ingenuity?)
The name “Matthew Arnold” generated some three and a half thousand different anagrams, by the way, including Mad Walt Hornet, That lewd Roman, Mother and Walt, Old Thwart-Name, Martha Letdown, Who’d lament art?, Harlot went mad, and others too suggestive to include here.
Reminiscence. Some twenty years ago I asked Alex Jones, then teaching linguistics at Sydney University, to research and write an article on Computers and Poetry for Poetry Australia magazine. The machines then cost a fortune, weighed several tonnes each, occupied large air-conditioned basements, and needed a staff of pale and white-coated servants with PhDs to minister to their needs. They could manage a haiku or two, with immense effort.
You can now buy, with a week’s salary, a computer capable of writing endless amounts of clever poems, and it will fit into a jacket pocket.
Credits. Like all good computer programmers and any honest poet, Mr Rubenking admits that if he can reach the stars, it’s because he’s standing on the shoulders of giants. His documentation states that Brekdown was inspired by the Travesty program in the November 1984 issue of byte magazine, by Kenner and O’Rourke (yes, computer scientist Joseph O’Rourke’s colleague was Hugh Kenner, professor of English at Georgia State University, and noted literary critic. His recent books include A Sinking Island and Mazes.) They in turn quote an article in the Scientific American of November 1983 by Brian P.Hayes, which described an elegant method of avoiding large and unwieldy n-dimensional arrays. They also refer to the work of Claude Shannon, who in 1948 — working with a pencil instead of a computer — developed a simple but tedious method of calculating letter-group frequency arrays, using the text itself as a frequency table.
Brekdown can also blend the styles of two or more texts, and reconstruct a text with the characteristics of this blended style. I have written seven prose pieces using this technique, in each case blending two writers into one new creature. They are available as the book Different Hands (Folio/ Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1998, ISBN 1-86368-241-4).
You can read one of these stories here. It’s titled Carousel, and in it the American writer Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, 1934) has a memorable meeting with the noted Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata who published the novel The Master of Go in 1951.
“Tom Haltwarden” — What Mortal End
Those quick inventive brains, who with early distant
Northern straits and naked shocks begin,
And the energy of the mossy barns, and children,
Who wait like us unblest. And there, at the mass
Of sad experience, thou art gone
Though sometimes seen among the fields and
Half-reaped fields would seem some quiet place
To lie before their smoked and turbid ebb
And stand, baffled by English hills where they
The inmost scholar on the hot race muses.
Wheatfields and flocks are eloquent, like other joy,
The long dewy grasses fresh in autumn,
Come on summer every human breast. For us,
If even lovers pine, with dew, or hanging pasture
Spark from the moon-blanched arts, our lips
Unchained thy hope. And well-nigh keep from heaven
And a distant boy, and scholar poor,
Our wisest an immortal lot, but none pursue.
From the dying pastoral slopes an unwanted earth art gone
And the vast edges draw back the impulse of an hour —
Exhausted, thou waitest for one desire, and the soft
Abstractions of reapers in the intellectual trough.
So wild brother men, concealed then with distracted air —
Let it be spent on other joy, and we,
Wanderer one of antique shadow, rest
And in the bluebell-drenched days, men
Who in the sun, thy fire their being roll.
Come, shepherd, bathe in our war of antique shadow,
‘Tis this story of the wooden bridge, wrapt in disguise.
With that the vast edges draw back his genuine self,
The mystery of the winding murmur hearing
In this face, the grass where I am laid — when
The mystery of the tale begin again, and cease,
And dogs in all the unregarded bales.
“Joy H.Breshan” — Her Shy Banjo
Rain, without it there can be no September music
The concealed afternoons
A source of the revisions as useless as a lukewarm fancy,
Making pink smudges on life and accepting severe punishment,
Encouragement by lovers, sang no more blades of light
Arise, light! The things of the day we eat
Breakfast each in their tree withdrawals,
Our marionette-like Pierrot, like these
Hot sticky evenings, though fragmented
The greatest risk working deep crevices far inland,
We can see no reward, winnowers of the old time
Involved without pain, with their sleepy empty nets
And you, at twilight.
The neighbours love the yellow of the same tweed jacket.
It is only semi-bizarre where you want to lie,
A nice, bluish slate-gray. People laugh,
Having conspired with a towel, and wiped the last thought
From the black carriages, the models slender, like the stars.
You couldn’t deliberately, for fright, once you see
It’s all talk, the travelling far from anybody.
Hands streaming with kisses, between us.
It may be something like silver,
Something like a sponge, and they enjoyed it, abandonment
Without shame, a crowded highway in the sun, it just
Stays like dust — that’s the nature of the children, and
Yesterday’s newspapers say: ‘Sometimes good times follow bad.’
Their object, the sky. Is it like climbing abruptly
From a room? It may be only a polite puss-in-boots we passed,
Two in love hesitant at the front door.
So we have enjoyed the one crisp feeling, raking
And breathing, checking the horrible speech the furniture makes.
How short the season is — don’t fix it if it comes in coloured
Mottoes, and now, underneath this dilemma directly, as
Our clothes, the afternoon, really old-time, her shy banjo.
And if your browser has the RealAudio plug-in you can hear Joy H.Breshan and one of her robot friends reading her computer-generated poem (above) by following this link: Banjo! The file should take only a few seconds to load. You’ll probably need a copy of the poem in front of you — the voices were produced by the text-to-speech computer program Willow-Talk, and Joy’s accent is atrocious. [J.T.]
This article is also published
in PostModernCulture (an Internet magazine) at