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.