Saturday, November 12, 2005

Google + Poetry = Googletry (Part 1)

Thomas Basbøll has decided to take the idea (if it can be called that) of Flarf one step further:

This brings me to my point, which is about Flarf as procedurally defined. The use of Google shows how the poem might be understood as "criticism in a new composition" of existing usage.One can imagine a poetry (and this prose is trying to be a contribution to its poetics) that works in two windows: one is used to run Google searches, the other is a simple text editor (NotePad, for example). Text is cut out from the one and placed in the other and is then "workshopped" until perfect…

After all, consider the following line of thinking. Suppose there is no longer any need for "original compositions". Suppose that we can be sure that all the writing we will ever need is already getting done, more or less automatically. Suppose only the weeder is now needed.

An interesting idea, so for fun I thought I would try an experiment and Google some raw material. Using the rhyming words from Shakespeare first sonnet, I did three different Google searches: a general search, a news search, and a blog search. Then, I chose the first item from Google’s resutls, and then selected the first complete sentence from the source site. (Note for the news and blog results I included a link to the source site. I didn’t think of this while doing the general seacrh).

Here are the results:


[Increase] Would you like to increase your brain power today?

[Die] Welcome to the Death Clock(TM), the Internet's friendly reminder that life is slipping away... second by second.

[Decrease] How to work out percentage increase and decrease.

[Memory] Memory that is designed, manufactured and tested to the specifications of brand name computer systems.

[Eyes] Hi - and welcome to Eyes on Design!

[Fuel] What is the impact of recent hurricanes on U.S. Oil Markets?

[Lies] Here are the updated graphs of US war deaths in Iraq for October.

[Cruel] The candiru fish shown in these gruesome photos leapt from the water and attacked the penis of a urinating Brazilian.

[Ornament] Have some Hallmark ornaments you just don't want anymore?

[Spring] Welcome to the home of the Spring Framework.

[Content] These guidelines explain how to make web content accessible to people with disabilities.

[Niggarding] As the opening sonnet of the sequence, this one obviously has especial importance.

[Be] For the moment only a limited amount of content is available in English.

[Thee] "More Deep Cuts" is out now in the US. please visit Turn Records for more info.


[Increase] A significant rate increase given by federal regulators to Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Co. to decommission its plant at Haddam Neck is drawing fire from state officials and is under review by a judge.

[Die] At least 500,000 earthquake survivors in Pakistan still have no shelter with the fierce Himalayan winter just days away, international relief agencies have warned.

[Decrease] Stanford University scientists have discovered a potential new weapon in the battle of the bulge: a hormone that reduces the urge to eat.

[Memory] The iPod nano is already behind the cutting edge — and that’s good news.

[Eyes] The recent joint venture between Tata Steel and Blue Scope Steel of Australia will focus on the areas of pre-engineered buildings and steel-intensive buildings.

[Fuel] The dust-up in the Dungeon video arcade began when a group of Jordanian teenagers cursed aloud about television reports that at least one of the suicide bombings that shook this city Wednesday was carried out by an Iraqi.

[Lies] With his 2002 novel The Horned Man, James Lasdun delivered a taut tale about a New York college professor trapped in an existential nightmare.

[Cruel] ONE of the UK's leading authorities on the First World War has launched an outspoken defence of the British generals involved in the conflict, insisting they are the victims of a cruel and enduring myth.

[Ornament] This family of five is struggling financially, but active in school and church.

[Spring] Spring of 2004 may be just a distant memory, but it figures prominently in the outlook for Tuesday's opening day of firearms deer season.

[Content] The first space mission in a decade to Earth's closest neighbour, Venus, has blasted off.

[Niggarding] Your search - Niggarding - did not match any documents.

[Be] Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz today proposed that the SAARC Summit and other meetings be streamlined to make them business like.

[Thee] California emigres should have to pass a brief economics test before being welcomed as Nevada voters.


[Increase] The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms.

[Die] Well today went far better than I thought it would.

[Decrease] Olivier Blanchard's latest on European unemployment:

[Memory] Hey guys!

[Eyes] Love is when you look into someone's eyes, and suddenly you go all the way inside their soul and you both know it.

[Fuel] The Union of Concerned Scientists has a new Flash animation parodying the Bush administration's flawed proposal to revamp fuel economy standards in the US.

[Lies] Having a high focus on career indicates that you are extremely focused on furthering you career right now.

[Cruel] Amazing. Waterboarding (pictured above) is merely a "psychological technique," not rising to the level of torture.

[Ornament] I hope you all had a good weekend!

[Spring] Ha! I finally created my perfect spring semester schedule.

[Content] Information does not want to be free, it wants to be seen!

[Niggarding] From fairest creatures we desire [sic] increase,

[Be] But hey ho... I'm waiting for the bath water to heat up instead :).

[Thee] It's good to see pieces like this one from the Washington Post.


Are these poems yet? A collection of found objects? Readymades? Or raw material in need of “weeding” and “workshopping” (or "worshipping", according to spell check)? Most art that uses found objects, like Cornell’s boxes, relies on the artist to “edit” and juxtapose according to his or her “vision.” But is randomness, or at least structured randomness in this case, also art?

At the very least, this is a collection of raw material to be manipulated/transformed/workshopped edited into something else. I might try that in a following post, and the material is open for anyone else’s use. It would be interesting to see what becomes of this language in the hands of various writers.


At 11:48 PM, Blogger Brian Campbell said...

As Jean Clay writes somewhere in his great critical study of Modern Art 1890-1918, the introduction of "systematic randomness" left art virtiginously free. The trouble is, a process where the heart is absent for the creater offers little or nil for the heart of, in this case, the reader. Ibid for the rigidly stylized illusionist products of the Institute and the Salon. Contrast with, say, the poetry of Ilya Kaminsky.

At 11:56 PM, Blogger Brian Campbell said...

P.S. Thanks for the flarf link. I think we have the makings of a blog post chez moi...

At 7:33 AM, Blogger David Leftwich said...

Brian, you might be right about pure randomness (and randomness in art is nothing new) will ultimately fail, or run its course, as an aesthetic project. So can a poem be whittled down from this raw material (which I think is what Basboll is suggesting)? Would the creator then be present in such a process?

However, randomness does create some interesting juxtapositions? Also, does it serve to eliminate the ego, the arrogance of the creator? Something Mac Low explored using chance. Does art, art we usually conceive it, depend on the ego, the individuality of the creator? Is art ego?

At 7:55 PM, Blogger Brian Campbell said...

Of course, randomness does create interesting juxtapositions, and to the extent that life is random, there is a place for randomness in art. I really doubt though that the systematic use of randomness in art eliminates ego, and indeed believe the project of "eliminating ego" is not only impossible and undesirable, but the most phony and arrogant assumption behind such an aesthetic project. (Notice too how some of the purveyors of such "art" are so adept at promoting themselves and climbing into the art establishment...)

To me art only grabs me when it expresses the whole human being who created it -- ego, heart, lungs, belly, balls (or vagina), aspirations, cosmos. I'm not talking about any quality you can measure -- just the feeling you get when you read a poem by say Vallejo that "his whole life went into this poem". If my whole being is there to appreciate a given work of art, it is up to the being of the creator to be all there in his art, wouldn't you say? Personally, I have no choice in the matter: I just can't have it any other way. (And I don't think you can either, David...)

At 9:26 PM, Blogger Thomas Basbøll said...

Interesting stuff.

To my mind, the Google searches you've done here are a bit too random (or arbitrary), but, you're right, the trick is to see where workshopping them might lead, not simply to present the Google searches as poems.

As Gary Sullivan notes, 'Not too long after 9/11, people began posting again, though now all of the flarfs-many of which were parodies of AP News items-in some way shape or form addressed the aftermath of 9/11, including media portrayal of same. I remember, for instance, Katie's "We'll rebuild the Twin Towers-on your Pizza" (which I think was published in the latest online edition of Arras). I started a "sadness" series-doing searches on "The horrible sadness," "the awful sadness," "the unending sadness," etc., in response to what was becoming a kind of stifling national(ist) mourning.'

There is nothing especially "random" about that procedure and part of the utility of Google lies in using it precisely as a search engine.

Since the poet will be "sculpting" the final material and will have made decisions (search terms) in finding it, there is no reason to think that Flarf poems have "no ego" or are unrelated to "the whole life of the poet". But there are specific reasons not dwell on the relation between a poem and the poet's biography.

Flarf is way of avoiding (though not a sure way) that "the feeling you get when you read a poem" is not taken as a representation of the feeling the poet had when writing it.

That said, I think Brian's idea that we use our "whole beings" to appreciate works of art is a bit unrealistic. Or maybe I would qualify it by saying I use my whole being such as it is to read poetry and I much prefer poems that clever people put together out of things lying around in plain view to poems that creators found in their hearts.

At 10:09 PM, Blogger David Leftwich said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:34 PM, Blogger David Leftwich said...

Thomas, what makes “the clever people’s” poem interesting? Is it just its cleverness? Or is there also something else that makes the poem tick/click/work whatever word you choice? From corresponding with Brian in the past, I think he is suggesting that poetry, and art in general, works on many different levels, not just on the level of intellect, an idea I agree with. Of course, if we had the definitive answer about how poetry works we wouldn’t be having this conversation, which is what made your original post so interesting – the implications of reshaping existing language in our own image.

At 10:42 PM, Blogger David Leftwich said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:45 PM, Blogger David Leftwich said...

Brian, I agree that you can never actually remove the “ego”, the “self” from art. That’s why I ended the last comment with that question. Art is ego, or at least the production of art, even the CHOICE to produce something randomly, evolves the “ego”/”the self.” But I’m not sure the desire to “eliminate ego,” even if it is in the end impossible, is always “arrogant” or “phony.”

For instance, Mac Low was Buddhist and influenced by the teachings of D.T. Suzuki. And “randomly” opening Suzuki’s “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism” I saw this passage, which I had underlined:

“Life is an art, and like perfect art it should be self-forgetting.”

I think Mac Low was genuinely attempting to explore the possibility of “eliminating ego,” forgetting the self in the Buddhists sense. And as someone influenced by Buddhists thought I find the idea intriguing as well, even if, at least in my hands, it would be a project doomed to failure. I remember Peter Matthiessen writing about his conflicts between what he perceived as the egotism of his writing and his Buddhists beliefs. Maybe the only real way to eliminate ego from art is silence, to produce no works at all. Or is that also a choice involving the “ego?” Ah, it seems there is no escaping the bastard.

As for randomness as a technique I do find it interesting less for its ability, or lack there of, to mask the ego (the creator) but as a way to examine how language interacts, how surprising juxtapositions may create the shock of art and what that teaches us about how art works, and about the role of the artist.

Which I think is what Basboll was ultimately interested in. I think he was interested in how a poem is edited down/whittled/”workshoped.” Can the poet shape the raw material provided by the information age into a poem, the “ego”/”self” still very much involved in the process? I introduced the randomness as a way to generate the raw material, but not to really be the end product (though I think it was worth at least examining). Just as an experiment would you be up to (and any other poet could try it as well) attempting to create a poem from the mass of language I generated? Maybe choose the language from one search or from all three. I’ll give it a try over the next week – I’m traveling for work all this week, so I will have limited time to work on it, but will see what I come up with by the weekend. I’m not expecting this to be earth-shattering, nor just some sort of cheap “workshop” gimmick/exercise, but an exploration.

At 1:10 PM, Blogger Thomas Basbøll said...

Here's a contribution to the experiment:

Welcome to the Death Clock: a friendly reminder, second by second, of to how to work out the percentage of memories that are designed, manufactured and tested to specifications.

Here are the updated graphs for October. As you can see, the fish leapt from the water. This framework only provides guidelines: a limited amount of content. There will be "more deep cuts".

It is neither the cleverness nor the sincerity itself that make a poem interesting or uninteresting. I'm just saying that, as best as I can tell, clever people are more successful as poets than sincere ones. (Or rather: people write better poems when they're trying to be clever rather than when they're trying to be sincere. Or maybe that's just me.)

At 10:40 AM, Blogger Brian Campbell said...

Three blind men describing the elephant of art... well we have rope here, a fan there, the side of a great boulder... eventually, hopefully, we'll come up with a satisfactory composite picture (perhaps by the hundredth comment).

What's on my mind right now is how am I to eat my words, particularly "arrogant" and "phony". I suppose with a zesty vinegrette of humour, and a side-order of humble pie.

As a practicing Buddhist myself (gloop, gloop) for the past 9 years (mmmm, but the pie is delicious), I have no trouble with freely admitting that there I was projecting the arrogance (and yes, elements of phoniness) in myself on the project you propose, and indeed, it actually feels like quite an accomplishment to still have such balls & bombast after so much time. Horray for Balls & Bombast!!

But then, the Lotus Sutra gives me special dispensation to Still Be Crazy After All Those Years. (Do we need such special dispensation? I’d say anything helps in this Politically Correct, hypocritical era…)

Be that as it may… a few remarks about “elimination of ego”, and “forgetting of self” in what I know of Buddhism, to give some indication of where I was coming from in previous remarks. The sutras of provisional Buddhism (that is, prior to the Lotus Sutra) propose the renunciation of desire (& I suppose ego, that lovely Freudian concept, is bound up in desire) as the way of eliminating fundamental darkness of human nature that is singled out as the source of suffering. But on any close examination such a project goes at cross purposes with itself, as the desire to renounce desire is itself a desire, so of course any result in that direction will still result a desire-filled state…. even if it appears as a serene contentment with self-enlightenment through direct perception of one’s own mind (a pitfall of Zen, by the way). A dogmatic belief in the elimination of desire is in the end undesirable to living beings, as we need desire to eat, procreate, survive, appreciate this life and achieve happiness. A fighting spirit has its uses, particularly in a world full of injustice, where the strong step all over the weak, etc. The ultimate Buddhist – that is, an ultimately enlightened Bodhisattva -- may well emerge as ultimately alert, courageous with an indomitable fighting spirit, but have the wisdom (and reserves of gentleness) to know when and how to employ his power to confront evil (yes, evil, it does exit) in any given circumstance. This of course requires supreme intuition based on wisdom acquired through Buddhist practice. Wisdom is an inscrutable thing… but the Mutual possession of the ten subjective worlds, a concept I have no time to get into, would suggest that where there is life, there is desire and this is by no means a bad thing (or bastard to escape, as you put it). Ultimately, the best way to go may be to, as Nichiren Dishonin puts it, to “suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy, and chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo no matter what happens.” Not to endeavour to eliminate desire, but refine desire through practice, cause your desire to naturally embrace suffering of others through acts of warmth, compassion (and yes, humour – why be so serious about it all?), gentle or not so gentle, as appropriate.

Poetically, the upshot of all this is that someone like Franz Wright or Vallejo or even Plath may be closer to Buddhist enlightenment than someone who to “eliminate ego” tries to cut himself off of his feelings & play around with words in a superficially “egoless” way. The latter could be construed as false -- & “phony”, and & “arrogant” -- however angry-sounding those words may seem. So am I eating my words? Well, yes, but as far as I’m concerned they still have nutritional value. (Gloop, gloop.)

P.S. I appreciate your concern about the artist being “present in his art”. And maybe a line or two from your google search might be useful for a poem...

Welcome to the Death Clock.
Do you have some Hallmark Ornaments you don't want anymore?

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