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Navigating the Whale of Amherst

By Harriet Staff

Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland first began working on Sea and Spar Between a year ago, expecting that their poetry generator would take only a few days to complete. Now published on Dear Navigator a year later, Sea and Spar Between “defines a space of language populated by a number of stanzas comparable to the number of fish in the sea, around 225 trillion. Each stanza is indicated by two coordinates, as with latitude and longitude. They range from 0 : 0 to 14992383 : 14992383.” Obviously not a small undertaking.

The words in Sea and Spar Between come from Emily Dickinson’s poems and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Certain compound words (kennings) are assembled from words used frequently by one or both. Sea and Spar Between was composed using the basic digital technique of counting, which allows for the quantitative analysis of literary texts. We considered, for instance, words that were used by only one of the two authors. We also looked at certain easily enumerated, characteristic categories of words, such as those ending in “less.”

On the Dear Navigator site, one can interact with the text and “navigate” freely through the stanzas. Montfort has also made the JavaScript code of the program available, inviting anyone to explore that as well. The simplicity of the program forms a narrative guide that’s instructional in reading the piece: “The resulting code tells the story in detail: A first line uses either shortLine(), oneNounLine(), or compoundCourseLine(). A second line uses either riseAndGoLine(), butLine(), exclaimLine(), or nailedLine().” On his own blog, he writes:

Speaking of that code, as you can see for yourself in the file seaspar.js, Sea and Spar Between is licensed under a free software license. As the license says, anyone may copy it, modify it, or make use of it in some other way in creating another project. I hope the project proves pleasing to interact with and read from on the Web and pleasing for those who wish to turn to the code.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010 by Harriet Staff.