Poetry News

Kristen Gallagher on Coding Poetry

By Harriet Staff


We continue to be excited by the emergence of smart digital poetries and sophisticated critical discourse to match. Case in point: over at Jacket2, Kristen Gallagher takes us on a walk through of some of  Alejandro Crawford's recent work, which she says, "is not only technically cutting edge, it's weird and funny and fun." Gallagher's meticulous descriptions of Crawford's work are especially illuminating for poets and readers who are interested in electronic literature but don't yet consider themselves fully fluent in tech-speak:

Take for example his recent work with Chris Sylvester’s Total Walkthrough. Sylvester’s project already crosses multiple media; it creates a a composite of several walkthroughs of a Legend of Zelda game (media 1: video game) derived from user-generated narrative accounts of game play uploaded to the public FAQ section of a gaming websites such as IGN or GameSpot (media 2: public user review sites), alphabetizes each line (media 3: spread sheet), and Troll Thread publishes it as a book (media 4: book) on Lulu (media 5: print on demand constrains aspects of the book's design, makes it available for purchase one-at-a-time and forever or available instantly on your computer, meaning you save a tree). Crawford then takes the text of Total Walkthrough and, with software he has written for Xbox Kinect (click here to learn how Kinect works), translates movements from within the Kinect-field into the appearance of lines from Total Walkthrough on the computer screen, but potentially also via projector. Moreover, “Link” adds the further constraint of the computer screen's dimensions. No matter how long the line in Sylvester’s book, in Crawford’s version every line is limited to 40 characters so as not to roll off the screen.

If you want to take a "look under the hood" of Crawford's programming, Gallagher's piece will help you do that, too. She has a tantalizing few paragraphs discussing some of the algorithms of the piece and then promises to elaborate more in a future post:

In a future post, we'll be talking about algorithms and what — if anything — they have to do with poetry. I hope to simply keep our eyes on the in-mixing of coding and poetry. Just like perspective painting once changed seeing, digital computing is changing what we know about things like reading, attention, and the construction of meaning — and it’s also changing how those things happen, including the writing of poetry. I wonder, if we can see how the crossing with theory participated in the creation of a new strain of poetry in the 70s and 80s, can we not imagine that the current crossing with technology and programming is doing the same?

Crawford is one of the best artists I know of who can speak to the relationship between poetry and algorithm: “I guess in the history of poetry we've always called these 'forms.' For example here's the algorithm for a villanelle: A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2. With something like ‘Link,’ the notion of algorithm seems much more transparent, as they are literally instructions for the computer to follow but if we are to take the definition of an algorithm as basically the rules that govern something, then most of poetry's history is highly algorithmic.”