Poetry News

The Frequency Project: Scott Rettburg's Machine Poems

By Harriet Staff


Our code-writing skills are adequate at best, and so we admit to being easily dazzled by ambitious digital poetry projects, especially ones that involve large data sets, Oulipian constraints, and well-executed code. But digital poetry requires an audience of readers who can be critical as well as dazzled.

Fortunately, Leonardo Flores has given the digital poems in Scott Rettburg's Frequency Project some much-needed critical analysis. On the cutely-named but scholarly blog I ♥ E-Poetry, Flores has been assessing the success of the poems generated by the project--and musing on what "success" actually means for digital poetry. As he puts it, "How successful is the result of this obsessively recursive creative investigation of constrained writing?" But before you delve into Flores' analysis, it's helpful to understand Rettburg's project in the first place. Flores describes the constraints succinctly:

A linguistically determined lexicon of the 200 most frequently used words in the English language— an endeavor that is already built upon the constraint of the corpus that analysis is based upon: Oxford Online and Google have both famously made such analyses, with massive and different data sets.

Rettberg then wrote 10 lines of verse beginning with each word, using only the words on the list, for a total of 2000 sentences. This alone is a massive creative endeavor which he describes as “painstaking work.”

He analyzed these lines to develop a data set, organized in arrays based on the following variables: frequency rank of initial word, rhyming end words, number of syllables per word, number of syllables per line, number of words per line, and lines per string length (number of characters, including spaces)

The analysis embedded in these arrays allowed Rettberg to write algorithms to generate 200 instances of 10 different kinds of formally constrained poems, some from well established poetic traditions, one developed by the OULIPO, and three he developed himself.

Flores's analysis is detailed and thoughtful, but we're especially interested in the way that he addresses the issue of authorial intent and choice in these poems. Rettberg wrote the code, but the code writes the poems:

The moment we start asking why, we come to the question of intent— why Rettberg made certain choices. If you seek a satisfactory answer you have to resist the urge to state that these particular indentations and choices are meaningless because they, like much about this poem, are randomly generated. These poems aren’t merely Turing tests, attempting to fool readers into projecting a false authorship onto them (though I wouldn’t put it past Rettberg). A more productive approach is to think why Rettberg made the choices he made, including the choice to leave some decisions in the hands of his collaborator, the machine. And his intentions are encoded into those processes.

You'll find all five posts in the series on I ♥ E-Poetry.

Originally Published: February 18th, 2013