Thursday, 1 April 2010

Studio 5, The Stars

Somewhere in what JG Ballard described as a "visionary present", poetry is no longer written by hand. Poets maintain and operate machines which produce poems and look back wryly on the days when people actually had to think up the stuff. The narrator edits a poetry magazine, Wave IX. Enter Aurora Day and her mysterious chauffeur...

"Do you mean she wrote these herself?"
I nodded. "It has been done that way. In fact the method enjoyed quite a vogue for twenty or thirty centuries. Shakespeare tried it, Milton, Keats and Shelley - it worked reasonably well for them."
"But not now," Tony said. "Not since the VT set. How can you compete with an IBM heavy-duty logomatic analogue?"
"...Hold on," I told him. I was pasting down one of Xero's satirical pastiches of Rubert Brooke and was six lines short. I handed Tony the master tape and he played it into the IBM, set the meter, rhyme scheme, verbal pairs, and then switched on, waited for the tape to chunter out of the delivery head, tore off six lines and passed them back to me. I didn't even need to read them.
For the next two hours we worked hard, at dusk had completed over 1,000 lines and broke off for a well-earned drink.

You might well have read the story. It's something of an admission, but I'm new to JG Ballard - I've been meaning to read him for years. An article we both read in The Guardian prompted one of my daughters to buy me a volume of his short stories for Christmas. I was going to write a post about it once I'd finished it, but this story, Studio 5, The Stars, so impressed me I decided to post this, now. More later, perhaps.

The story was first published in 1961. It's interesting that Ballard imagines poets using poetry making machines, rather than poetry writing programmes for generic computers. I think we're still slow on the uptake, even now, when it comes to considering how one machine can do everything (why do we still have computers and televisions?).

What sort of stuff might the "VT set" or the "IBM heavy-duty logomatic analogue" have produced? I searched the net looking for poetry programmes.Out of what I found,  Ray Kurtzweil's Cybernetic Poetry programme seemed to come closest to what Ballard describes. Unfortunately, the dowload site warns that more recent versions of Windows aren't supported: clearly, in the mundane -as opposed to the visionary- present, the idea has not caught on. There are other  programmes that might give us an idea, like Jeff Lewis and Eric Sincoff's Poetry CreatOR2. It came up with this in a fraction of a second. All I had to provide was the title:

A computer generated poem
The arguing pair mislead with a sorrowful claw
A prickly man shrieked at the sight of Jan Valdez.
Buried in the sand, a solitary nostril stuck out.
The radiant Wonder Woman was really really high up
Last for the surprising first for you
Billowing, formulating, la pomme felt like a doorknob.
Down by the babbling brook the spider imagines.
Spare me your sympathetic bauble or I shall send.

A nifty bit of programming, no doubt, but I'm reminded of those other science fictional poets, the Vogons, writers of "the third worst poetry in the universe". Aurora Day was right.


Elisabeth said...

I can't say much for the computer generated poem. It sems like little more than a collection of words that fit together, vague literary allusions, but it lacks soul.

If I did not know that a computer had generated it, I might have muttered 'interesting' out of politeness, but not much more.

This poem lacks 'soul'. It has no personality. To me it reads like words without a voice.

I think of those magnets we can put on the fridge whereby we stick words together. At least this involves some greater degree of personal intervention, some attempt to manipulate words.

Otherwise I think of Hal in 2001, A Space Odyssey. Heaven help us.

Thanks, Dominic, for an inspiring post.

the watercats said...

oh shite!.. I've been foiled! :-D

The computer generated poem is sort of cool.. I wonder if you'd not have told us it was generated by machine what we'd think of it?.. although it seems nothing more than a lot of vaguely related lines, they are actually pretty amazing, i think. If someone took one of Dylan thomas's more obscure poems and told someone it was done by a computer.. they'd possibly agree?..
I really like the line, "I like typing mary magdaline is a virgin on your horny face".. lol!
I must admit I'm a jg ballard ignorant too, after reading this I think I'm going to treat myself though!

tony said...

Word Mashing! Poetry Dub! A Poetry - Machine Indeed.Why Not, Our Good Politicians Seem To Use Some Sort Of Machine For Speeches.Embrace The 21st Century!
happy April Fools Day By The Way.....

John Hayes said...

Am not familiar with JG Ballard, I must admit--but anyone who names a character "Aurora Day" is all right by me! After Tony pointed out that this is April 1, I checked to see if Poetry CreatOR2 does exist or if there was some leg pulling. It does: here's "April"

Listen not to my trifles but make your own
A firm man growled at the sight of Jan Valdez.
Crushed by the evil ear he laughs at the satiny panda.
It was a good screw, thought the glad Ada Lovelace to herself
The day wearies, the hunting of european swallows is fruitless, come to my embrace
"Progress!" barks Kim Bassinger, the keeper of zebras
While April was away, the rampant cute pandas did play
On my bus I will ride with Hera at my side
What did April have in her nostril?

I must say there's a certain randy quality to what gets generated--the program was designed by two male college students--as well as a certain "oh wow" surrealism that would get old rather quickly.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments!

Elisabeth: I agree with you, although I think it does have nice, fun surface to it.

watercats: Treat yourself! It's a good read.

Tony: Computerised speech writers. There's a thought. Perhaps one day the world will be run by a computer. I wonder how long it would be before we found out? There's a story in it that I think has been done!

John Hayes: Re the 2 male college students: This highlights something I didn't mention, the fact that what comes out of a computer is largely determined by what the programmer puts in.

Poetry CreatOR2 -and the whole post for that matter- would have been a great April Fool if it had not all been true!

Titus said...

Thanks for the Ballard pointer.

As to the computer-generated poem - either the computer's still in its early teens, or I'm a little worried about the programmer.
"...Sadism accounts for the facts
My favorite thing is typing "Mary Magdelene is a Virgin" on your horny face..."
from apples?

Dominic Rivron said...

Still in its early teens, I think. I am taking the liberty of remaking the computer poem! I find it quite, well...

Poetikat said...

Like the new look here, Dominic - very clean and modern.

I didn't know Ballard either, until I came across his book, "Drowned World" on a thrift-store shelf. It sat on my shelf for over a year, but I read it last summer and it was really something. I don't know what his other books are like, but this one was pretty unforgettable. It would make a fantastic (literally) film.


Dominic Rivron said...

There. It's done. I re-entered the parameters into Poetry CeatOR2 (I wish it had been an April Fool!)

Future readers will have to piece together the outlines of the lurid original from the comments of Watercats, Titus and others. The cheeky machine! :)

Get Off My Lawn! said...

I love science fiction. It reminds us not of what might be, but of who we are and what we might do under a given set of circumstances. I heard a man in an interview talking about biometric identification systems and making references to Orwell and to Philip K Dick's Minority Report. The guy said that technology is a force unto itself and that if we can, we will.
Can a machine write poetry? Should we build it if it can? Should we even bother talking about it because if we don't build it, someone will?
What if its poetry is better than mine?

Anonymous said...

Good old Ballard, setting it up for us all long before the technology was even a twinkle in the eye of the most prescient of scientific forecasters!

As for the poem, I can think of several online American poetry journals which would welcome it as cutting edge linguistic experimentation.