Saturday, September 30, 2006

Live to Geek: Computer Generated Poetry

It has long been the fantasy of many computer scientists and science fiction that some day computers would have equal or superior cognitive abilities to human beings. With this premise in mind, many books have been written, movies and TV shows made. Think of HAL the super-computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey who slowly lapses into a paranoid madness, and Commander Data on Star Trek TNG who constantly longs to be human, yet must keep his emotion chip deactivated because his positronic matrix can’t cope with that kind of stimulation. One of the major challenges in front of the University computer science departments is to create a software-based author that can rival its human counterparts.

I am certainly not thinking of anything this sophisticated. My aim is simply to do a quick and random survey of software on the internet that claims to generate poetry, for entertainment, to see how sophisticated these programs have become. I am interested if the software can generate a coherent, grammatically-correct poem that doesn’t dip too far into nonsense or surrealism. Natural language processing is a non-trivial computer-science problem, and then to add some form of reasoning on top of this beyond random phrase selection is a daunting challenge.

The first program I’ve googled is Poetry CreatOR2 by Jeff Lewis and Erik Sincoff, students at Stanford. Their site can be found at The program asks the user to enter a set of poem properties to seed the generation process: Subject, Subject Synonym, Title, Author, Gender. I entered Deer, Faun, The Clearing, Walt Whitman, Female and hit the generate button. Out pops:

The Clearing
By Walt Whitman

Never recalled about, never more has been shrieked
For the health of her hair hung in the balance
She beat down upon the gorilla; it looked like a smashed cookie.
Eating elephants as snack food, the lurking mass blocked the sun
All were in a circle of juggling jungles--rigid and swift,
"Flow!" squawks Connie Chung, the keeper of apes
With a youthful scream and a magnanimous fancy we pressed onward
From a height high above, the preacher grasped the rope.
An end is an end is an end, but this is simply the beginning.

This poem does have a few interesting turns of phase, but it is decidedly absurd. This wouldn’t even classify as a bad imitation of Lewis Carroll. Well, let’s try another one: Suicide, Taking One’s Own Life, Daddy, Sylvia Plath, Female. Out pops:

Daddy I
By Sylvia Plath

Never reasoned about, never more has been meowed
Scoff not at my vile remarks flexable fiend
Instantaneously it went from the front of the bronze C5-A.
Figment of the imagination ? Never.. . The hurting went on
She was really really sad
With a mighty "Yawp!" Miss Nancy bit into the claw of her prey
"Duck, you stupid komono dragon!" yiped Suicide, her voice gone.
Even as she flees, Suicide turns to see the tapeworm chasing her into the sanctuary
An end is an end is an end, but this is simply the beginning.

The same ending line as the previous poem, not good. Lets try another twist, changing Subject Synonym to The Bee Keeper:

Daddy II
By Sylvia Plath

Moving quickly the beer-goggled solitary Suicide wandered in the bushes,
Not a pool ever was known with such maability
Instantaneously it exchanged from the front of the off-white jalopy.
The flabbergasted eyes of the seahorse rolled back at the sight of The Bee Keeper
Run through the field of joy, past your lover, and embrace a guinea pig instead
Dictators begin from the battleship-grey shark
With a youthful trumpet and a magnanimous produce we pressed onward
Cast me down from heaven for visualizing of asps.
Cry, for the loss has fallen like a leaden tricycle upon you.

Alright, why not let Poetry CreatOR2 generate its own seed values: Hell Boy, Boy, Tale of the Bell Boy, Anonymous, Male:

Tale of the Bell Boy
By Anonymous

"Neglect!" quacked the frigid man, the keeper of bell boys
Scoff not at my vile remarks hairless fiend
Buried in the sand, a solitary fur stuck out.
Piercing sounds, wails, crys, "Shut Up you profane boy!"
"I am dainty, I am dandy!" Napoleon snapped as he tiptoed in blood
Highness washed over he like a delicate sunflower,
Diving in a lake of drear, the boy found a golden scorpion
Cast me down from heaven for lying of mushroom clouds.
Cry, for the loss has fallen like a leaden Goodyear Blimp upon you.

There’s that problematic repetition in the last line again.

Let’s move on to the next site in the search: A.D.A.M. by Nadine Millian stands for “Another Dimension of Artistic Manifestations”. According to the programmer: “ADAM is intended to be a computer poet with ‘a heart of its own’. Therefore, every single time that you ask him to produce a new poem, he will try to delight you with an original piece of blank verse full with sensuality, lyricism and emotion.” Let’s see what it can do. I hit the New Poem button and read:

you whispered passionately
a misery cried spiritless
the mouth came tenderly
a happy desire shouted
she surrendered
I danced
the despair surrendered for you
the rose came
you whispered mellow
we felt us carefully

Not quite as nonsensical as our previous computer poet, but nowhere near as ambitious either. One more:

I died sweet
he dreamt for you
the deafening flower died placid
a happy rose gave them the desiring passion
the love gave you the deafening mouth
the misery cuddled the nice girl
the warmth fondled her passionately
the noisy kiss loved the beautiful misery kindly
he touched you
a fragile rose fondled you soon

Not a lot of soul here, and certainly lacks continuity of emotion throughout the poem.

The next site on the list is: There aren’t many options here, but some, so I select “Spew like Jim Morrison,” the Lizard King.

The Music's Caravans

The morning dances to the caravans of purple humor,
And Gloria emanates dark delight.
The desert lingers long on her thigh's agony.
Let it roll!

Love Street breaks on through endless sadness.
C'mon baby!
The music dwells in horse laughter.
My cock shines like black death.

It appears that this program is seeded with a dictionary of Morrison’s lyrics and poetry, and pieces together random phrases. I’ll try one more command: spew like a valley girl.

My Curfew's Fingernails

My Porsche does heavy petting with my curling iron's tampons.
Ah, how my period goes steady with the pleasure of really boring fingernails.
Beautiful Clearsil!
Whoa, dude!

My letter sweater glows like fresh makeup,
And my curfew skips school with my boyfriend's desire.
Daddy's money erupts with soft agony.
Way cool!

Hard not to get a chuckle out of some of those lines, but still not something anyone could take seriously.

This completes my quick survey of online poetry generators. It’s obvious, they are still much more of a novelty than a serious threat to their starving human counterparts, but you have to admire the spunk of their creators and the sweat they put into efforts. I’m afraid any college student seeking an easy way out of their creative writing class will still have to comb through the dark nights of their soul to get a passing grade, or bribe their computer scientist buddies with a few virtual beers into giving it another go.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Georg Trakl: An Introduction and the Elis Poems

For almost two years now, I have been working with a friend of mine in Germany, Werner Schmitt, on a project to translate all of Georg Trakl’s known writings into English. It has been a laborious task and I appreciate Werner’s tenacity to stick with it. Our site can be found on the web at Wersch's Trakl Site. It has been a dream of mine since college to complete this project and I’m glad I have a collaborator to make up for my language deficiencies. As a matter of principle we have decided to do near-literal renders of these poems, resist the translator's temptation to rewrite, and in the rhymed poems to preserve meaning rather than try to replicate meter or rhyming schemes.

I assume most readers have never heard of Georg Trakl so I will start off with a little biographical information:

Georg Trakl (1887 - 1914) - born in Salzburg, trained as a dispensing druggist, was one of the most visionary and original of the 20th Century Austrian poets. In 1912, he found a patron and publisher in Ludwig von Ficker, editor of Der Brenner, and devoted his time to producing the poems for which he owns his posthumous fame. Two collections were accepted for publication in his lifetime. Extreme melancholy and guilt pushed him to drugs and alcohol. In August 1914, he was sent to Galicia, part of modern-day Poland, with the medical corp. After the Battle of Grodek, he was put in charge of approximately one hundred seriously wounded soldiers, but could do little to help. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to a military hospital in Krakow for observation of his mental state. Fearing court-martial, he died in November 1914 from a self-inflicted overdose of cocaine.

In reality, little is known of Trakl’s life and what is known is rather unremarkable, almost nothing for a biographer to sink their teeth into. There are few significant events in his life, other than finding a literary sponsor in Ludwig von Ficker, and, though living the lifestyle of a poet maudit, he had few contacts with any artists close to his stature. But there is no denying that Trakl’s poetry reveals a rich inner life that had little outward manifestation. His poetry is odd and out of step with his time, and he stubbornly clung to his own artistic sensibilities, in spite of the advice of others. The “I” is used sparingly throughout his mature work. Instead, he relies on a series of images, sometimes mysterious or grotesque, to invoke an emotional response from the reader. Some readers and critics may even talk of a personal mythology of images constructed throughout his poetry, or even its pure lyric nature, almost total absence of irony, and decidedly pessimistic tone. However, my goal is not to analyze, but to present it for others to appreciate and evaluate. To that end, I have selected two related poems from Trakl’s second book Sebastian in Dream, published posthumously in 1915 by the Kurt Wolff publishing house, to begin this series.

To the Boy Elis

Elis, the blackbird's call in the black woods,
This is your decline.
Your lips drink the coolness of the blue rock-spring.

Leave, when your brow bleeds softly
Ancient legends
And dark interpretations of the flight of birds.

Yet with tender steps you walk in the night
That hangs full of purple grapes
And you move the arms more beautifully in the blueness.

A thorn bush tinges
Where your moon-like eyes are.
O, how long, Elis, you've been dead.

Your body is a hyacinth
Into which a monk dips his waxy fingers.
Our silence is a black cavern

From which a gentle animal steps at times
And slowly lowers heavy eyelids.
On your forehead drips black dew,

The last gold of expired stars.



Perfect is the stillness of this golden day.
Under ancient oaks
You appear, Elis, as one at rest with round eyes.

Their blue mirrors the slumber of lovers.
Against your mouth
Their rosy sighs fell silent.

In the evening the fisherman hauled in the heavy nets.
A good shepherd
Leads his flock along the forest's edge.
O! how righteous, Elis, are all your days.

The olive tree's blue silence sinks along bare walls.
The dark song of an old man fades away.

A golden boat
Rocks your heart, Elis, in the lonely sky.


A soft chiming of bells sounds in Elis' breast
In the evening,
When his head sinks into the black pillow.

A blue animal
Quietly bleeds in the thorn bushes.

A brown tree stands isolated there;
Its blue fruits have fallen away.

Signs and stars
Sink down quietly in the evening pond.

Behind the hill it has become winter.

Blue doves
Drink at night the icy sweat
That runs down Elis' crystal forehead.

God's lonely wind sounds along black walls.

                 © 2005 - 2006 Jim Doss and Werner Schmitt

Much speculation has arisen over the enigmatic boy character Elis, who he was modeled after, and what he represents. One of the most viable explanations I’ve found is that Trakl based Elis on the 17th century Swedish miner, Elis Forebom, who died falling into a mine shaft on his wedding day and was discovered many years later perfectly preserved in his youth while his bride had become an old woman. The account of Elis Forebom was documented in the E. T. A. Hoffmann novel, “The Miners of Falum,” 1818 and the Hugo von Hofmannsthal verse drama fragment, “The Miners of Falum,” 1906. It is conceivable that Trakl had access to both of these texts.

In the future, I will post status on our Trakl translation work and sample poems with commentary one to two times per month.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Addendum: New Jersey Turnpike

As an Addendum to my previous post, I wanted to include a picture of Whitman and his cardboard butterfly. These were stolen from the Library of Congress in 1942, along with his notebooks, and returned in 1994.

Friday, September 22, 2006

New Jersey Turnpike

Recently, I have had to travel a lot to NJ for work. Needless to say, that means a lot of time on I-95 and the NJTP fighting the congestion and paying a king's ransom in tolls. It is a dismal drive through concrete, asphalt and industrial America. But the one intriguing part of the trip were the names of the rest stops along the NJTP like Thomas Edison, James Fenimore Cooper, Joyce Kilmer, Molly Pitcher, Alexander Hamilton, and Walt Whitman. Of course, I made it a point to stop at the Walt Whitman Rest Area to gas up. I don’t know what I was expecting to find there, but I certainly expected to find something brighter and more vibrant than the dreary, depressing area I found with its tiny little food mall. Walt certainly deserves something better attached to his name. I couldn’t leave with this impression in my mind so I used some poetic license to come up with the following:

Walt Whitman Service Area, NJTP

As the needle inches toward E
I spot the sign, 5 miles to go.
Fumes or not, I have an appointment
to keep. Not with the gas station
attendant, whose union won’t let anyone
pump their own gas, or the TCBY
workers whose frozen yogurts
taste as sweet as the real
thing or the Burger King flunkies
scenting the parking lot with their charbroiled
offerings. The turnpike exit fades into
scarred pavement, the mini-mall’s fa├žade
is torn down, steel 2x4s nailed into position
for a face lift. I ease to a stop between
the emptiness of dirt white lines.
The sweltering heat embraces me with
its afternoon shimmer as my
eyes scan the horizon. Then I see
him, there behind the buildings, the good
grey heron striding through a ditch of black
water. His eyes are blue as the bards
of Camden. They stare me down, baptize
my image in the mirrors of their lakes.
I want to say, “today your books may rot
in the used stalls and school kids laugh
at your bravado, but I’ve come here to find
you again, reincarnated, a plume
of feathers atop your head. My words
have become nothing more than the cardboard
butterfly you used to balance on your fingertips
as you posed for the photographers.
A bit of old-age trickery. I need you to teach me
the joy of myself, how to balance my soul
on a blade of grass, catch a ray
of sunlight with my tongue.” He croaks
his understanding as he swallows
something bitter that could be my heart,
unfurls his wings to fly into a lone pine tree.
My song of the open road continues
with the rush of tires on pavement,
the wind parting my hair, and a feather
taped to the rear view mirror
to remind me where I am going.