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.


Morgan said...

I really liked "My Curfews Fingernails"...LOL...better than some I've come up with!

Good investigation!

LJCohen said...

Jim--something I blogged about last october.

computer poetry

Interesting stuff!


Kathy said...

Jim, an interesting topic. Hard not to laugh. I bet they'd win at! It's like those poetry games where they give you a bunch of words on tiles and you have to move them around and make a poem out of them. It's fun to play, but never quite comes out right.



Jim Doss said...

I bet everyone wins at Even anonymous.