on open ground
lit by natural light
inhabited by friends and enemies A house of paper among high mountains using natural light inhabited by fishermen and families A house of leaves
by a river
using candles inhabited by people speaking many languages wearing little or no clothes …
Here are some stanzas of a poem I came across when looking for poetry which may inspire young children to write. The simple structure of the stanzas could be used as a model, offering endless possibilities for new poems.
Then, to my surprise I realized that this may well be the first computer-generated poem. Artist Alison Knowles (b.1933) and James Tenney used programming language and word lists for a poetry project in 1967, creating a poem of the following structure:
a house of (list material) (list location) (list light source) (list inhabitants)
in which combinations of the variables were randomly generated.
Alison Knowles’s A House of Dust is an early example of computerized poetry that plays on the unlimited possibilities of the random juxtapositions of words. To create this work, Knowles produced four word lists that were then translated into a computer language and organized into quatrains according to a random matrix. Each of the four lists contains terms that describe the attributes of a house: its materials, location, lighting, and inhabitants. The computer program imposed a nonrational ordering of subjects and ideas, generating unexpectedly humorous phrasing and imagery, such as “A house of dust, in a hot climate, using all available lighting, inhabited by all races of men represented, wearing predominantly red clothing,” or “A house of broken dishes, on the sea, using natural light, inhabited by vegetarians.”
Printed on perforated tractor-feed paper common to dot matrix printers of the time, Knowles printed out numerous pages of these phrases in the form of a long scroll. She then created a book of sorts by tearing off a block of approximately twenty pages at a time, folding it in the manner of an accordion, and placing it in a plastic pouch. Hundreds of variations of houses are possible, as every version of the poem begins and ends with a different set of quatrains. Knowles’s collaboration with the computer highlights the underlying arbitrariness of language, demonstrating how words acquire different meanings through structural relationships and shifting contexts.
A couple of years ago I found some of this green and white perforated paper with some kind of “computer art” among my dad’s things. It gave me such a weird flashback. All over a sudden, I was transported back to those days when computers and photocopiers were new and people started experimenting with their affordances. Remember the many photocopied hands and faces or other stuff, like … cats? I am digressing. Way back then, the computer paper stood for everything that was ugly, in my eyes. I like the poem and so I am reconciled with the computer paper. Now its retro.