Computerized Poetry, Is This a Game?

Two questions entered my mind when I found this tweet.

A computer makes poetry. Where is the humanity? How does that work as a teaching tool?



Thanks to the author of that tweet, Assistant Professor of English Derek Mong, I discovered the answers had all the elements of a good Wabash story: Enduring Questions (EQ), a dash of Kurt Vonnegut, the efforts of a computer, and the requisite suspicions.

Dr. Derek Mong.

Students in his EQ class had just read Vonnegut’s “EPICAC,” the classic 1950s short story where one unromantic computer programmer uses a supercomputer to generate love poetry to woo a co-worker. Being a professor of American literature and poetry, Mong knew that computers have created poetry in chance fashion, and the results reside an avant-garde world of poetry. Setting out to further engage his students, he went digging.

“I pulled the first links that looked sort of interesting, that I could clickably generate poetry,” he says. “I brought them into class and asked the students is this poetry knowing it’s a computer that made it?”

Mong says his students didn’t write it off immediately, but there were suspicions. The computer could recognize syllable length and was filling in spaces by surfing text. Click a button and a quatrain or a haiku was generated. Seeing it work made them curious.

From there, Mong had his students do a found-language experiment. Collect 10 sentences at random in the library, put them down in a notebook, take that material home, and create a poem or short story using the found material. Now, it becomes a teaching tool, because it creates limits similar to how the computer operates.

“It changes our idea of what authorship is,” Mong says. “Our associations with poetry are individual genius at a desk creating beauty. That’s what Vonnegut’s story pokes at. If a computer can do this, what are our ideas about the creation of literature? It’s useful intellectually for students to ask what are the possibilities of computational poetry, and for me what are the ideas of how poetry can change.”

Perhaps that change can inject an element of fun.

“A lot of what’s happening with these poems is play,” he says. “Can this be a game? Can I go on to write poems that are playful, game-like, and fun?”

Crossing the Unexpected Line

Growing up, Jordan Smith ’17 said there wasn’t much for high school students to do in his hometown in northwest Indiana.

Jordan Smith ’17 wearing his DC’s Country Junction shirt.

They were pretty close to Chicago, but that was expensive. There was the mall, but that was normally overrun by middle school students. And because they weren’t 21 years old yet, that ruled out a lot of the other options.

So Smith and his friends learned how to line dance.

“I had a group of friends who always wanted to go to this place called DC’s Country Junction,” Smith said, “and I was always turned off by it because it was country. So they spent a good six months trying to trick me and get me to go.”

Finally, his friends’ efforts paid off. Smith thought they were carpooling to go celebrate his friend’s birthday. Instead, he ended up at DC’s Country Junction without a way out.

“It was $5 to get in,” he explained, “and I’m the type of person that, if I’m going to spend money, I’m going to at least attempt to enjoy myself.”

It took a while, though. The first time he got out on the dance floor, Smith laughs remembering how he didn’t know how to do anything the other people were doing. There was a lot of confusion, and a lot of bumping into other people.

For many, that type of experience would be a turn off. But for Smith, it was a challenge he wanted to take on.

“I went back the next week and got a little bit better. And then the next week. At first, I just wanted to show people that I could do this, but then I eventually started to like it.”

So then for three years straight, the dance floor of DC’s Country Junction was where Smith could be found almost every Saturday night.

Though he doesn’t get back home much anymore, Smith can still be found breaking out some of his line dances at local clubs and bars. Sometimes he dances alone; other times, people who know the dance jump right in there with him.

“DC’s Country Junction taught me two things: to never judge a book by its cover and that you’ll never know what you like until you try it,” Smith said. “I saw the word country, and automatically assumed that it was not for me.

“It doesn’t come up much in conversation,” Smith laughed, “but I still remember how to do most of the dances, and I will happily do them anytime, anywhere if you ask.”