De(re)(trans)formation

Computationally deformative criticism reminds me of Lewis Caroll. Curiouser and curiouser. You might say that all close-reading, done with computers or not, deforms a text before it puts it back together, ergo this is just the same rabbit hole that critics have been diving down for decades. But check out this potentially deformative tool  anyway: The N+7 Machine. Here’s my test run on one of my own pieces. (I also tried “Caged Skylark” by GM Hopkins but it was a shame to scramble such a good poem. The result was neither funny nor interesting.)

N+0

Swish. And in this the last page, an illumination: Death at work in a billow of black, his robes wind-filled and dramatic, flapping dark against the bright sky and grain, blue over gold leaf, field under firmament and the old scythe flashing still, slashing a swath over and along the rolling hills, sharp as sadness.
The figure is at once distant and immediate: the picture is not like the narrative, with its inexorable logic, with its certainty that its unknown is contained by beginning and end. In this page plot goes missing, caught in the grasses by the thing with freezing eyes – how can you face the end before it comes? In the end you will shut your eyes. Crickets, crickets – sweat – the smell of it, and the listening grass, not fresh – like late summer: every day a clay pot baked again by the sun to be shattered, and all the sherds the same. Crickets, crickets. Oh, give me the rumble of combines! Not the quiet scythe, not this straining to hear! Somewhere that may yet be near, something rustles.

N+3

Switchboard. And in this the last pagoda, an illustrator: Debacle at work in a binder of black, his rocks windfall-filled and dramatic, flapping darkroom against the briquette skylight and grammarian, bluebird over golf leak, fiend under fisherman and the old seaboard flashing still, slashing a swath over and along the rolling hillsides, shaver as sadness.
The filament is at once distant and immediate: the pie is not like the nasturtium, with its inexorable logo, with its cesspit that its unknown is contained by behest and ending. In this pagoda ploughman goes missing, caught in the grates by the thinker with freezing eyefuls – how can you facility the ending before it comes? In the ending you will shuttle your eyefuls. Crimes, crimes – sweatshirt – the smile of it, and the listening grate, not fresh – like late summit: every daze a cleaning potential baked again by the sunbonnet to be shattered, and all the sherds the same. Crimes, crimes. Oh, give me the rummage of comedians! Not the quin seaboard, not this straining to hear! Somewhere that may yet be near, something sables.

N+5

Sword. And in this the last pain, an imagination: Debater at work in a binge of black, his rockeries windmill-filled and dramatic, flapping darn against the brittle skyscraper and granary, blueprint over golliwog lean, fife under fishing and the old seafront flashing still, slashing a swath over and along the rolling hilts, shawl as sadness.
The filibuster is at once distant and immediate: the pier is not like the nationalism, with its inexorable loincloth, with its chafe that its unknown is contained by being and endorsement. In this pain plover goes missing, caught in the gratings by the think-tank with freezing eyelets – how can you facsimile the endorsement before it comes? In the endorsement you will sibling your eyelets. Crimps, crimps – swede – the smithy of it, and the listening grating, not fresh – like late sump: every deacon a clearance pothole baked again by the sundae to be shattered, and all the sherds the same. Crimps, crimps. Oh, give me the rump of comedies! Not the quintet seafront, not this straining to hear! Somewhere that may yet be near, something saboteurs.

N+8

Sycamore. And in this the last paintbox, an imbroglio: Debt at work in a biography of black, his rodents windpipe-filled and dramatic, flapping dash against the broadcast slag and grandchild, blunder over goner leap, fighter under fissure and the old seal flashing still, slashing a swath over and along the rolling hinges, sheath as sadness.
The filling is at once distant and immediate: the pig is not like the nation-state, with its inexorable lolly, with its chain that its unknown is contained by belief and enemy. In this paintbox plug goes missing, caught in the gravediggers by the thong with freezing eyepieces – how can you factor the enemy before it comes? In the enemy you will sickle your eyepieces. Crinkles, crinkles – sweeping – the smoke of it, and the listening gravedigger, not fresh – like late sunbeam: every deadline a cleavage potpourri baked again by the sunflower to be shattered, and all the sherds the same. Crinkles, crinkles. Oh, give me the runaway of comets! Not the quirk seal, not this straining to hear! Somewhere that may yet be near, something sachets.

The great thing is that much of the alliteration is preserved, while new ideas and themes bubble to the surface. You kind of have to strain them out of the roiling nonsense that this word soup becomes by the time N+15 is stirring the pot, but it’s fun. The bolded lines are my favorites. And these, from other iterations:

“Oh, give me the rumination of comebacks!”
“Debauch at work in a biochemist of black, his rockets window-filled and dramatic”
“Crimsons, crimsons. Oh, give me the rumple of come-ons! Not the quintuplet seagull, not this straining to hear!”

in february after a week
at the library, which is oddly submarine,
you make your way to water

at last after passing houses
with overflowing gardens
after ducking into a half-hidden path
and turning at the sign behind the pampas grass
to walk a short way into sudden woods

and pause,
under the wet dark shapes of firs,
bare arbutus, bristling holly,
under tall tales loud with wind and snow,
you are the child listening at the stairs
when a stranger come to visit tells his wild story.

You look down the dripping
wooden steps to battered sand,
to the unmistakable  hwaet!

you descend to see stripped trees,
bleached wood, smashed crabs,
hear squish of flattened bladderwrack,
taste syllables of salt, of sleet, of foam,
speak shout sing seek out sally’s unsold shells,
smell kelp green or bottle brown torn from down deep
heaped debris even high by the spray-paint psychedelic
octopus on concrete where the stairs meet the beach!

or perhaps you only meet reality
remember three kids at a picture frame
and wish with all your heart to be a pevensie

Hollydene (Draft)

Fun with Topic Modeling

Found poetry?

“kiss dark torn sea crenellations gods walk disappointment eluded colours”

The ten words above represent a “topic” generated by the MALLET Topic Modeling Tool from a 546 word test file that I put in called “Poem ideas.txt” The tool generates topics by searching for significant clusters of words (you can find out how that works in more detail here and here) in the texts you put in. Then it makes spreadsheets that show you the topics and how relevant they are to each “doc,” a chunk of text that can vary in size from a few sentences in one file to the entire contents of multiple files.

Whizzbang!  you might think, but what good is it? And if you’re a) a careful poet, b) an anti-poet, or c) not a fan of abstract art, you might add, It’s just ten random words with loose associations.

“A hit, a very palpable hit!” The TMT is not meant for small inputs; it is more suited to dealing with inputs like all of gothic fiction, or ten thousand emails, or issues of National Geographic from 1960-2014. Nor does the quoted string of words say anything particularly new or particularly well. The answer to the question, “What good is this ‘found poetry’?” is that it is no good at all, either from the statistician’s perspective, or from a conservative poet’s perspective, like my own.

It is, however, a lovely surprise. In the last place I thought to look for the ingredients of an epic poem, I found conflict in relationship (kiss, torn, dark, disappointment), characters larger-than-life (gods, walk, eluded), and environment (crenellations, dark, sea, colours). The funny thing is that this cluster doesn’t really represent what it appears to represent: a coherent story. The text it models is a disconnected collection of lines I thought up. I’m not even sure how crenellations made the cut – I don’t believe I’ve used that word more than once in the whole of my poetic endeavors, let alone the single input file.

If you find yourself nodding at the connections I drew between the words of the cluster, you can probably imagine the program’s usefulness as a heuristic: not just for literary critical argument – digital humanities is all over that – but for creative writing. TMT has adjustable features, like the number of topics you want to display, the topic proportion threshold, and words you want the program to ignore (articles, prepositions and proper nouns, maybe). Here are some of the other topics I’ve generated while playing with settings, file types and larger sets of files:

  • sky mark crash deafening drunk cat curled hoofbeats hounds trumpets
  • encyclopedia trevisa medieval principles greek roman memory bowker type detail
  • settings vk mc li styleswitheffects zx nk gg jvm fj
  • body somme work hondes qualitees touchinge goode liknes ordre litil
  • fear kingdom eliot print stars norton fairy harder context made

For a while now my creativity has needed a kick in the arse, and I’m tickled pink that it was a thing so heavily invested in numbers that did it. Honestly, I shouldn’t be surprised; numbers have been kicking my butt since I met them, but hey. This is cool.