Chiastic Wood: A new form of generative poetry.

 

1401x788-Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 12.14.53 PM
For our midterm assignment in Reading and Writing Electronic Text, we were to devise a new poetic form and create a computer program that generates texts that conform to that new poetic form.

The form

My poetic form, which I have named “Chiastic Wood” is a seven-line poem that adheres to a loose chiastic structure, with one line of the poem randomly pulled from Craigslist listings for antique wooden furniture. The structure of my form adheres to this pattern: ABCDCBA.

A chiasmus, or chiastic pattern, is a narrative technique in which two ideas, A and B, appear in the pattern ABBA in the text. Here’s a simple example of chiasmus:

Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves.
—Shakespeare, Othello

It’s a circular, palindromic way of speaking or writing that reflects the structure of oral traditions and epic texts. These kinds of symmetrical patterns are often found in ancient literature such as the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Hebrew Bible, and other texts rooted in oral tradition.

On a personal note, I also couldn’t stop thinking about this line from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in an Italian monastery:

I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another.

This leads to my central question: How could I write a computer program that would generate a recursive, self-referential poem? How could I get each line of the poem to “talk” to one another?

16885833-mmmain

The texts

I decided I wanted explore more contemporary interpretations of oral culture and traditions. Immediately I thought of television. I decided to download the screenplay of every episode of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s television show from the 1990s and work with the text. I spent hours using Linux to clean up the text. Try as I might, I couldn’t adequately clean up the text to a point where I was happy with the outcome. After working with the text file for 3+ hours, I decided to quit and found a long list of the most popular lines from the TV show.

I also created a text file of descriptions people had written in various Craigslist listings for antique wooden furniture.

00T0T_jgkKl0Irygh_600x450

The structure

The structure of my form adheres to this pattern: ABCDCBA.

All the lines are pulled from one text, except for line B, which is pulled from Craigslist ads for antique furniture. Here are some examples of the poems that were generated:

The fire I speak of is not a kind fire.
a solid teak frame with tongue and groove joinery.
Never seen so many trees in my life.
Shelly Johnson: I’ve got one man too many in my life
Never seen so many trees in my life.
a solid teak frame with tongue and groove joinery.
The fire I speak of is not a kind fire.

 
Sometimes when we see the eyes — those horrible times when we see the eyes,
some cat scratch damage at the upper edge of the back.
Some of them are stories of madness, of violence.
Log Lady: Shhh, I’ll do the talking. Dark. Laughing.
Some of them are stories of madness, of violence.
some cat scratch damage at the upper edge of the back.
Sometimes when we see the eyes — those horrible times when we see the eyes,
 
that cherry pie is worth a stop.
Full length, fully upholstered, arched backs.
Maybe, if it was harder…
these creatures who introduce themselves
Maybe, if it was harder…
Full length, fully upholstered, arched backs.
that cherry pie is worth a stop.

 
Eyes are the mirror of the soul, someone has said.
Mounted on Brass Hardware
Audrey Horne: Eighteen.
You’d never guess.
Audrey Horne: Eighteen.
Mounted on Brass Hardware
Eyes are the mirror of the soul, someone has said.

 
Now I’m going to get the food and you’re going to get dressed.
Cedar Chest for sale, Lane Brand.
Call it what you want.
My log saw something that night.
Call it what you want.
Cedar Chest for sale, Lane Brand.
Now I’m going to get the food and you’re going to get dressed.
 

Critical questions

In this case, the Twin Peaks text that I picked absolutely shaped the overall feeling and mood of these poems. From the Log Lady’s philosophical musings to Agent Coopers love affair with coffee, these poems feel very much in dialogue with the source text. 

Could this poem have been written by a human? Perhaps. A human could have combed through the script of a Twin Peaks episode and jumbled together some of the lines. I would argue, though, that a poem curated by a human just doesn’t feel as random as a poem curated by a computer program.

A word on failure

TL;DR I failed a lot.

Initially, I was hoping to be able to reflect the narrative arc of most murder mystery stories and so I created a series of lists of “dangerous/murder words,” “food words,” “character names,” so that I specify the “mood” of each line. For instance, perhaps I would start the poem with someone getting killed/finding a corpse, then investigating, then drinking coffee, then investigating, then getting killed/finding a corpse.

The first idea failed. So I tried to create a chiasmus in which each line echoed the line before it by seeking out common words between the lines. For reasons I still don’t understand, I couldn’t get that to work at all. Perhaps the program was searching that the word (ex: “do”) was being used anywhere in a line (ex: “adoration”). This wasn’t doing what I wanted to do.

So I moved on to a more literal interpretation of the chiasmus, which ended up being the final outcome of this project. I decided to inject some randomness into the form with the Craigslist listings, which surprisingly fit neatly into each poem. Here are a few more examples:
This particular song will end with three sharp notes,
normal wear consistent for the age
You can ask it now.
Sheriff Truman: OK, I’ll bite again. Why are you whittling?
You can ask it now.
normal wear consistent for the age
This particular song will end with three sharp notes,

 
But that answer cannot come before all are ready to hear.
in very good condition for it’s 50+ years of age
— some of them are sad, some funny.
Never seen so many trees in my life.
— some of them are sad, some funny.
in very good condition for it’s 50+ years of age
But that answer cannot come before all are ready to hear.

 
I wrote that for my girlfriend.
HANDWRITTEN NOTE WAS DISCOVERED UNDER THE TOP DURING A RESTORATION IN 2005
— it is beyond the “Fire”, though few would know that meaning.
Log Lady: [voiceover] There is a sadness in this world,
— it is beyond the “Fire”, though few would know that meaning.
HANDWRITTEN NOTE WAS DISCOVERED UNDER THE TOP DURING A RESTORATION IN 2005
I wrote that for my girlfriend.
 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *