April 28, 2005
Vol. 24 No. 15

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    Gnoetry creates powerful poetic language of human and machine

    By Jennifer Carnig
    News Office

    What do you get when you cross the Apocrypha with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Dante’s Inferno, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and a little Moby Dick just for good measure? If you’re Eric Elshtain or Jon Trowbridge, the answer is a really great haiku.

    The creators of Gnoetry, pronounced with a hard “G,” Elshtain and Trowbridge have truly embraced the Chicago ethic of interdisciplinary studies by teaming up to make software that generates poetry. “We’re bridging the divide between math and verse,” said Elshtain, a practicing poet and doctoral student in the Committee on the History of Culture, who adds the humanities piece to the equation.

    Elshtain and Trowbridge, a programmer for a large software company who earned both his A.B. and M.S. at the University, came up with the idea to blend mathematic principles with poetry. Elshtain told Trowbridge about attempts, mostly in the 1970s, to use computers to generate poetic language. But because of a lack of computer power and sophisticated formulas, the projects often ended up as “gobbledygook,” Elshtain said. While valiant efforts, the works were treated as little more than a novelty.

    But Trowbridge found the idea interesting. “I just thought it might be fun to try,” he said, explaining that he decided to write a simple computer program that generated random language. Surprisingly, little lyrical turns of phrase popped up that the pair found appealing. Four years and two versions later, Elshtain and Trowbridge are still working on Gnoetry, constantly making it more complex and more powerful.

    The principle behind the program is simple enough: feed out-of-copyright texts, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, into a program that analyzes each word, constructs a statistical model of word usage patterns, and then generates random language that fits into a prescribed poetic form, such as haiku, renga, tanka or blank verse.

    But the finished poems are far more complicated and beautiful than one might guess a computer is capable of making. According to Gnoetry’s creators, there actually is a partnership and creative process that exists between the poet and the program.

    The human-machine collaboration works like this: the human chooses what sort of poem he or she wants to make, how many lines it will have, stanzas, syllable sets and the like. The poet then picks the works he or she wants Gnoetry to analyze—the Bible or Wuthering Heights, Treasure Island or Little Women, or a combination of the four. If choosing more than one work, the poet then has the option to choose how much of each text is analyzed —should the finished poem use language equally from each book, or consist mostly of words from the Bible, with just touches of the other three. Then the computer generates the poem.

    From here the creative process gets more hands-on. The poet can highlight a word, a line or however much of the poem he or she is less-than-satisfied with, and the program will generate new language replacing the old. This process can go on indefinitely, until the poet is happy with the final verse.

    Trowbridge explained that the program selects language by analyzing different criteria—what words are at the beginning of sentences, what words appear in relation to other words, what words are in a dialogue. Gnoetry then selects words, much like “when you solve a crossword puzzle,” finding words that fit in different meters and forms. The resulting product makes sense because of the complexities of the program’s selection criteria, which eliminate most “gobbledygook.”

    In the Dublin of Doctor Moreau , a 38-page online book of poems based on James Joyce’s Dubliners and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau , Elshtain and Gnoetry created 32 blank-verse, 16-line poems in quatrains with such haunting lines as, “Pope Leo’s poems lay beside the boat. / The captain, having half persuaded me, / does nothing else alive among the thorns / and heals in them a very simple scale.”

    Though both Elshtain and Trowbridge admit Gnoetry is like “Nintendo for poets,” the point is for the program to be much more.

    “It’s like a computer game in some ways,” says Trowbridge, “but what’s happening is not trivial. It does what poetry does. It allows people to come into contact with the process of making poetry and to have fun with language.”

    For the poet Elshtain, who is writing his dissertation on the intersection between poetry and science, Gnoetry forces him to rethink the written word. “It calls into question certain assumptions people have about poetry,” he said. “It separates the production of poetry from the typical tools people use to understand poetry—ideas of genius and inspiration. These poems are just language. They don’t come out of experience. So you have to read the resulting poem differently than you would a poem created by a human.”

    “Gnoetry,” Elshtain said, “is not just a gimmick. It really made me reconsider my presumptions about how I read poetry—or text in general.”

    Elshtain and Trowbridge will offer a Gnoetry demonstration at 7 p.m. Sunday, June 12, at Myopic Books, 1564 N. Milwaukee Ave. To learn more about Gnoetry or to read some of the collaborations between Elshtain and the program, visit http://www.beardofbees.com.