Memory Slam and Code Poetry at ITP

I was delighted to be at the first NYU ITP Code Poetry Slam a few hours ago, on the evening of November 14, 2014. The work presented was quite various and also very compelling. Although I had an idea of what was to come (as a judge who had seen many of the entires) the performances and readings exceeded my high expectations.

A reading I did from historical computational poetry kicked off the event. I read from a new set of reimplementations, in JavaScript and Python, that I developed for the occasion. The set of four pages/Python programs is called Memory Slam. It contains:

Love Letters
Christopher Strachey, 1952

Stochastic Texts
Theo Lutz, 1959

Permutation Poems
Brion Gysin & Ian Somerville, 1960

A House of Dust
Alison Knowles & James Tenney, 1967

These are well-known pieces, at least among the few of us who are into early computational poetry. (Chris Funkhouser and his Prehistorical Digital Poetry is one reason we know these and their importance; Noah Wardrip-Fruin has also offered a great discussion of Love Letters, and Stephanie Strickland, who was in attendance at the slam, has done two collaborative poems based on A House of Dust, one with me and one with Ian Hatcher.) Some implementations exist already of many, perhaps all of them – although I did not find one for A House of Dust. My point in putting these together was not to do something unprecedented, but to provide reasonably clean, easily modifiable versions in two of today’s well-known languages. This will hopefully allow people, even without programming background, to learn about these programs through playing with them.

If I didn’t implement everything perfectly, these are explicitly free software and you should feel free to not only play with them but to improve them as well.

13 Replies to “Memory Slam and Code Poetry at ITP”

  1. Hi, I was wondering where you found the date 1960 for Gysin/Somervilles collaboration. From all I have read, Gysin first wrote the permutations by hand and only much later, at the end of the sixties, did Somerville write the code.
    Also, as you can see from the link below, in at least one version of I AM THAT I AM the permutations are not mathematically determined but seem assembled rather randomly (I cannot see a pattern):
    (It says 1960 here, but this, too, seems just be copied from somewhere else. My suspicion is that he dated the computer generation back to seem more advanced…)

  2. Jason, it’s more likely that I’m the one being inaccurate. I will look into this further over the next few days.

    HB, I do believe I just got the 1960 date off the Gysin reader’s date for “Kick That Habit Man” specifically. I’m aware that there were poems with random order and read some about the “random sequence generator” that was used. I was more interested in the (seemingly) deterministic permutation, and tried for a bit to get my system to work in the same way as with Gysin’s “Kick That Habit Man.” That’s still my particular focus, but an option to shuffle the lines or not might be neat. I will look into the date issue soon, in the next few days.

  3. Jason, is the problem with my use of “Manchester Mark I” to designate the computer on which Love Letters was written?

    I think that term may have been used to refer to the Ferranti Mark 1.

  4. HB, I’ve checked out the permutation poems question a bit. For me the real question is when Ian Somerville computationally permuted one of Brion Gysin’s set of words — without ordering the permutations randomly, in this particular case, because I am not trying to trace that lineage.

    “Kick That Habit Man” is shown in Back in No Time as written in 1959, broadcast on the BBC in 1960. Other sources, including Chris Funkhouser, say his program was written in 1960.

    However, many sources name the Honeywell Series 200 Model 120 as the computer that was used, and this computer was not introduced until 1965. Honeywell’s first computer was only developed in 1958 and installed for the first time in 1960.

    So, what I have now can’t be right, but is the date of Somerville’s program later or is it a different computer that was used?

  5. The Manchester Mark 1 and the Ferranti Mark 1 are different computers. I haven’t seen any source that refers to the former as the latter.

    Here’s for example a site that runs the Love Letters program

    The emulator currently runs Christopher Strachey’s “Loveletters” program from 1952 in its original form.

    The Mark 1’s forerunner was the “baby” machine that executed its first program in June, 1948. Then, the Manchester Mark I prototype was built and used from April 1949 to August 1950. In February, 1951, it was replaced by the industrially manufactured Ferranti Mark I that actually ran the loveletter program.

  6. Jason, for now I’ve replaced “Manchester Mark I” with “Ferranti Mark 1” on the Love Letters page.

    I know the online version of David Link’s emulator well. I used to teach using it until it was taken offline. The emulator page made the distinction you’re talking about, but the first text on that page was the line “Welcome to the homepage of the Manchester Mark I emulator by David Link!”

    I do understand what you’re saying about distinguishing these computers, but the first article you mentioned in comment 1 uses “University Mark 1” and “Ferranti Mark 1” and doesn’t use “Manchester Mark I” (or “1”) at all.

    And an in-depth article that isn’t online, Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s “Manchester Mark “Digital Media Archaeology: Interpreting Computational Processes” in Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, eds., Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, uses “Manchester Mark I” to designate the computer.

    Furthermore the program itself refers to the computer that it’s running on as “M.U.C.” (Manchester University Computer).

    So, while I’m inclined to say that Ferranti Mark 1 is the best term – and indeed I’ve just changed the page to use this term – it seems that some different terms have been used by scholars for the computer on which the program ran.

    To complicate things further, David Link’s article “There Must Be an Angel: On the Beginnings of the Arithmetics of Rays” cites a personal communication that the love letters were posted after August 1953 and before Turing’s death in May 1954. That seems to suggest that the program might not have been written in its final, documented form until 1953, although perhaps the algorithm is earlier. The date could possibly even be 1954, but that seems unlikely to me given that Stratchey’s article about the system in the journal Encounter appeared in October 1954. It takes a while for a project to be done, to write about it, and to have an article published about it. The article does not mention any dates, though, except for the 1951 census.

    Do you think the evidence suggests that I should use “1953” or “1952?” for the date?

  7. Nick, this is something I don’t know myself. I also just took the Honeywell reference at face value until you pointed out the 120/200 did not exist back then, so either this fact or the date is wrong.
    Interestingly, both rarely appear together.

    For the date 1960 I found:

    “The availability of computer technology automated the process of randomizing these permutations. José Férez Kuri’s critical anthology Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age shows four examples of computer-generated permutation poems, programmed to appear in block formation by Ian Somerville in 1960.”
    Funkhouser, Christopher. Modern and Contemporary Poetics : Prehistoric Digital Poetry : An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995. Tuscaloosa, AL, USA: University of Alabama Press, 2007:

    This is repeated in several sources, including the New Museum catalog, none of them mentioning the computer type (except a comment in the source code for the first re-creation for the New Museum Show itself:

    For the Honeywell reference, I found varying dates (one even claimed 1959).
    However, 1965 seemed to pop up frequently. I am not sure where this first came up. Something tells me that this is more likely.

    Sommerville helped “puis avec d’autres de ses poèmes, cette foi-ci à l’aide d’un ordinateur Honeywell, en 1965.”
    Jaques Donguy, “Cyberpoésie” in Zigzag poésie: formes et mouvements, ed. Frank Smith, Christophe Fauchon (Paris: Flammarion 2001), 176.

    However, there are especially dumbfounding (or just dumb) claims like this that have the 1965 date:
    “In Zusammenarbeit mit dem Mathematiker Ian Sommerville realisiert Brion Gysin das Gedicht
    “I am that I am”, das 120mal nach einer mathematischen Formel permutiert wird. 1965 gelingt den beiden Autoren eine Permutation bis ins Unendliche durch den Computer Honeywell.”
    Saskia Reither, “Computerpoesie: Studien zur Modifikation poetischer Texte durch den Computer (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2003), 120

    At least one thing I can add: It’s always Sommerville, with two “m,” not one.

  8. HB, immediately — you are absolutely right about the spelling of Ian Sommerville’s name. I was unfortunately influenced by being adjacent to Somerville, Massachusetts, with one ‘m.’ I’ve fixed the spelling on all the Memory Slam pages.

    I will reply again about the dates and computers soon.

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