Archive for July 2008

1962: R.M. Worthy, Auto-Beatnik

July 18th, 2008 — 12:57 pm

Reports vary on where it was first popularized (Funkhouser says Time magazine, a blog suggests Horizon magazine) but sometime in 1962, a subdivision of a computer company called the Laboratory for Automata Research of the Librascope Division of General Precision, Inc led by R.M. Worthy had their research popularized.

“Librascope engineers, concerned with the problem of effective communication with machines in simple English, first ‘fed’ an LGP 30 computer with thirty-two grammatical patterns and an 850-word vocabulary, allowing it to select at random from the words and patterns to form sentences. The results included “Roses” and “Children”. Then Worthy and his men shifted to a more advanced RPC 4000, fed with a store of about 3,500 words and 128 sentence structures, which produced … more advanced poems.” Here are some selected works by the “Auto-Beatnik”, that “cool calculator” …


Few fingers go like narrow laughs.
An ear won’t keep few fishes,
Who is that rose in that blind house?
And all slim, gracious, blind planes are coming,
They cry badly along a rose,
To leap is stuffy, to crawl was tender.

The results might have made Kenneth Patchen snort with derision or weep with praise at the small vulnerable baby spirit being born. Perhaps André Breton posthumously realized that Soluble Fish is now computational, the human brain only a snail sneeze in a rapid fire automation of erratic digital misnomers and binary one-liners. Intriguingly, these poems came out of a lab; art-research and the synthesis of artist-scientist in computation contexts have roots here. For some reason I am reminded that Wallace Stephens worked for the Hartford Accident & Indemnity Company, that the bohemian Charles Bukowski model of the renegade outsider addicted to Dionysian excess is balanced by the sturdy steady crew-cut managerial-poet persona with a tender incisive eye and sensitivity to linguistics. To that dichotomy can be now added the third aspect: the digital servant faithfully working its way through algorithms, a bit like an autistic savant, capable of replicating great feats of memory yet incapable of distinguishing relevancy or value. Meaning still relies on the intuitive input of the reader.

Nevertheless, note that the machine is ‘fed’; and note also how little it takes to grow a poem: 32 sentence structures, 850 words. Similarly, DNA codon triplets are built from base pairs of 4 elements; combinatorial complexity is the foundation of life.

Evolutionary language mutations expand the chain-link jewelry of existence.

If you are curious, read more Auto-Beatnik examples.

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1961: Balestrini’s Tape Mark poems

July 17th, 2008 — 05:02 pm

According to Funkhouser (p. 12 & 41, PDP), in1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibited (experimental Italian poet) Nanni Balestrini’s 1961 Tape Mark poems . Virtually no reference to Balestrini currently exists online, except for a wikipedia entry (in italian) and this poster of the exhibit catalog:

Cybernetic Serenditpity 1968

Cybernetic Serendipity, ICA London August 2nd to October 20th, 1968

Baletsrini’s poems (cited in Funkhouser (p.41) from the exhibit catalog translated by Edwin Morgan) are remarkably readable. Computationally collaged from 3 different writers, Balestrini’s Tape Mark poems traverse a strangely sensual meridian:

Hair between lips, they all return
to their roots in the blinding fireball
I envision their return, until he moves his fingers
slowly, and although things flourish
takes on the well known mushroom shape endeavouring
to grasp while the multitude of things come into being.

It’s poetry that slips in and out of effectiveness. As I read it the first 4 lines cohere voluptuously, then the fifth strikes an infertile mechanistic tangent that might have been solved by a human emotional-editorial eye. Funkhouser attributes their effectiveness to the use of literary phrases as the unit. These units resonate and conjoin as do other human cultural artifacts, cohering according to the skill and sensitivity of the writer. In this case the writer was a hybrid: a computer algorithmically solving rules, and a human (Balestrini) tuning and feeding those algorithms.

It suggests what many others have already suggested: that computers can offer creative trampolines, variational exploration machines that create trajectories from which the poet can select possible paths. It also clearly delineates the eerie capacity of the human mind to impose order, pattern and meaning onto mangled heaps of language.

From the LANGUAGE poets to OULIPO and the DadaEngine (and other more contemporary combinatorial permutating word-salads) a lot of poems owe their origin to the same impulse that inspired Balestrini. Language can be algorithmically cut: digital and analog each have strengths.

Exquisite corpse cpu.

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1960: Brion Gysin, I AM THAT I AM

July 16th, 2008 — 05:49 pm

There is minor irony that the second historical figure in a lineage of digital poetry is a painter: Brion Gysin. [Sources: Prehistoric Digital Poetry (pg.39) and Kostelanetz's Text-Sound Texts]

Cohort of William Burroughs and narcotic doyen of a furtive circle of eccentric lunatics, Gysin combined surrealist techniques and Dadaist recipes with digital algorithms (programmed by Ian Somerville in 1960 ) to create permutational poetry based around the phrase I AM THAT I AM


Echoes of the hypnotic reveries of the theosophist charismatics and the chanting of the bedouin transplanted into computational form show an early resonance between rhythmic repetitions designed to either numb the mind or open it inexplicably into trance and esoteric meaning structures inherent withinn the syntactical synew of language itself. Gysin theorized in his 1960 essay entitled Cut-Ups Self-Explained:

Writing is fifty years behind painting. I propose to apply the painters’ techniques to writing; things as simple and immediate as collage or montage. Cut right through the pages of any book or newsprint… lengthwise, for example, and shuffle the columns of text. Put them together at hazard and read the newly constituted message. Do it for yourself. Use any system which suggests itself to you. Take your own words or the words said to be “the very own words” of anyone else living or dead. You’ll soon see that words don’t belong to anyone. Words have a vitality of their own and you or anybody else can make them gush into action.

The permutated poems set the words spinning off on their own; echoing out as the words of a potent phrase are permutated into an expanding ripple of meanings which they did not seem to be capable of when they were struck into that phrase.

The poets are supposed to liberate the words – not to chain them in phrases. Who told poets they were supposed to think? Poets are meant to sing and to make words sing. Poets have no words “of their own.” Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody. “Your very own words,” indeed! And who are you?

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1959 : Theo Lutz, Stochastic Text

July 16th, 2008 — 04:29 pm

In 1959, on a Zuse Z22 computer Theo Lutz inserted sixteen chapter titles and subjects from Kafka’s The Castle into a database and programmed them to recombine into phrases joined by grammatical glue. As with most of the early references on this site, this reference appears courtesy of C. Funkhouser who cites Lutz (on pg. 37 of Prehistoric Digital Poetics) as potentially the first known practitioner of contemporary digital poetry.

Not every look is near. No village is late.
A castle is free and every farmer is distant…

It seems appropriate to hail Lutz as the first computational-poet (for now: until the archives yield a new figure, until new research reveals that Allan Turing was composing love letters in a basement lab using algorithms as a teenager; or that Ada Lovelace had a functioning Difference Engine; or perhaps as many speculative fiction writers might remind us, some alien civilizations predate our human computer generation by eons; or as Florian Cramer writes: “The oldest permutational text adapted in Permutations is Optatianus Porfyrius’ Carmen XXV from the fourth century A.D.”.)

Lutz’s 1959 essay is remarkable in that it recognizes the problem of meaning as being central and even suggests a potential probablistic pathway toward resolution:

It seems to be very significant that it is possible to change the underlying word quantity into a “word field” using an assigned probability matrix, and to require the machine to print only those sentences where a probability exists between the subject and the predicate which exceeds a certain value. In this way it is possible to produce a text which is “meaningful” in relation to the underlying matrix.

One predominant domain of AI research follows this thread suggested by Lutz: statistical probability. In addition Lutz’ notion implies the matrice of language is analogous to a network and that proximal sets may evoke meaningful relations, or perhaps that meaning is a pathway between mathematically linked nodes. All of these notions are still currently active as research paths.

Aside: as any archaeologist knows, the dilemna with time is it corrodes, then eradicates all traces. The www may grant the illusion of anti-amnesia but googling Theo Lutz, the first entry that arises is a german website with a copy of Lutz’s original 1959 essay. As Ollivier Dyens, often points out the internet is centripetal: so I moved sideways; I did not go directly to the essay on Theo as any sane medieval scholar would do; instead, I went to have a look at the host site: . From there, in the first article I opened that was in English (a very sassy and witty 2003 dig at Lev Manovich’s idea of 6 as a good number for multitasking: ‘Multitasking as Avant-garde – or who is the Processor?’ by Johannes Auer ) I encountered 3 out of the 6 links she had used to demo her sardonic point to be dead.

The internet although interconnected like a body sheds skin like a body, leaving a detritus of disconnected tissue and historical dead-ends. Even memory diffused and redundant within a modularized network has limits.

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1721: Jonathan Swift’s writing Engine

July 15th, 2008 — 06:40 pm

It might seem astonishing that as early as 1959, computers were ubiquitous and automated creative writing was being explored but as Jean Baudot mentions in 1964, humans have always been concerned with automation.

In the historical context of occidental literature, consider the following excerpt from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (Book III, Chapter 5) written in 1721 which describes an automated writing machine. This excerpt is reputedly based on Raymond Llull Ars Magna, a combinatorial method for debating theology. Swift’s imaginative and accurate depiction of physical array systems proves that artists often explore technological potentials before implementation occurs. Inspiration precedes implementation yet accurately depicts the methodology utilized in many computational art-works.

We crossed a walk to the other part of the academy, where, as I have already said, the projectors in speculative learning resided.

The first professor I saw, was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, “Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations. But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.”

He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”

I made my humblest acknowledgment to this illustrious person, for his great communicativeness; and promised, “if ever I had the good fortune to return to my native country, that I would do him justice, as the sole inventor of this wonderful machine;” the form and contrivance of which I desired leave to delineate on paper, as in the figure here annexed. I told him, “although it were the custom of our learned in Europe to steal inventions from each other, who had thereby at least this advantage, that it became a controversy which was the right owner; yet I would take such caution, that he should have the honour entire, without a rival.”

(Book III, Chapter 5)

Swift’s entire passage is a subtle multi-faceted meditation on the folly of creativity, the absurdity of ownership, the power of algorithms and their limits.

Compare the mechanistic and materialist dig that Swift makes about intellectual theft at the end of the preceding passage with Brion Gysin’s proclamation on non-ownership of words:

“The poets are supposed to liberate the words – not to chain them in phrases. Who told poets they were supposed to think? Poets are meant to sing and to make words sing. Poets have no words “of their own.” Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody. “Your very own words,” indeed! And who are you?”

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330 A.D. : Florian Cramer & the roots of Permutations

July 14th, 2008 — 03:03 pm

Florian Cramer is the preeminent theorist of permutation literary arts. In numerous essays and programming works he has researched and investigated the roots of generative literary practice to an ancestry that predates modernism and the dadaist by millennium. As shown by Cramer, lured by the confluence of geometry, numbers and words, ancient alchemists and esoteric practitioners established systemic models for generative literature long before the computer came along. Florian Cramer summarizes his work:

The website ( consists of a number of server-side computer programs written in the Perl programming language, each of them reconstructing – and thereby re-inventing – one of a few dozens of combinatory poems written between 330 A.D. and today by, among others, Optatianus Porphyrius, Jean Meschinot, Julius Caesar Scaliger, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, Quirinus Kuhlmann and Tristan Tzara. Although it is difficult to distinguish a combinatory literature from other forms of literature ever since linguistics defined language as a combinatory system itself, combinatory poetry nevertheless could be formally defined as a literature that openly exposes and addresses its combinatorics by changing and permuting its text according to fixed rules, like in anagrams, proteus poems and cut-ups. Frequently, written combinatory literature does not denote the generated text itself, but only a set of formal instructions with perhaps one sample permutation. Since the poems of Scaliger, Harsdörffer, Kuhlmann and Tzara fall into this category, they turn into something profoundly different as soon as their algorithms are being transscribed from book pages into computer software. The website therefore is an open experiment for finding out what might be lost and gained from such a transscription. Permutations is, in my view, not an art project, but rather pataphysics and gay philology.1

Speculatively extrapolating from Cramer’s research, it is possible to see life itself as an enormous combinatorial literature. Indeed the gnostic model of demiurges (sub-gods) capable of delineating rules for universe creation rests upon a similar cosmology. From the Biblical ‘In the beginning there was the word….’ through DNA research into the modeling of life from codons, the idea of existence itself as a latticed intersection of stored strings, poetry capable of provoking life, is a prevalent reoccurring model.

When viewed through this poetic lens, posthuman debates about how humans will gain mastery over genetically modeling of lifeforms, and arguments over autonomy of lifeforms, are analogous to disputes between literary schools. A vibrant ecosystem of computationally generated microorganisms assembled by nanobots may someday constitute a viable field for meta-poetic play. Eduardo Kac’s progenitors may auto-assemble bacterial poems.

As it is Cramer (in agreement with Funkhouser and Glazier) emphasizes what is often repeated in digital poetic debates that digital poetry must utilize the unique capacities of the medium:

Any concept of digital literature which does not reflect language combinatorics and algorithmically processed language is severely restrained.

I feel that this canonical attitude is debatable since there are a couple of unresolved problems involved. The first problem is that combinatorics is often referred to as constraint-based language, and yet the fault Cramer sees with non-combinatoric work is that it will be restrained. Restraint and constraint verge on synonymous; so both ways of practice (combinatorial and non-combinatorial) involve limitation. Perhaps restraint and constraint constitute mutually beneficial aspects of divergent artists practices each with inherent limitations and strengths, rather than inferior/superior strands. Combinatorics exposes the mechanistic pattern-based linguistic roots of poetry; corporal poetics exposes its capacity to explore affect, flow, taste and emotional contortions. The second paradox is that Cramer’s research demonstrates that combinatorial practices predate the computer by millennium: therefore combinatorial and algorithmic processes are not unique to computational media; computational media merely facilitates the ease with which variations can be generated. Implementation becomes significantly easier.

In fact an argument could be made that there is no unique capacity computers offer. Everything from algorithms, coding, networks and replication has antecedents in biology. Human technology is just a feeble attempt at emulating organic process. This liberates artists to play with computational media without constraining themselves by formal requirements in order to ensure the validity of their work. Validity in this context is a socially-dependent feedback mechanism that establishes temporary nodes of arbitrary valuation.


Cramer, Florian. “Combinatory Poetry and Literature in the Internet.” Available at: [Accessed August 29, 2008].

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