1963: Clair Philippy ‘150 words a minute’

Funkhouser’s timeline includes: “Clair Philippy (USA), “blank verse at the rate of 150 words a minute” 5 poems published in Electronic Age.”

Only a few feeble trickle references exist to this work online. No residue of the actual output exists. Time has coherently erased all but the shadow of it’s existence.

Every cultural precursor is at similar risk of oblivion. Clair Philippy totters on that precipice; time will soon erase and etch him/her. Yet the fragment that remains is alluring: blank verse at the rate of 150 words a minute. A wind-up doll of Wallace Stevens regurgitating culturally-rich automated modernism. Extreme muse potency. Algorithmic genius. The inspired machine that converts all flesh-body-based authors into obsolete anachronisms has its roots in this elusive speed. As if poetry were a car that eats epiphanies; authorship becomes a race to vomit verses.

The fastest typist in the world operates at precisely the same speed as Philippy’s 1963 computer poet: 150 words a minute. Given Moore’s law, an intevening 40+ years of IC development and algorithm evolution, virtuosic contemporary computers beat this record with ease. Think ethernet: gigabits of data sloshing around LANs. Mouthfuls of words as massive as blue whales stuffed with krill. As of Sept. 2007, a self-claimed freestylin rap record by Paul Singh (on youtube) is 456 syllables in 53 seconds. Human just cn’t keep up w/t cuttin corners. Txt mssg dsnt approx cyber speed.

The only evolutionary advantage of flesh is our capacity to problem solve and create meaning. Meaning unfortunately is probably only interpretable by us: in other words, it may be that meaning is bio-computer specific. Slugs and dwarf stars just won’t understand human poetry; they might have their own.

One future implication is that as computers evolve aesthetic appreciatory capacities and autonomy, they will write rapid opuses specifically for self-consumption. Blanched cutups of populist culture tossed in a salad of post-modern aphorisms and assembly code, delivered in binary belches. Ruminating on us: the parasitic termites on its skin.

Mammalian brains demand information in a very narrow bandwidth; consciousness can only tolerate a few bits per second; its read-write memory latency demands it. In the same way that our diet is a narrow subset of available matter, brains are cognitively niched. We graze on information at rates that our arcanely slow by cybernetic standards. Other cognitive things will have alternate criteria for success. All definitions or worth or value are arbitrary contingent user-reader-dependent glimpses toward a taxonomy. Digital poetics is a wind-swept web of potential interpretations, traps and slouches in bifurcating fibre.

In this case, Clair Philippy signals the birth of the generative methodology school: poet-programmer frankensteins into programmed-poet. The machine speaks. We are watching its lips but nothing is moving. We are batching its blips but something becomes variation. We are building its sentences with arrays and randomization. Allison Knowles (House of Dust) and Jean A. Baudot are early members of this tradition.

Kurzweil and haiku generators are the middle era. In the same way that the sestina is a simple numeric parlour game played by polymath poets, algorithms can omulate poetic pattern. And if that is possible then its possible the traditional poem subject ‘soul’ may take the form of digital algorithm juggling. As Douglas R. Hofstadter points out:

If a person’s soul is truly a pattern, then it can be realized in different media. Wherever that pattern exists in a sufficiently fine-grained way, then it is, by my definition, the soul itself and not some kind of “mere simulation” of it.

So digital poetry is poetry. Soul word number recursive riff. Poem GUI. Computer writers. Digital authors.

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