Poetry finds unlikely, yet natural, partners in generative art and blockchains. The links between generative art and poetry stretch back to at least the seventeenth century with Artificial Versifying by John Peter in 1677. The book outlines an algorithmic, deterministic procedure for composing grammatically correct Latin verse.
Language artist Sasha Stiles often says that “poetry is the original blockchain” with its distinct ability to transmit information and history within groups and across generations. In this sense, poetry stands as one of humankind’s oldest word programs. Digital generative poetry has a rich history as well. One of the earliest examples, Theo Lutz’s 70-line poem Stochastische Texte (1959), actually predates digital computer graphics. By the mid-1960s, Fluxus artists inspired by Dada’s cut-up poetry and Surrealism’s automatism were utilizing computers to compose poetry.
1960s: Alison Knowles
Alison Knowles, one such Fluxus artist, debuted an early generative poetry piece, The House of Dust, in 1967. Knowles’s collaborator, James Tenney, used FORTRAN to code hundreds of thousands of quatrains (four-line stanzas) to describe four parameters of a house: the material, site or situation, light source and category of inhabitants.
1970s: Herbert W. Franke
Herbert W. Franke, computer art pioneer, scientist and author, was instrumental in showing the world that “the computer is the first machine in human history that can be used universally for all art forms.” In 1971, Franke published Computer Graphics, Computer Art, a seminal book detailing the comprehensive history of computer art up to that point.
Franke outlined the computer’s impact on many creative fields, including poetry. He specifically mentions Knowles’s The House of Dust as well as Margaret Masterman’s Haiku Poems (1967) and Alan Sutcliffe’s poetry generated with the program SPASMO (1969). Franke further propelled the nexus of science, art and education in 1979 when he co-founded Ars Electronica, a research institute established to celebrate the social significance of creative technology.1 He also developed the book Astropoeticon (1979) with Andreas Nottebohm. “I even wrote space poems for a selection of his pictures,” Franke told Georg Bak.
1980s: Vera Molnar
Vera Molnár, computer art luminary, also contributed to the development of generative language. Throughout the ‘80s Molnár reflected on the transformations of her mother’s handwriting over time with the computer-generated Lettres à ma mère (1981-1990). This deeply personal and profoundly touching series sees Molnár grapple with her mother's aging, memory and the passage of time. Molnár noticed how her mother’s once beautiful handwriting became “more nervous, worried, almost hysterical.” As her mother stopped sending letters, Molnár generated would-be letters, reviving her mother through the computer and celebrating the “twisted, disturbed” letters as works of art.
1990s to Today
The story of generative text does not end in the ‘90s. As programming technology and computers became more accessible, the field of generative art and literature developed new channels of creation and distribution. In 2001, artists Casey Reas and Ben Fry created Processing, a software that simplifies the Java programming language, allowing the code-curious to explore the world of computer art.
This breakthrough led to the development of p5.Js through the work of Lauren Lee McCarthy. In the last decade the computer has become co-author with the advent of large language models (LLMs), natural language processing and OpenAI’s development of generative pre-training transformers (GPT).
Inspired by this long history of language-as-art and to celebrate its future, theVERSEverse curated a two-part exhibition of literary works, POÈME OBJKT/SBJKT in partnership with L’Avant Galerie Vossen. The exhibition applies Surrealist André Breton’s reference to the poem-object as a point of departure: “The poem-object is a composition that aims to combine resources from poetry and the visual arts and to contemplate their capacity for mutual exaltation.”
The historical lineage of poetry and generative art weaves through Breton, Knowles, Molnár and Franke. The poets and artists featured in POÈME OBJKT/SBJKT iterated and updated this natural connection.
Below, six artists and poets from the exhibition reflect on the following question:
Using The House of Dust by Alison Knowles as a point of departure, is your generative practice with the piece(s) featured in POÈME OBJKT/SBJKT most impacted by 1) the material or medium, 2) the place in which it is displayed, 3) the way it is experienced or 4) the audience?
“Like almost every work of generative animation, Clair de Lune was strongly influenced by its medium. When an artwork needs to generate four million pixels from code, sixty times per second—while also creating a coherent narrative across minutes or hours of run time—while also displaying thoughtful variety (and stylistic consistency) across hundreds of diverse outputs—when this is the medium, its constraints are an inescapable part of the creative process, and for the artists, an ever-present source of inspiration.
Despite the complexity implied in its medium, this work is characterized by restraint. The artists sought to present Paul Verlaine’s iconic poem, and readers’ interpretation of it, as the artwork. The piece captures imagined moments of connection to verse, represented via generative marginalia, inviting viewers to connect with both the text of the poem and with others’ experience of it.
Clair de Lune is very much like a prism, which requires a precise triangulation of light, water and a human eye to create a rainbow. In this classic poem-as-contemporary-art-piece, a wide spectrum of poetic transmissions are possible but they require a viewer to exist.”
“When I develop computational art, materiality and form are foremost. I have less control of where a work ends up and whether anyone will interpret or inhabit it but I can make it out of (in the case of Mark of Help) Python code on one level, continuous computer paper and ink on another. I can also cast it in a particular form; I decided this program would be exactly 256 characters long. Other projects of mine shape textual output into staggered, unrhymed quatrains, following The House of Dust. My computer-generated book The Truelist is one example.”
“In light of The House of Dust, “bewildered with stars” is most significantly shaped by the way it’s experienced. My generative practice is grounded in transformation for artist and audience, where encounters with code become moving, multisensory explorations. This approach was key for programming and mapping an atmospheric meditation of Choi’s poem, where the migration of many living beings meant that everyone and everything is in flux. Nothing is really static or isolated. So it’s not just about the artwork itself; it’s about the sense of change and interconnection between technology, humanity and nature.”
“Generative practice is embedded in the creative unconscious. The artist has to train themselves to ignite their intuition as a poetic device that literally programs them to become a medium. Becoming a medium with a unique sense of measure is no easy feat. It is something that artists share with certain kinds of athletes. Think of a running back who doesn’t find the hole to go through but physiologically jukes their entire system to make the hole they then port themselves through. Or a tennis player who in the flash of a moment that can't be calculated, twists her racket a certain way to put a spin on the ball that is meant to travel to an exact spot over the net and on to the court.
As Allen Ginsberg described in Spontaneous Mind, “everything is going so fast[...]it’s like driving on a road, you just have to follow the road and take turns, ‘eyeball it,’ as a carpenter would say, you don’t have any measuring-rod, except your own mind [s]o you just have to chance whatever you can, and pick up whatever you can. There’s almost a process of automatic selection—whatever you can draw in your net, is it, is what you got. Whatever you can remember and whatever you can manage physically to write down, is your poem, or is your material.”
Once you nail down not just that particular poem but that intuitive poetic process, what you are making comes to life. This is when your potential audience, even if it’s just an audience of one, can feel the effects of your generative art.”
“BIBLIOMECHANICS constitutes a book made out of twenty-seven Rubik’s cubes (a material not normally used in books) — and this medium changes the experience for the reader (who can permute the text by playing with the cubes). One cube has forty-three quintillion combinations; hence, twenty-seven of them, (with all their configurations) might contain more books than the number of seconds in the complete lifetime of our universe. I think that, for this reason, the experience of the reader has the most impact upon the artwork — meaning that, without this intervention, the book stays inert, like a time-bomb, undetonated, never realizing its explosive potential to become infinite.”
Elisabeth Sweet is a poet exploring patterns of randomness. Her poetry has been exhibited in New York City, Paris, Tallinn and Amsterdam. Elisabeth supports community growth and connection in digital art and web3, serving as both the Community Manager at theVERSEverse and Communications Lead at Feral File.
POÈME SBJKT debuted at Librairie Mètemorphoses on May 25, 2023 and runs through July 15.