The Poetics of (Im)Permanence
A review of “Genuary 2023 Day 28 - Generative Poetry” by Carson Kompon
Since 2021, computer programmers, artists, and writers have participated in ‘Genuary’, a month-long celebration of computer-generated art during which participants complete daily coding exercises based on 31 different prompts. This year, in response to a prompt asking after generative poetry issued on January 28th, Canadian indie game developer Carson Kompon produced “Genuary 2023 Day 28 - Generative Poetry”—116 lines of Lua script for the PICO-8 fantasy console that combines and recombines a small pool of words into a never-ending series of poetic statements—and minted this application to the Tezos blockchain. Each statement is written one character at a time, wrapping when it fills the application window to form a short poem that is more or less syntactically correct, though oftentimes nonsensical. Statements fade away after a brief interval, only to be replaced by a newly generated statement.
Kompon’s lexicon is restricted to 107 tonally varied words. The program selects from these words at random and arranges them into one of three different syntax structures, each with its own limited internal variability. As a result, “Generative Poetry” assembles semi-repetitious statements that veer wildly in tone from haunting to whimsical and from insightful to absurd. Each statement exists onscreen just long enough to be read before it dissolves into pixels and disappears forever, so readers can experience a few dozen unique, ephemeral poems in a only a couple of minutes while at the same time becoming fully acquainted with the 28 nouns, 15 verbs, 23 adjectives, 24 adverbs, and 17 prepositions in the lexicon. All nouns appear capitalized, suggesting proper nouns that, through repetition, engender a sense of narrative and characterization, especially terms like “Game Developer,” “Musician,” “Artist,” and “Twitter User.” It also becomes apparent through repetition how words like “killed,” “stabbed,” “harassed,” “filthy,” “godawful,” and “cruelly” overwhelm lighter ones like “Dingleberry,” “magical,” “Sandwich,” “8-bit,” “gracefully,” “beautiful,” and “yummy.” Thus, in aggregate, the output of “Generative Poetry” skews toward the darkly absurd, which drives at the oftentimes confusing, depressing, and laughable aspects of being an artist in an ever more technological world.
Given that Kompon’s application incorporates randomized word selections and arrangements, it should be expected that a high percentage of its statements are rather more absurd than poignant. For example, “The sleepy Sandwich / excitedly poked” is relatively typical output. And yet, every now and then, it lets loose an absolute gem of a poem, such as:
The naked Game Developer
slowly exploded because
some Robot gracefully
played or ran.
It goes without saying that today’s artists, writers, and programmers are working at a time when AI-generated content seems to threaten our livelihoods, our definitions of and appreciation for art, and even our notions of selfhood and humanity. In the preceding poem, a naked and vulnerable human is demolished by the presence of playfulness and joy—of humanity—in a machine. On one hand, it points to feelings we can all understand: the fear of change, fear of the unknown, of being left behind, of struggles trivialized, and of values invalidated. On the other hand, it suggests the senselessness of those fears, the ineffectuality of rage, and our perennial failure to find humanity in the Other.
Of course, it is only by chance that the Game Developer explodes while the Robot plays and not the other way around. “Generative Poetry” could equally well have output a poem with the nouns swapped, making for a radically different poem on its surface. In a reversed reading, the Robot explodes when confronted with the Game Developer’s innate humanity, perhaps melting down in envy of said humanity, or perhaps because of the Developer’s inattention (read: human error). These alternate readings are worth considering because, though not observed directly, they exist within the scope of Kompon’s project. Moreover, the essential provocative tensions between human and machine agents, between creation and destruction, and between nature and artifice emerge in both real and imaginary outputs, and are, in fact, embedded in the underlying structure of “Generative Poetry.” These tensions are present in lots of generative art projects and the discourse surrounding them, making “Generative Poetry” a useful work for thinking through issues relating to automation and authorship.
When considering the authorship of a computer-generated poem, it is worth asking: how much control does the author/programmer have over the poem, and to what degree is the computer responsible for its contents? Clearly, Kompon chose the lexicon, devised each available syntax structure, and calibrated the program to produce unique combinations of text. However, no particular combination is prescribed, and every individual poem is assembled at runtime by the computer. Thus, Kompon defines the possibilities and the computer determines the particulars; in a sense, both human and machine contribute to the creation of the text through a relationship poet and scholar Aaron Tucker refers to as “human-machine co-authorship.”
“Generative Poetry” participates in a long tradition of homebrew text generation applications that includes MacProse by Charles O. Hartman (1996), Taroko Gorge by Nick Montfort (2009), and many others. Taroko Gorge is comparable to Kompon’s “Generative Poetry” in that it is constantly iterating and outputting new text drawn from a small pool of words, employing variations on limited imagery and syntax structure to produce an unending poem about nature and renewal. “Generative Poetry” adds an interesting dimension to the ephemerality of regenerative works in that its application has been minted to the Tezos blockchain, meaning that, although each poem lasts only a moment, the program itself has been permanently and immutable preserved. This is made possible by recent advances in decentralized data storage and persistent accessibility through the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), which hosts the actual files comprising Kompon’s application as inscribed on the blockchain.
Kompon wrote “Generative Poetry” in a form of Lua script optimized for use with PICO-8, a fantasy console that emulates the limited parameters of retro gaming consoles on modern computers. This imposes certain constraints on “Generative Poetry” that give it a retro feel, from the size of the application window to the default font and color palette. This is felt most potently in the line breaks imposed upon the poetry, which must wrap to a new line when the present one exceed 26 characters and fills the window. Though “Generative Poetry” depends on the fantasy console to execute its Lua script, PICO-8 is capable of bundling all the software necessary for a DIY application to run on its own, meaning a fully-functional stand-alone version of the application can be uploaded to and run from IPFS in perpetuity. In this context, “Generative Poetry” straddles the many important lines between permanence and impermanence, authorship and automation, and old-fashioned and cutting edge communications technologies.