Yesterday Times Haiku launched on tumblr, posting finds from a computer algorithm written to find unintentional haiku in the New York Times. Like other "found" poetry algorithms I've posted about before, it starts with a simple premise of scanning sentences for syllable counts. (Poesytron also starts with syllable counts, and in its simplest form, ends there.) But the creator, Jacob Harris, Senior Software Architect and self-described "news hacker" for the Times, has added a few bells and whistles to the program that give the end result real beauty and elegance.
First is the added visual element that's incorporated. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how I present Poesytron's haiku visually, and have opted to make decisions on punctuation, syntax, and layout myself (given that these are very difficult things to make a computer program do). Harris has instead opted to present every haiku in a left-justified, five-seven-five layout, but has added a visual element that can be determined by a program:
"On every image, you’ll notice a seemingly random background pattern of colored lines. The different orientations of those lines are computer-generated according to the meter of the first line of the poem."
Second is linking each haiku back to the Times article it came from. Found poetry has, by its very nature, an incredibly ephemeral quality to it: the act of discovering unintentional poems is happenstance, serendipitous, and dependent on where you happen to be looking at that very moment. Assigning a computer program to do the looking for you (as opposed to finding haiku in newspapers with a human eye) does not erase those qualities from found poetry. The Times Haiku algorithm checks the New York Times homepage for newly published articles several times a day. So the haiku you see on the front page of the tumblr are inextricably linked to what's in the news in the past few days, and gradually an archive of daily-news ephemera will build up on the site. And yet, the links make it possible to instantly put the haiku back into their original context, which is not something I've seen with found poetry before.
I'm definitely looking forward to watching the Times Haiku project unfold.