Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Serendipitous Poetry from the New York Times

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.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


July's a little late in the year for cherry blossoms, but I still like what Poesytron did with this one:

Beaches, abalone.
Lovers.  A surf.  The cherry
blossoms on July.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Belches melt

Belches melt.
Seven songs,
full nights,
those nights.
the tiny,

Belches air--sky.
Memories--the weaver's.
The mouse eve.
The cleaves dance.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Nobody's going.
Couple. Edge. Saying goodbye.
Wind one perfuming.

Spruce tree, autumn piled
leaves. Nobody's going to
mountain reflected.

Nobody's away.
The ruins house burnt mosquitoes.
Burnt there is rising.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Smells in you pleasure

Biggest. Prettiest.
The grave smells in you pleasure,
the peach white twilight.

If "biggest prettiest" seems familiar, it should.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Everything spring, and
in dance, soft march a to thought.
Buddha praying day.

Wrinkles not is her,
gathers twilight, march slowly,
shift flower's, his with-

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Winter Remembering

Leaving a candle,
only winter remembering
in night shadow eyes.

This is the first of Poesytron's poems to literally give me chills.  I post a lot of nonsense here, and that's even after sorting out the really bad output that makes absolutely no sense, no matter how hard I try.  (In case you're wondering, of all the output that I go through, I consider slightly less than half of it worthy of posting.)

But the question I've been asking all along is, if I give a computer some poems, and some simple rules for selecting words out of those poems, can it create meaning?  And if it can, can it create unique meaning--and say something new with the words it rearranges?

And this haiku gives me a resounding YES to that question.  One haiku in the input database Poesytron draws on uses both "candle" and "winter," and another haiku entirely uses "winter" and "remembering."  There is not a single haiku that uses both "candle" and "remembering"--and yet those two ideas work well thematically, linked by a common thread.  And the same can be said for any three words in this haiku.

This doesn't always happen.  I've talked before of Poesytron getting stuck on one haiku in the database, and if that were the case here, I wouldn't be so excited about this result.

Sure, there's some luck involved.  This haiku somehow came together syntactically as well as thematically.  Most of Poesytron's haiku have at least one "a," "of," or "the," stuck in just the right spot to break the syntax and jar the reader out of any potential flow to the poem.  But my goal isn't to give Poesytron an exhaustive list of rules and parameters to try and make it as complexly human as possible.  To paraphrase the great economist E.F. Schumacher, "Any fool can make something complex, but it takes a touch of genius to move in the opposite direction."  My goal is to find out how few rules you need before you generate something more or less "human"--and then, of course, to explore what that means for us as readers as we encounter poems like the one above.  What happens to the obvious "meaning" of the poem when we know Poesytron had no intention behind it?

I don't even begin to have an answer for that yet.  All I know is I find a poignancy in this haiku, and that isn't something that even I expected Poesytron to be able to achieve yet.