Prepared fort the panel on ”Amplexus Poetics: Language, Art, and New Software Forms”, in the International Symposium for Electronic Art (ISEA) conference in Helsinki, August 20, 2004

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I want to start by reading a poem to you.

I was originally invited to this panel as a replacement for someone else, who had been forced to cancel their assignment. A few days ago when I last checked the information at the conference website, my name was still mistakenly attached to their  work, titled  Text Rain.

To try to live up to this “false” expectation, I decided to produce a piece of my own by the same title. This is a simple sound poem, not much digital to it, except perhaps for the fact that it – like much of my recent work – owes a lot to the existence of word processing technology. The Finns among you will hear it being “like” Finnish, and in fact it derives from pages in a Finnish dictionary, but as for the “meaning” of the poem, I think you will all be on an equal footing.

Text Rain

pa, ra, ta, aava, lava, ltava, stava, jettava, kettava, hteleva, tteleva, ileva, miva, oiva, lehtiva, nehtiva, e, di, li, mi, pi, atti, utti, hainen, aikainen, naikainen, anmukainen, enmukainen, alainen, aalainen, ialainen, aasialainen, oaasialainen, erikkalainen, frikkalainen, kalainen, malainen, asalainen, ksalainen, lilainen, nilainen, amainen, emainen, simainen, timainen, ivammainen, ovammainen, komainen, nomainen, tomainen, ainainen, vinainen, sainen, tainen, intainen, untainen, rtainen, mittainen, oittainen, binen, einen, kinen, iaalinen, uaalinen, ielinen, selinen, telinen, jallinen, kallinen, dellinen, heellinen, neellinen, atteellinen, etteellinen, isellinen, atuksellinen, stuksellinen, osellinen, illinen, ullinen, olinen, aminen, eminen, aninen, ininen, uninen, ioinen, koinen, loinen, moinen, poinen, etoinen, itoinen, akuntoinen, okuntoinen, voinen, erinen, orinen, satorinen, tatorinen, aktinen, ektinen, ristinen, tistinen, ostinen, ustinen, baattinen, iomaattinen, romaattinen, taattinen, vaattinen, uttinen, kuinen, muinen, suinen,  alaatuinen, tlaatuinen, siivinen, latiivinen, ratiivinen, rsatiivinen, usatiivinen, aktiivinen, fektiivinen, jektiivinen, kyinen, tyinen, äinen, operäinen, speräinen, katon, saamaton, taamaton, jamaton, tamaton, ematon, omaton, heeton, neeton, teeton, seton, iton, ston, ön, mo, aito, das, ekas, eikas, rikas, tikas, nas, ikavuus, ukavuus, lut, itunut, stunut, ettunut, ittunut, ku, tu, eä, vä

These 162 “words” were originally picked up from the “A” section in a standard Finnish-English dictionary, then shortened by cutting out all that is not “needed” for determining the order of the words in the dictionary. Thus, the following entires in an English dictionary:

affix
afflatus
afflict
affluence
afflux
afford

would yield:

ix
atus
ict
ence
x
ord

You got the point. Beside that, the only thing I did was to put the items “back” in alphabetic order – this time not based on their beginnings but their endings. Thus, the order of English “words” in my example would be: ord, ence, atus, ict, x, ix.

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I have two (or three) points to make in this presentation:

One: There may less “new” to the “new” “digital” “poetries” thank we often like to think.

Two: This “nothing new” may yet turn out to be the new (the news) in (and of) it. What is now often perceived as a host of new technologies, ways of writing, methods for manipulating text and language may come to be seen as making explicit something that “always was there” – in writing, and in writing poetry, in special. A new recognition of the “nothing new under the sun”…

As to an eventual third point, there just may lay hidden in that second one a certain conception of art as – dare I say – eternal, eternally same, eternally returning…

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I realize some of this may sound shockingly old-fashioned to many of you – so it is perhaps time to call in a couple of authorities, to testify in my case….

First, on a more theoretical note, I go for Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their Qu’est ce que c’est la philosophie?, which I translated into Finnish in the early 90’s. Unfortunately, I failed to locate a copy of the English translation, and then Google too refused its assistance. I also seem to have lost the original, so the only way was to translate the following from my own Finnish…

From Chapter 7 (on art and philosophy):

Art preserves – as nothing else in the world does. It preserves, and is preserved in itself. (…) In art, an object is primordially independent both from its “model” and from eventual other persons, who are objects-artists, personages in a painting breathing its air. It is also independent from the viewer or the listener, who are able to experience it only after the fact – assuming they have the power for that. What about the creator, then?Yes, the thing, the object, the girl [like one depicted in a painting] is independent from her/him too, through the self-positioning of what it creates-preserves. (…)The work of art (…) exists in itself.

For now, let me just point out this emphasis on preserving: art viewed as something that consists of stopping and halting (arracher), and that in itself is also very much depending on its ability to “stay as is”, to stand out, to preserve itself – as Deleuze and Guattari even say: “in eternity that is equivalent to this passing moment, this durée” (my emphasis). The postmodern masters seem to be a bit at odds with our fascination with movement, interaction, open-endedness…

On a much more practical level, which I intend to keep for a while now, I call up the  American literary critic, Marjorie Perloff, who starts her paper on “The Oulipo Factor — The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall” (Jacket 23) by referring to what is known as  the Spenserian stanza, famous for its “interlocking rhyme scheme (ababcdcdd), in which eight iambic pentameter lines are followed, to great effect, by a final alexandrine” as well as for “its complexity, and especially its deployment of the alexandrine” (Perloff).

Perloff then proceeds to examine the “‘mathematical’ poetry of Oulipo” –  something much more familiar to you, I bet, than the Spenserian stanza. For Perloff, of course, these two instances in the history of poetry differ from “the now dominant free verse” in their insistence on certain pre-formulated rules that the poet is supposed to follow – something dear to my own heart, as the poem I just read to you hopefully demonstrates.

I will skip the discussion on the interplay between the rule, the constraint, as the Oulipoean theoretics call it, and “the artist’s free will”.[1] Instead, let me emphasize the point that digital literature (whatever your definition for the term) is also very much rule-based in a rather strong meaning of the term. For me, there’s a fundamental equivalence between digital writing and poetry, so much so that I feel the term “digital poetry” to be a bit redundant. Yet, my enthusiasm here is not so much for the “poetic in the digital” than to the “technological in the poetic”. There’s an increasing awareness of writing, in the general meaning, being a technology; to me, (even the) old poetry is the same to a power x – as all the ancient masters, with their insistence on their work as “craftsmanship”, very well knew.

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Time to turn again to some examples of my own work.

My 1997 collection of “Dantean-Dadaistic” sonnets, Ääninen (“Lake Onega”), was an attempt to “revitalize” this respected old form (which, according to the received wisdom, never actually rooted into the Finnish literature in the first place), with a special emphasis on a certain aesthetics of clumsiness that somewhat naturally follows from cross-breeding, say, Petrarca with modern business jargon. The book was accompanied by a web interface, where the user could produce new syntactical and metrical sonnets based on a database containing all the words of the printed work. Of course, these “machine-generated” versions tended to be of varied quality, and often weren’t even funny as such, as the (exceptionally few) reviewers of the book were quick to note – but this is beside the point.  I know of many readers / users who spent hours marveling on the changing combinations of the words, the meaning or sense being “almost there”, then lost, and again “close” to something intelligible…(many confessed having felt addicted to the thing, not perhaps unlike being addicted to gaming…).

The same seems to be true about my more recent attempt at the field, the “Google Poem Generator”, available at my website:

http://www.leevilehto.net/google

as well as at Ubu Web

http://www.ubu.com/contemp/lehto/lehto.html

As samples of what the Google generator is capable of, I want to share with you two poems compiled just yesterday, specifically for this occasion. As with Google proper, the generator allows you to insert a search phrase, which is then used to retrieve a number of regular Google result pages, which again get parsed according to certain pre- or user-determined parameters. This retrieving and parsing happens  behind the scene; at the end the user is presented with a newly-generated poem with their search string as a title. They also have the possibility to choose between certain classical forms such as Sonnets, Pantoums, and Sestinas. I will stick to my own favorite, the Sonnet. Here is a new one, titled, not surprisingly perhaps, “Amplexus Poetics”:

eine maxi-CD bzw. – Thyestes har
3 BUNUEL Amplexus Poetics: Language, Art
Amplexus $184.50 Augur Kurt
omitted some entries very similar

omitted some entries very similar
Amplexus $184.50 Augur Kurt
04577/KA200013 Amplexus $184.50 Augur Kurt
we have omitted some entries very similar

in the – PGM NOTE : exploring
of Interaction and Behavior
3 BUNUEL Amplexus Poetics: Language, Art

– PPPPPP: Poems Performance Pieces Proses
and Poetics, 4-5. Aube – Millennium
Amplexus $184.50 Augur Kurt

The generator’s compliance to a metrical scheme is accidental at the best – nothing of the kind seems to happen here. But note that the rhyme scheme (abba abba) gets followed in the first part of the sonnet (the octet).

My second sample is on a theme a bit more familiar to the Google index – this time in the “English” rhyme scheme known as “Spencerian” (though not related to the Spencerian stanza mentioned above…): “Digital Poetry”:

Project. Below are resources and
on keyboard * After viewing enlargements
writes essays, fiction, poetry, and
poetry, and humor to – hypertexts

Day, may I suggest you invoke the sonnets
Electronic Poetry Center Note: Most
overview of digital poetry and fiction in its
‘Poems Collection’ and ‘Faust

has been misperceived in the last
poetry include Poems that Go, Kaldron, Light
to show the loneliness – our deepest
include Poems that Go, Kaldron, Light

for the 2004 Fellows of the Bluegrass
surface spectacle is the cultural

Here there are even hints of a metrical pattern being followed: “Day, may I suggest you invoke the sonnets”. I also kind of like this repeated Poundian-Eliotian “Go, Kaldon, Light”. Note also the almost fully accomplished rhyme scheme – the last, failing line seeming “almost” intended, as if an accomplished versifier had wanted to give a final personal touch to the stuff…

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To press my point further, I would claim that the eventual charms of this kind of work are directly related to our awareness of it’s being artificial, generated, unconnected, and crazy  – and here not unlike poetry, in those remote good old days of metrical rule, often used to be seen as produced by some higher spirit, dictated from higher echelons, gendered by inspiration (instead of the poets own will), detached from early concerns – and at the same time, also, not unlike how Deleuze and Guattari conceive the relation of art to world, to model, and to creator: “independent (…) from (…) model (…) personages (…) viewer (…) listener”, “exists in itself”.

Against this background, I like to see my work as cutting two ways. On one hand, I want it to subscribe to a certain long tradition where art has been seen (or executed, without the artist herself necessarily being aware of that) as something, yes, “in-itself” (regardless of whether you justified this by its being “higher”, or its being “art-machine” (Deleuze and Guattari)). This is the “always was there” part of my initial thesis. On the other hand, my work may be seen as a constant, even self-generating, critique of exactly those justifications – an ongoing unmasking of just the (mostly false) belief in art for its accomplishments sake, for the sake of what it “has  preserved”. It is as if I wanted some of my works to say: “Hey, humans, look, here’s something you thought you invented by yourself, believed to have come out of you – a stupid machine can do that!” I would like to see more machines like that. (And I once said in an interview that if we really started developing software to imitate and bring further the work of real-life writers, living or dead, the ones known as most personal and idiosyncratic would turn out to be the easiest to “copy”.)

This double perspective seems to bring in the question of time, so important to Deleuze and Guattari, among others. Instead of going deeper into it here, I want to rap it up in a couple of huge generalizations: The “nothing new” news is, after all, only possible through that “constant unmasking” mentioned above. To preserve is to destroy. To eternalize is to flee in a lightning speed. And to believe in “making new” is stopping to believe in any kind of progress in art. It’s all same stupid stuff over and over again.

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Finally, allow me to present a piece of advertising. Just this, the eternally same old stupid stuff, is the subject matter of my most recent work that was launched this very morning. Päivä [Day] is all the news issued by the Finnish News Agency (STT) exactly a year ago. It derives it’s inspiration from Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, only here the news got first split into sentences, and these again sorted in an alphabetical order. The first chapter, titled “A”, adequately begins: “The morning’s Helsingin Sanomat [the country’s leading newspaper] tells…” – the Finnish for “morning” being “aamu”, and thus high in the alphabetical order. This is a book of an infinite number of quick, surprising shifts, changes of perspective, and at the same time a poetic work rich in sound, alliteration, repetitive choruses, etc. And it’s all machine-made.

It is also a book with no preconceived relation to any one person, me, the writer, and me, the reader, included. It is something to be “done again” (and “made new”) in each reading. It is more about sentences as objects than about writing as description. It tells stories of the life of the writing, text, and language, of statements and declarations competing for the light of what is known as the public sphere.

It is constrain-based, much in the meaning spoken for by Marjorie Perloff in the above reference. As such, you could describe it by inverting poet Lin Hejinian’s well-known phrase, “language discovers what one might know”: Päivä is, rather, a work that might help “one discover what language knows”.

Goldsmith’s Day has been described as monument. Deleuze and Guattari, once more, also speak fondly of monument as a model for art. I like to see Päivä as a monument, both for one already remote day a year ago from now, and for writing trying – desperately, in vain? – to catch that day, to document and immortalize it. Other news have long since washed that writing away. In my work, its sentences are preserved – organized in the same flattening sequence the names of those killed in action are inscribed in real-life war-monuments. To make everything new every new second, while at the same time firmly believing to be building a monument – that might be my motto for “digital” poetry, digital “writing”.

1 I do think it’s possible to distinguish between two “forms” or “schools” of constraint-based writing: the “heroistic” one emphasizing the struggle and final victory of the artist over the constraint, on one hand, and the more “zen-inspired” one where simple obedience to the rule is enough and gets glorified, on the other. Kenny [Kenneth Goldsmith contributed to the same panel] was being quiet about his own work: while his Day, a “transcribing” of an entire issue of the world’s largest newspaper, The New York Times, is an heroic act in itself, he tends to me to fall in the later category, I myself being perhaps a borderline-case here.