Procedural Poetry

Throughout the 20th century, some poets have used procedures to produce poems rather than relying on "inspiration." The dada movement employed chance as a method. More recently, a group called the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop of potential literature), or OuLiPo, uses processes based on mathematical algorithms to write new literature. The art movement Fluxus has produced mail art, which uses the mail as a medium for a flow of art and which has led to the development of on-line chat, network, email, and FTP exchange of poetry. These movements all use procedures of various sorts to manipulate meaning through art.

For example, composer and poet John cage wrote "mesostic" poems, which are procedural poems related to concrete poetry (see visual poetry). This method involves the use of an array of typefaces and sizes from Letraset letter stickers, which graphic designers used before computers were used for typesetting. Cage created his mesostics by generating numbers using the I Ching to help him compose the poem. He later replaced this procedure with computer programs built to his specifications, operating on texts he chose. In this way he reduced human intention in the writings. Jackson mac low, an artist associated with Fluxus, creates "diastic texts," which, like mesostics, are related to acrostic poems. Diastic texts "read through" and select words from one text (the "text bed") with a piece of that text (the "seed text") chosen by the maker. For example, to make his poem "Words nd Ends from Ez," Mac Low used Ezra pound's cantos as a text bed and Pound's name as a seed text: The first word of Mac Low's diastic poem is the first word in The Cantos beginning with e, the first letter of Ezra Pound's name. The second selection is a fragment consisting of the next 2 in The Cantos and the letter in front of it (so that "z" is the second letter of the fragment). The understanding of fragments was important to Pound in the writing of The Cantos; thus this diastic comments on its source. Charles O. Hartman created DIASTEXT, a computer program that mimics some of Mac Low's diastic procedures. Hartman and Hugh Kenner used DIASTEXT and other programs to create poems from text beds. Mac Low himself began to use DIASTEXT rather than his manual process.

Electronic availability of literature makes creating procedural poems based on existing texts easy. "Poem generator" programs use text beds, dictionaries, and concordances to generate their "computer written" poems. Other programs manipulate input words into forms of light poetry, such as the limerick. Influenced by procedural poetry, "cyberpoets" closely examine the possibilities of analogy, metaphor, and logic to determine new procedures to generate new poems. Thus procedure in this particular sort of new cyberpoetry replaces traditional form.

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