‘A Machine Made of Words by a Machine Made of Numbers’: Marko Niemi’s Stud Poetry


Primary Text: Marko Niemi’s Stud Poetry, a demo of which would run during the presentation.

The paper opens with a brief discussion of the inherently conservative nature of the ELO’s definition of electronic-literature and the critical tendencies which this encourages. It has a strong focus on those critics who identify the forms which electronic literature has taken as an extension of modernist experimentation in the Twentieth Century, while disregarding the new possibilities which programmable media furnishes the poet with.

These possibilities are manifest in Niemi’s Stud Poetry, a text which has been consistently overlooked since its publication, perhaps because it presents a challenge to the dominant critical trends. Stud Poetry cannot fully be understood in terms of print-based modernist experimentation, Dada or Burroughs, because it would be impossible to achieve without a computer program. Niemi wrote the code which ‘writes’ each poem/game.

‘The text’ is thus suspended somewhere in between each iteration as it appears to the user, and the overarching structure provided by the code. Niemi selects the program’s vocabulary, the rules which it must adhere to, the inputs which a user can make, and the probabilities which determine the text’s production, but remains one step removed from the text as it appears on screen. Some control, in the shape of the buttons at the bottom of the screen, is given over to the user- who plays the role of glamorous assistant to Niemi’s conjurer and follows his prompts as the poem/game progresses.

The only serious attempt to critique this relationship as it exists within Stud Poetry is available on C. T. Funkhouser’s New Directions in Poetry website after it was omitted from the print version. Funkhouser’s reading is fundamentally flawed as he misreads the code and believes it impossible to learn from each hand. The value of the words is calculated only once, at the beginning of the game and not at the beginning of each hand as Funkhouser has it. Through experience of the text, the user gains increasing control of it as they understand the value of each word, and can predict with increasing accuracy the way the poem/game will proceed, while recognising that an element of uncertainty is involved. The element of competition quickly creates a narrative.

With its random-generation and interactivity, Stud Poetry is authored by Niemi without being controlled by him. He uses internet poker as a form, as a print poet might use a sonnet, but his is the more radical utilisation as it challenges what can be conceived of as literature, and where ‘the text’ may be in a work of this kind. His poem/game embodies the challenge which electronic literature poses to print literature, and should be recognised with discussion at a major conference rather than becoming an anomaly or outlier of the Electronic Literature Collection.