Reading the Drones: Working Towards a Critical Tradition of Interactive Poetry Generation


Computer-generated poetry is now almost sixty years old, stretching from the work of Christopher Strachey, Jackson Mac Low and Theo Lutz in the 1950s to the wealth of interactive poetry generators freely available online today. According to Antonio Roque, this history comprises four distinct (but overlapping) ‘traditions’: the Poetic; the Oulipo; the Programming; and the Research. But despite the inherent ‘literariness’ of the enterprise, one tradition is conspicuous by its absence: the ‘Critical’. It is the object of this paper to rectify this omission, proposing a mode of critical engagement that might allow interactive poetry generators to be naturalised as objects of textual study according to the protocols of literary criticism. It seeks to achieve this by means of a comparative analysis between what might be construed as the first interactive poetry generator – Tristan Tzara’s ‘How to Make a Dadaist Poem’ – and one of the most recent (and most powerful) – Chris Westbury’s JanusNode. It argues that a full critical understanding of Tzara’s text can only proceed from a phenomenological engagement attentive to the 'reader-plays-poet dynamic' that is a feature of any ‘Dadaist poem’. This approach is then applied to present-day interactive poetry generators via an interface-centred close reading of JanusNode that draws on the phenomenology of Gaston Bachelard and the work of concrete poets such as Eugen Gomringer. This analysis serves to assert the literary pedigree of interactive poetry generation and, more importantly, establishes some ways to critically fix a textual object for which flux might be said to be a primary characteristic. Previous to the advent of the web, the failure of literary criticism to engage with poetry generation might be excused, as the critic’s access was limited by problems of distribution and resources and a lack of specialised knowledge. In the contemporary online environment, however, this failure is no longer tenable. This paper strives to encourage deeper critical engagement with interactive poetry generation and the recognition that these programs constitute virtual aesthetic objects in their own right worthy of literary study. Furthermore, it aims to engage Roque's other ‘traditions’ in dialogue, in the hope of further developing and extending the myriad possibilities of poetry generation.