Generative Poem reflections

1. The making of Tomahawk Girl

I began work on my generative poem by considering the restraints of the title: a “t” word followed by a “g” word. To maintain the integrity of the original poem structure, I sought to craft a title with a three-syllable “t” word and a single-syllable “g” word. I wrote down a couple of each under two columns and matched the ones I thought would work together best. “Tomahawk” was more evocative and interesting than “telephone” or “tapestry,” and, when coupled with “girl,” I knew I’d inadvertently created a superheroine.

I don’t normally compose poetry, but I enjoyed this level of experimentation. Accounting for the changes in the syntax of my words required me to think about what story I wanted to tell and how. Tomahawk Girl is the heroine, and the Hatchet Guys are the villains … or are they? When I entered those words into the code to appear at the beginning or the end of the lines, the idea seemed ambiguous. I originally envisioned a battle between the two in a good vs. evil sense, but the code proved the story could be so much more.

The random text generation proved for some truly satisfying lines. “Shed the red” and “embrace the dark cold veins” sound like they came right out of a comic book superhero story. Tomahawks clashing with shields, blades spilling sinew and spikes cutting bone — all good stuff. The poem retained the gory, epic nature I had originally intended, but by leaving myself to the mercy of the code, the words acquired a whole new dimension of meaning. Being willing to relinquish some of the authorship to the code allowed for the poem to turn out the way it did; I never would have created something I could be so happy with if I had tried to micromanage the text.

2. On Ergodic literature

Though seemingly disparate forms of literature, print poems and ergodic poems share common central elements. Both forms of literature ask the reader to construct meaning from words, interpreting the author’s message or crafting a message of his or her own. Though print text is static, its meaning can change over time for a reader. Just like how a text’s meaning can change for a reader over the course of his or her life, ergodic literature’s meaning can change at a much faster rate, thanks to text generation programs. Both can also place restrictions on the author in terms of form. For example, sonnet writers must work within the space of 14 lines allotted to them, and haiku writers must meet a strict syllable length. Ergodic poetry, too, can demand the writer frame his or her work inside a set of rules. The defining difference between traditional and ergodic literature, according to Espen J. Aarseth, is that ergodic literature requires a higher degree of participation from the reader than traditional text does.

With generative poems like Tomahawk Girl, the story unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, throwing new meanings and perspectives at the reader with each new line. One might be inclined to think that the sentences formed by the code are jumbled, empty phrases slapped together, without the attention to detail seen in poetry composed by a human mind. One must adopt an attitude of giving “nontrivial effort” to consuming the information in the text, as Aarseth puts it, which we as readers tend to struggle with. We have been framing electronic literature and ergodic literature in the same context of print literature, quick to point to the former as “wrong” because it breaks tradition. We need to communicate with ergodic literature on its own terms, as John Slatin writes, because it a new medium, a separate beast from print media. Elit demands that we think associatively, a more natural way of thinking, Slatin writes, rather than sequentially, which print books have conditioned us to do. So, criticizing Tomahawk Girl for changing the story from one reading to the next because “that’s not what literature is supposed to do” does not carry any weight. The heroine or the villain may emerge victorious, based on which words the code generates, but the differing storylines lend to the crux of the plot I want to deliver: Who, really, is the villain?


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