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This trio of bots by Mark Sample present riffs on three of the most famous poems of the early Twentieth Century: William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just to Say,” and Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” The bots generate new versions of the poems by randomly altering most of the open word classes while keeping the basic syntax, meter and lineation intact, tweeting a new mutation once every two hours (though at the time of writing @DependsUponBot has been inactive since December 2014, for reasons unknown —editor’s note: it has now resumed operations). To my mind, the pleasure of these bots’ tweets lies in the discrepancy between the familiarity of the syntactical structure and the limit-case absurdity of the randomly generated content. For example, the sublime juxtaposition Pound presents the reader –
IN A STATION OF THE METRO
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black, bough.
– yields to a contorted effort, a struggle – and, most often, a failure – to find a similarly apt superimposition in the output of @BlackBoughBot:
IN A DRUGSTORE OF THE METRO
The attractiveness of these marshes in the snout:
Pictures on a damned, fell drought.
— Ezra Pound Sign (@BlackBoughBot) January 15, 2015
All the same, there is an underlying sense – in the syntax and its accumulated literary significance – that the potential for superimposition is there.
In a similar move, “This Is Just to Say” at once retains and joyfully contradicts the intimacy of Williams’s original, keeping the line “Forgive me” intact throughout, even as the original poem’s ‘plums’ give way to, for example, ‘Pueblos’ – ‘interstellar’, ‘seasonless’ and ‘unsuggestive’ – among innumerable other possibilities.
I have eaten
that were in
They were interstellar
and so unsuggestive
— This Is Just to Say (@JustToSayBot) January 17, 2015
Likewise “So Much Depends Upon.” As the beauty, formal radicalism and intervening years of scholarship lend Williams’s poem a gravitas beyond the sum of its slight parts –
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
– so traces of that gravitas remain (or at least, feel like they should) even when the objects of rural domesticity are replaced with such a patently nonsensical array as this:
so much depends
a rapt flank
phased with swart
beside the bronzed
— So Much Depends Upon (@DependsUponBot) December 3, 2014
“So much depends on what?!” we might ask. In a world where Doge memes become cultural currency overnight, and passé just as quickly, that’s surely a question worth asking. So language. Much depends. Wow.
These poems are keystones of Imagism, that early modernist movement in poetry that strove for brevity, objectivity, and precision. In one sense, then, they have a deep kinship with the tweet, having each been composed of 140 characters or less. But Pound also said that “[i]t is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.” These bots – and, arguably, Twitter in general – run contrary to this maxim, prizing flux and ephemerality over the permanence Pound sought. It is curious to note that roughly contemporaneous with the composition of these modernist classics, Tristan Tzara’s “How to Make a Dadaist Poem” was setting forth a radical antithesis to Pound’s position, advocating an entirely unconscious, chance-based literature.
These bots show an unlikely convergence of these two disparate avant-garde tendencies that both celebrates and subverts the enduring power of Pound’s and Williams’s work. They prove that in the twenty-first century, modernism doesn’t die. It just gets rolled like one, again and again and again.