“Pentametron” by Ranjit Bhatnagar

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Open “Pentametron” by Ranjit Bhatnagar

This bot generates poetry by sifting through 10% of all Tweets, parsing them with a dictionary for the pronunciation data, and identifying the ones that happen to scan as iambic pentameter. It then organizes the tweets into rhyming couplets and publishes them in Twitter by retweeting the original postings. Finally, it aggregates them into the shape of a Shakespearean sonnet in a website (Pentametron.com) that offers a sequence of 14 sonnets. Every hour, a new couplet is posted, changing all 14 sonnets as one couplet enters the sequence of 98 couplets and the oldest couplet, the final volta, exits the collection.

The resulting output, whether an hourly stream of couplets or a sonnet sequence begin as witty pairings and slowly devolve into meaninglessness as they are organized into larger structures. Such is the nature of texts: the longer they are, the greater the need for human cognitive guidance— whether by direct or programmed choices. As sophisticated as the distillation process to data mine these metrical lines from the Twitterstream is, the sonnet assembly needs further development to produce more sophisticated results. The couplets are an impressive exercise in juxtaposition, however, producing surprising and humorous results that human readers will be more than willing to play along with.

This project succeeds as Conceptual or Flarf poetry— a wonderful data mining study of the language that flows through Twitter, discovering moments in which our writing falls into a foundational pattern in modern English prosody. The mechanical selection of perfect iambic pentameter lines is made fresher by the imprecision of its methods and the phonemic chemistry of each line. And the spontaneous quality of much writing in Twitter makes that language closer to speech, breathing some life into the lines.

The digital humanities have developed methods for analyzing huge amounts of text, performing what Franco Moretti famously calls “distant reading.” Bhatnagar has produced a work of electronic literature using similar methods. Could this be called “distant writing?”

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