“Frequency [Tanka, Haiku]” by Scott Rettberg and the machine (part 2 of 5)

house is not the same
way different than before
ask them to end it
old men just want it to end
that you will take to the air

This poem’s brief title suggests a relationship near its end, one with a past that was better but in which life together is no longer tenable. The speaker addresses the other person in the relationship, asking him or her to confer with others in their life to end the relationship and fly away. This is particularly poignant when we consider that tanka has a strong cultural association with lovers exchanging coded messages. Other tanka in this sequence provide a similarly themed and textured language with a remarkable sense of cohesion. Is it the brevity of the poems that keep their short lines somewhat related? Let’s test this against an even shorter Japanese poetic form, the haiku.

Haiku became prominent in Imagist Poetry because of their compression and focus on images. Consisting of three lines— a 7-syllable line preceded and followed by a 5-syllable line— this form juxtaposes images, along with an understated comment and a seasonal reference. Haiku were used to punctuate moments in larger poetic sequences, thought they are often read and appreciated in isolation.

Haiku are not difficult to generate based on syllable count, and non-sequiturs actually suit the form nicely because they allow readers, but the seasonal or natural reference is trickier, given that only four words in the original data set— water, air, animal, and oil— belong to nature. Knowing about the thematic constraint helps, because the mind will interpret seasonal references in the context of the form when it might not have otherwise.


other than this world
thing that will be good for us
day is still to come

Rettberg is no stranger to inverting a nature reference with an urban one, as he did with Tokyo Garage, but there aren’t many more urban words in the original data set. These 200 most common words (“these base units of our language” as he intuitively calls them) seem to be very close to the core of human experience: basic needs, such as relationships with other people. It is little surprise that the lines he wrote revolve around human relationships, as can be seen in the haiku above (and many others).

The word cloud at the top of this entry is a Wordle visualization of the 50 most commonly used words in Rettberg’s 2000 lines (as is the case of the variable name “frequency”— not really a part of the data set, so please disregard). This analysis highlights word choices which are the building blocks for a recurrent theme brought out by reading the tanka and haiku generated by this program.

Rettberg wrote and the machine revealed some of what he had to say through these short poems. I wonder what the longer, more complex poetic forms will reveal both about his thematic concerns and how the output of this generator fits within its traditions.

Featured in: The “Frequency” Series