Saturday, March 15, 2014


Sea and Spar Between
a poetry generator

Each Second is the last
Perhaps, recalls the Man
Just measuring unconsciousness
The Sea and Spar between.
—Emily Dickinson, 879

Sea and Spar Between is a poetry generator that generates 225 trillion stanzas -- they are invisible, because that number exceeds what can ever be humanly viewed, or even accessed by any current reading modes. More than 99 percent will remain invisible to any reader, even though it is all accessible by longitude/latitude number and the code too is available (and has been used by others to do their pieces) and the text too is familiar, being drawn from the lexicons of Moby Dick and Emily Dickinson poems.  Stuart Moulthrop calls this characteristic  "failure to contain." -- Stephanie Strickland

A comprehensive project description of Sea and Spar Between is available on DEAR NAVIGATOR (click on link).  The link also contains a link to the generated stanzas.  The following describes the stanzas:

The Stanzas
The words in Sea and Spar Between come from Emily Dickinson’s poems and Herman Melville’sMoby Dick. Certain compound words (kennings) are assembled from words used frequently by one or both. Sea and Spar Between was composed using the basic digital technique of counting, which allows for the quantitative analysis of literary texts. We considered, for instance, words that were used by only one of the two authors. We also looked at certain easily enumerated, characteristic categories of words, such as those ending in “less.”
The human/analog element involved jointly selecting small samples of words from the authors’ lexicons and inventing a few ways of generating lines. We did this not quantitatively, but based on our long acquaintance with the distinguishing textual rhythms and rhetorical gestures of Melville and Dickinson.
The resulting code tells the story in detail: A first line uses either shortLine(), oneNounLine(), or compoundCourseLine(). A second line uses either riseAndGoLine(), butLine(), exclaimLine(), or nailedLine(). The ways these specific types of lines are generated, and the ways the stanzas are arranged, can all be traced in the JavaScript program that implements Sea and Spar Between. This program, which includes the arrays holding all of the words used, is fairly small and simple. For instance, the Sea and Spar Between code, without comments, has fewer characters than the file that implements the vector font.

Here are some sample stanzas (if you type the coordinates in the box at the bottom of the page you can recreate these):

plunge on
   sightless move and go
plunge on
   nailed to the pole

one leg one pain one fear one joy
   another! alone!
fix upon the binbead course
   then threadless is the sun 

Within the poetry generator, the stanzas appear on a field that looks like this image below. When one clicks on a stanza, a different stanza will appear.

Nick Montfort develops literary generators and other computational art and poetry. He has participated in dozens of literary and academic collaborations. He is associate professor of digital media at MIT and faculty advisor for the Electronic Literature Organization, whose Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1 he co-edited. Montfort wrote the book of poems Riddle & Bind and co-wrote 2002. The MIT Press has published four of Montfort's collaborative and individually-authored books: The New Media Reader, Twisty Little Passages, Racing the Beam, and most recently 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, a collaboration with nine other authors that Montfort organized.

Stephanie Strickland’s 7th book of poems, Dragon Logic, was published by Ahsahta in 2013. Ahsahta also published Zone : Zero(book + CD), her prior work. She has collaborated on 9 digital poems, most recently Sea and Spar Between and Duels—Duets with Nick Montfort and House of Trust with Ian Hatcher. V : WaveTercets / Losing L’una, originally an award-winning volume from Penguin, has just been re-issued—with many changes—from SpringGunwith accompanying app for iPad. Recent writing has appeared in Boston Review, Vlak, and Best American Poetry 2013. A member of the Board of Directors of the Electronic Literature Organization, she co-edited Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1. For more information about her work, go to

(Photo: copyright Star Black)

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