Don Shea Don Shea, Writer & Editor
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The two sets of poems below were written by an IBM 360 computer. They were selected from thousands of stanzas and are unaltered with the exception of punctuation. One set was published in Quickly Aging Here, a Doubleday Anchor anthology. The other was published in Ralph Ginsburg's Avant Guarde magazine.

The idea for the program occurred to me after reading Noam Chomsky's theories of a generative grammar hard wired in the brain where syntax, rather than semantics, is the key to meaning. To illustrate this concept, Chomsky composed the now famous sentence: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." This sounds okay because the grammatical syntax is correct, yet semantically it makes no sense — colorless and green are contradictory, neither adjective can factually describe ideas, ideas can't sleep, and you can't sleep furiously. This rather poetic sentence* led to the thought: what would you get if you programmed the syntax (grammar) and let the semantics (words) be random?

I programmed the computer to assemble and print common grammatical structures in a variety of verse forms. The input was randomized words with syntactic codes and in some cases, codes indicating tense and number. To prepare input for the program, I had to address the question: What constitutes a poetic vocabulary? I could find no theoretical guidelines here, so I chose what seemed like a fairly eclectic group of poems and built from them a vocabulary of roughly 3,000 words — the poets included Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Jeffers, Robert Lowell, Frost, Stevens, Williams, Pound, Eliot and Cummings.

I believe that the response to an excellent poem in a book of poetry is the response to some mood or condition, uniquely human, which is expressed with particular urgency, grace, or evocative power. But I would suggest that the method of evoking the response is purely abstract. A word or sentence spoken face to face is a total physiological expression, replete with gesture and intonation, while a combination of words on a printed page is a very different thing. My point is that the question of meaning must be distinguished from the question of genesis; intelligibility, at whatever level, does not depend on human production. It depends on human interpretation. The question is not how what we read was written, but rather, how we understand and respond to what we read.

*A literary competition was held at Stanford University in 1985, in which the contestants were invited to make Chomsky's sentence meaningful using not more than 100 words of prose or 14 lines of verse.

Doubleday Anchor, 1969, Ed. Geof Hewitt

Never to Visit You

Never to visit you
morning held the circle.
My eyes marry
hour by hour
white stripes cut
with your invective.
As one always ruined
you may be consoled.

Curious, nobody turned
to discover the air
moving always.

A direction turns each of us —
I would give the words
A dry month. Lives.
Sheep hold the wind.
Night after night
Privacy changes.

In the News

In the news
The earth beats
the skull.
Secretly the nerves
blush less vividly
than before.
Meat hungers
in meditation.
To have seven tulips—
too soon.

Pale New Lights Cling

Pale new lights cling
to flourish your pillow
Silken emotions carry
you carefully.
Taste and touch
started these fields.
Your riches sleep
out of speech
passion all the while
Pale, having loved, the master
enters your window.
All the privacy to be
Somebody's home
at the center of this show.

Her Skin Runs—White Stripes

Her skin runs—white stripes.
The season suspended forms
to count.

His own mounded darkness stains

The maze, all of privacy
to be, trembles.
The candles, like western stars,
grotesquely answer
teeth. Within, sensual inlays
acutely run.

Secretive, the nerves dance.
The loom of days washes away hooded night

The Inhuman Rain Rejoiced

Black, the sun floats melting,
Solitary rocks, moss glow,
Naked, something cringes.

The sun carries mounded darkness
On the side of inland mountains.
Nobody will believe the baby.

Disguised, unnatural ways grew.
High, the dark ocean meditates
Something ailing, nameless—a cask.

The elementary mists clutch
Needles fleeing black pastures.
Nothing walks moving out from thorns.

The Magic Idle Windy Spaces

The magic idle windy spaces
alone had not touched
the goat. Ah, soft, a good autumn

A corner, with his own, somewhere
softly meets.

At the center of their fingernails,
privacy changes.

September 1968

The Heiress

The heiress above writhing mists walks,
the next room beyond ruined the future
Certainty used to lead
hermits flowering the toughest tinted distances.

To rest hermits
to feel
to die
the red love cars first entered.

Vertical blossoms take enlarging in love cars.
Tarnished eyelids of stone cringe equally in the future.
Obsolete gossip lives pretending rocks, moss.

To be rocks, moss,
Curious the moon blushed.

Glistening, a footstep blushed.
It is his poison
The greediest spring snow excites.

Nobody by simple spring snow
alone floats
the moon on the toughest seven tulips.

Seven tulips killed light.
The toughest gossip cringes.
The seal cannot be
After the doorway.

Bright, the heiress admires to die watching
Pungent joy killed within love cars.


Taste and touch brighten spring snow.
Weeds brought the refusal

Weeds loitered beneath western stars.
The earth catwalks the east rim
less vividly.

To rest the earth,
to have fog breath,
the little western stars fought.

A Lioness

Upon the shore
all night,
frigid, final,
a lioness says —

After a river,
too soon
to feel
shining meat eating emotion.

The Steel

Veins rouse the steel.
Joy protracts the direction.

Mists, utter the statues.
Red fire weaves lovers.

Naked pleasures begin.
The steel.


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