Machines and poems
“To make two bold statements: There's nothing sentimental
about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made
out of words. When I say there's nothing sentimental about a
poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant. …
Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But
poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect
economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic,
undulant, a physical more than a literary character.”
(William Carlos Williams)
Looking at/looking through
A poem may be a machine, but it’s easy to get distracted by
meaning and not see the mechanisms working on us underneath.
Students often resist looking at the formal attributes of
poetry, preferring to stick with more familiar representational
aspects: imagery, metaphor, emotional resonance.
“People look for messages in poems; certainly most of my students
do, no mater how much I try to discourage them.” – PiotrGwiazda
Students are easily flummoxed by the economy of a
poem, preferring free expression to affordances and constraints.
Use digital literacy to better understand
the mechanisms of a poem
“Digital literacy means not rote learning but
experimentation, process, creativity, not just technology but
multimedia imagination, expression–and principles too.” –
So, let’s see if we can do an experiment in multimedia
Use a poem to better understand
The plan: try working with a couple of key digital concepts
that literature students tend to avoid (often on purpose):
Encoding: writing is a code, not a conveyor of transparent
Algorithm: understanding a poem as programmatic, i.e.
constructed according to a set of procedures
A “sonnet sequence” that takes students through a series of
“translation exercises” converting a single poem into several
To be run in stages over the course of a semester, with
students working in pairs
Constraints & Economy: all work must be done in class
during the time provided
To remove the “fear factor” and encourage
experimentation, the sequence is graded solely on
completion of all tasks
Shakespeare’s 14th sonnet
Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck,
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good, or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality,
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell;
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well
By oft predict that I in heaven find.
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And constant stars in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive
If from thy self, to store thou wouldst convert:
Or else of thee this I prognosticate,
Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.
Exercise 1: qualitative/narrative
Convert a Shakespeare sonnet into a non-textual format.
You're accustomed to doing "readings" of literature and
producing a specific kind of output: a paper. In this
exercise, the "input" will be the same (requiring the critical
reading apparatus you should have gained as an English
major), but the "output" will be different. Thus it will
require two sets of skills.
Working in dimensions
Key concept: “dimensions.”
In this context, dimensions are qualities that can be used to structure a
piece of information. (Concept from Edward Tufte)
Dimensions could include anything that can be quantified or grouped,
for example, “duration”, “distance,” “weather,” “vision.”
A dimension is useful for identifying structure and pattern in poems –
for example, the “primary dimension” would be analogous to the
“conceptual metaphor” that helps structure the poem.
This exercise was used in conjunction with a parallel project students
were working on in which they had to create a wordless biography.
Students identified and came up with sample visual representations for
each dimension (e.g. clock=time, eye=vision), and then created an
object that expressed the poem in some way.
What came back
A four-box diorama (one box representing each quatrain)
containing objects representing words in the poem
A clock showing the stages of reproductive life with eyes on
the hands (time, vision)
A zodiac mobile (fortune telling, stars)
A sliding puppet show, with a figure moving back and forth
(past, present and future) to death and back again
Exercise 2: encode/decode
Key concepts: encoding schema, lossy/lossless
A schema: a set of rules or agreed-upon language that is used
to encode a piece of text
Lossy& lossless: Are you going to encode the whole poem, or
just key parts of it?
The assignment: choose an encoding schema, use it to
translate the poem into another format, and then provide a
The encoding could be of the structure of the poem (ie
quatrains, iambs etc) or of the words themselves
What came back
A braided cord using color-coded thread to represent key
imagery, along with a cord/card decoder
A Braille poem using beads and thread, with color-coded
beads for the words and thread to mark out different parts of
An envelope system in which each line was translated from
letters to a 5-digit number. The number became a zip code,
and each envelope was addressed to a real-life address that
represented a word in the poem (e.g. “doom” in the last line
means the envelope is addressed to a cemetery)
Exercise 3: Algorithm
Create a “program” that will “build” the poem when
The program is explained as a kind of “recipe,” which has the
benefit of several key computing concepts:
Procedure: series of instructions
Function (small procedure that can be repeated over when
(maybe, stretching the analogy a bit): objects, small
preassembled “ingredients” that can be combined
What came back
A burger assembly box, in which the user assembled the
poem using burger buns to represent each quatrain, and a
patty and toppings to represent various parts of speech.
A Jenga tower, in which users built a tower according to a set
of instructions (requiring them to write key words and
concepts on the blocks), and then knocked it down at the end
(to signify “doom”)
A Lego set for building a color-coded representation of
quatrains & iambs.
They knew the poem inside and out by the end of the
semester. Or at least, would never forget what a quatrain
Because the sequence was not graded, students were free to
experiment and take risks without anxiety about the results
(and they did!)
Because the sequence was done in class only, students were
able to see each others’ working habits and thought processes
as they happened.
One of the issues with using the Internet for research in general
is that it tends to provide “surface knowledge” in which
students find it easy to find an initial layer of information but
often don’t go any deeper.
This project did not necessarily solve the problem: students
were easily tempted by the multitudes of plug-in “translation”
tools online. It thus required a lot of supervision to make
sure they were not taking the “easy route.”
Students who did best at these assignments tended to be very
detail-oriented in their other work and thoughtful in class
Less well-prepared students were more likely to have trouble
coming up with an initial plan, and had a tendency to rely on
“translation tools” and not spend time on presentation.
For some reason, the class quickly segregated into “boy groups”
and “girl groups.” I attribute this to the “craft factor,” maybe?
As the semester moved on, the projects became *more* detailed
and imaginative, rather than less. This could be a function of
seeing other students’ work, or the lack of grading anxiety that
tends to move them towards conservatism as the semester
progresses, or the blocking out of time in class so that students
were not forced to choose how to spend their time.