Pentametron 2013: “A Virtual Ted Berrigan for the Masses”

In case you aren’t completely sick of year-end “best of” lists, here’s one more.  For his entry on a “Best of the Internet 2013” list on the website The Bygone Bureau, Nick Moran chooses Pentametron 2013, a rather fun and fascinating Twitter phenomenon I hadn’t heard of before.  (Apparently, it’s been discussed quite a bit this year, but I must’ve missed it).

As Moran describes it

Using a basic algorithm, Pentametron combs the entirety of Twitter in real time for rhyming tweets written in the English language (or, at the very least, containing words with English characters). It has two criteria: tweets must be ten syllables long; and they must be written in Iambic pentameter. The account then retweets a pair of these tweets every hour on the hour. (Presumably forever.)

The examples Moran gives are amusing and compelling, and it sounds like this “robot poet” is an interesting twist on the current fascination in poetry circles with appropriation, uncreative writing, Flarf and other efforts to use language found on the web for poetic purposes. Maybe it can also serve as an antidote to the wave of disappointment that recently followed the revelation that another Twitter feed, Horse_eBooks — which was supposedly churning out oddly poetic, randomly generated found internet language — was actually a hoax.

As Moran notes, the “couplets are vulgar as often as they aren’t, and more than anything they’re mundane. But in their very essence they do a marvelous job of taking the vast sea of content heaped out into the open and carving that heap into a work of art.”

But Moran, refreshingly, also connects “Pentametron 2013” to Ted Berrigan’s landmark 1963 book The Sonnets: 

Have you read The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan? The story is that during the early 1960s, Berrigan grew enamored with the sonnet form. He was drawn to it because of the structure’s inherent challenges. It was all very interesting to an ambitious college student. Yet over time, and after writing hundreds of the things, Berrigan realized that those same challenges were distracting, were “stultifying” as he put it, and so he abandoned the effort in frustration.

But then a funny thing happened. He got Dadaist. He went through all of his prior drafts and cut out the lines that he liked the best. Then, he assembled a new batch of sonnets composed of lines he’d stitched together from previous drafts like Frankenpoems. The end result was described by Berrigan’s editor and second wife, Alice Notley, as “musical, sexy, and funny,” and the finished collection has been described by Frank O’Hara as “a fact of modern poetry.”

Pentametron 2013, Moran observes, is “a virtual Ted Berrigan for the masses.”  He notes that the results are “similar to Berrigan’s in their musicality, sexiness, and humor.”

The blog post gives the impression that Berrigan only chopped up his own earlier sonnets to create The Sonnets, when in fact the book collages together lines by many other poets as well, from Shakespeare to Rimbaud, Henri Michaux to John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. It also seems to imply that Berrigan’s lines, like those automatically generated by Pentametron, fall into rhyming couplets and regular iambic pentameter, which they most decidedly do not.

But it’s still great to see the connection between this very of-the-moment experiment and Berrigan’s groundbreaking masterpiece of appropriation and collage.  In the NPR piece linked to above, the creator of Pentametron, Ranjit Bhatnagar, explains “I’d been interested in playing around with the idea of poetry; I was kind of inspired by the exquisite corpse games of the surrealists” — which would suggest that Berrigan fits right in to the genealogy of this experiment.

And I’m just happy to know Pentametron 2013 exists: Wallace Stevens may have been right that “It is not everyday that the world arranges itself into a poem,” but it’s somehow comforting to know that our culture keeps throwing itself into the shape of surprising, intriguing, raucous rhyming iambic couplets, every hour on the hour.

Here are a couple examples from the last couple days: 

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