upgrades and improvements

convolvulus growing on a vertical wall

Apropos not a lot, I’ve been pondering the influence of computers on poets and their writing.

When I started to read poetry – from Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, Belloc’s Cautionary Tales and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury – most of the poems started each line with a capital letter; when I started to write poetry, I did the same.

Later, as I read more modern poets, I learned that this was not compulsory: poems can be punctuated like prose, with capital letters only appearing at the start of a new sentence. I’ve been writing uncapitalised poems for most of my adult life. Which means that I’m always slightly surprised when I see a modern poet capitalise each line.

If questioned, these writers will often admit that the real reason they do so is that the computer does it for them: they just haven’t managed to work out where to change the settings on their word processing software.

I think that a poet should be conscious of all the details: every word, every punctuation mark, every capital letter, every line and stanza break, should be consciously weighed against alternatives and the best option chosen. Unsurprisingly, I don’t have lot of patience with the idea that Bill Gates may be exerting undue influence on modern poetry style.

Today, though, I have found that my computer also exerts an influence.

When I was looking through my recent photos to see if any of them provided inspiration for a blog post, I came across this picture of bindweed. As I named the flower in my mind, I remembered that years ago I wrote a poem with bindweed in it. I was fairly sure it wasn’t a good poem, but I thought perhaps it might be usable on the blog as an example of an early work.

I don’t have all my poems printed out and filed, and I have worked my way through several computers over the years, but I do have almost everything I have ever written saved on an external hard drive. So I plugged it in and searched.

Yes, there was a file called bindweed – a dozen copies of it, the earliest from 2001, which I think was when I was typing up old poems to formalise and store them digitally. All the files were in a format I can’t open with my current software.

Refusing to have my creativity curbed by a computer, I played around a bit and finally managed to extract the text, along with a lot of noise and control characters, which I stripped out.

I didn’t expect much from the poem, but it was worse than I had feared. Beginning “A teardrop of palest moonlight/ Fell into my life/ One frosty night”, it went on to describe “the warm topaz fingers of our love” and mix its metaphors on through to “translucent tendrils”, “silken threads” and other clichés.

To my chagrin, “tendrils” – one of the forbidden words – actually appeared twice in just 175 words.

I rather like the idea that my computer had chosen to make the poem inaccessible: while some computers are working to force their owners to write traditional poetry, mine appears to be doing its utmost to help me abandon the angst and faux poesy of my youth. Perhaps next time a file is unreadable I should take the hint.

To finish on a slight tangent, there are those who think that poetry could be used to teach computers more about how we think and use metaphor: an element of the pattern-identifying nature that makes us human. If that sounds interesting, you might want to check out the Poetry for Robots project.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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