When J.M. Coetzee Secretly Programmed Computers to Write Poetry in the 1960s

Before J.M. Coetzee became perhaps the most acclaimed novelist alive, he worked as a programer. That may not sound particularly notable these days, but bear in mind that the Nobel laureate and two-time Booker-winning author of Waiting for the Barbarians, Disgrace, and Elizabeth Costello held that day job first at IBM in the early 1960s — back, in other words, when nobody had a computer on their desk. And back when IBM was IBM: that mighty American corporation had brought the kind of computing power it alone could command to branch offices in cities around the world, including London, where Coetzee landed after leaving his native South Africa after graduating from the University of Cape Town.

The years Coetzee spent "writing machine code for computers," he once wrote in a letter to Paul Auster, saw him "getting so deeply sucked into the process that I sometimes felt I was descending into a madness in which the brain is taken over by mechanical logic." This must have caused some distress to a literarily minded young man who heard his true calling only from poetry.




"I was very heavily under the influence, in my teens and early twenties, of, first, T.S. Eliot, but then, more substantially, Ezra Pound, and later of German poetry, of Rilke in particular," he says to Peter Sacks in the interview above, remembering the years before he put poetry aside as a craft in favor of the novel.

"Under the shadowless glare of the neon lighting, he feels his very soul to be under attack,"Coetzee writes, in the autobiographical novel Youth, of the protagonist's time as a programmer. "The building, a featureless block of concrete and glass, seems to give off a gas, odourless, colourless, that finds its way into his blood and numbs him. IBM, he can swear, is killing him, turning him into a zombie." Only in the evening can he "leave his desk, wander around, relax. The machine room downstairs, dominated by the huge memory cabinets of the 7090, is more often than not empty; he can run programs on the little 1401 computer, even, surreptitiously, play games on it."

He could also use these clunky, punchcard-operated computers to write poetry. "In the mid 1960s Coetzee was working on one of the most advanced programming projects in Britain," writes King’s College London researcher Rebecca Roach. "During the day he helped to design the Atlas 2 supercomputer destined for the United Kingdom’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Aldermaston. At night he used this hugely powerful machine of the Cold War to write simple 'computer poetry,' that is, he wrote programs for a computer that used an algorithm to select words from a set vocabulary and create repetitive lines."

These lines, as seen here in one page of the print-outs held at the Coetzee archive at the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center, include "INCHOATE SHARD IMAGINE THE OUBLIETTE," "FRENETIC AMBIENCE DISHEARTEN THE ROSE," "PASSIONATE PABULUM CARPET THE MIRROR," and "FRENETIC TETANUS DEADEN THE DOCUMENT." Though he never published these results, writes Roach, he "edited and included phrases from them in poetry that he did publish." Is this a curious chapter in the early life of a prominent man of letters, or was this realm of "flat metallic surfaces" an ideal forge for the sensibilities of a writer now known, as John Lanchester so aptly put it, for his "unusual quality of passionate coldness" — a kind of brilliant austerity that hardly deadens any of his documents.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

2,000+ Cassettes from the Allen Ginsberg Audio Collection Now Streaming Online

Last month Colin Marshall gave you the scoop on Stanford University's digitization of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," a project that takes you inside the making of the iconic 1955 poem. As a quick follow up, it's worth mentioning this: Stanford has also just put online over 2,000 Ginsberg audio cassette recordings, giving you access to "a staggering amount of primary source material associated with the Beat Generation" and its most acclaimed poet.

For a quick taste of what's in the archive, Stanford Libraries points you to an afternoon breakfast table conversation between Ginsberg and another legendary Beat figure, William S. Burroughs. But you can rummage/search through the whole collection and find your own favorite recordings here.

via Stanford Libraries and Austin Kleon's newsletter (which you should subscribe to here)

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An 8-Hour Marathon Reading of 500 Emily Dickinson Poems

It’s unlikely that reclusive poet Emily Dickinson would have wanted much fuss made over her birthday while still alive to celebrate it.

But with the lady safely ensconced in Amherst’s West Cemetery’s plot 53 for more than a century, fans can observe the day in the manner they see fit.

The Library of Congress’ Poetry and Literature Center threw in with the Folger Library in celebration of her 184th, inviting poetry lovers to the free marathon reading of her work, above (and below).




Poet Eleanor Heginbotham cited Dickinson’s letter to her editor, abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson–“Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?”–before priming the breakfast crowd on what they should expect from the 8 hour marathon:

We’re just going to have a day with no discussion beyond… And it will be frustrating that we can't ask questions, we can't stop and say, "Oh, my goodness.  Let's do that one over again."  We're just going to read and read and read.  And from this moment on, the voice of Emily Dickinson, through those of you in this room, that's the only voice we're going to hear, and won't that be fun?

Yes, though you may want to pack a nutritious snack to keep your energy up. The reading slots were secured by means of an online sign up sheet, and while such egalitarianism is laudable, it does not necessarily confer performance chops on the inexperienced.

Naturally, there are stand outs.

Marianne Noble, Associate Professor of Literature at American University, is a highlight with Poem 75, (2:36:40, above). Her Emily Rocks t-shirt is pretty rad too.

Professor Heginbotham is another sort of treat with Poem 416, 30 minutes and 40 seconds into the second video, below.

All told, the volunteer readers held the podium for 8 hours, making it through 500 poems, slightly less than a third of the poet’s output.

A transcript of the event, with the readers’ names recorded before their chosen verses can be found here.

Single tickets for the Folger's 2017 Emily Dickinson Birthday Tribute, co-hosted by poet and  feminist literary critic, Sandra M. Gilbert, go on sale August 1.

This marathon reading of Dickinson's poems will be added to our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Discuss Emily Dickinson with her informally at Pete's Mini Zinefest in Brooklyn this Saturday. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl Manuscripts Now Digitized & Put Online, Revealing the Beat Poet’s Creative Process

Somehow you have to imagine that, from its very opening — "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix" — Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" simply emerged fully formed and launched itself permanently into American culture. But deep down we all know that no work, poetic or otherwise, actually does that, no matter how widely read it becomes, no matter how vividly it captures a time and a place, no matter how many generations look to it as an example. Ginsberg had to work on "Howl," and now, thanks to Stanford Libraries, we have an up-close way to see some of that work in progress.

"From its first public reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in October 1955 to the notorious obscenity trial that followed in the wake of its first publication in 1956," writes Stanford Curator for American and British Literature Rebecca Wingfield, "the poem is indelibly tied to the Beat Generation and their critique of the staid morals and customs of Eisenhower-era America."




Before all that, it began with a seven-page first draft written in Ginsberg's North Beach apartment, gained a second section before that now-legendary Six Gallery reading, and finally, after Ginsberg tried out different compositional techniques and followed different suggestions in search of a way to capture America as he saw it, evolved into a long poem comprising three sections and a footnote, published alongside other works by City Lights Books as the paperback that made him famous.

"The 'Howl' manuscripts and typescripts in the Allen Ginsberg Papers," which you can view online at Stanford Libraries, "document the formal development of the poem, tracing Ginsberg’s experiments with different structures and wording in each of the poem’s sections." These pre-"Howl" "Howl"s, manuscripts and typescripts both, retain the corrections and annotations that reveal details about Ginsberg's distinctive creative process. But given the most well-known aspect of the poem's construction, that each line lasts as long as exactly one breath, a full understanding can only come from hearing it as well as reading it. You can hear Ginsberg's earliest recorded performance of the poem, at Portland's Reed College (alma mater of Ginsberg's Beat colleague Gary Snyder) in 1956, at the top of the post, and a later reading on record here. (The text of the completed poem can be viewed here.) Look and listen closely, and you'll find that a cri de coeur, especially as Ginsberg cried it, demands deliberate craftsmanship.

See the Howl manuscripts online here.

via Stanford News/Boing Boing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Every Poem in Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal” Set to Music, Illustrated and Performed Live

Charles Baudelaire must be a joyful corpse indeed. His work has succeeded as few others’ have, to be so passionately alive 150 years after his death.

Theater Oobleck, a Chicago artistic collective dedicated to creating original affordable theatrical works, has spent the last eleven years assembling Baudelaire in a Box, a cantastoria cycle based on Les Fleurs du Mal.

Why?

Because he would be so irritated. Because he might be charmed

There is a touch of vaudeville and cabaret in Baudelaire. He tended to go big or go home. Home to his mother.

Because he invented the term “modernity” and even now no one quite knows what it means. Because he wrote a poetry of immersion perfectly suited to the transience and Now-ness of song and of the Ever-Moving scroll. Because we never had a proper goth phase. Sex and death! For all these reasons, and for the true one that remains just out of our grasp.

Each new installment features a line-up of musicians performing live adaptations of another 10 to 15 poems, as artist Dave Buchen’s painted illustrations slowly spool past on hand-turned “crankies.”

The resulting “proto music videos” are voluptuously intimate affairs, with plenty of time to reflect upon the original texts’ explicit sexuality, the gorgeous urban decay that so preoccupied one of Romantic poetry’s naughtiest boys.

The instruments and musical palate---klezmer, alt-country, antifolk---are befitting of the interpreters’ well honed downtown sensibilities. The lyrics are drunk on their dark imagery.

The entire project makes for the sort of extravagantly eccentric night out that might lead a young poet to lean close to his blind date, mid-show, to whisper “Wouldn’t it be agreeable to take a bath with me?” No word on whether that line worked for the poéte maudit, who reportedly issued such an invitation to a friend mid-sentence.

This August, Theater Oobleck intends to observe the sesquicentennial of Baudelaire’s death in grand style with a marathon performance of the complete Baudelaire in a Box, a three-day effort involving 50 artists and over 130 poems.

Allow a few past examples to set the mood:

The Offended Moon From Episode 9 of Baudelaire In A Box, "Unquenched." Composed and translated by David Costanza. Emmy Bean: vocal, Ronnie Kuller: accordion, T-Roy Martin trombone, David E. Smith: clarinet, Chris Schoen: vocal, Joey Spilberg: bass.

The Denial of St. Peter Composed, translated and performed by Sad Brad Smith, with Emmy Bean (hand percussion), Ronnie Kuller (accordion), T-Roy Martin (trombone), Chris Schoen (mandolin), and Joey Spilberg (bass).

The Drag Music composed by Ronnie Kuller, to Mickle Maher's translation of "L'Avertisseur" by Charles Baudelaire. Performed by: Emmy Bean (vocal, percussion), Angela James (vocal), Ronnie Kuller (piano, percussion), T-Roy Martin (vocal), Chris Schoen (vocal), David E. Smith (saxophone), and Joey Spilberg (bass).

The Hard(-est) Working Skeleton Music by Amy Warren, Performed by Nora O'Connor, with Addie Horan, Amalea Tshilds, Kate Douglas, James Becker and Ted Day.

The Possessed Written and performed by Jeff Dorchen.

You can listen to and purchase songs from Episodes 7 (the King of Rain) and 9 (Unquenched) on Bandcamp.

Some of the participating musicians have released their own albums featuring tracks of their Baudelaire-based tunes.

Theater Oobleck is raising funds for the upcoming Closed Casket: The Complete, Final, and Absolutely Last Baudelaire in a Box on Kickstarter, with music and prints and originals of Buchen’s work among the premiums at various pledge levels.

All images used with permission of artist Dave Buchen.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She will be appearing in a live excerpt from CB Goodman’s How to Kill an Elephant this Friday at Dixon Place in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

John F. Kennedy Explains Why Artists & Poets Are Indispensable to American Democracy (October 26th, 1963)

The Greek word poesis did not confine itself to the literary arts. Most broadly speaking, the word meant “to make”---as in, to create anything, godlike, out of the stuff of ideas. But the English word “poetry” has always retained this grander sense, one very present for poets steeped in the classics, like Percy Shelley, who famously called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” in his essay “A Defence of Poetry.” Shelley argued, “If no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.”

It can feel at times, watching certain of our leaders speak, that language may be dying for “nobler purposes.” But certain poets would seek to convince us otherwise. As Walt Whitman wrote of his countrymen in an introduction to Leaves of Grass, “presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall.”




Whitman lived in a time that valued rhetorical skill in its leaders. So too did another of the country’s revered national poets, Robert Frost, who accepted the request of John F. Kennedy to serve as the first inaugural poet in 1961 with “his signature elegance of wit,” comments Maria Popova. Frost, 86 years old at the time, read his poem "The Gift Outright" from memory and offered Kennedy some full-throated advice on joining "poetry and power."

Kennedy, an “arts patron in chief,” as the L.A. Times’ Mark Swed describes him, was so moved that two years later, after the poet’s death, he delivered an eloquent eulogy for Frost at Amherst College that picked up the poet’s theme, and acknowledged the power of poetry as equal to, and perhaps surpassing, that of politics. “Our national strength matters,” he began, “but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much.” That animating spirit for Kennedy was not religion, civil or supernatural, but art. Frost’s poetry, he said, “brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society.”

His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation… it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The tragedy of hubris and celebration of diversity, however, we can see not only in Frost, but in Shelley, Whitman, and perhaps every other great poet whose “personal vision… becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” Kennedy’s short speech, with great clarity and concision, makes the case for using the country’s resources to “reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.” But just as importantly, he argues against any kind of state imposition on an artist’s vision: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

You can hear Kennedy deliver the speech in the audio above, read a full transcript in English here and in 12 other languages here. In the audience at Amherst sat poet and critic Archibald MacLeish, who, in his “Ars Poetica,” had suggested that poetry should not be stripped of its sounds and images and turned into a didactic tool. Kennedy agrees. “In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology.” Yet poetry is not a luxury, but a necessity if a body politic is to flourish. "The nation which disdains the mission of art,” Kennedy warned, “invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’”

Kennedy's is a point of view, perhaps, that might get under a lot of people's skin. It's worth considering, as a less optimistic critic argued at the time, whether an overabundance of didactic political statements in art may be as culturally damaging as the absence of art in politics. Or whether art like Frost's is ever "disinterested," in Kennedy's phrasing, or apolitical, or can operate independently as a check to power. Frost himself may express ambivalence in his embrace of "human tragedy." But in his doubt he fulfills the poet's role, entering into the kind of critical dialectic Kennedy claims for poetry and democracy.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Inspiration from Charles Bukowski: You Might Be Old, Your Life May Be “Crappy,” But You Can Still Make Good Art

Now more than ever, there’s tremendous pressure to make it big while you’re young.

Pity the 31-year-old who fails to make it onto a 30-under-30 list…

The soon-to-graduate high schooler passed over for YouTube stardom…

The great hordes who creep into middle age without so much as a TED Talk to their names…

Social media definitely magnifies the sensation that an unacceptable number of our peers have been granted first-class cabins aboard a ship that’s sailed without us. If we weren’t so demoralized, we’d sue Instagram for creating the impression that everyone else’s #VanLife is leading to book deals and profiles in The New Yorker.

James Patterson Teaches You To Writer A Bestseller. Learn More.

Don’t despair, dear reader. Charles Bukowski is about to make your day from beyond the grave.

In 1993, at the age of 73, the late writer and self-described “spoiled old toad,” took a break from recording the audiobook of Run With the Hunted to reflect upon his “crappy” life.

Some of these thoughts made it into Drew Christie’s animation, above, a reminder that the smoothest road isn’t always necessarily the richest one.

In service of his ill-paying muse, Bukowski logged decades in unglamorous jobs ---dishwasher, truckdriver and loader, gas station attendant, stock boy, warehouseman, shipping clerk, parking lot attendant, Red Cross orderly, elevator operator, and most notoriously, postal carrier and clerk. These gigs gave him plenty of material, the sort of real world experience that eludes those upon whom literary fame and fortune smiles early.

(His alcoholic misadventures provided yet more material, earning him such honorifics as the ”poet laureate of L.A. lowlife" and "enfant terrible of the Meat School poets.”)

One might also take comfort in hearing a writer as prodigious as Bukowski revealing that he didn’t hold himself to the sort of daily writing regimen that can be difficult to achieve when one is juggling day jobs, student loans, and/or a family. Also appreciated is the far-from-cursory nod he accords the therapeutic benefits that are available to all those who write, regardless of any public or financial recognition:

Three or four nights out of seven. If I don’t get those in, I don’t act right. I feel sick. I get very depressed. It’s a release. It’s my psychiatrist, letting this shit out. I’m lucky I get paid for it. I’d do it for nothing. In fact, I’d pay to do it. Here, I’ll give you ten thousand a year if you’ll let me write. 

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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