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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

J.M. Coet­zee on the Plea­sures of Writ­ing: Total Engage­ment, Hard Thought & Pro­duc­tive­ness

Read and Hear Famous Writ­ers (and Arm­chair Sports­men) J.M. Coet­zee and Paul Auster’s Cor­re­spon­dence

New Jorge Luis Borges-Inspired Project Will Test Whether Robots Can Appre­ci­ate Poet­ry

Japan­ese Com­put­er Artist Makes “Dig­i­tal Mon­dri­ans” in 1964: When Giant Main­frame Com­put­ers Were First Used to Cre­ate Art

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.

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