The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature

By Richard Kostelanetz | Go to book overview

Art in a Closed Field

Hugh Kenner

Fed with a vocabulary of 3,500 words and 128 different patterns of simple‐ sentence syntax, the computer can turn out hundreds of poems. . . . The words it picks from have to be kept in separate boxes — all nouns together, all verbs, etc. But by drastically cutting down its choice of words — so that the incidence of a subject word reappearing is greatly increased — engineers can make the machine seem to keep to one topic.

Time, May 25, 1962, p. 99

That machines invented to help us with our arithmetic should indulge in a few hundred harmless doodlings with language —

All girls sob like slow snows.
Near a couch, that girl won't weep.
Stumble, moan, go, this girl might sail on the desk.
This girl is dumb and soft.

— is nothing to excite surprise. It is normal for territories the imagination has once pioneered to be occupied at last by hardware, as Lockean psychology prepared the way for camera and data-file. What seems not to have been much studied is the way creative writers and creative mathematicians have been exploring comparable processes, of which the engineers' Auto-Beatnik is merely a late and novel by-product.

____________________
Reprinted from Virginia Quarterly Review, 38, no. 4 ( 1962) by permission of the author and the publisher.

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