November 8, 2010

Rachel asks if the site “Dickinson in a Box” demeans the original poetry.  That depends on whether the “statistical imitation” uses random words, or uses entire lines.

Let’s say the randomly generated “poems” are based on words, and not entire lines.  I’m not familiar enough with Dickinson’s work to know if the randomly generated poems have the “feel” of her poetry just because they use the words that she used.  But after all, every poet goes to the same word well; some poets have big buckets and some have very small spoons, but words are a finite commodity.

Looked at that way, “Dickinson in a Box” is a harmless little technical exercise.  It reminds me of refrigerator poetry, those little magnetized tiles of separate words.  Of course, this site is much shallower than that, because there is no thought, feeling or insight behind it; with refrigerator poetry there is at least a motivated intelligence at work.  I don’t think this site takes poetry in any new directions.  It’s just mindless word-grabbing. 

On the other hand, if the random generator is reusing whole lines of her poetry, then it’s akin to music sampling.  And sampling is plagiarism, plain and simple.  In that case, the randomness  would demean her poetry because it lifts entire thoughts out of context, and uses her creative labor to make something else (in this case, nonsense, which is insulting).  After reading one of these randomly generated poems, I would not be inspired to read Emily Dickinson if I was unfamiliar with her work.  

You could do the same thing with the Yellow Pages.  Whether it’s offensive or not depends on how the “poem” was generated.

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