“I AM THAT I AM” (@PERMUTANT)” by Zach Whalen

  Daily permutational poem. Inspired by Brion Gysin. Coded by @zachwhalen.  zachwhalen.net/pg/mute/mute.s…
Open “@PERMUTANT” by Zach Whalen

This bot, inspired by and named after a famous 1960 poem (and concept) by Brion Gysin, publishes a daily permutational poem on Twitter. Each poem consists of 120 lines, derived from permutations of the first line (and title), and tweeted about 5 lines per hour on a semi-random timer, taking a day to publish completely. As of the publication of this entry, it is beginning the third cycle of tweeting its (currently) 65 poems.

Whalen explores this concept using several structures and mechanisms. For example, he created a Web page, “permuted,” which displays all the poems arranged into columns using five shades of grey to visually highlight the systematic and non-repetitive approach to the word combinations (the difference between permutational and combinatorial approaches). While he was developing this bot, Whalen created a trio Animated GIF poems, “COME TO FREE THE WORDS” “Twisty, little passages, all alike,” and “Kick that habit, man,” all of which explore the concept cinematically (that is, presenting permutations in a rapid sequence in the same frame).

This concept is ideal for computational processing, from the outset and has inspired several implementations and remixes. Back in 1960, Gysin collaborated with Ian Somerville to create a computer program to carry out the permutations on a Honeywell Series 200 model 120 computer (Moore). In 2010, Joseph Moore reverse-engineered the program in an attempt “to create a realization of the work that is sensitive to the original and its process,” for an exhibition at The New Museum for Contemporary Art. Moore’s statement embeds a video documentation of the program running and provides links to the published source code. In 2008, Teun de Lange created Permugram, a JavaScript powered website that allows users to generate permutations of any number of words typed into a form. De Lange frames the concept as more broadly combinatorial, foregrounding randomness and connecting it with Greek Sophism, Dadaism, and OULIPO. This is just a small sampling of recent explorations of this concept, which merits discussion in and of itself.

What is the interest of this kind of poem? Who wants to read an entire 120-line poem that consists of the same words in different combinations? I doubt most readers would be interested beyond the few dozen lines, in part because while many lines would draw attention in how they reshape the meaning of the initial phrase, most would end up being ungrammatical and uninteresting. A human curated selection of the output of this constraint can be more compelling, and careful ordering can provide a sense of trajectory to the sequence. Reading them out loud would add a more rhythmical and auditory dimension to the permuted lines, but attention would ebb and flow with clusters of lines given the length of the material. A performer using tonal variation and enjambment can make the lines more audibly and semantically engaging. In his performances, Gysin himself made selections and produced audible variations, an indication that pure algorithmic output alone isn’t necessarily the goal, but a tool to poetic c0mposition. In these cases, the aesthetic experience of these poems is focused on a single event: an auditory, visual, or reading performance.

In programming his bot to transmit each poem over the course of a day, Whalen fragmented the experience onto 120 discrete events, most of which will be missed by those who follow the bot and read its output in their Twitter streams. Sure, a reader can visit the bot’s timeline and read the whole thing, but like the output of many other bots, these poems are best experienced when sprinkled among other Tweets, producing surprising juxtapositions and new contexts. Beyond the “aha!” moment (in which readers “get” the bot’s concept), @PERMUTANT offers delight in the anticipation of future permutations which might satisfy the reader’s poetic interests. And because each tweet is its own shareable computational object, readers can curate the output by favoriting, retweeting, and replying to the ones they find most compelling.

Festoon your Twitter stream with daily permutational poems that offer sufficient variety to keep the concept fresh and enough repetition to not worry about missing a line.

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