“Sea and Spar Between” by Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland

Open “Sea and Spar Between” by Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland

This generative poem produces an expert mashup of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, described in detail by the authors in the introduction to their piece.

Sea and Spar Between is a poetry generator which defines a space of language populated by a number of stanzas comparable to the number of fish in the sea, around 225 trillion. Each stanza is indicated by two coordinates, as with latitude and longitude. They range from 0 : 0 to 14992383 : 14992383.

In the tradition of massive generative poems initiated by Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poémes, this is an impossible text to read completely in a lifetime, requiring 6,421,232,876.71 years of reading, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (with a day of rest on leap years)— if you allot 30 seconds to read each stanza. Fortunately just as one doesn’t need to navigate the seven seas to appreciate them, this poem doesn’t need to be apprehended in its entirety to be enjoyed. And Montfort and Strickland have provided us with an interface that invites exploration in both serendipitous and precise ways.

A distinctive feature of this poem is that while it is generative, it isn’t random or mutable. Every possible permutation is expressed spatially on the canvas and numbered with X,Y coordinates, which means you can reread it, make note of coordinates to share passages, and enter coordinates to explore it strategically. By placing readers on a randomly determined stanza, we are encouraged to discover new parts of this poetic inquiry. The screen captured image above is taken from one such random assignment

In an attempt to chart some of these poetic waters, I entered the starting (0:0) and ending (14992383 : 14992383) coordinates to see the range of permutations (see below).


Read stanza 0:0 in the center and the surrounding stanzas to notice similarities and you’ll sense a pattern in how the structure arranges the exploration of each permutation in the variables. Montfort and Strickland have wisely chosen to not make it too similar or obvious to avoid monotony, but there is a spatial and mathematical logic to the arrangement, which can be discovered in the source code by those interested in understanding that particular mechanism.

An interesting detail about its structure that is illuminated by the code can be discovered by reading the stanza positioned on the top left corner of the screenshot, diagonal from stanza 0:0. Read it in the image above and then examine the image below, screen-captured from the last coordinate in the set.


The stanza on the lower right corner is the first one (0:0), which means that this is not a flat mapping with edges, but a circular one with the end looping back to the beginning. The source code documentation explains that the structure is that of a torus, and I imagine it is formed around the diagonal circle defined by the sequence that goes from 0:0, 1:1, 2:2, all the way to 14992383 : 14992383. By that logic, the farthest point from both the beginning is the middle point, 7496191.5 : 7496191.5 (rounded up to the next integer), depicted below.


How thematically or stylistically distant is this midpoint from the beginning and end? Not very, but one can immediately notice some of the recurring patterns, variations, and variables around the phrase “artless is the earth,” each of which builds a different kind of statement. Reading around these axial stanzas may reveal stronger insights on how the poem’s data set informs the poem as a whole, as may dividing the poem into a grid and mapping out its structure in regions. Reading the source code would also reveal much of its internal logic, but reading the code alone doesn’t do justice to the emergent complexity of the piece.

I suggest taking a variety of approaches to reading this work in addition to the ones described above, including reloading the page to go to a different random location, and using your mouse pointer to explore intriguing directions in the stanzas. And accept that you will never know all of this poetic sea, though you may map out some of its currents, coastlines, and psychogeography.

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