This poem is inspired on spam (unsolicited commercial mail), the “wars” that have developed around them, their impact on language generated for distribution in digital environments, and the poetry that can result from such dynamics. The poem’s paratext links to a 2002 essay by Graham that proposes “naive Bayesian filters” to identify language patterns in spam and produce effective filters with low false positives. Poundstone notes that the response from spammers was to shift tactics to generating more “poetic” messages, along with mining literary texts for human generated language and language patterns.
This issue is a further exploration of the old challenge of how to program a computer to produce language complicated by the need to program a computer to read and identify whether language was produced by a computer or a human being— a neat twist on the Turing test. One byproduct of the “spam wars” is an escalation in the weapons of mass communication and their countermeasures, with the ability for humans to communicate efficiently in online networks in the balance. Another is the creation of new expression which has captured people’s imaginations, discovering “spam poetry” in these commercial generated messages (a subset of found poetry).
Poundstone’s poem exhibits words and lines of spam poetry, aligning them to Williams’ Imagism (inspired by Wei T’ai), and art paradoxes posed by John Cage and Magritte. Is Poundstone suggesting that spam has something to say, even though it has no emotions to convey?