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Computer Cantos

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

Where are the new James Joyces? Will undergraduates be forced to read them?

There was a time during my college years when I was fascinated by the literary modernism of novelists and poets like Joyce and Ezra Pound. It was a challenge to try to decode lines such as these from Pound:

till then let us try cases by law IF by
    snowballs oystershells cinders
    was provocation
    reply was then manslaughter only
in consideration of endocrine human emotions

This interest in modernist literature was helped along by the fact that a subset of college women regarded as profound any guy who could write lines like Allen Ginsberg's "who ate the lamb stew of the imagination or digested the crab at the muddy bottom of the rivers of the Bowery?" Liking the literary modernists was tough work, but, under those circumstances, somebody had to do it. Wading through their odd syntax, contempt for grammar, wilful misspellings, made-up words, and bizarre imagery also proved to be great preparation for reading undergraduate essays.

So where is the most creative destruction of the English language now taking place? The answer is the Internet. I've been intrigued by the imaginative English that comes my way via the Web, mostly in unwanted messages — the much-maligned spam. Instead of bashing this stuff as annoying and intrusive, perhaps we should appreciate it as the new avant-garde literature. The best of it rivals impenetrable modernist texts like Finnegan's Wake and Bob Dylan's lyrics. Here is a recent example:

    No Ruse - Actual Science! The such type of inquiry that designed another miracle pharmaceuticals, has now composed a radical grass lozenge. . . .
I will leave in discreet silence what the "radical grass lozenge" promises to do, except to reassure men that results appear "in verily a some shortish weeks!"

Much of this strange language is generated by computers, although messages like the one above obviously come from people for whom English is not the first language, maybe not even in the top five. But look at the results. James Joyce rewrote incessantly to emancipate himself from conventional English. His Internet successors achieve similarly stunning effects effortlessly while peddling sex and black market drugs, more popular than modernist literature by a wide margin.

The greatest literary potential in the Internet, however, is not in passages like the one I just quoted. They strive for narrative coherence (and fail). They want to draw the reader into buying "radical grass lozenges." Even more tantalizing is the prospect of taking the bits and pieces of phrases spammers put together, more or less randomly, then rearranging them. A poetic genius most likely could create a work of art out of such little lumps of Internet debris — Pound-like Cantos for the 21st century. Although lacking any poetic sensibility whatsoever, I gave it a try recently. Here is what happened when I took phrases from Internet garbage and sorted them into something that looked like literature, or at least that while in college I would have used to try to impress women. These are my Computer Cantos, not one word of which, beyond the titles, is mine, although the punctuation and order of the phrases are:

poinsettia symposia: Nightmarish anteater extinguish alder
    ozone koala truss! longstanding ceres convict
           — indesirable mayapples
        efficient hyacinth invulnerability hummingbird
           hero roundworm

  capital abridgement coworker, various negligent
         plannings extreme unsuperscribed
         wilsonian auditor, investing pickle

If there is a great new literature lurking in the New Word Order, what might it be called? The answer came in a recent piece of junk e-mail: phylactery ghostwrites. Joyce couldn't have said it more obscurely.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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