Monday 7 July 2008
Miles Kington: How I learnt to write poetry on a computer called Otto
The purpose of my visit, apart from giving my body the chance to recover from a hangover, was to find out how English poetry could possibly be Europeanised
(9 March 1995) One of the more interesting experiments being carried out at the moment by the European Union is an attempt to introduce common European standards for poetry.
Ah, you may say, but poetry is such a national thing, individual even, that to set European standards for it is impossible! It will never work!
And I would tend to agree with you, if I had not been privileged to be introduced to the EU's poetry computer, nicknamed Otto. This computer can take any verse and reprogramme it to fit in with modern Euro regulations.
I was, as a matter of fact, over in Brussels at the weekend, having been flown out and wined and dined as a guest of the European Freebie Panel – a most praiseworthy body, which is looking into the dreadful prevalence of freeloading in a modern bureaucracy and consulting experts like me to learn what can be done about it. And I took the opportunity, while recovering the following day, to pay Otto a visit.
I explained that the purpose of my visit, apart from giving my body the chance to recover from a hangover, was to find out just how English poetry – which we in Britain always consider to be so very special and untranslatable – could possibly be Europeanised in any way.
Otto's operators said they could easily demonstrate if I nominated some small but well-known example to feed into the system, and as I had left a Britain full of fresh yellow primroses and other spring flowers, I decided to challenge it to come up with a new version of Wordsworth's famous lyric poem beginning "I wandered lonely as a cloud..." (Nobody ever mentions the name of this poem, by the way. That is because it does not have a name, unless you count "XII" as a name – the poem is actually number 12 of his "Poems Of The Imagination". This information comes to you free). The computer went quiet for a bit, then flashed a few lights, then went quiet again.
"Have I defeated Otto?" I asked the operator, a kindly Walloon named Nicolette.
"Nobody defeats Otto," she said quietly. "He is simply thinking it over. Also, we have fed into him an instruction to delay for a while before producing poetry, to give the impression of creative effort."
Suddenly there was a whirr and the following stanza appeared:
I wandered lonely like a cloud
That takes up airspace overhead
When all at once I saw a crowd
Of flowers growing in a bed.
"Mon Dieu! " I cried, and then, "Mein Gott!
Wieviel Blumen! What a lot!"
"I don't quite understand the reference to airspace," I said. "And why are the flowers in a bed? For Wordsworth they were wild daffodils!"
"That may be so," said Nicolette, a touch primly, "but things are a little different nowadays. If things fly overhead in the European Union, there is always the chance they may infringe airspace.
"If they grow on the ground, they should be in a permitted area. Otto knows this, even if you don't. Poetry today must be law-abiding, for all our sakes, don't you agree ? Let's try a bit more..."
Nicolette then pressed another knob and this is what we got:
So many flowers in a bed
Is not a thing I like to see
"You break the rules!" to them I said,
"For colour and for quantity!
"Your yellow is not one of ours!
"And there are far too many flowers!"
The flowers shook their heads.
I do not like flowers that disagree
With standards set by the EU
And so I took my garden tools,
And dug them up, for breaking rules.
And now that lovely flowerbed
Looks just like a garden should,
Containing nothing that's not dead,
Just as a tree contains pure wood.
No flowers, just mud and earth and loam,
As laid down by the Treaty of Rome.
And now whene'er I get depressed
I think of that expanse of earth
And feel a sudden surge of zest,
A glad return of merry mirth.
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And digs up lots more daffodils!
"Makes you think, doesn't it?" said Nicolette.
"Certainly does," I agreed.
You have been warned.
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