As of last year, there were about 500 million people on Twitter, posting a combined 400 million or so tweets a day. Along with all the important stuff on the site—breaking news, celebrity pratfalls—there is the endless rat-a-tat of idle thought. If Twitter has given us a glimpse into the collective consciousness, it looks a lot like someone staring out the window of a bus.
But, as many a Twitter user has fondly pointed out over the years, life is what you make of it. And the same could be said of one of the world’s largest forums for discussing bad hair days and dinner plans.
I always give the pizza guy a tip.
I’m ready for a REAL relationship!
I read this couplet aloud to three people recently—a poet, a professor, and a comedy writer—and all three had the same reaction: They laughed, then they wanted to hear it again. “It’s like Dryden and Pope on holiday in California,” remarked Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. “It’s very striking.” Yet these lines are composed of the same banalities mentioned in the first paragraph, reproduced verbatim.
Over the last year, a program called the Pentametron has been busily creating thousands of couplets like the above—21,000 to date—by randomly matching pairs of rhyming tweets that were inadvertently written in iambic pentameter (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM). The resulting verse, retweeted together by the bot, is a fantastic diversion—often very funny, and sometimes surprisingly touching.
Old people always have the nicest cars.
The darkest nights produce the brightest stars.
As you leaf through these odd little poems (twitter.com/pentametron), the novelty of trivia being dished up the form of a Shakespearean sonnet develops into something more interesting. The couplets produce bursts of meaning and emotion—yet you know it’s an unthinking, unfeeling machine that has patched them together. It’s a project that raises questions about what makes writing feel like a work of art in the first place. After all, any resonance between the Pentametron’s lines comes not from some poet, but from you.
The man behind all this is Ranjit Bhatnagar, a Brooklyn-based video game programmer turned “sound artist” who, for the past two decades, has hosted a sprawling repository of avant-garde art called moonmilk.com. He initially developed the Pentametron as “a bit of a lark,” but has since readjusted his expectations. “Pretty much the moment I started to do this, I thought, ‘I’ve really got something here,’” he says. “Every time I go through these things, I see some marvelous combination.”
My eyebrows are annoying me today.
I’m not a friendly person anyway.
For Dobson, the power of the Pentametron lies in the fact that it presents indiscriminate, essentially meaningless fragments in a form that suggests, or even demands, unity and order. “The fact that they are part of a larger pattern rather than a random squiggle makes a huge difference to how we hear and understand them,” he says. “Then, put into a pattern of rhymes, there’s the sense of expectation and fulfillment, which makes them even stronger.”
But expectation and fulfillment do more than just affect our reading of poetry. These are the impulses at the heart of our attempts to impose order on the world, and they tend to skitter off in all sorts of odd directions when the world presents us with, say, a zucchini shaped like the Virgin Mary. Those moments when our expectations are somehow defeated and fulfilled at the same time—that’s when things get a little weird.
My Nike sweats were made in Pakistan.
Beware the anger of a patient man.
The early 20th-century Surrealists toyed with the collision of chaos and meaning in their Exquisite Corpse experiments, in which individuals contribute to a poem or drawing without knowing what came before. At the turn of this century, a group of poets called the Flarfists did something similar using Google, cobbling random searches together to create poems with titles like “Unicorn Believers Don’t Declare Fatwas.”
Gary Sullivan, who founded the Flarf movement, likens the Pentametron to “two instruments playing at different registers,” which produce “overtones of meaning.” He also sees Bhatnagar’s work as being very much in the tradition of his own. “I think one of the things we discovered, and which every collagist knows, is that we can create bizarre meanings, or hyper-meanings, by using things that weren’t meant to go together,” he says. “In coming across things by accident, you can discover things you didn’t know existed.”
A million dollars Just A Dime Away.
I haven’t eaten anything today.
In some sense, Bhatnagar has gone a step further than his predecessors. The Surrealists may not have known where their lines would fall into a scheme, but they were consciously producing art. The Flarfists, meanwhile, pieced together random scraps—but there was still a poet in charge. The Pentametron, in relation to these, is pure accident: Its component thoughts are produced by unwitting subjects and assembled automatically. And while these creations certainly sound like art, using such a precise form to organize chaos also makes for absurdity.
Ben Popik, a comedy writer, has a mockumentary out this spring titled “The Exquisite Corpse Project,” which was written according to the rules of the game. Popik’s interest in this area is more about comic value than the potential to tap into deeper meaning. “I remember as a kid, we’d put the TV on mute and play Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’” he says. “Whenever it synched, we’d roll around on the floor laughing.” While he’s amused by the Pentametron, he’s not so sure that poetry based on the “boring, commonplace lines” on Twitter will have an enduring appeal. “Probably not,” he says.
I wanna take a nap before the game.
I’m sorry for the person I became.
Dobson takes a more accommodating view. “What else is poetry made of other than the mundane?” he says, before reminding us that even Shakespeare had his doubters. “There were plenty of people who dismissed popular theater as meaningless nonsense in the 1590s, people in doublet and hose acting out stories that weren’t true.”
If nothing else, Dobson believes that the Pentametron has the potential to disrupt our ideas about one of the world’s great literary experiments: Twitter itself. “In a way, this is counter-Twitter,” he says. “These posts are supposed to be completely subjective—you make your remarks in isolation—and this machine brings them back together. All these people making collaborative poems without meaning to: I think that is quite poignant.”
Chris Wright is a writer and editor living in England.