Wednesday, 31 October 2018


Freed from the burden of the light and shadows series I completed in my last post, I have written some poetry. I have also been overcome by two new obsessions.

I have become obsessed with the villanelle, a six-stanza poem of five tercets (three lines) with a final quatrain (four lines). The villanelle has only two end-rhyme sounds, which alternate through the entire poem in an A-B-A pattern. The first tercet's first and third lines reappear, alternating, as the last lines of the tercets that follow it. The quatrain's last two lines are the two repeating lines (that is, the first and third lines of the first tercet).

The most famous English villanelle is Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night."  I use this poem to help me remember the villanelle form.

"Villanelle" is a French word, and the form originated as a French-language form on the subject of country life. English writers have since taken the form up. I decided to write a villanelle about a hamlet northwest of my hometown. Villeneuve is a farming community settled by M├ętis and French Canadians in the late 1890s. That is, I am writing a Villeneuve villanelle.

While doing internet research, I found a villanelle generator. Below is the villanelle I/it generated:

Pere Lacombe's Torment - The Villanelle Of The Farm

A Villanelle by Anonymous

Pere Lacombe couldn't stop thinking about the farm
It was just so furrowed and flat
Never had he known anything so underarm

That morning, Pere Lacombe was shocked by the alarm
He had to calm himself with a rat
Pere Lacombe couldn't stop thinking about the farm

Later, Pere Lacombe was spooked by a charm
He tried to focus on a hat
Never had he known anything so underarm

Madame Boulanger tried to distract him with a smarm
Said it was time to start thinking about a chat
Pere Lacombe couldn't stop thinking about the farm

Pere Lacombe took action like an arm
The farm was like a toxic format
Never had he known anything so underarm

Pere Lacombe nosedived like a harvested disarm
His mind turned into a tat
Pere Lacombe couldn't stop thinking about the farm
Never had he known anything so underarm

(Note that "underarm" and "rat" were supplied by the generator. I supplied "Pere Lacombe," "Madame Boulanger," "farm," "flat," "harvested," and "furrowed."

The poem is quite terrible; yet it has a terrible beauty. So now I am also obsessed by generators.

Generators are computer programs that produce documents (a sentence, a paragraph, a poem, even an entire scholarly essay) using terminology and format rules from a genre of writing. Generators are a low-level form of artificial intelligence in that they are supposed to mimic documents that humans create.

The generators tend to be sarcastic. They operate on the assumption that some kinds of writing are not creative or can easily be mimicked by non-writers.

However—and the however is something that I wrote about in my dissertation—people need rules to understand things. Knowledge is based on previous knowledge. Along with this knowledge are patterns of construction, or rules.

One can think of these "rules" not as a limitation but as a context, a shared body of knowledge. Without a shared body of knowledge, people would not be able to understand each other. For example, a non-quilter would not be able to follow a conversation among a group of quilters. With a shared body of knowledge, including vocabulary, quilters can discuss complex quilt concepts without having to define their terms all the time.

If a genre has a simple formula, a computer programmer can easily create a generator; but as the above example of the generated villanelle shows, generators can do only so much. Some are better than others, of course.

Here are some of my favourite generators:
  • Plot Generator (avoid "naughty" words: the short story generator considered "drug" a naughty word)

    Example: "A teacher from Jacksonville is delighted when she gets the chance to take part in the final of Bake Off. However, her chances are scuppered when she finds out her arch rival is also going to compete. Unexpectedly, the teacher is bitten by a zombie and therefore is disqualified from competing."
Generators are fairly easy to write in Javascript. Inspired by the CanLit Premise Generator, I wrote my own generator for a class I took on web programming:

PS: Here is my own villanelle (not auto-generated and still in progress):


What honour do the living owe?
I walk Villeneuve’s roads in autumn light.
Crops and leaves fall and soon will the snow.

Farmers last century heaved earth so
a new town could bring day to wild night.
What honour do the living owe?

French and Metis ploughed field and dug row;
St. Peter’s Church loomed in black and white.
Crops and leaves fall and soon will the snow.

This time’s rural ebb and urban flow
swells city suburbs into its sight.
What honour do the living owe?

Circled by highways that blare and glow,
Five streets, rec hall, senior’s home sit tight.
Crops and leaves fall and soon will the snow.

I am foreign to this place, yet know
its dead’s made strange by the town’s fresh fight.
What honour do the living owe?
Crops and leaves fall and soon will the snow.

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