January 29, 2007

Erica 3 Stirs

by Nick Montfort · , 4:29 pm

Jim Carpenter, poet-smith and blogger of The Prosthetic Imagination, has placed an early version of Erica T Carter, version 3 online. This is a poetry-generating machine that is the (beta) successor of Jim’s earlier ETC/Erica T. Carter/Electronic Text Composition projects, which have been discussed on here and at Autostart, exhibited at the Slought Foundation, and read as part of the MACHINE series and at Brown’s E-FEST.

The interface for ETC 3 is quite clever: The user is invited to type in a “topic” (perhaps a single word, perhaps a phrase?) and then generate a poem based on this. The difference between this sort of a system and one that generates poems with the click of a button is like the difference between the Oracle of Delphi and a guy babbling in the street. By accepting some topic T, the reader’s thoughts shift immediately from the skeptical posture of “does this text make any sense?” to the more inquisitive “how does this text relate to and comment upon topic T?” Even if the system were throwing away the input, this would be an interesting direction for the interface. However, it isn’t discarding it (at least, not always), as topic-words sometimes end up directly in the output text. For the casual Web user who wants to strap on an imagination, the simple interface also has some advantages over the complex settings of the earlier ETC systems, but perhaps an “advanced poem” page could be made available if there are other underlying parameters to vary.

Jim advises us: “Please note that the grammars in use here are test grammars…” This in, indeed, in evidence at times, as when these consecutive poems are generated:

Beggary and hate

nautical as death
she is inlaid
because enchanting dresses, wearing, conquering, unfair as death.
or is she silver?– dressing, prating
dressing dresses
she is tattered

Of onyx

familiar as an inscription
she is guileless
after she is entire, attending, knowing, murky as an inscription.
is she weird?– attending, meeting
attending over-sleeps
she is pitiful


inexcusable as honey
she is advisable
whenever she is young, surmising, estimating, disturbing as honey.
is she dark-blue?– surmising, estimating
surmising partakes
she is skilful

Now, the system does generate poems in other forms, with different syntax, at times, but the test grammars (and perhaps the settings of other parameters) make it difficult to see how the generator will eventually work and what the effect of a wider diversity of output might be. And, regarding the relationship of the topic to the final text, I can see (thanks to a lexical match) that the first poem might be able my topic “death” and the second one might be able my topic “inscription.” But I do have a hard time imagining that the last of these is about “lions,” which is supposedly is.

I think there is a bit too much repetition within some poems, too – and remember, I’m the guy who wrote a text consisting only of 40,000 occurrences of the word “mom.” For instance:

Of cashmere

He is inhuman
He is telegraphic
He is grimy

He is pale
He is old
He is gray

To think is to think dripping drowsiness
He is likely
He is magnanimous

Nevertheless, ETC 3 has some interesting features. The recurrence of certain words leads me to think that the probability of topic text is not just higher for the poem that is generated immediately, but perhaps is persistently weighted more strongly, with its likelihood discounted slowly over time. If true, this might give ETC 3 an interesting sort of collective unconscious and introduce themes that run across poems. Of course, when the system is hit by spambots requesting poems about vee-one-agrah, we might not be happy about this.

As for how ETC 3 performs as a poet: She isn’t ready for the slams or for Bread Loaf at this point, or really to contribute to or dismantle the ecology of poetry of which these institutions are a part. ETC 3 wears too much of her machinic composition process on her sleeve. You can more or less directly see how many poems are being generated, rather than sensing a voice of the sort I think I’ve sensed, at times, in Gnoetry. But that could change with tuning. Given the progress Jim has made with previous systems, I suspect it will.

I’ll close with two of Erica’s poems on the topic “battle”:


wind-swept as a battle
she is sympathetic
because she is brilliant, peering, lapping, pampered as a battle.
or is she understandable?– peering, crawling
peering overspends
overspending overspends


Were we pent-up?
Were we dazzling?
Were we ecstatic?

Were we half-cooked?
Were we wondrous?
Were we faint?
Were we deceitful?

Yet (the) fight wilts
Were we steady?
Were we capacious?
Were we dumb?

Were we dark-red?
Were we daring?
Were we stout?
Were we sorry?
Were we reined-in?

2 Responses to “Erica 3 Stirs”

  1. andrew Says:

    Nice, I like this system so far. I missed this when you posted about it last March and April; I was kind of sleep-deprived then. Sorry Jim!

    And I like Jim’s blog, it looks nice in our blogroll.

    I’d like to comment more when I have some time, this fascinates me as you know.

    Here’s a few highlights from Jim’s blog’s archives, woefully short of reader comments. Great stuff!

    Why is shit music?
    Ruminations on strcpy() — parts 1, 2
    Why aesthetic language generation (ALG) is hard — parts 1, 2, 3 4
    Reading computationally expressed poetry
    The grammar is not the code–except when it is the code
    When the poet disappears — parts 1, 2, 3

  2. Grand Text Auto » New AI Links: Books, Code Releases, Articles and a TV Show Says:

    [...] Seven years in the making, Erica T. Carter, Jim Carpenter’s poetry generation system, has gone open source. Read a GTxA post on Erica from a year ago here. [...]

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