Shaking down Shakespeare – the accidental poetry of Twitter
An Irishman’s Diary about the internet’s hidden reserves of iambic pentameter
William Shakespeare: similarities to teenage tweeters
I know that, given enough time, a monkey with a typewriter could compose the works of Shakespeare. But I’d be more optimistic about something in that line emerging, eventually, from a Twitter account called Pentametron. Created by a New York-based artist, Pentametron is a computer search-bot that scours the Twitter universe for comments in accidental iambic pentameter, then matches them at random with rhyming others.
And from the bonfire of inanities that is the raw material, it frequently creates something almost profound, or even, on occasion, beautiful.
As I write this, for example, its most recent couplet unites tweeted comments from two young females, unconnected and on different continents. One laments: “*sigh* me and my ideas *longer sigh*”. The other: “You never even bothered to reply”.
Separately, the tweets sound like standard teenage moans. Together, they achieve not only a certain poetry, but also express something about the loneliness of the human condition. Well, nearly.
Or consider another recent example, splicing the random thoughts of an unnamed American with a youngster in South Africa, and in the process unwittingly hinted at the awkwardness of a boy’s growth to adulthood.
The first tweet was “Selina Gomez looking like a 10”. The second: “Might read the Harry Potter books again”.
Low-grade as they may be, such poetic nuggets are mined from vast deposits of unrefined ore. An iambically-pentametered tweet forms somewhere every minute or two. But the bot must search a million messages, on average, for a couplet that rhymes.
And yet there is a certain poetry even to this. For a line to qualify, it needs to have five metric feet (ie 10 syllables) and, ideally, the classic rhythm – da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum.
So, in an interview with gawker.com, the bot’s creator, Ranjit Bhatnagar, explained that his invention cross-references all words against the Carnegie Mellon University Pronouncing Dictionary.
This indicates stressed and unstressed syllables as ones and zeroes. The “binary line” for iambic pentameter, therefore, is 0101010101. And the bot compares all potential candidates with this before approving them.
There is no human editing involved, which is sometimes frustrating, as in another couplet – again uniting the tweets of two young women, one apparently a teacher: “I’m really itching for a new tattoo”/“Two parents evenings done and dusted — phew!”
That would be better the other way round. But the bot’s integrity demands that tweets appear in chronological order.
The process throws up gems of social commentary, whether accidentally expressing an Austenesque combination of economics and romance – “I always give the pizza guy a tip“/“I’m ready for a REAL relationship”; or hinting at an eventual uprising by a globalised world’s underclass: “My Nike sweats were made in Pakistan”/“Beware the anger of the patient man”.
Yes, that last tweet was consciously poetic – indeed it’s a (mis)quotation from Dryden. But for one of the contributors to be a poet is no guarantee of a Pentametron couplet’s success. More than a few candidates are let down by mismatched participants, eg “Rage rage against the dying of the light”/“I hope the Texans kill the Bears tonight”.
Bhatnagar has, nevertheless, been able to rework many of the couplets into full sonnets (collected at pentametron.com). And although, stretched to 14 lines, their technical quality can be thin, the best examples compare well enough with the worst of the Bard.
I won’t need to remind Irish Times readers about the horror that is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145. It has been criticised for everything from poor rhyme and metre to the general mediocrity of the language. But the man who wrote it may at least have had the excuse of youth. In fact, like many of the unwitting poets on Twitter, he may have been a teenager.
Some critics surmise that the verse was used to court Ann Hathaway. And we know he was only 18 when he married that 26-year-old cradle snatcher, who is further blamed for persuading him to include the unworthy poem with his mature work. The theory would also help excuse the concluding couplet: “...‘I hate’ from hate away she threw/And sav’d my life, saying ‘not you’.” “Hate” is also a popular word with young Tweeters. Shakespeare was probably using it as a play on his future wife’s name, and in the process committing an offence under the European convention against torture of puns.