A review of Forever Gwen Brooks, a website generating variations of the final poem in Gwendolyn Brooks' 1969 chapbook RIOT, created by Lilian-Yvonne Bertram
Forever Gwen Brooks
Marisa Parham, University of Maryland, College Park
One of the project goals is to demonstrate the dynamic potential of combinatoric poetry while also encouraging greater exposure to the work of Gwendolyn Brooks. The audience is predominantly poets and creative writers, readers and creators of electronic literature, scholars of critical code studies, and those interested in African American poetry, particularly that of Gwendolyn Brooks.
32% nouns, 15% verbs, 8% adjectives.
When put through a program that parses texts by parts of speech, Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1969 chapbook RIOT is rendered down into this small set of numbers.1 This kind of quantification feels patently distant from what is most important about RIOT, distant from the search and sear of Brooks’ poems, produced in the wake of urban unrest in Chicago following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Poet Lillian-Yvonne Bertram observes, however, that one of the many elements that makes Brooks’ poetry so effective is the intensity of the author’s wordplay, particularly her adept use of compound nouns and neologisms inflected with the contours of Black life.2 What might be observable in the parsed grammar, then, is the transfer of the work of description from adjectives (so low a percentage for such visceral work) to nouns, which in Brooks’ work often carry the weight of both denotation and description: “blackblues,” “gut gal,” “your deathintheafternoon.”3 Brooks’ nouns, in other words, describe themselves in their being. This technique is important to the expansive specificity that characterizes her innovations in language, carrying jazz as the Black American ontology that “must not sweat,” to use Morrison’s framing.4 In the tension between the known and the new, the generativity of Brooks’ language invites us into discursive fields that are simultaneously startling and familiar. In this small way, the numbers can indeed help us see something important.
Forever Gwen Brooks, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s computational poetry homage, offers experiential, data-analytic, and interpretive entry points into the power of Brooks’ expressive legacy. As Bertram notes in their project overview, the program works via an algorithm, a set of rules, that produces randomized substitutions for Brooks’ original word choices in “An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire,” the closing poem to RIOT. Bertram has populated the wordbank from which the algorithm draws by transcribing the chapbook’s poems and then using TextBlob, a Python-based natural language processor (NLP), as a tagging toolkit (NLTK) to automatically categorize each word according to its known part of speech, into the book’s constitutive 32% nouns, 15% verbs, 8% adjectives, and so on.
When you arrive at the project site, white text on a black background, you are greeted with a poem. Title at the top, then byline, “by Gwendolyn Brooks.” The simplicity of the page gives it a sense of timelessness — this is as easily a webpage from 1999 as it might be from 2019. There are no instructions, “just” a poem. If you are familiar with Brooks’ poem, you might instantly recognize her signature syntax in the title, the palpable immediacy in “An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire.”
But then a startle — Brooks’ original title is not the title you see on this digital page. It might syntactically roll like Brooks’ original, and it may likely land as effectively, but it is also, unexpectedly, not her poem — even as, in its sound and movement, it is everything that is her poem. On the bottom right of the screen there is a white unmarked button. Click it and the title becomes something else yet again. Click:
AN ASPECT OF GLORY,
ALIVE IN THE ASHES AND HATS
AN ASPECT OF RADIO,
ALIVE IN THE PACKAGE AND JAZZ
Brooks’ original poem opens with:
In a package of minutes there is this We.
Merry foreigners in our morning,
we laugh, we touch each other,
are responsible props and posts.
A physical light is in the room.
Return to Forever Gwen Brooks; click the white button:
It is the cookies of our lies.
In a jazz in integrity there is this she.
Down jazz in our blackness,
we know, we be each other,
are direct ashes and sonatas.
Light light is in the joy.
In permutation, reversals arise: lightness and laughter are now ashes and sonatas, but the heaviness of the original’s light has become “Light light” in the joy. Through the comparison, RIOT’s intermingling of resistance, loss, and pleasure arises more fully in each. Surprisingly, Bertram’s textual processing, a radical remix, ultimately amplifies the durable formal power of Brooks’ writing.
Clicking the “Gwendolyn Brooks” byline reveals it as a hyperlink to the project’s “About” page. Upon opening the project in developer mode, Bertram’s editorial process becomes evident, showing for instance which terms Bertram has made variable versus which are stabilized, held consistently across every permutation. As is common in coding and even more so in electronic literature, the code’s comments show how it might be modified for another’s use, and its <head> element includes Bertram’s instructions regarding use and citation. The code also shows how sentences are represented in the algorithm, and the wordbanks from which each poem’s language is drawn. In developer mode one might choose to play with the words, to roll and unroll the substitutions, thinking about what changes and what remains in any permutation. From a sustainability perspective, it is gratifying to see that Forever Gwen Brooks is a static site, which can ultimately be run with or without Internet access or specialized software.
In describing the work of Forever Gwen Brooks, Bertram notes that they “use programming codes because a true randomness can be achieved, as opposed to my arbitrary word choices.”5 On the one hand, Bertram-as-programmer need not cross over into authorship because decision-making around what will be represented has been offloaded to a computational process. At the same time, much as the very structure and impulse of RIOT has been crafted by Brooks, the structure of how poems are populated in Forever Gwen Brooks has been determined by Bertram. In this way Forever Gwen Brooks is also an interpretive project. It is an active poetics of Bertram’s reading and response — for instance their decision to process the whole of RIOT through its closing poem. Bertram’s crafting of our experience, implemented through a code structure, produces the material condition for each generated poem, despite the algorithm’s output.
It is reasonable to wonder: if what makes a poem powerful is in how it generates meaning through the work of insight and care, carried out as selection and arrangement, then what happens when the words don’t stay still? What remains? In many ways, Forever Gwen Brooks offers a critical playground for thinking about how the spirit of authorial intent moves not only across the surface of text, but also thrums beneath. As Bertram notes, because they “exert considerable control over the input text, the result of a computationally mediated poem isn’t a poem without a central concern or focus, but a poem that extensively meditates on its subject via syntactical shifts.”6 Effective in every permutation, Forever Gwen Brooks is a computational poetry generator, but the fuel for its impact lies in the spirit of the original — recombinated, haunting, and resurfaced in every click to permutation, thus creating an endlessly generative site for unexpected and ephemeral meditation.