The Birth of Digital Poetry

An English professor rediscovered how some of the best poets in the world were coding poetry algorithms in the 1960s


When we think of people who probe the historical uses of technology, English professors don’t usually spring to mind. But Rebecca Roach, a postdoctoral researcher in modern literature at Kings College London, did just that when she came across a box of “incomprehensible material” last year while diving into the archives of the Nobel Prize–winning poet and novelist J.M. Coetzee at the Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Texas at Austin.

The box was full of computer printouts of seemingly random words. Then Roach remembered that Coetzee had published a lightly fictionalized autobiographical memoir titled Youth in 2002. In Youth, the protagonist, John, studies math at university to provide him work opportunities while he pursues his quest to become a world-class poet and novelist on the side.

As the real Coetzee had done, John emigrates to London from his native South Africa and takes day jobs programming, first for IBM and then the Atlas 2 supercomputer at the United Kingdom’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment, in the 1960s. John appreciates the computer in a different way from his colleagues, Coetzee writes: “Although Atlas is not a machine built to handle textual materials, he uses the dead hours of the night to get it to print out thousands of lines in the style of Pablo Neruda, using as a lexicon a list of the most powerful words in The Heights of Macchu Picchu.”

John then marvels at the unique word associations his programs generate, like “the nostalgia of teapots” and “furious horsemen.” He plumbs the choicest selections for poems he writes and publishes in literary journals.

Roach realized that the printouts could be from Coetzee’s real-life experiments in computer-assisted verse writing. Also in the box was what she suspected was Coetzee’s original code. She photographed the printouts and brought them back to England to someone who had worked on the Atlas.

“He peered over these blurry photographs I’d taken,” says Roach. The source code confirmed that the software was written for the Atlas. “They weren’t written in any familiar, high-level computer language. They were written in Atlas Autocode, which was a specific language that was conceived for this particular computer,” says Roach.

Lacking access to a working Atlas, Roach has not been able to run the programs herself. But she does have access to the published poems that Coetzee’s programs generated. These appeared in South African publications, such as a 1963 issue of The Lion and the Impala and, drawing on Coetzee’s 1960s digital experiments, a 1978 issue of Staffrider.

The Staffrider poem, “Hero and Bad Mother in Epic,” features a fair amount of clunky repeated words like “sword drowses,” “drowsy sword,” “fiction drowses,” “sword of fiction,” and “punctual sword.” But it also contains marvelous turns of phrase like “the geography of caution” and “the feminine kingdom.”

Coetzee explained his aesthetic in The Lion and the Impala. He said his program generated every possible poetic combination of forms specified in the code, at which point the culling began: “[The author] wades through what has been printed (in this case 2,100 poems at a rate of 75 poems per minute), makes his selection, reduces it to standard form, and sends it to the editor.”

Coetzee was not entirely alone in his avant-garde experiments. A small vanguard of other poets also had the access and the inclination to use computers. According to C.T. Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry, other pioneering digital poets at the time include the Italian writer Nanni Balestrini, whose 1961 “Tape Mark” poems also used digital textual collage techniques.

These experiments strove to push the computer—then a distant hulking presence used almost exclusively for finance, scientific, or engineering calculations—toward the humanities, long before things like Google’s Ngram viewer. The experiments have been long overlooked because “computer people aren’t interested in the history; literary scholars don’t understand it,” says Roach.

But are computer-generated poems actually poetry? Looking at the work that Roach has resurfaced, the answer is “quite possibly”—with the right guidance.

This article appears in the June 2018 print issue as “The Poet and the Machine.”