The Mutable Stanzas

The Mutable Stanzas is a digital poetry installation and deformance experiment inspired by Raymond Queneau's Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, by the work by Jerome McGann et al on "Deformance and Interpretation," and by the work of my collegues in the Humanities Digital Workshop.

The Mutable Stanzas disassembles Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene into its constituent lines, groups lines according to terminal rhyme, then randomly reassembles lines into new stanzas. These new stanzas are displayed intermixed with images from Walter Crane's illustrations to an 1895-97 edition of Spenser's epic. Although the The Mutable Stanzas might reproduce a stanza found in the original, and although certain single-image displays will reoccur, the number of possible display states (combinations of images, stanzas and lines) is astronomical. The result is an endless sequence of image and text, with each state of The Mutable Stanzas fading out as a new state emerges, each change in state occurring every few seconds.

The Point(s)

This exercise started as proof for the idea that lines from The Faerie Queene contained enough semantic and syntactic closure/completeness that it would be possible to generate reasonably coherent new stanzas from lines pulled out of their original context. The inspiration comes from Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (Raymond Queneau). Objections to the idea of The Mutable Stanzas originally centered on Queneau's having crafted lines to make possible Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes. Interestingly enough, however, The Mutable Stanzas shows more of a tendency to coherence than Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (not that coherence is Queneau's point).

The images were introduced initially as a way of distracting the reader of The Mutable Stanzas, so that any incoherence in the resulting stanzas would be less obvious. But by cropping the images, and by recombining them randomly, they tend to reinforce the practice and the point of creating new stanzas. The images are never complete, they focus on detail, and images from different parts of the Cranes's illustrations (the narrative components, backgound details, decorative borders) combine much as the lines do. And by washing the images through potrace (i.e., by converting them to svg), Crane's images take on the appearance of woodcut, creating a strange historical collapse, as elements of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries converge in twenty-first century technologies.

Lastly, I wanted to capture an experience of reading The Faerie Queene, one in which the poem always seems to slip into incomprehension behind its details. The central fact of poem is that it's long; stanza follows stanza, finely crafted details constantly intrude above the narrative, and, if one is reading on a schedule, there's never enough time to closely read the entire poem. I wanted The Mutable Stanzas the capture the experience of there being more poem than any ordinary reader could possibly appreciate.

The Method

The process of creating The Mutable Stanzas starts with a python script which downloads an electronic copy of The Faerie Queene from the University of Adelaide's ebook website. The text is disassembled into lines, then the lines are grouped according to their terminal rhyme. Normally, I would have used The CMU Pronouncing Dictionary to determine terminal rhyme; however, in this case, The Faerie Queene functions as its own rhyming dictionary, since Spenser tends to organize his rhymes around a fairly limited number of phonemes. The results are serialized and written as javascript includes.

The images (>1,100, in four different sizes) were manually cropped from Spenser's Faerie queene: A poem in six books; with the fragment Mutabilitie., published by 1895-97 in London, and "pictured" by Walter Crane, the noted Arts and Crafts illustrator (see archive.org). The images were converted to svg using potrace, then washed from black to dark gray via a simple python script. A simple javascript include was created to index images by size and name.

The resulting javascript rhyme scheme and image includes are pulled into a web page which uses the rhyme scheme to generate stanzas, then combines them with images. The page is organized in three by two grid, in which grids can combine to hold various combinations of stanzas and images. Controls are provided to pause, rewind, etc. the display. And because the results can occasionally be interesting, a control offers the ability to grab (or tweet) a permanent link to any generated state of the display.