IS AMERICA ready for the Turbo Sonnet? Michael Newman -- poet, eccentric, seer and software entrepreneur -- says that it's long overdue. Newman, who lives in Lynnwood, Wash., a soggy hamlet north of Seattle, has spent the last five of his 39 years perfecting a computer program called The Poetry Processor.
The software, based on an exotic theory of how poetry works on brain tissue, is designed to bridge the aesthetic gap between cybernetic technology and creative art.
But then Newman himself is a sort of living bridge across C.P. Snow's two cultures: A former contributing editor of the Paris Review who studied biology for five years at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons; a protege of W.H. Auden who has written a "photo-novel" based on the movie "Grease" as well as games to teach physiology to children; a one-time copy boy at various newpapers including The Washington Post whose poetry appears in the prestigious collection, "The Poetry Anthology 1912-1977." And now chief evangel of the computer program he says "promises to rescue the TV couch potato from passive vegetation," turn prosaic laymen into balladeers and literally refurbish its users' brains.
Newman's brain, it seems, was shaped early into an eclectic-itinerant mold. He attended St. Johns College in Annapolis but dropped out to work with suicidal patients in a Maryland mental hospital, then drifted to New York where he met Auden, worked as a copy editor and began auditing medical-school classes. He combined his interests by starting to write poetry on scientific themes and briefly spearheaded a literary movement called The Quantum Poetic.
He soon became conspicuous for his "cloned" poems -- works which identically mimic the structure of the original. One, based on William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming," was published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1982 under the title "The Cell Division":
Yearning and burning in the blistering ball
The yolk convulsive drums against the shell;
Genes pull apart, the standard is unfurled;
The chromosomes from tight curls now unfold;
The flesh-limned force dissolves, its throes foretell
This matrimony of chemistry and word;
The cell lacks integration, while the genes
Are full of renegade authority.
At the same time, he was transmuting his medical knowledge into learning games for children: "Nerve Prep," an introduction to the nervous system; "Cell City," an urbanological tour of biochemistry; and "Lymphofuzz," a cops-and-robbers depiction of how antibodies work in the blood. "If you know 'Kojak,' " says Newman, "you can understand immunology."
He also designed a remarkable software program called N.E.R.D. (Newman's Electronic Rhyming Dictionary), which provides the user not only with a large list of rhymes for any target word, but a roster of "slant" rhymes and similar endings (for hop, there's pomp and harp, cap and step among the scores of choices) and lists of two- and three-syllable extensions as well. (Thus hop gets floppy and copy, acropolis and metropolis.) He's recorded a rock-music "Rap Royale," a rap-song modeled on an ancient and intricate French form called the chant royale. But for half a decade, his predominant passion has been The Poetry Processor.
He has sold the program to Activision, a large software publisher which is expected to release the finished product this year. Meanwhile, he's been field-testing the pre-release version on a variety of schoolchildren and adults lacking any prior poetical proclivity, with gratifying results. And no wonder: The software is not merely friendly, it's downright user-sumptuous.
Measure for Measure
The program contains three separate units: the poetry processor itself, the "forms editor" and an anthology of specimen poems in numerous standard forms and familiar rhyme schemes.
On the computer screen, it looks like a sort of oddball word-processor. The writing area is a field of numbered blank lines. Above it is a row of dots and dashes representing whatever rhythmic form the author has chosen. (Anapestic tetrameter is displayed as . . / . . / . . / . . /, for example.) If the writer isn't sure what that will sound like, a single keystroke will cause the program to "play" the rhythm aloud in a series of bleeps and toots.
To the right is a vertical column of colored squares, one for each line of the poem, representing the rhyme scheme. As soon as the writer chooses a word for the end of a line, it is assigned a color; rhyming lines share the same color. Thus if the operator were writing a limerick (with a rhyme scheme aabba), the column of squares -- from top to bottom -- would be red, red, blue, blue, red.
An author can pick all his end rhymes first. As soon as he decides on the first line-ending, the program obligingly generates a long list of rhyming words from which to choose. He selects one, punches a key, and the rhyming word is inserted at the end of the second line and the color-scheme is adjusted accordingly. He then fills in the rest of each line until the poem is completed.
If the electro-bard is worried that his composition does not match the desired metric arrangement, he can strike another key for an instant analysis: The program chews through the poem, compares it against a database of English pronunciation, and re-displays the text with the accented syllables highlighted in a different color from the unaccented. It also counts the beats in the line and displays an "equals" sign if the meter is right, a "+" if there are too many beats, a "-" if too few.
Even those who have never tried -- or wanted -- to write a poem can crank out some plausible lines by using another feature of the program: the "cloning" function. The author simply flips to the anthology section and selects a poem -- Hamlet's soliloquy, one of William Blake's lyrics, a Keats ode or any of dozens more. The program then splits the screen, putting the "model" on top and the writer's numbered blank spaces on the bottom, adjusting the dot-dash meter line and rhyme-scheme color-squares to match the original. Whereupon the novice rhymster has only to fill up the space with his own words.
In less than an hour, Newman's program helped an otherwise poetically unversed bank vice president compose a passable "clone" of a Shakespearean sonnet:
I watch my money going down the drain
Through fingers of another damn deadbeat.
He thought the payments wouldn't be a pain;
Now it's up to me to up the heat. . . .
"He chose his rhymes first," Newman says, selecting "words that resonated in his mind, and then words that related to them." Thus freed from concern about how each line would end, the banker was able to concentrate on his feelings, "which ordinarily he doesn't get to express, except maybe in a misdirected fit of anger at his wife or subordinate."
Newman himself has composed scores of clones, from "Hamlet, Filthy Rich". . .
To buy or not to buy -- another decision.
Even with no money in the bank to cover
The credit-debit of outrageous interest --
Or to pay cash amid a sea of plastic,
And by thus spending, save it? To earn; to spend
No more . . .
. . . to this transposition of T.S. Eliot's "The Naming of Cats" to the subject of molecular biology, a staple Newman theme:
When you notice some bubbles arise in your glasses,
The reason, I tell you, is usually the same:
A carbonic couple of oxygen gases
Has dissolved to play the liquidity game:
The liquidity quiddity
Steric, electric, linguistical game.
The Mind of the Poet
Such efforts, Newman contends, actually stimulate development of right-brain circuitry. Researchers have long known that each half of the brain has specialized capabilities. The left hemisphere predominantly controls mathematical skills, spoken- and written-language structures, scientific understanding and reason. The right side influences intuition, imagination, music awareness and perception of three-dimensional shapes.
Newman cites Erik R. Kandel's "Principles of Neural Science" to the effect that "prosodic modification of semantic structures" -- that is, writing poetry -- takes place in the right brain. "It would follow, then," Newman writes in the February 1986 issue of Byte, the computer monthly, "that a person commencing to measure out and sound meaning statements would of necessity be routing sugar-laden brain blood into prosodic right-side cell circuits" and pumping "more and more calcium ions to neural terminals to facilitate more and more release of more and more neurotransmitters," the chemicals which permit nerve cells to talk to each other. In children, he says, such activity could "cause new neural circuits to be constructed, perhaps bridging the hemispheres, perhaps facilitating integration of the neocortex, perhaps facilitating evolution."
Software, he says, is the ideal vehicle. "Classical poetic forms -- such as the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina -- are natural-language programs, algorithms." (Algorithms are special sets of calculations for solving specific problems.) "Poems involve iteration," he writes in Byte, as well as a plethora of repeating sounds. "This repetition is something poets count, and something poetry readers see and hear. If poets can count these things, so can a computer." Moreover, "poems also involve two other cornerstones of computer science: recursion and conditionality. Every sonnet written refers to others of its kind. It is virtually impossible to write a sonnet without reference to the work of Shakespeare and Keats and Millay. And every line in a given sonnet is written with a hyperenhanced consciousness of all the other lines (and words and parts of words) in that sonnet.
"In a form such as the villanelle, which repeats a pair of rhyming lines over and over again in different syntactic and semantic contexts, the recursion is patently manifest." And conditionality? "Anyone who's ever rhymed knows the meaning of conditionality: You may not write this line unless it rhymes with that line. If it does, you can say anything you want -- providing it also maintains the rhythm, stays in line with the themes and ends when it's supposed to."
"It seems very likely," Newman continues, "that the function of poetry has always been to route blood and calcium ions this way -- that poetry is a tool for evolution of more than the brain's linguistic product, but of the brain's linguistic nature as well."
And it may, he thinks, have healing power as well: "We inherit neuroses, which are like embedded programs, from family and society. These programs must have a certain amount of power over us, possibly measureable in the number of cells involved. I think in terms of blowing away 10-cell neuroses by building 100-cell poetic structures. In real life it took 400 sonnets to get me over a divorce."
If his enthusiasm sometimes approaches crackpot pitch, Newman is unabashed. "I think I should get the Peace Prize for this," he laughs, "or at least rich. What else is more important? If somebody else did this, I'd drop everything and go find 'em. In fact, I wish I could meet me."