Saturday, August 25, 2007

Youth 7

Here's one bit of Coetzee's Youth that I will just cite without comment. Coetzee worked in the early sixties with a British supercomputer (or what then passed for a supercomputer) called "Atlas":

"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, in Nathaniel Tarn's translation. He brings the thick wad of paper back to the Royal Hotel and pores over it. 'The nostalgia of teapots.' 'The ardour of shutters.' 'Furious horsemen.' If he cannot, for the present, write poetry that comes from the heart, if his heart is not in the right state to generate poetry of its own, can he at least string together pseudo-poems made up of phrases generated by a machine, and thus, by going through the motions of writing, learn again to write? Is it fair to be using mechanical aids to writing — fair to other poets, fair to the dead masters? The Surrealists wrote words on slips of paper and shook them up in a hat and drew words at random to make up lines. William Burroughs cuts up pages and shuffles them and puts the bits together. Is he not doing the same kind of thing? Or do his huge resources — what other poet in England, in the world, has a machine of this size at his command — turn quantity into quality? Yet might it not be argued that the invention of computers has changed the nature of art, by making the author and the condition of the author's heart irrelevant? On the Third Programme he has heard music from the studios of Radio Cologne, music spliced together from electronic whoops and crackles and street noise and snippets of old recordings and fragments of speech. Is it not time for poetry to catch up with music? / He sends a selection of his Neruda poems to a friend in Cape Town, who publishes them in a magazine he edits. A local newspaper reprints one of the computer poems with a derisive commentary. For a day or two, back in Cape Town, he is notorious as the barbarian who wants to replace Shakespeare with a machine."

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