The Endless Sonnet
Can Twitter's 140-character limit speak to the 140 syllables that are the building blocks of the English sonnet? The Pentametron might know.
Back in the spring, NYC-based sound artist Ranjit Bhatnagar launched the Pentametron Twitter account. The account belongs to a "bot": an algorithm that discovers lines of iambic pentameter within millions of tweets and reassembles them into rhyming couplets, which are then retweeted as "an endless crowdsourced sonnet." The pentametron.com site compiles the couplets into the 14-line configuration that served sonnet writers from Petrarch to Louise Labé, from Sir Philip Sidney to Shakespeare.
The results are quirky, outrageous (sometimes), and borderline incomprehensible (often). For example: "I wanna be an afro samurai / I'm just a little rascal, aren't I." Without warning, vague melancholia seeps out of the typo-ridden couplet: "I never been in twitter jail before / My feelings doesn't matter anymore."
But once in a while, the right combination of iambic pentameter tweets will expose what Bhatnagar calls "inadvertent art" or the "accidentally profound" within Twitter's short form. The algorithm composes non-stop and sometimes it lands on a string of spontaneous lyric outbursts.
Pentametron is good at digging up the surprise line that feels "poetic": lines that affirm the sonnet's connection to themes of love and immortality, desire and eternity, etc., etc. But the algorithm is even better at showcasing poetic rhythm itself, concentrated into 14-line chunks. Pentametron shows rhythm at work. Regardless of what the words actually say, however "deep" they may or may not be, the basic alternating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables creates depth (or maybe the illusion of depth) in self-consciously inconsequential tweets.
In his book Shakespeare's Metrical Art, George T. Wright describes a peculiar effect of iambic pentameter: "iambic pentameter, whether in rhymed stanzas, heroic couplets, or blank verse, usually conveys a sense of complex understanding, as if the speakers of such lines were aware of more than they ever quite say" (6). If you agree with Wright, iambic pentameter makes words bigger or deeper than they might otherwise be. Of course, sometimes the Pentametron swings into doggerel verse, by refusing to deviate from a stressed/unstressed pattern, or by forcing words to fit their technically proper pronunciation in awkward ways. Still, these are all effects at the core of sonnet-writing in England from Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey to John Milton.
So, what does Pentametron teach us? Here are just a couple ideas:
1. While the sonnet form has persisted for over 800 years since its invention in medieval Sicily, individual sonnets are ephemeral and even expendable. Experimental poet Christian Bök observes--almost with glee--that the Pentametron algorithm makes the sonnet form "as disposable as any styrofoam container—only more surreal." But this disposable nature is not new, and many poets in the early 1600s felt the same way. Even Sir Philip Sidney, one of the most influential sonnet writers in English, chastised other poets in the 1580s for resuscitating the sonnet and with it "Petrarch's long deceased woes." Sonnets were designed to be tossed away, but the form remains.
2. Pentametron's singular lyric "I" is really a plural "we." One of the most fascinating moments for me, when I read Pentametron's sonnet sequence, is the pile up of separate desires:
I feel a Separation coming on
I'm getting Kinda thick, oKay oKay !
I hope tomorrow is a better day.
I wanna be a little kid again
The "I" of these four lines is made up of tweets from four separate individuals who are most likely strangers to one another. They all say they want something in their own idiom. And the algorithm itself is in there too, driving the poetic process. Even if, for the algorithm, the "I" only has value in terms of poetic rhythm (stressed or unstressed).
In a sense, Pentametron collaborates with Twitter users, and the algorithm's collective project can shine a light on early modern sonnets as collaborative exercises, made by communities that didn't always understand themselves. This side of the algorithm might also help ideas about literary creativity evolve in unexpected ways.
Petametron's compositional method shares in a long tradition of experimentation with the sonnet form in languages other than English: from Quirinus Kuhlmann in the late 1600s or OuLiPo in the 1960s. And the algorithm will keep doing what it does until, presumably, Twitter ceases to exist.
After all these experiments, and after so many sonnets, we still don't know everything that the sonnet can do. It might not be such a wild thought to imagine that the iambic pentameter sonnet is using us to replicate itself. Perhaps this deathless code aspires to endlessness, which would be something different than human literary immortality. Perhaps Twitter is a new version of the figure of the Byzantine mechanical bird "set upon a golden bough to sing […] of what is past, or passing, or to come."