some poets, inspiration comes in anonymous mass-marketing
fruit cake around another chestnut meditates, and a pork chop
panics,” an e-mail message informs me. “However, a line dancer
from the crank case finds subtle faults with an ocean. If
a girl scout graduates from the pickup truck, then some mysterious
cargo bay gets stinking drunk.”
These messages, dozens of which I delete daily, remind me
of a game I used to play as a kid in which sentences are stripped
of certain words and fleshed out with words picked at random.
These ever-present e-mail messages, hawking viagra and penny
stock, are spam. We have been living with them for almost
as long as we have been living with the World Wide Web. But
what exactly is spam?
That isn’t an easy question, says Michael Sofka, senior systems
programmer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Sofka runs
the e-mail servers at RPI and says that when you are talking
about spam in his field, you have to be very clear what you
all unwanted e-mail is spam,” he says. “What most people think
of when they talk about spam is marketing e-mail in the broad.
. . . They are talking about ads for anything, whether they
want the ads or not. I try to be more specific. There is in
fact marketing e-mail people do want. They may order things
from a catalog, and sign up for a mailing list from the company.
That’s not spam. They signed up for that.”
is when you didn’t ask for it, don’t want it, and can’t stop
it,” he says. “They are going out in multiple messages that
are slight variations of each other in the hopes of getting
These spam filters are often referred to as Bayesian filters,
after the 19th-century statistician Rev. Thomas Bayes. Basically,
Bayesian filters, or statistical filters, calculate the probability
that any word included in an e-mail indicates spam and assign
the words points. And if the score for a message reaches a
threshold, he says, then it is filtered out as spam.
is very effective,” Sofka says. “What spammers are trying
to do, is to get around the filter. One way is to include
a bunch of these random words in the hope that they will come
across the magic word to make it look like non-spam.”
Hence, the crazy collections of unrelated words. For some
people, these word-salads are just another annoyance, and
for some, like Sofka, another obstacle. But for an intrepid
few poets, they offer up an amusingly absurd treasure trove.
For some poets, these words can be a liberating, unexpected
pallette, and they for years have been shaping and forming
unwanted spam into works of dada-like art, such as the opening
stanza to Electricity Bitterness by Ms. Yanochka K.:
following haunted neo-roman
looking for change about suffered grounds
in between sips of a martini.
(The complete poem can be found online at the Anthology of
Literary magazines have devoted issues to the phenomenon of
spam poetry. Contests, such as the Barrelhouse invitational,
have been opened to poems written solely by the spam poet.
One of the earliest such competitions was held way back in
2000 by SatireWire.com.
This all makes sense to Pierre Joris, a poet and University
at Albany English professor. A random collection of words
will always be tempting fodder for the poetically inclined.
is no reason why human agency shouldn’t come and say, ‘Wow,
this is interesting. This blows me away,’ ” he says. “That
is exactly the same as writing a poem with great foresight,
where you choose your words and make them coherent in relationship
You can go back to 1917, to a cabaret in Zurich, Joris says,
where Tristan Tzara helped found dada.
was making poems by cutting up newspapers, and putting them
in a hat, and then pulling them out and arranging them by
the chance of pulling them out,” he says. “Dada was a very
political movement. There was a war going on, which had misused
language to convince millions of young guys to go and get
killed in the trenches. Dada was a reaction to that.”
The poets were essentially saying, Joris says, that another
way to use language needed to be found.
Joris points to Flarf, a poetry movement that embraces the
randomness offered by modern technology by employing the results
of Google searches to construct poems. Flarf is defined on
the Web site Flarf Files as, “A quality of intentional or
unintentional ‘flarfiness.’ A kind of corrosive, cute, or
cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. . . . Heavy
usage of Google search results in the creation of poems, plays,
etc., though not exclusively Google-based. . . . Poems created,
revised, changed by others, incorporated, plagiarized, etc.,
in semi- public.”
A taste of Flarf poetry can be gained from a segment of Drew
Gardner’s As Dolphins Languor:
awe yea I open a photo album I found under my bed
uhhuh, The dusty, leather cover decaying and smelling of the
awe yea baby Regrets mingling with my tears
as I methodically turn the pages, you see
I like to dress up in REALLY tight underwater pumpkin beavers
. . . .
are many great poets working today,” he says, “that want to
stay true to the complexity of the world around, who don’t
want to reduce it to an old lyric, the feeling of love or
hate or whatever. You can’t really write a sonnet about the
war in Iraq. It is not a form that can hold that thing anymore.”
don’t go out and skin a sheep, dry the skin to write on it.
We use everything.”
If these modern poets, who twist spam into art and Google
search results into epiphanies, are simply reacting to their
environment, answering to the demands and technologies of
the cyber age, then the most notable trait to this movement
is its humorous dismissal of original intent. In a culture
bombarded by a cynical marketing sector that constantly changes,
manipulating technology, and adapts to meet the public’s growing
sophistication, this act of subversion is refreshing.