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Software for writing poetry?
October 18, 2006 8:43 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone seen software for writing formal poetry?

You would specify a poetic form and it would fill in the blanks and make suggestions as much as possible. For example, you select villanelle and it gives you a layout like this (snatched from wikipedia because I'm lazy):

Refrain 1 (a)
Verse 1 (b)
Refrain 2 (a)

Verse 2 (a)
Verse 3 (b)
Refrain 1 (a)

Verse 4 (a)
Verse 5 (b)
Refrain 2 (a)

Verse 6 (a)
Verse 7 (b)
Refrain 1 (a)

Verse 8 (a)
Verse 9 (b)
Refrain 2 (a)

Verse 10 (a)
Verse 11 (b)
Refrain 1 (a)
Refrain 2 (a)

And because some lines are, according to the form, necessarily duplicates of others, you would be able to edit line 1, for example, but not lines 6, 12, or 18, which would be identical to line 1 in a villanelle (and automatically filled in by the software).

For rhymes, it could use color and the like to remind you of which lines your current line must be made to rhyme, and it could use a rhyming dictionary to make suggestions based on what you've written so far.
posted by pracowity to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A few years ago I wrote a PHP script that sticks random words into couplet, haiku, and limerick forms. It also tries to improve over time by recording which adjacent words form the most popular poems and then skewing future word choice. It's open source and could be expanded to include other forms. But it's been years since I touched it.
posted by scottreynen at 9:11 AM on October 18, 2006

I've never seen anything like that, but I would guess that your "serious poet" types would eschew it and therefore it wouldn't be profitable -- having your computer create your structure for you seems to sort of defeat the purpose.

I say this as a sestina hobbyist who gets regularly frustrated by the challenges of form but feels that frustration to be part of the creative process.
posted by pineapple at 9:32 AM on October 18, 2006

I would love to see a grammatik-like feature that scanned for vocal stresses and other metric phenomenon. Sadly, alot of this stuff can go either way and a computer wouldn't be able to tell a sonically beautiful phrase from a horrible one -- most people, too.

Most professional poets know forms so intuitively that they wouldn't need a template. Also, if you study alot of the popular European forms from the sonnet onwards, rhyme variation and meter experimentation is what it's all about.

But ya, I end up tapping stresses out on my fingers and making alot of marks. Writing poetry directly onto a computer seems like it would be rather hard anyway, even with some help.
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:50 AM on October 18, 2006

having your computer create your structure for you seems to sort of defeat the purpose.

No, the computer program would be a tool to help you work with a structure that was defined long ago. In the example, the villanelle, that structure specifies that certain lines are exact copies of certain other lines. This would be the case whether you did it with paper and pencil or with a computer. But a program would allow writers to more easily experiment with forms, and help students learn the forms.
posted by pracowity at 12:16 PM on October 18, 2006

Yes. Yes I have seen computer programs that write poetry. There was an entire chapter devoted to it in a textbook we used for a class in computer generated music over a decade ago. Here's the book. I lent it to my brother-in-law and he elaborated on the basic BASIC program.

A word or three of warning, you will have to do some of the heavy lifting: developing vocabulary lists, determining form, stripping out the music crap you don't want, actually having to read Phil Winsor's book, typing up code. Um, Hi Dr. Winsor! I didn't see you come in....
posted by ilsa at 2:35 PM on October 18, 2006

Thanks, but I don't want a program that writes poetry. I want a program that helps people write poetry.

You know yWriter, the program designed to help people write novels? It doesn't write novels, right? It just helps people write novels. It is an organizer for someone banging out a novel.

Similarly, I want a program that doesn't write poetry, but that helps to organize things for someone writing a poem. If the writer is writing a sonnet, the program helps to keep things in order, indicates what still needs to be done, offers easy-access tools, maybe scans the ends of lines and lists suggestions if the selected poetic form requires rhyme.
posted by pracowity at 3:05 PM on October 18, 2006

Nope. Can't help with that. Sorry for misunderstanding the question. You might have to develop it yourself.
posted by ilsa at 5:08 PM on October 18, 2006

You could use TeX or LyX to get templates and do the line duplication (through \newcommand macros). As for the fancier features (e.g. rhyming), I don't know. Sounds like an interesting open-source project to start (Though your poet programmers might be hard to come by.)
posted by lunchbox at 8:49 PM on October 18, 2006

Well, here's one poet programmer..

The first thing that comes to my mind is to do this as an emacs mode. Poetry-mode would be a major mode and each form would be a minor mode.

So what features would you want? So far you've mentioned: the ability to look up rhymes, some kind of visual indicators (what the appropriate line length for the form is, what end-of-line words are supposed to relate to each other). It would be nice to get suggestions for synonyms, maybe some kind of association recommendation based on information gleaned from searching wikipedia... Maybe it could highlight existing rhymes in what you've written.

There are also the various text operations used by people to write "experimental" poetry, like n+7, that could be implemented in something like this.
posted by johnsu01 at 8:40 PM on October 19, 2006

So what features would you want?

Everything, of course.

Indentation is a big issue, especially with people trying to put their carefully indented poems online and finding out that HTML squashes everything to the left. It would have to be able to save as HTML with all indentation (even if just a series of spaces) preserved exactly.

Yes, all word analysis and suggestions (synonyms, etc.) would be great, especially for school use. When the goal is to get beginners to create and be happy with a handful of poems, you want to give them all the help you can without the teacher having to hover over every desk.

Reading aloud would be cool -- not that this tool should have that internally, but it would be cool if you could feed a poem to an existing app that reads text aloud. Perhaps the format of text output is a consideration in his regard?

An on-screen example of a chosen form would be a nice instructional tool -- if the goal is to write a sonnet, show one or two great sonnets on the screen.

Show a "Notes on this form" box that could explain certain things about the form. For example, to steal some text from Wikipedia for the moment, you would want to explain some things about a clerihew alongside the text entry boxes for writing a clerihew:
A Clerihew (or clerihew) is a very specific kind of short humorous verse, typically with the following properties:
* It is biographical and usually whimsical, showing the subject from an unusual point of view; but it is hardly ever satirical, abusive or obscene
* It has four lines of irregular length (for comic effect)
* The first line consists solely (or almost solely) of a well-known person's name.
That, along with a couple of good examples on the screen, would get the student on the right track and turn the app into a bit of an online poetics textbook.

If it could read an existing poem and determine its form and show the user why it is that form, it would be pretty woo in terms of classroom usefulness. Highlight the rhymes, count the lines, figure out the meter.

It would be very nice if instructors could customize the tool by editing the source files for things such as the "Notes on this form" box.

What would make it a fun poet's tool, even for the experimental set: being able to define your own form. Someone could say, "OK, I'm going to write a poem that fits the following specifications." And then set the number of words, number of lines, maybe standard stuff like some rhyme requirements, but maybe some kind of "has to include" rules such as "Every line has to have a word from list X" or "You must use each word in list Y" or some negative rules such as "You cannot use any of the words in list Z" -- where the user could type in or import any list of words. Maybe make such rules work on the phrase level, not just for words. Then the user imports a list of rivers, to use an old example, and the program helps him or her write a poem that has the name of a river in each line.

But ease of use is the most important thing. In its basic form, I would want a tool that people who know little about computers could use the first time they start the program. Something that would just work like a simple word processor but have the built-in smarts to know what to do with poetry. A beginner would be asked to write a limerick, for example, by filling in the five lines on the screen. The app would help by reminding the user about the rhyme structure and the number of beats in a line.
posted by pracowity at 12:46 AM on October 20, 2006

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