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Amodern 4: The Poetry Series

MISSION CONTROL

An Operator’s Manual for Compulibratories

Dean Irvine

When Earle Birney came to Sir George Williams University (SGWU) to give a poetry reading in February 1968, he was at the mid-point of his year-long writer-in-residency at the University of Waterloo. According to his biographer, Elspeth Cameron, it was a miserable year.1

Written early in his residency, the ominously titled 1967 poem “1984 minus 17 & counting at u of waterloo” makes a grievance against an Orwellian campus, which he depicts in absurdist neologisms: it is a campus designed by “landtects” and populated by mechanized, crewcut, expressionless “engimechs” and “mathamen” wearing varsity-jacket uniforms who conduct research in “compulibratories.”2

Mathematics and Computer Building, University of Waterloo, IBM Canadian News, October 1967.

Image 1: Mathematics and Computer Building, University of Waterloo, IBM Canadian News, October 1967.

Yet Birney was by no means uninterested in computer-based research at Waterloo. As early as 1965, when he gave a series of talks broadcast on Phyllis Webb and William Young’s new CBC Radio program The Best Ideas You’ll Hear Tonight, he gestured toward the generative possibilities of “‘computer poetry’”:

Recipe: feed the basic rules of syntax and some recurrent rhythmic patterns into a computer, add vocabulary loaded with image words, run the machine long enough, and out come enormous word-tapes arranged in lines. By the operation of statistical chance, such tapes will occasionally produce passages with sufficient unity of theme and image and enough provocative overtones to warrant their being clipped out and presented as poems…. The poem is still being made by poetically-sensitized human beings – by the linguistic expert who chooses the data words and, above all, by the editor of the tape, the critic-perceiver who extracts the poem from the surrounding gibberish.3

Although he calls the results of the experiment “‘computer poetry,’” he’s reluctant to describe it as the work of a poet. His “recipe” (which is really the description of the code of a computer program) narrativizes the procedure of human-machine interaction that sees digital data reprocessed by the analog operations of an “editor” or “critic-perceiver.” Delivered under the title “Experimentation Today” and later collected along with the six other talks in the series as part of his 1966 book The Creative Writer, he offers a spirited defense of “machine-made” poetry, for which he makes the case that it’s not “unpoetic” but rather a legitimate “search by a creatively-minded person into the total resources of his society as aids toward what he wants to say to that society.”4 Here he confirms his professed commitment to the principles of writerly creativity, not least because he had just established the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia in 1965. His position as the Centennial Writer-in-Residence at Waterloo reconfirmed his identification with writing as a creative practice.

Yet his animated defense of creativity in computer poetry belies its profound uncreativity – that is, its presaging of the contemporary avant-garde practice that Kenneth Goldsmith calls “uncreative writing,” by which he means taking ideas from radical twentieth-century modernist artistic and literary experimentation and “juicing them with twenty-first century technology.” “While this new writing has an electronic gleam in its eyes,” he adds, “its results are distinctly analog.”5 What I propose here is a variation on Goldsmith’s theorization of uncreative writing – a practice of uncreative reading, one that sees Birney’s experimentation with computer-assisted poetry as an act of human-machine interaction in which he reads digitally generated linguistic code through an analog process of critical perception and editing. In doing so, I will be situating one of his computer-assisted poetry experiments (“Space Conquest”) in relation to a genealogy of laboratory-based aesthetic research conducted by twentieth-century avant-garde writers, visual artists, and architects. Here is my hypothesis: if uncreative writing is lab work – coding and decoding – uncreative reading is the execution of programs – both digital and analog – to parse linguistic, computational, and ideological codes.

Mathematics and Computer Science Building, University of Waterloo.

Image 2: Mathematics and Computer Science Building, University of Waterloo.

Intrigued by the possibilities for experimental, computational poetic production, Birney undertook at least one such experiment in collaboration with Waterloo’s internationally recognized mathematicians, computational linguists, and software engineers. Birney’s arrival at Waterloo in the fall of 1967 coincided with the completion and unofficial opening of the Mathematics and Computer Science Building, which centralized the various research, teaching, and service units that depended on the university’s expanding inventory of computers. The new building likely served as a model for his dystopian vision of “compulibratories.”

Typical of mid-century brutalist architecture, the building was constructed in béton brut or rough-cast concrete and its design featured modular repetitions of angular geometries. The most prominent early examples of brutalist architecture are the buildings designed in the 1950s by Le Corbusier, whose modular designs migrated to university and corporate research campuses throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Libraries and laboratories alike reproduced some version of brutalist modular architecture. Brutalist style became synonymous with mid-century modernist architecture, whose origins can be traced to Le Corbusier’s conceptualization of his buildings as experimental laboratories. Architecture began for him with “laboratory work”6 and certain projects were labelled “‘laboratory’ sites”7 for his architectonic experiments: “From now on every building becomes a laboratory. A technical laboratory, a biological laboratory, a social and economical laboratory.”8 In other words, the laboratory – the common module, the standardized unit – is the experimental design, the architectural prototype from which all other structures may be built. As his human-scaled Modulor is to standardized units of measure, so his laboratory module is to architectonics. At once his locus of research and site of experiment, the laboratory is both theoretical model and built structure.

While I don’t want to claim for Waterloo’s Mathematics and Computer Science Building the status of a UNESCO heritage site and so place it on par with Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille, I do want to call attention to the ways in which its architectural principles radiate outward in ersatz versions that Birney encounters during the walks across campus that prompted his composition of “1984 minus 17 & counting.” He not only identifies the standardized, derivative, uncreative features of brutalism with Waterloo’s “compulibratories,” but also attributes the same characteristics to the “engimechs” and “mathamen” who inhabit them. He was not alone in his backlash against brutalism and its modular style. The rationalization, standardization, and reproducibility of modular design made possible the mass production and prefabricated assemblages of mid-century architectural modernism; this is the monotonous, repetitive design that typifies the built environments of the post-war corporate research laboratory and extends to the mushrooming of university campuses during the space-race era of the Cold War. According to brutalism’s critics, these are the stereotypically dehumanized and conformist environments inhabited by corporate man who obeys the logic of capital and instrumental reason. Critics of modular design further argue that the abstract dimensional module reduced the human figure to a modular unit mapped out on grids that facilitated a corporatist agenda of social control. The human became but another modular quantum, “a hollowed-out modular subject.”9 Birney, evidently, counted himself among these critics.

Even so, he found himself drawn into the Mathematics and Computer Science Building. Just a week before his reading at SGWU, Birney worked with two linguists and a mathematician to generate a poem composed of “12 lines chosen from 1066 five-syllable lines supplied by a computer”10 which was programmed to randomize the words of two sonnets: George Meredith’s “Lucifer in Starlight” and Archibald MacLeish’s “The End of the World.” Dated February 1968, Birney’s 12-line poem was produced as a printout on fan-fold computer paper. It was later inserted into his 1969 collection Pnomes, Jukollages, and Other Stunzas, which was issued by Ganglia Press – not as a bound book, but as an envelope of printed cards, among which was shuffled a folded printout titled “Space Conquest : Computer Poem.”

Earle Birney, "Space Conquest : Computer Poem," Pnomes, Jukollages and Other Stunzas (Toronto: Ganglia Press, 1969).

Image 3: Earle Birney, “Space Conquest : Computer Poem,” Pnomes, Jukollages and Other Stunzas (Toronto: Ganglia Press, 1969).

According to Birney’s preamble and postscript to his SGWU reading of the poem, he contributed only the title and picked the 12 lines from the 1066 generated by the computer. He disclaimed responsibility for selecting the source texts. Whatever his collaborators thought might be wrought by the reassembly of two sonnets whose eschatological visions imagine the ends of mythical and modern worlds is of no apparent concern to Birney. His job, as the late-modernist prototype of Goldsmith’s uncreative writer, is to rebuild those worlds that have reached their ends, whether that of Meredith’s rebel archangel who “reach’d a middle height”11 and spends eternity in punishment for his transgression, or that of MacLeish’s circus-like performers whose carnivalesque existence suddenly ends in “nothing, nothing, nothing – nothing at all,”12 or that of the late-modernist poet, like Birney, who spends half-a-century innovating new poetic forms – including the sonnet. Although the poet disclaimed responsibility for the source texts, the collective agency of linguistic and mathematical collaborators working on the experiment clearly perceived the significance of these sonnets to the dark side of the Cold War’s technological modernity. Even though Birney claims to work only with the output of the computer and not with the original poems, his role as poet is to execute a program that splices linguistic, aesthetic, and ideological codes in the construction of a Cold War poem. That, in any case, is exactly what he purports to do in his capacity as “editor” and “critic-perceiver,” since the physical manifestation of the poem as a printout is the output of a string of print commands.

The poem’s footnote – a version of its metadata – tells us, among other things, that it was “[p]rinted on an IBM/360 computer.” This metadata identifies it as the product of the same IBM machines that NASA used to crunch data for its Apollo lunar missions. As it happens, Birney arrived on campus around the same time as Waterloo’s first IBM 360, which was installed as the central showpiece of the Mathematics and Computer Science Building. At the building’s centre was an open-concept area colloquially known as The Red Room, whose primary-colour palette and grid layout looked like it was built on the blueprint of a Mondrian design from the 1920s. From its opening in 1967 to its closure in 1999, The Red Room was Waterloo’s Mission Control. Visible from above through the plate-glass windows that lined the top third of the room, its iconic floorplan – with its arrangement of hardware cabinets in a grid-based rectilinear patterns – translated and reconfigured the modularity of the building’s exterior. The room’s layout foregrounded the machines as an extension of its architecture, typical of brutalist structures, which often exposed the services of built environments as integral elements of their design.

Irvine_Red Room 1

Irvine_Red Room 2

Irvine_Red Room 3

Images, 4, 5, 6: The Red Room, Mathematics and Computer Science Building, University of Waterloo.

Birney’s curation and editing of standardized units of five-syllable lines enacts a modular poetics, one that translates the architecture and interior design of Waterloo’s central computing centre into an assemblage of linguistic modules. Given his reactionary stance toward the brutalist design of a campus inhabited by “compulibratories,” his adaptation of the principles of modular industrial design and architecture to his poetics may seem a stark reversal. Yet I want to insist that this is not a reversal at all; rather, his poem performs a critique of postindustrial modernity’s dehumanizing technologies, ideologies, and built environments by inhabiting and mimicking the modular structures with which it is constructed. As a computer printout, the materiality of the page itself is an extension of The Red Room’s IBM 360 on which the poem was printed. The printout’s materiality further calls attention to the ideological codes scripted into the mechanical and digital apparatus of its production: it is, after all, a poem generated by the same computational technology that launched the space race. Birney’s purportedly singular “original” contribution to the poem – the four words and one punctuation mark of the title and subtitle, “Space Conquest : Computer Poem” – are not part of the dataset processed by the computer.13 The appended title functions as a program, a single line of linguistic code that governs the poet’s selection of 12 lines from the larger randomized dataset of 1066 five-syllable lines. In computational terms, Birney’s analog linguistic code serves as a one-line script through which the digital code of the randomized text is parsed. In other words, his parsing of the 1066 randomized lines subjects the digitally rendered linguistic code to an ideological critique of the Cold War’s imperialist project of space exploration. Its critique runs through the poem somewhat like a computer virus, a program designed to dismantle code, hijack systems, and disable machines in which it is installed.

The full dataset was processed using a brand new compiler program developed at Waterloo by a team of computer scientists and their students, namely the Watfor (Waterloo Fortran) compiler,14 a program that translates source code written in higher-order programming languages (in this case, Fortran IV) to machine code so that the computer can process the program’s instructions. As the human agent who assembles the poem, Birney performs the role of compiler, but in reverse, since he translates the linguistic code of the randomized output of five-syllable lines into a literary code that can be read as a poem. Unlike the Watfor compiler, however, the human agent is prone to introduce unscripted errors, especially in an oral performance of the poem. The poet may replicate the function of a computer program when he pronounces the title (similar to a run or print command), but his oral delivery of the poem soon departs from the machinic mimicry he enacts as “editor” or “critic-perceiver” in the compilation of its modular structure. As evidenced by the SGWU recording, Birney’s oral performance sets in motion features that a computer cannot replicate: he makes misreadings of the poem (which is hardly surprising, given the poor quality of its printing). A properly functioning computer cannot misread the source code of a program or the data fed into it with punch cards; that is why a single typo may cause error messages or stop a program from running altogether. Although he is emphatic that his only creative contribution to the poem is its title, it turns out that Birney’s oral performance of computer-assisted uncreative reading produces unintended moments of spontaneous creativity. These misreadings are human error messages, unscripted noise that interferes with the poem’s scripted signal. They are errors without trace on the machine-made printout, points of momentary interaction located at the interface of human and machine, oral variants that may now be accessed through the SpokenWeb audio archive of SGWU readings. Yet the variants are not captured in the transcripts that accompany the audio files: the transcribed archive assumes an equivalence between the printout and the performance, an erasure that effaces the idiosyncrasies of the reading event. Still, the transcript adds new markings, too, timestamps that document the temporal distances travelled by the listener, not unlike the geographical co-ordinates that line the pages of ships’ logs, records of another age of imperial conquest.

Birney’s postscript to his reading adds information not included in the printout, including the data log of the Watfor compiler; he notes that the compiler “took point eight-three seconds, not even one second.”15 His documentation of the compile time of .83 seconds stands out in stark contrast to the transcription’s record of the reading time of the poem itself, which begins at 1:49 and ends at 2:25 – a period of 36 seconds. He does not log the amount of time that it took for him to choose and arrange the 12 lines, but I am going to assume that it took more than either .83 or 36 seconds, a reminder of the duration necessary for the labour of human, analog compilers – even if the data is already at hand and composition requires only the arrangement of prefabricated textual modules.

The disparity between the computer’s clock time and the unrecorded time necessary for Birney to parse the data speaks to the computer’s conquest of time and the uncreative reader’s relatively slow process of analog compilation. Given the imperialist discourse that programs the poem, it stands to reason that the human compiler occupies the position of the subaltern, his sense of temporality rapidly overtaken by the machine-driven progress of the posthuman. Indeed, Birney’s “Space Conquest” shares much with imperial modernity’s conception of annexed territories as spaces of experimentation,16 whether terrestrial or extraterrestrial. Here, however, the territorialized object is the human subject displaced from his social role as poet to that of compiler: the human imitates the behavior of machines, assimilated into the dominant social order of the imperialist machine. And so Birney’s suspicion and critique of the Orwellian compulibratories come full circle. Still, even in this scenario, the poet’s agency is not erased, but displaced. Whatever residual agency resides in the compilation of modularized units of poetic language, the poet is cast in a secondary role to the computer during the act of composition. All the same, it would be injudicious to decry the whole project as one that leads inexorably to the annexation of the human as an agent of poetic production.

What irks Birney is not the poet’s displacement by the computer in the process of generating the linguistic data for the poem, but the social control of computers by a math and engineering elite installed in a central computer lab and, by extension, the cybernetic control of the university by technocrats. To adopt the distinctions among computer users that Stuart Brand makes in his landmark 1972 Rolling Stone article on the makers of the video game Spacewar at MIT in the early 1960s and later at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Birney’s landtects, engimechs and mathamen are “planners,” “high-rent” research groups working in corporate and institutional labs, while the computational linguists and programmers with whom the poet collaborates are “hackers,” “low-rent” support-group researchers who make use of these labs in the off hours, in the middle of the night, during down time.17 Brand’s description of the informal network of hackers who created Spacewar is apposite to Birney’s collaboration with the linguists and mathematicians who worked on “Space Conquest”:

They are the ones who translate human demands into code that the machines can understand and act on…. Those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology which has an odd softness to it; outlaw country, where rules are not decree or routine so much as the starker demands of what’s possible.18

Comparing hackers to test pilots, Brand channels the military and space-age rhetoric typical of the Apollo era. As David A. Mindell puts it, “NASA’s publicity machine drew on age-old American icons of control and mythologies of individuality and autonomy, from cowboys to sea captains.”19 Still, the aptness of Brand’s analogy holds in its relevance to Birney’s poetic occupation – not as a hacker, but as a pilot of one of the “flying machines.”

Birney may not be one of Brand’s hackers, but he does share with them the ethos and praxis of the “maker,” an author function that he frequently invokes in aligning the Anglo-Saxon “scop” as “maker” with his own poetic practice. Recognized since his earliest collections in the 1940s for the fusion of modernist and Anglo-Saxon poetics,20 Birney’s piloting of the poem in his SGWU reading is yet another phase in its making.

Here he reasserts the poet’s agency, returns control to the human with the poem’s vocalization and enlists technology that amplifies and records its oral performance. His reading works in counterpoint to his machinic assemblage of randomly generated lines: neither detached and impersonal, nor recited line by line without enjambment or pauses for stanza breaks, as if speaking aloud the print commands of a computer program, he adopts a bardic tone and cadence typical of a poet and scholar so long immersed in the oral traditions of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry. His deep timbre and emphatic, modulated delivery infuses “Space Conquest” with the heroic character and affective register entirely apposite to mass media representations of Cold War space exploration. Given his deep-grained suspicion of modernity’s progress, however, it would be mistaken to conclude that he merely replicates these heroic codes.

Is Birney’s reading another of his ironized invocations of the heroic mode of Anglo-Saxon verse? At the same time, it would be misleading to take the gravitas of Birney’s heroic vocalization out of the social and performative context of the reading event, during which he refers to the poem as one of a “few odd things which are to some extent experimental.”21 After all, his forensic unpacking of the computer-assisted composition process in his postscript deflates the aggrandized mannerisms of his reading and performs, in effect, an anti-heroic dismantling of the poem’s intrepid, imperialist ethos and techne. It is fitting that Birney, who repeatedly identified himself with the figure of the Anglo-Saxon scop, should spend more time narrating the making of the poem than actually reading it. His postscript about his work as a maker of the poem is anti-heroic; it exposes the uncreativity of the computational experiment, reveals the participation of collaborators, and so decentres the poet from a controlling, heroic role. Experimentalism, in this instance, points toward the lab-based collaborative ethos and practices typical of computer scientists; for a creative practitioner from the arts, especially one of Birney’s generation (he was born in 1904), mainframe computational experiments typically necessitated the cooperation of agents from other disciplines and access to the computer infrastructure afforded to them by universities. He may be the poem’s pilot, but he’s never really flying solo: he can’t navigate his modular “flying machine” without the data fed to him by Waterloo’s Mission Control.

In his introduction to the 1969 collection in which “Space Conquest” appears, bpNichol offers commentary on “earle’s work which has been termed ‘experimental’ by every review & critical article” and pronounces that “‘experimental’ poetry concerns itself with a return to the simpler elements of language. for birney this has meant a return to the ear, and a search for some way to orchestrate for it.”22 A poem that anticipates Nichol’s own computer poetry by more than two decades, “Space Conquest” escapes Nichol’s attention to the aural in Birney’s experimental poetry. Indeed, Nichol is often recognized as a pioneer in computer poetry in Canada, even though a significant number of mainframe-based practitioners preceded him. While Nichol could code First Screening on his own personal computer, Birney had neither direct access to a computer nor expertise to code in any of the languages commonly employed in the late 1960s; he was among the typical practitioners of “mainframe experimentalism,” as Hannah Higgins and Douglas Kahn call the digital arts of the “long” 1960s (late 1950s to early 1970s),23 which meant that they relied on collaborators with access to university and corporate computing facilities as well as the proficiency to use them.

Long before personal computers became widely available in the late 1970s and 1980s, a generation of mainframe experimentalists produced avant-garde visual and verbal art. The mainframe period – roughly 1964 to 1970 or so – saw an array of computer-assisted and computer-generated aesthetic experiments by Canadian-based creative practitioners and scholars, including poets (Birney, Lionel Kearns, Stephen Scobie), artists (Gregory Curnoe, Leslie Mezei, Peter Milojevic), film makers (Joyce Wieland), computational linguists (Jean Baudot, Robert Ian Scott), and literary critics (Peter Stevens). Each collaborated with various programmers – William A. Burnette, John Coulthart, A.G. Fowler, Peter G. Neumann, Ted Powell, Charles Stock, among others – located at university or corporate computing facilities. In other words, Birney’s “computer poem” was not the work of a solitary, anti-heroic outlaw but part of a much larger, if disparate and disconnected, avant-garde arts movement that performed visual and linguistic experiments with mainframe computers. These activities speak to collaborations among creative practitioners, linguists, engineers, and programmers working across multiple media and technologies; they also speak to the fluidity of creative, scholarly, and scientific roles in these aesthetic experiments. Linguists generated randomized poems, scientists designed visual art on graphical plotters, poets wrote computer programs on punch cards and teletype machines, and film makers designed algorithms for computational permutations. This was a time of intense cross-disciplinary activity during which scientists exhibited the experiments from their laboratories in art galleries, while artists left their studios for computer laboratories to conduct experiments.24

Yet such collaborative, lab-based arts experiments were not new to the 1960s either. This genealogy of experimentalism extends a half-century or more to the laboratory-based research of the early twentieth-century European and North American avant garde. Suffice it to say that Birney’s operating procedures in Waterloo’s “compulibratories” position him as a practitioner in the tradition of aesthetic experiments and collaborations conducted in avant-garde art and design labs beginning at the turn of the twentieth century. With the creation of studio laboratories in New York and at MIT in the 1960s and 70s, a new generation of artists, scientists, and engineers modeled their collaborative work on these early avant-garde labs. So when MIT’s Media Laboratory opened in 1985 and announced that its experiments were “as much like the Bauhaus as a research lab,”25 it at once moved us toward the current profusion of digital new media labs and, at the same time, returned to the analog avant-garde labs of the modernist period. Birney’s poetic inhabitation of the compulibratory – as a digital-analog hybrid – occupies an analogously medial and intermedial location – it is the work of a late-modernist poet who, to borrow from Goldsmith once more, is distinctly analog, but juiced by 1960s digital technology.26

When Birney arrived at the SGWU campus to deliver his February 1968 reading, he probably had no idea that he was reentering the laboratory. Thanks to Christine Mitchell’s archaeological recovery of the oral, institutional, and technological histories of the SGWU poetry series, I am now able to situate Birney’s reading in relation to the apparatus of the SGWU language lab, otherwise known as the Tape Laboratory, which was located in the Henry F. Hall Building and run by the Instructional Media Office (IMO),27 directed at the time by G.A.B. Moore, and technicians who worked for the IMO.

Henry F. Hall Building, Sir George Williams University, 1970.

Image 7: Henry F. Hall Building, Sir George Williams University, 1970.

The SGWU readings did not take place in the language lab; each reading happened in one of four locations in the Hall Building. Recordings of the readings were handled remotely, which regularly required language lab staff to set up a reel-to-reel tape recorder, lavalier microphone, and portable public address system on location. Despite the grand technological ambitions of the Hall Building – which when it was opened in 1966 was supposed to be fully wired for ubiquitous playback of audio and video from a single, centralized facility – the recording of the poetry series often required portable equipment. Although the poets performed outside of the language lab, their readings were either captured offsite by mobile equipment and transported back to the lab on magnetic tape or, in the case of events held in one of the Hall Building auditoriums, recorded remotely from the centralized lab. As it happens, the different recording technologies enlisted by the SGWU language lab speak to the historical moment at which the readings took place: where the language lab and its centralized recordings were emblematic of an institutional apparatus that derived from technologies and methodologies of language instruction originally developed by the American military,28 the portable tape decks were representative of the 1960s profusion of amateur audio recordings. Poets themselves frequently used these portable devices to create audio auto-documentaries of 1960s avant-garde poetry cultures – as evidenced, for instance, by Fred Wah’s recordings of the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference.29

The institutional location of the SGWU poetry series, specifically its occurrence in the Hall Building, which is yet another manifestation of 1960s brutalist campus architecture, restages Birney’s “Space Conquest” at another kind of laboratory – that is, the language lab, another modular extension of American military apparatus. The Hall Building – with its centralized language lab acting as Mission Control – proves an uncanny host for the performance of a poem originally generated in The Red Room of Waterloo’s “compulibratory.” Yet Birney came to his reading equipped not with the apparatus of a lab technician, but with an extension of the computer lab that would later be appropriated by the small press for the publication of the poem by Nichol’s Ganglia Press – the printout. Like the portable tape recorder, the printout is a mobile prosthesis of the laboratory; its materiality at once points to the institutional apparatus of the mainframe computer that printed it and to an emergent avant-garde mode and medium of amateur, “low-rent” computer printing.30 Its presentation as a printout marks it with the code of hackers and the aesthetic of their computer labs; his oral performance of the printout isn’t recorded in a studio but in a building wired and equipped to be an extended environment of laboratory experimentation, a pedagogical space for testing out linguistic prototypes. Where the university’s language lab may have required the production of professional audio recordings for standardized linguistic training, the SGWU poetry readings retained an amateur style that preserves the audio signature of the 1960s poetic avant garde.

Birney’s inhabitation of laboratories – both as “editor” or “critic-perceiver” of a “machine-made” poem at Waterloo and as performer and interpreter of data and metadata on the printout at SGWU – is located at the historical conjuncture of aesthetic, technological, and ideological contradictions. Rather than resolve such contradictions, “Space Conquest” exposes ways in which the poem occupies an intermedial space between digital and analog lab technologies that were simultaneously employed by astronauts and artists, engineers and amateurs, imperialists and anti-imperialists, planners and hackers. These unresolved dialectics constitute a kind of absurdist riddle – not unlike Birney’s portrait of the compulibratory itself. What happens when an Anglo-Saxon scop walks into a compulibratory? It’s a riddle to which answers only come in the execution of a program designed to accommodate contradiction: an archaeology of the institutions, ideologies, technologies, and media that connect in the constellation of mainframe experimentalism, computational linguistics, small-press publishing, and avant-garde poetics.


  1. Elspeth Cameron, Earle Birney: A Life (Toronto: Viking, 1994), 484. 

  2. Earle Birney, “1984 minus 17 & counting at u of waterloo,” Rag and Bone Shop (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971), n. pag. When the Department of English at Waterloo celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2010, the committee responsible for its celebration chose to display Birney’s decidedly unflattering poem on its “English at 50” commemorative site. One can only assume that the department has a flair for self-deprecating humour, or that Birney’s satiric depiction of a university renowned for its applied mathematics, computer science and software engineering programs still rings true to its Faculty of Arts. See “English at 50.” 

  3. Earle Birney, The Creative Writer (Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1966), 78. 

  4. Birney, The Creative Writer, 78. 

  5. Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 4. 

  6. Le Corbusier, The Marseilles Block, trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury (London: Harvill Press, 1953), 29. 

  7. Le Corbusier, 34. 

  8. Le Corbusier, 44. 

  9. William J. Rankin, “Epistemology of the Suburbs: Knowledge, Production, and Corporate Laboratory Design,” Critical Inquiry 36 (Summer 2010), 789. 

  10. Earle Birney, “Space Conquest : Computer Poem,” Pnomes, Jukollages, and Other Stunzas (Toronto: Ganglia Press, 1969), n. pag. 

  11. George Meredith, “Lucifer in Starlight,” Poems (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897), 185. 

  12. Archibald MacLeish, “The End of the World,” Streets in the Moon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1926), 101. 

  13. Nor does the full title follow the five-syllable prosodic rule that regulates each line in the body of the poem; it does, as long as you are willing to read the main title as a string of three spondees, which approximate the five-stress line of the original sonnets. 

  14. For a full history of the Watfor compiler, see Scott Campbell, “‘Wat For Ever’: Student-Oriented Computing at the University of Waterloo,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 35.1 (Jan.-Mar. 2013), 11–22. 

  15. Earle Birney, “Space Conquest,” SpokenWeb. 

  16. Helen Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870–1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 12. 

  17. Stuart Brand, “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” Rolling Stone, Dec. 7, 1972, 58, 51. 

  18. Brand, 51. 

  19. David A. Mindell, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 5. 

  20. Frank Davey, Earle Birney (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1971), 45; Lynn E. Jakes, “Old English Influences in Earle Birney’s ‘Anglosaxon Street’ and ‘Mappemounde,’” Journal of Canadian Poetry 2.1 (1979), 74; M.J. Toswell, “Earle Birney as Anglo-Saxon Scop: A Canadian ‘Shaper’ of Poetry?” Canadian Poetry 54 (summer 2004), 20–1. 

  21. Birney, “Space Conquest,” SpokenWeb. 

  22. bpNichol, “an introduction,” Pnomes, Jukollages, and Other Stunzas (Toronto: Ganglia Press, 1969), n. pag. 

  23. Hannah B. Higgins and Douglas Kahn, Introduction to Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundations of the Digital Arts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 1. For an informative and wide-ranging study of the early history of computer-assisted and computer-generated poetry, see C.T. Funkhouser, Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959–1995 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007). 

  24. Leslie Mezei, “science in art in science in art in science in art,” Arts Canada, April 1968, 39. 

  25. Nicholas Negroponte, quoted in Thomas A. Bass, “Being Nicholas,” Wired 3.11 (1993). Reprinted in HotWired

  26. Although laboratory environments do not figure into Goldsmith’s theorization of the modernist prehistories of twenty-first century uncreative writing, I am inclined to hypothesize that they constitute institutional formations and practices that complement his transhistorical genealogies of the avant garde. It is, at least, a hypothesis worth testing out – or, better, listening to. 

  27. Christine Mitchell, “Again the Air Conditioners: Finding Poetry in the Institutional Archive,” Amodern 4. Subsequent references to the SGWU language lab and the IMO are all indebted to her original archival research. 

  28. Mitchell, “Again the Air Conditioners.” 

  29. Fred Wah, “Vancouver Poetry Conference and Miscellaneous Recordings.” As well, the audio archives of UbuWeb and PennSound are replete with such amateur recordings. 

  30. Consider, for instance, the Coach House Press MS editions, which first appeared in 1979. These manuscript editions of works in progress were printed on standard fan-fold, automatic-feed paper so that they would retain the materiality of a computer-generated object. 


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