When No Tree Falls In The Forest

I thought I was done with annoying questions like “What is art?” after Arisia. But somehow, I’ve gone from “What is art?” to the even-more-obnoxious question, “But what does it all mean?

(I swear we’ll get back to IF technique soon.)

Two poems I didn’t write

I found these poems on the Internet yesterday.

This one is about a failed marriage with some questionable overtones.

Bottlenose dolphin

The first recorded owner of Isay
and cannot produce young, suggesting they
will fit the cases, hands and dials that they
are always celebrated on Sunday.

The store remained in business well into
the stranding of a juvenile female
of dolphin intervention came from New
and a description of the adult male.

The exhalation is released into
this time, the real importance of a line
from the blowhole and sounds emitted through
Iota rather than Evangeline.

“The Simpsons Guy” attracted a degree
of California to the Bering Sea.


This one is about the tension between scientific discovery and ethical treatment in dolphin research.

Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute

Ignore the competition, they are far
to be released details are very few,
is known about the vocal repertoire
of value from a moral point of view.

In recent years, the mountain range has come
about the dolphins and the pressures they
proposed that regulated water from
discovery that occurs long the way.

The incidental capture of marine
impacts of climate changes are those that are
an estimated net decrease between
the driver never had to leave the car.

In other words, the cost of the campaign
is present in the Kingdom of Bahrain.

A digression about interpreting poetry

The first time I remember interpreting poetry was for high school forensics – by which I mean not forensic medicine, but competitive public speaking (as described here). I competed for four years, and in those four years, I went through poetry, original oratory, dramatic duo interpretation, and back to poetry again, bouncing between events due to a yen for drama, a gift for writing, and a distinct lack of acting talent.

In each new poetry season, the first step was to read through your chosen poem with the forensics coach, explaining your interpretation each step of the way, as proof that you understood the poem well enough to perform it for an audience. I had certainly encountered symbol-heavy poetry before then (and written it, as well), but I think that was the first time a teacher asked for my analysis, rather than explaining it first and then waiting for me to parrot it back in an essay.

We made those poems our own, we put our own stamps on them through performance – but we always knew there was a “right answer”. We knew poems were like a riddle or a puzzle. We knew you could make them your own, but we thought there was only one real way to unwrap them, and the writer had the final say. If we said X was 2 and Y was 4, but Diane Wakoski (unofficial poet of Michigan forensics 1) announced that X plus Y equalled 8, then she was right and we were wrong.

Between high school and college, I got very good at literature analysis. But most of the texts we used were written decades or centuries before my birth, and I (like so many students) always had the vague impression that literature was dry and ancient and irrelevant, an assortment of books mostly sold so students could pass their classes. And literature analysis felt like an equally irrelevant skill.

Of course, I was wildly wrong. Being able to analyze media messages is a critical modern skill, constantly invoked by a plethora of content ranging from movies to music to games. We do it every day, and sometimes we all agree on what something means and sometimes we don’t, and we generally agree that the meaning in a piece of media matters. (For evidence, look no further than Beyoncé’s new video “Formation” and the National Sheriffs’ Association response [http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2016/2/why-are-cops-taking-beyonces-affirmation-of-black-strength-as-an-attack.html].)

Digression over, come back.

Why these poems matter

“Bottlenose dolphin” and “Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute” are perfectly acceptable poems. The imagery becomes a bit obtuse in places, and I wouldn’t claim to understand it all, but I could build a solid defense for the interpretations provided above.

But they have no meaning – at least, not from the position of the author. Both poems were randomly generated by Wikisonnet, a system created by Ana Giraldo-Wingler, Cassie Tarakajian, and Sam Tarakajian. They pulled every iambic pentameter line out of Wikipedia and wrote an algorithm that would build sonnets from those lines, given a starting Wikipedia article.

“Bottlenose dolphin” – http://www.wikison.net/poems/176

“Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute” – http://www.wikison.net/poems/177

The source code for Wikisonnet is available on Github (three locations: here, here, and here). You can tweet a Wikipedia article name at @wikisonnet to request any sonnet you please, and then see all the references by going to the poem’s page at wikison.net.

So “Bottlenose dolphin” isn’t about a failing marriage. And “Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute” isn’t about dolphin research. They’re not technically about anything. They are, if anything, a subset of the Wikisonnet team’s artistic statement about the nature of art.


Another poem (author exceedingly unknown)

What if the sonnet were less oblique? Consider this one:


According to the Bible, Ezekiel
(in Category: Subject Headings), now
believed the unicorn to be a real
creation, as perspective would allow.

A set of six engravings on the same
position was important; in a true
Biblical ceremony, he became
in a position to enforce his view.

The Southern Lion has a single horn,
is also celebrated in a grand
depiction of the spiral unicorn,
but lost her ring while touring through Finland.

Interpretations of the unicorn:
Osborne and former wife of Jack Osborne.


That wasn’t the Wikisonnet original. I altered a few lines to skew it toward a specific interpretation of that poem. But it isn’t very altered.

If it didn’t have meaning before, does it have meaning now?

What if it had looked like this in the first place?

…and more obnoxious questions that I don’t have answers for

If the author and audience disagree on the interpretation of a given piece of media, who is right?

If there is no author at all, whose interpretation is correct?

Does found art only have meaning once someone finds it?

Does computer-generated art only have meaning once someone reads it?

When no tree falls in the forest, but everyone hears it, did it make a sound?

how do we do it?
                Get from day to day,
when nothing is simple or innocent,
not even poetry or music?”
— Diane Wakoski, from “Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands”, 1974


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  1. She wrote long poems, so we could reliably find something in the required 5-8 minute range; she wrote free verse, so we didn’t get trapped in a sing-song rhythm of meter and rhyme; and she wrote emotional, dark, image-dense poetry that appealed to teenagers and judges alike. I rarely walked into a round where someone wasn’t reciting a Wakoski poem, and by my senior year, I had one of her poems myself.
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  1. The thing about “random” poetry is that someone (you!) made the artistic choice of which poems to present as art. So even though the lines were picked at random, the poems were not.

    • You assume that I looked through a variety of poems created by Wikisonnet, rather than just grabbing the first two I saw.

      As it happens, you’re right – but I could also force Wikisonnet to write a completely random poem (by getting a random article from Wikipedia, and then feeding it to Wikisonnet). And I’d be confident that that, too, would be recognizable poetry, with apparent meaning beyond “someone hit the random button”.

  2. Yeah but you could roll dice blindfolded to choose which poems to present and it wouldn’t make all that much qualitative difference — the reader would still make artistic choices about how to interpret them.

    To me, meaning is a function of two variables: the observed and the observer. The idea of “inherent” or “objective” meaning, or the idea that authorial intent would somehow figure into such a thing, feels like magical thinking to me — sometimes it’s convenient or reassuring to pretend that things work that way, but that is not really how anything works. Reality is way more mundane. You’re reduced to saying boring things like, oh, here is how people are likely to interpret this, statistically speaking, according to yon empirical data — and even then you’d better be clear about which “people” you’re counting as “people” in your particular parochial view, because otherwise that’s a pretty hurtful and incendiary thing to say, you know? To say nothing of mixing up your interpretation of their reports of their interpretation with their actual interpretation. It’s not nice to put words in peoples mouths.

    What if, instead of no author, we had (gasp) two authors? What if, instead of an audience that consisted of a single monolithic hive-mind (another one of those weird magical-thinking shortcuts we’re all prone to), we had an audience with two or more distinct members, each with a distinct interpretation? What if the distinction between “author” and “audience” started to seem weird and artificial and arbitrary? Who would be “right” then? I mean I guess everybody could choose to resort to one of the traditional methods of deciding who’s right about something, like violence or democracy or whatever, but in real life that’s not exactly a universal practice when it comes to art and yet the sky does not fall.

    • [Not sure if this comment is in response to my comment, so forgive me for butting in if not…] I was talking more about the “is it art?” question than talking about meaning specifically, and I agree that the observer imparts/induces meaning to art orthogonally to the author’s intent. But that was sort of my point: Carolyn imparted meaning to the generated sonnets as an observer, and then made an artistic decision to pass them on, framed as art. (As she points out, there is a difference between choosing “by hand” or devising an algorithm to choose, but that’s still an artistic choice, just one more level removed. And of course the people who devised the WikiSonnet algorithm made many artistic choices there too, not to mention the authors of the original lines on Wikipedia, the implementors of Wikipedia itself, etc…)

      A cloud in the sky may mean something to you, but IMO it’s not art until you take a picture of it.

  3. I am vaguely aware that there are huge movements and counter-movements and counter-counter-movements regarding the nature of literary/poetic/other-artistic interpretation. I know very little of them, but have been told that the more recent movements all agree [citation needed] that the intent of the author is irrelevant to interpreting a work.

    My thoughts – which are probably 101-level in academia, first-order approaches buried by the detrius of Nth-order debates – are:

    * If “interpretation of an artistic work” is a search for [meaning / truth / beauty / feeling / etc] that is emergent from it (perhaps just for onesself, perhaps arguably for a wider audience), then yes, authorial intent is irrelevant. And the search for [meaning / etc] in randomly generated art is just as valid as searching in bespoke, custom-crafted art, or in a sunset or a witnessed argument or any other facet of life – the only distinguishing thing about deliberately created art is that it’s something crafted to perhaps be more amenable to thinking-about in that way than an entirely random text, artifact, or situation.

    * If interpretation of an artistic work” involves any attempt to understand anything about the author (or, perhaps, the influences upon the author – culture, environment, history) – then authorial intent is entirely relevant, and to the extent one cares about the author, when one considers randomly generated art one is thinking more about the process and constraints chosen by the artist than by the specifics of the singular text. (But you’re probably not *just* considering the author, so there’s some of the above paragraph as well.)

    PS: I really like the phrase, “the vocal repertoire of value from a moral point of view”. That made me sit up and think in a way I found rewarding. Most of the rest of the two randomly generated sonnets didn’t; whether this is because of their origin or my impatience I don’t know.

  4. First of all, thanks so much for writing this post. Cassie, Ana and I were really excited to read your ruminations on Wikisonnet. It’s especially cool that you wrote a poem (or I guess interpreted a poem?) based on a Wikisonnet–that makes it a poem written by people, assembled by machine and then edited by yet another person.

    I just wanted to add a couple of thoughts that might interest you. First, the lines aren’t entirely random. The algorithm prefers lines from the same category as the original article so that each poem can have a subject. We used a technique called Latent Dirichlet Allocation to form these page categories.

    The discussion around authorship is interesting as well, especially considering the fact that each of these poems has a human author–several in fact. The beauty of any one line, and I think that some of the lines are really beautiful, is due entirely to original human writer. Maybe it’s correct to think of these as computer-human collaborations.

    Authors can provide many things in addition to authorial intent; one of these is tone. Something that really interests me about these sonnets is that they seem to have a consistent tone, as if they were written by the same person. That’s probably because they all come from Wikipedia, but then of course Wikipedia was written by several different people. So how does it maintain a consistent tone?

    Are Wikisonnets good poems or not? I don’t know–some are definitely not, but there are some that at least have an interesting interpretation. If there actually is an author I think it’s probably the reader, who really is the author of their own interpretation and their own experience. This is my favorite thing about Wikisonnet, the way it captures the experience of sitting alone at a computer and trying to make sense of the disjointed, often nonsensical information available on the Internet. Hopefully it will encourage people to engage poetically with other parts of the Internet, as well.

    • Thank you for commenting!

      “First, the lines aren’t entirely random. The algorithm prefers lines from the same category as the original article so that each poem can have a subject. We used a technique called Latent Dirichlet Allocation to form these page categories.”

      I was pretty sure there was something more elegant going on than just pure randomness. My guess was that your system prioritized sentences from the same page, then prioritized sentences from linked pages to form a web of options, but it sounds like something even more complicated is going on. Do you have a layman’s synopsis available? (Perhaps appropriately, the Wikipedia article was a little much for me.)

      Your point about consistency of tone is really interesting. I think it is indeed related to sourcing from Wikipedia, where there’s a specific “Wikipedia tone” that comes across despite the many different articles. But Wikipedia’s internal emphasis is on clarity and neutrality, rather than specific word choice and sentence rhythms. Hmm.

      • Basically, LDA is a method for automatically discovering topics, and for describing documents as a mixture of topics. I’ll put a link to a pretty good explanation, but to be honest I don’t really understand the technical details. We used an excellent and free Python library called Gensim. At first we did try just using page links for our categories, but it led to some spurious connections. There’s a link on Justin Bieber’s page to an article on Jewish Prayer, for example, which caused a lot of poems written about Bieber to have a very faith-oriented bent.

        That’s a good point that Wikipedia editors probably emphasize clarity, but clear according to whom? There’s this sort of neutral, scholarly tone that it seems we’ve all converged on as the most proper for reference texts like Wikipedia, but of course that tone is the product of centuries of academic writing. So some style and flourish finds its way into Wikipedia no matter what. I feel like seeing it in poem form makes it even more obvious.

        Anyway, here’s the LDA article:

  5. If the creation of reality occurs in our brains, as an act of not only interpretation but also creation (just think, everything going on *out there* is actually going on *in here*…that is, we make the meaning out of all the stuff that is happening. Everything that exists, exists within *consciousness.*), then there is no art until someone apprehends it, there is no sound unless someone hears it.

    There, I answered your questions! :P

    I have to admit these are not my answers. I got them from William James, who described physical reality without the interpretive act of consciousness as “primordial chaos,” and from the book Godhead: The Brain’s Big Bang.

  6. I prefer to view art as, for the most part, subjective. Yes, there is an objective answer to the artist’s original intent, but art can be reinterpreted and take on new meaning by the audience or the artist themselves. For instance, a song written in one context can take on a different meaning when played in another. An example of a particular song doing this is U2’s One.

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