In case you've missed it, there's a fascinating conversation about poetry going on over at Space Bar's blog, building off an experiment by Vivek which you can read about on his blog.
You'd think that having left two llooonnnggg comments on that post I'd have exhausted all I had to say on the subject (well, at least you'd think that if you were new to this blog and knew absolutely nothing about me), but obviously that isn't true.
In particular, I want to focus on Vivek's claim that he's looking to humanize mechanical processes, in partial response to the work of poets like Christian Bok who are interested in a more 'machinic' view of poetry. While I think that's interesting, I think there's a middle ground of human-machine interaction that's being ignored. I too have issues with the idea of replacing the "lyric voice of a human agent" with the "actions of a machine" but I think there's an exciting set of intermediate possibilities, through which machines (or more correctly, mechanical processes) could be set up in dialog with human agency to accentuate the lyric voice. In particular, I think greater attention to mechanical processes opens up the possibility of a whole range of new 'formal' challenges, based on outsourcing parts of the poetic process to mechanical operation in order to focus on the rest (you can tell I used to be a consultant, can't you?).
The way I see it is this: the essence of formalism is constraint - the poet voluntarily relinquishes certain choices that should, by rights, be available to him or her, both so as to make writing the poem a greater challenge and in the hope that the adoption of these limiting parameters will help to sharpen what lies within them, making for a better poem, or at the very least, a better poet. Rather than make those choices himself / herself, the poet allows them to be predetermined by invoking some established rule or template, thus eliminating human agency from parts of the poetic process.
But what if, instead of invoking some preset rule or condition, we were to randomize some of the choices behind the poem by entrusting them to a machine? We could then imagine a whole set of 'new' constraints that we could attempt to write poems within.
Consider two examples, off the top of my head. Suppose you were told that you had to write a poem but would have no control over line order. That after you wrote the poem a computer (or some other randomizing device - technology is not important here) would rearrange your lines in a completely random way. The challenge would then become to come up with a poem (presumably a short one) that would work in every possible permutation. Of course, no computer would actually be needed to rearrange your lines once you were done - the point is that the idea of mechanizing part of the poetic process (line arrangement) introduces a new kind of constraint that makes the task of writing the poem more challenging.
Or, to take a second example - imagine that you took the database of lines that Vivek currently has (or any other set of lines) and used a random number generator to assign a number to each one of them. You then took the lines corresponding to numbers in the top 5 percentiles (say) and tried to write a poem using them. Let's say (to make things more challenging) you forced yourself to follow the rank order of the lines - i.e. you started with the line that corresponded to the highest number, then got to the second highest and so forth. You'd be free to insert lines in between, of course - the challenge would be to create a credible poem that incorporated a randomly generated sequence of lines (okay, okay, so I know it's a bit like the 'Whose Line' game on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, but then I've always maintained that Whose Line is a rich source of poetic ideas; it's also - to give it a more respectable lineage - very much like what Calvino does in Castle of Crossed Destinies with Tarot cards).
The point is not that these exercises are particularly brilliant (they're not - it's one in the morning and I'm exhausted) but that what the mechanization of parts of the poetic process makes possible is the creation of a virtually infinite set of constraint conditions that poets can use to challenge themselves if they're so inclined.
Personally, I remain unconvinced that all this desperate search for constraints is worth it. Oh, I think it's fun to do and entertaining to read, and I see how it helps to hone one's skills as a poet. I'm just not convinced that what comes out of it is particularly good poetry. But that's a whole other discussion. The point of this post is only to suggest that we may not want to dismiss machinic processes so easily, but may want to embrace them and subvert them to our own uses. And to propose that we try and think up new and interesting ways of doing that.