Darwinian Rhapsody

The Darwinian Poetry website applies the principles of natural selection to poetry—with a twist: The poems are written by a computer, and readers get to play Mother Nature by deciding which poems will survive.

The site, part evolutionary model and part open-source poetry project, asks visitors to select one of two computer-generated "poems," sets of 20 randomly grouped words. The most highly rated poems are then combined at random to produce the next "generation." Only the fittest make the cut.

Site designer David Rea, a software engineer, began the project "originally to impress a girl," but his interest in poetry and genetic algorithms also played a role.

One highly rated example: "Still strange are skulls/Yes the wanderer can own/What shared to idiot/And the what well to sing." Not exactly Keats but not excruciating, either. "No matter how bad the current ones are, the original 1,200 were much worse," insists Rea.

Without a human mind creating the poems, though, can it really be poetry? "Well, not in the sense that poetry is made by a poet," says Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, the largest American organization dedicated to poetry. The literary form is remarkably broad-minded, Swenson admits: "There are many famous 'found' poems, everything from a shopping list to instructions for assembling a package." Nonetheless, she says, since they lack a creative impulse, the verses on the Darwinian poetry site are little more than "a great string of words."

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David Rea's Darwinian poetry project can be found at codeasart.com/poetry/darwin.html.

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