Portuguese American Journal

Essay: The Whiskey is Strong, but the Cow is Dead – By George Monteiro

By George Monteiro, Contributor (*)

This talk was given 48 years ago, on March 23, 1966, at a Brown University Freshman Convocation. A relic or vestige, an artifact, if you will. It is published now, for the first time, at a moment when useful computer-generated search-engines pop up regularly, as well as, less happily, computer-created Shakespearean sonnets . The more things change, one is tempted to lament, but the fact is that in this world almost nothing remains the same.— G. M.

I take my title from a four-line poem that I came upon last Saturday, a poem by an American, Lewis Turco. It is called:


The Spirit is Willing, but the Flesh is Weak.
“Compute this line in Russian, please,” he said.
She passed it through her circuits and replied,
The Whiskey is Strong, but the Cow is Dead.

“The Whiskey is Strong, but the Cow is Dead.” If my talk had a descriptive subtitle it might be: “Early Notes on Poets, Scholars, and Computers.”

Now before I get into deep difficulty, let me rush to disclaim any specialized knowledge about computers. I know just about as much concerning computers and programming as I do about the national budget. But I am beginning to be interested in the implications and possibilities for poetry (which is to say, literature) and for literary scholarship, that the existence and the persistent improvement of the computer, as instrument (and symbol) of the Electron Age, presents to poets and scholars alike. I am interested, in particular, in those visions of a millennium, a Golden Age, that some scholars now seem to experience.

In this talk I shall offer you a cluster of excerpts from various sources, with some commentary on these quotations, which will give you a sense, I hope, of what I am getting at. The commentary on these quotations will, I trust, be outweighed by the logic of the quotations themselves.

In the New York Times, recently, I came across a cheery news report of the peaceful (that is, to say, humanistic) use of the I.B.M. 360 at New York University’s Institute for Computer Research in the Humanities. “What does a musicologist do to prepare a measure-by-measure profile of each of Hayden’s 104 symphonies?” begins the account. “How does an English scholar collate the five vastly different versions of Henry James’s ‘Daisy Miller’ to produce a single edition of the work?”

With pencil and paper each chore might take a lifetime, but if the two scholars toil at New York University they can turn for help to an electronic computer…

“It used to be,” declares.., an N.Y.U. mathematics professor who is director of the institute, “that monks in monasteries were the only people with time to run off, say, a complete index of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Now, anybody in the academy world with access to a computer can do it.”

Because “the machine can perform 20,000 operations every second it is in operation,” concludes the article, it has been able to “index alphabetically, by author and subject matter, in 10 hours every article that appeared over a 50-year period in the Spanish periodical, Revista de Filologia Española. A nun tried to index the same periodical by hand and had to give up the task after 10 years.”

Here we have the I.B.M. 360 presented as a useful, efficient slave to the humanist. Quite impressive. But as you may know. New York University is not alone in such computer research. The work being done at Cornell, for example, is even more impressive. There scholars, who are sometimes interested in the literature they work on (but not always) are turning out in rapid order concordances to the entire body of a writer’s work, projects that in some cases had never been attempted before the day of the computer: concordances to the poetry of Matthew Arnold, William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson, to the entire corpus of Old English poetry. Still other universities, joining in a race that will obviously go to the swift, are engaged in producing, through the use of “high-speed, electronic, data-processing” machines, completely new editions of American novelists, major and minor: Melville at Northwestern, William Dean Howells at Indiana, Stephen Crane at Virginia, Charles Brockden Brown at Kent State, and Mark Twain at Berkeley.

An IBM System/360-20 (with front panels removed), with IBM 2560 Multi-Function Card Machine

An IBM System/360-20 (with front panels removed), with an IBM 2560 Multi-Function Card Machine on the right.

And the Shakespearean scholars are even more excited about the prospects for their already bustling field. The December 1965 issue of The Shakespeare Newsletter is entirely devoted to the subject of Computer Studies in Shakespeare. Specifically endorsing the view that here—in computer work—lies the future of Shakespearean scholarship, the editor provides a “Guide to 50 Computer Projects in Shakespeare”—ranging from “Dating a work of an author by stylistic analysis” to “Discover[ing]” how much revision justifies a reviser to call a play his own rather than a revision.” And unsatisfied with his half-a-hundred, he advertises for more. Like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, with glittering eye, the editor proclaims that “Shakespearean scholarship is on the verge of a revolution.” If the bibliographical and scholarly situation is reaching an impasse today,” he questions, “what will it be in the year 2000 if Shakespearean activity proceeds at the same rate and 35,000 new items are added to our bibliographies?” Harnessing this great flow of 35,000 scholarly studies will be a job, an easy job, one suspects, for the computer: the computer which “will improve scholarship by giving limitless examples and statistics.” And in the editor’s largest promise of all, he ventures that “Ignorance [itself] may become impossible.”

But what will the bulk of these 35,000 new items of Shakespeare scholarship be like? It is a truism that a new age demands new forms, even in scholarship. And there are signs that the computer has already begun to affect the nature of scholarly writing. “It is… possible to foresee a time when scholarly books of real value will theoretically be producible without the author writing a single word,” observes the London Times Literary Supplement. “Libraries and archives will give out all the material which [the scholar] has selected in such a form—micro-photographs or tape, for instance, that it can be printed without any kind of manual transcription. He may cut it like a film or compose it like a picture; the entire originality as well as the beauty of his achievement will then lie in the unsuspected relationships which he brings to light.”

This engaging observation leads me to still another possibility for literature in the Electric Age: that computers will provide large bodies of original writing. I shall give two examples. In the first instance, a computer, for some reason called “Mark II”, put together an “original” poem by Franz Kafka. Basically, this is how they did it: programmers took sixteen nouns and sixteen adjectives from Kafka’s novel The Castle, and fed them into the computer, together with a few conjunctions and articles and the verb “is.” Out of this brew, the machine made, according to the simplest rules, random sentences, which it then ordered into a “poem-shaped text” of thirty-five lines. Here, in rough translation, are the first four lines.

Not every look is close. No village is late.
A castle is free and every peasant is far.
Every stranger is far. A day is late.
Every house is dark. An eye is deep…

Four lines are enough. Surely no one would deny that this example is “Kafkaesque.” It does smack of The Castle.

Let’s take another example. The untitled “poem” by Kafka was programmed, one presumes, by non-poets with no system or theory for poetry. What we need, of course, is a “computer poem” produced by a poet with a poetics. As you undoubtedly anticipate, I have one. I shall not succumb to the temptation to read you the entire poem, but shall restrict my reading to three stanzas.

Politically we take our breath
wherever breath may be
we respect
it profits us
more than any news or writing poor
to news a vessel
a weather
or it may be a committee
with a weather of disgust for the brain’s middle
and after its tail

. . . .

But all’s political that takes breath
whatever breath may be
in any respect
whatever its profit
whatever its news
however it may be written about
however poor it is
breath makes news
for vessels it’s the weather
whatever that may be
and in committees
there it becomes the weather
disgusting to the brain
to the middle
and after
to the tail
but it makes money

. . . .

And so it’s political
taking breath is breathing while you may
that’s why one writes about it
well or poorly
breath is newsy because we’re vessels in its weather
though we may be a committee
weathering disgust
with brains merely middling
and only after tail
/or money

You will have noted that I did not read three consecutive stanzas.

Actually I read stanzas 1, 3, and 6, omitting stanzas 2, 4, and 5.

But the poem is not the whole of the story, nor is it the most interesting. For the “poet,” in a letter, to a friend, has provided us with a description of the mountain of planning and programming that went into the procreation of this non-poem. I beg your indulgence while I read to you a slightly condensed version of his description of his machine “poetics.” There are ten major points.

1st, I found that one of the dictionaries I have contained the minimum Basic English list of words, so 1 decided to use the list as a source.

2nd, I coded the list: i.e., set it equivalent to the 3-digit numbers from 001 to 850.

3rd, I got out my book of A Million Random Digits (produced on computer by mathematicians at the RAND corp. …) which I have used in making many of my poems, plays, musical pieces, &c. since 1958, and found by a standard method a random place in it.

4th, I decided to get a list of up to 100 words from the Basic list, so took the first 2 digits to the right of the random-selected place in the digit book, which turned out to be 76, then took the succeeding numbers in 3′s till I had a list of 76 3-digit numbers….

5th, I took 2 random digits to decide how many lines there wd be in the first poem on the list, then took that number of 2-digit numbers to get words from the 76-word list.

6th, for each line, I took first a single digit….

But that’s enough of that. He goes through his last four points-—each more involved than the last—points of carefully detailed programming instruction. But you’ve gotten the hang of the thing by now.

Yet, the kind of thing I have rehearsed for you so far is not really new. “New” experiences tend to affirm the Book of Ecclesiastes: that “there is nothing new under the sun.” At the beginning of the 18th century, for example, Jonathan Swift took careful note of the projects of the Royal Society, and these scientific projects by its members became the basis for Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, the account of Gulliver’s voyage to Laputa. In that book Gulliver goes through an account of a series of “scientific” projects. He notes, for example, the efforts of one inspired individual who hopes to extract sunlight from cucumbers, and who hopes to package it economically enough to supply his king’s needs at reasonable rate. And he observes another scientist, a sprightly fellow from Lagado, who hopes to discover the secret of redeeming ordure. From here on, let Gulliver’s speech serve to comment on the entire subject.

The first professor I saw was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge by practical and mechanical operations. But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness, and he flattered himself that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Everyone knows how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas by his contrivance the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, may write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, law, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study. He then led me to the frame, about the sides whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty foot square, placed in the middle of the room. The superficies was composed of several bits of wood, j about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood j were covered on every square with paper pasted on them, and on these papers were written all the words of their language in their several moods, tenses, and declensions, but without any order. The professor then desired me to observe, for he was going to set his engine at work. The pupils at his command took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame, and, giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six and thirty of the lads to read the several lines softly as they appeared upon the frame; and, where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn the engine was so contrived that the words shifted into new places as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour, and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio already collected, of broken sentences which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences which however might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

Well, in conclusion, what do we make of all this—Swift notwithstanding? What do we make of the Electronic millennium for poets and scholars?

The computer promises the creation of new works of art, computer, symphonies in the manner of any composer: hence we have had “another” Beethoven—not newly “discovered,” as fanciful scholars, living in the past, still occasionally hope for, as they have long dreamt of still another play by Shakespeare, the “lost” poems of Sappho—but a newly “created” work. With such prospects, the literary scholar is tempted to dream a bit excitedly toward actually “creating” the poetry of a John Keats final phase, the final productive years of a Keats living out his three score and ten instead of dying at twenty-six. If the computer is fed enough data, why can’t scholarship expect it to spew out such a reward? And if such poetry turns out to be unmistakably Keatsian, what if it also turns out to be a bit stale, somewhat boring—-in short, a bit like the Kafka poem I read earlier? And if that’s the case, will the scholar know when to turn off the computer? When to kill off, so to speak, his resurrected Keats? I worry about such things.

What the scholar is really after, I suspect, whether he knows it or not, is the achieved millennium—that great moment, when he (the scholar)—who knows what really belongs in a poem—becomes himself, in the Electric Age, the only creator of poems. That is the unacknowledged vision: the pure, tailless, un-manicured poem without the free-loading, sometimes embarrassing poet. Away with the rebuking image of Dylan Thomas, in steamy morning hours, drinking somebody else’s whiskey, working over a final draft of “The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait.” Away with the image of Edgar Poe trying to create supernal beauty in some garret. Away even with the contemporary New Yorker poet in his air-conditioned writing studio, sweating over a hot rhyme. For the I.B.M. 360 (and its progeny) promises the humanist a phalanx of “scholar”-technicians and a cornucopia of fatherless and motherless poems. In short, the poem that does not imply the existence of the poet.

So be it.


Recent Posts by Professor George Monteiro


George Monteiro, professor emeritus of English and of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University, is the author or editor of books on Henry James, Henry Adams, Robert Frost, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, Fernando Pessoa, and Luis de Camões, among others. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–São Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteen-Century Anglo-American Literature and Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A poetic Career Transformed. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot. More…