Individual Work

Alan Sondheim’s Texts, published by the University of California, Irvine, in 1979, contains a series of poems created with the “Iceland Program,” written in Pascal programming language on a TERAK mini-computer and DECWRITER III printer. The author’s note explains that the work was concerned with the question of “whether or not ‘meaning’ can be embedded in such a primitive program,” which “represents some of the features of English syntax as well as the ‘semantics’ of the chronicle style” (n.p.). The program begins composing with an internal number generator that identifies a “seed for pseudo-random incrementation” used to generate a text; the processing occurs in the “formation (concatenation) of strings” created as the program progresses. Summarizing the program’s work, Sondheim writes: “The vertical program hierarchy proceeds from letter/suffix to word to type to phrase to clause or sentence to response to text, under seed control. The text changes lexicon and semantics as it proceeds; this creates an imitation of history” (n.p.). Two different factors contribute to the formation of work, and thus the program outputs altogether different styles of work and constantly redirects its own information. A simple language-generation program worked hierarchically in tandem with a program that modified human input, making the computer an independent filter. In addition to these lexical and semantic changes, cyclical elements—such as the figures from history that are literally used by Sondheim in Texts to reflect his idea—also persist and accumulate in the work, as seen in this excerpt from the beginning of “File: Store.txt”:

Then Rosa argued:
“Pol Pot the right Hegelian fought Rosa!
and Hegel was convinced!!”

i.e., of the error of his ways!
Marcuse said: “
Pol Pot the left Hegelian disavowed Hegel. . . . ..”
He did imprison in 1905 beneath the Bourgeoisie.
Lefebvre the correct killed Stalin
Thus Stalin would have been killed by Lefebvre the correct since
Stalin fought Stalin.
So argued Mao!
Adorno the heated argued on the international that had been
Ho had been a woman of the people!
They were the one who fought Mao!
Lefebvre the fascist killed Hegel
Hegel died of wrongdoings on a headquarters.
Thus Hegel was killed by Lefebvre the fascist but
Horkeimer [sic] required Hegel. (n.p.)

Each of the narrative’s iconic figures partakes in an imaginary dialogue that, in this case, is humorous and ridiculous, a condition that unquestionably results from its digital (i.e., programmatic) foundations. The work is infused with illogical grammatical connections and historical representations (e.g., “Ho had been a woman of the people” or “Lefebvre the correct killed Stalin”) that ordinary authorial cognition would discard as erroneous. To the computer program, however, gender is unspecific unless the programmer establishes qualifications; a name is a noun that is distinguished by its spelling, not by personal achievement or identity. Throughout his work Sondheim implies what he described in “W” as “a refusal of appropriation” (13). Here he establishes dialectical value by using business- and science-related machinery to form expression yet rejects any sort of commonplace application or mode of operation. He appropriates names of several profound philosophers, yet the program extracts them from historical context and blends them into an essentially indecipherable fiction. The randomization of elements illustrates truths of progression (or perhaps false progression), imperfection, erasure, and the possibility of artistic autonomy (in that an expression can function in its own right as a unique object that is not intended to be part of a larger organism). As he writes in a statement included in Texts, “File: System.Wrk.Text,” “There is no Iceland ‘world’ ” (n.p.). Thus, Sondheim uses programming or networked poems in contradistinction to the typical purposes of the medium itself.

In another work Iceland generates a completely different type of poem. A single phrase is introduced and permuted as other phrases, and sentiments are briefly introduced and processed. Here is the poem in full:

Hysterical activity, art, hernow and then
Hystercal activity, art, hernow and then
Hysterical actvity, art, hernow and then
Hysterical activity, art, hernow and athen
Hysterical activity, art, hernow and an
You might findnow and then
You msheight findnow and then
You mshesheight findnow and then
You msheshesheight findnow and then
You msheshesheight findnow and then
Ors against her smooth body
Ors againssmooth body
Againssmooth body
Ainssmooth body
Ssmooth body
Ooth body
H body

A chance encountera touching reminder
A chance encounouching reminder. (19)

In this example the poem verbally and visually diminishes as the program produces output, before expanding again at the end. Both the verbal language and the application of programming language are used unconventionally, indicating that techniques and methods of communication are flexible. This style of creative expression, while retaining verbal qualities that provide a general context for the work, manages to draw other enlivened elements through recombination and processing. The four distinct shifts in this short piece reflect the stages of thought someone might encounter in an unfamiliar situation, particularly a chance encounter of a sensual nature. Unusual verbal manipulations in Sondheim’s program serve to emulate confusion, excitement, and rapture, reflecting a psychic state in which mind and thought become disconnected (perhaps even dysfunctional). Lines produced by the program clearly illustrate some primary dynamics of electronic text: neologism/nonsense, permutation, and repetition (with variation).


“W (world-particle).” Criss-Cross Art Communications 7, 8, 9. Ed. Fred Worden
and others. Boulder, CO: Criss-Cross Foundation, 1979. 10–15.

This entry has been adapted from Funkhouser, C.T. (2007) Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, pp. 47-50