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Pentametron Reveals Unintended Poetry of Twitter Users

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
February 16, 2013

That hesitation right before a kiss

I don’t remember ever learning this

I’ve never had a valentine before

I’m not a little baby anymore

It’s poetry — rhyming couplets written in perfect iambic pentameter, those ten-syllable lines of alternating emphasis made famous by authors of sonnets and blank verse. But unlike your average metered rhyme, these lines were written by Twitter … with some help from a program called Pentametron.

Pentametron — which you can follow at @pentametron — watches all the public tweets created in a day. “It picks out the ones that happen to be in iambic pentameter,” says Ranjit Bhatnagar, an artist and the inventor of the program. “When it finds some of those, it looks for a pair that rhyme, and then it tweets out a couplet.”

Bhatnagar explains to NPR’s Jacki Lyden that he created the program by merging two of his interests. “I’d been interested in playing around with the idea of poetry; I was kind of inspired by the exquisite corpse games of the surrealists,” he says. “And on the other hand I’m a big nerd, and I was looking at Twitter’s API, the systems that let programmers talk to Twitter. So I saw that Twitter has this way that you can subscribe to receive just an endless waterfall of tweets from them, and so I thought, ‘wow, that would be really neat to just to find a way to play with that.’ And what I ended up doing was combining my interest in surrealist poetry and Twitter’s API and Pentametron came out of that.”

As befits Bhatnagar’s surrealist inspirations, Pentametron’s couplets often juxtapose wildly different or unrelated tweets:

I want the other Spanish teacher back

Sting ray a double sided Scooby snack.

At other times, randomly-plucked tweets resonate with each other to make a sort of sense, as with the Valentine-themed couplets above, or these lines that Bhatnagar dedicates to Lyden:

I wanna be a news reporter, yo

I never listen to the radio

Pentrametron generates 15 to 20 couplets each day, with an upswing during major events like the Super Bowl and the Grammies. The users it retweets are, according to Bhatnagar, a random sample of all English-speaking Twitter users. Through Pentametron, he says, “I’m exposed to more different kinds of people, different kinds of language, than I would be if I just followed the people I normally follow on Twitter.”

To insure an appropriately random distribution of tweets, Bhatnagar has needed to put some limitations on the program. It turns out some tweets in iambic pentameter show up again and again: “The very first iambic phrase that Pentametron discovered was ‘I’ve never been in Twitter jail before,’” Bhatnagar says. “And I didn’t know what Twitter jail was — it turns out if you tweet more than about 200 times in the same day, Twitter cuts you off for a day, and that’s Twitter jail. People say ‘I’ve never been in Twitter jail before’ a lot, so I finally got tired of seeing Pentametron pick it up and I blacklisted it.” Bhatnagar had the same problem with “I want to see the Hunger Games again,” an iambic opinion shared by far too many tweeters.

With common offenders crossed off the list, Pentametron manages to find poetry in everything from mundane life updates to 140-character bits of philosophy. We’ll give the poet-program the final word:

I’m kind of thirsty for a valentine

My volume doesn’t have a minus sign [Copyright 2013 NPR]

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