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An early adventure in computer poetry

In 1977, Robin Shirley, who had been a post-grad at UCL when I was an undergraduate, invited me to be part of a project creating computer-generated poetry, and then performing it to jazz accompaniment. Sunflowers, the group for performing the work, comprised Randy MacDogroup in the sunnald, a fantastic jazz saxophonist and flautist; the actor and musician, Gus Garside; poet and crystallographer Robin Shirley; and me. I was lecturing in Philosophy at Surrey University at the time, but was also a poet and musician. The  biographical notes that appeared in the programmes for some of our performances are at the bottom of the page, below the sample poem.

me in lecture theatre

I was young and fancy-free, and didn’t really take the project terribly seriously, though I was happy both to help create the poetry and also to perform the jazz. However, the whole thing took off, and before long we were receiving invitations to perform in various places, including one performance for BBC Radio, and one at a major computer conference.

By the time we moved on to other adventures, we had yards and yards of computer print-out of poetry, a number of photographs and some good newspaper cuttings and reviews. Then … it all disappeared, and for over 30 years I couldn’t find the files in which these archives were stored.

Then, a few months ago, I was approached by Jerome Fletcher of Falmouth University, who is doing some research into electronic literature in the UK between 1960 and 2010, to ask if I could provide information about Sunflowers. This led to total immersion in some of the boxes that were stored upstairs at home, and to my delight I was able to unearth at least some of the material. Hence this blog, to share a slice of history. Unfortunately most of the newspaper cuttings have not yet emerged, and the photos are rather faded; but this page should give a taste of what we were doing.

The general idea was to feed phrases into a computer that would make sense in whichever order they tRobinhen came out, and for each phrase we had to determine what the probability was of its occurring, and the possibility we wished to allow for that phrase to be repeated. The skill, obviously, was in choosing the best phrases to feed in; and some of the results were strikingly good. The computer programme we used was devised by Robin using the ICL 1905F computer at the University of Surrey.
It was called Bard 0, Robin Shirleyand was followed by Bard 1D and Bard 2S.

Randy on flute

GusRandy larger






The one cutting that has turned up was in the Computer Bulletin in March 1979, and in it John Lansdowne, reviewing our appearance at the Computer Arts Society, writes: ‘It says much for the quality of the poetry and the way it was presented by Robin Shirley, Alwyn Marriage, Gus Garside and Ranald MacDonald that they were able to give two consecutive 40-minute performances to enthralled audiences of all ages. The poem for three voices, May Carol,was especially well received, and I look forward to hearing the Wheel of Seasons cycle in full on some occasion when I’m not trying to run a computer art show at the same time.’
me on electric guitar
An early version of The Sunflower Suite had been performed at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival, and as well as developing that further, we created otme on keyboardher works during our time together, including ‘Pavan for the Children of Deep Space’ and the extended group of poems in the popular suite ‘The Wheel of Seasons’. We then took all these works and jazz improvised to them, using sax, flute, guitar and bass guitar, keyboard, voice and various percussion instruments. It was all good fun.


Randy and me on our headsRandy and I decided to stand on our heads to celebrate the upside-downness of the world.

Sadly, Robin contracted hepatitis on a work trip to Egypt, and died far too young. Without his drive, the group drifted apart. If anyone knows Ranald MacDonald or Gus Garside, please let me know.

With apologies for the poor quality of the photographs, some of which were actually scanned from tiny contact prints on our home scanner. I think it’s worth preserving them for their historical importance – and for reminding me of what I looked like when I was young!

Sample poem from the Spring section of The Wheel of Seasons:


A girl is dancing, singing after her tears, dreaming of the sea.
How many springs are feeding the river
reaching further into before?
Crustaceans waiting for the end of primrose conversation,
we are borne along, breathless, to inevitable growth.

There is a growing urgency.
How many springs are feeding the river,
eddies of doubt, stagnant pools of rejection, reaching further into before?
The present is opening into the future,
old, young, dancing, dying, dreaming of the sea.

Eddies of doubt, stagnant pools of rejection,
lines of love etched deep on chalk and clay,
reaching further into before, swirling in triumphant confidence;
in the changing, in the compliance, is the growing.
A girl is dancing, singing after her tears.

There is temporary pain in the confluence,
in the changing, in the compliance, is the growing old young dancing dying.
A girl is dancing, singing after her tears
from spring through singing to ocean swell,
lines of love etched deep on chill and clay
dreaming of the sea.

Sunflowers bios


Festival frenzy in Edinburgh

Edinburgh skyline Once upon a time there was an international festival of the arts that took place in Edinburgh during the summer. Although it had a good name and drew performers from many countries,it became fiendishly expensive, so another festival, the Fringe Festival, started up. Unfortunately, this soon became too expensive for many people too, so the Free Fringe Festival was born, with hundreds of free events in the city. But that is not all. Edinburgh in summer has become a place (and season) in which many festivals flourish, including the International Book Festival, the Just Festival (formerly the Festival of Peace and Spirituality), the World of Dance Festival, the Political Festival, the Film Festival, the Jazz Festival and, new kid on the block, the Edinburgh e-book festival. So now the city erupts with festival-fever each summer, and there are probably far more events than there are people to attend them.

A walk down the Royal Mile gives a frenetic taste of what is going on. It is fun, lively, crowded gold womanand mostly good-natured. There are jugglers, actors, musicians and every other sort of entertainment imaginable – and many of them are touting for audiences for their shows; so unless hands are firmly kept in pockets, they are soon filled with leaflets about the many and various delights on offer.

saw-playing 2               balloon-making clown

              Indonesian statue    break dancersJuggling with fire 1
 Despite the lively atmospere, I have to admit that there is something vaguely ridiculous about thousands of events being promoted, worked for and in some cases paid for, and then many of them playing to audiences that would shame any self-respecting artist, musician or poet. But having said that, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and as long as one could escape from the crowds after due immersion, it was fun.

Poems to order 1It was something of a relief, on moving on to the Meadows, to find a quiet poet sitting at a small desk, offering to write a poem to order on a subject chosen by the passer-by. Her name was GennaRose Nethercott and, naturally, I stopped to talk to her and order a poem. She asked me for a subject and, as I was writing about arches myself at that point, I suggested a poem about arches, went off for a coffee, and returned about 20 minutes later. Here is the poem she had written:
A stone giant bows,
its arms bent like a tulip stem
in wind. Such a strong beast –

how gently it tilts,
like a cat’s arched spine,
like the tip of a paintbrush.

This leviathan is more prayer
than canyon. Brick alight
with wind. Can grace infect
even the hardest of us?

The heaviest rocks?
Soft, even with such a weight?

I thought GennaRose was extremely brave to sit there accepting whatever subjects were thrown at her, and producing fairly decent poems on those subjects in so short a time.

St John's

thanking childrenMy own reading this year was as part of the Just Festival, and took place in St John’s Church at the west end of Prince’s Street. This is an exciting festival of music, dance, poetry and art, with an international and inter-faith flavour. I read for an hour and sold some books; and it was a particular delight when my grandchildren donned animal masks and joined me for the final poem of the afternoon.

Marquees in Charlotte Square provide the venues for all the events of the International Book Festival. Audiences are in general large, enthusiastic and intelligent.
I booked in advance for two events and, as the large tent theatre was completely full on both occasions, I was glad that I had done so.

images The first event was an interview with the wonderful neurophysicist, Susan Greenfield. Susan has written a novel, ‘2121’, which is a dystopian vision of a world in which virtual technology has taken over from reality. But most of the interview, ably conducted by Ruth Wishart, concentrated on Greenfield’s work on Alzheimers and the efforts by her team in their search for a way to stop the destruction of brain cells in that dreadful disease. The hour flashed by, as Susan spoke with passion, erudition and charm.


The next day the theatre was again full to capacity for a conversation between Rowan Williams and Julia Neuberger. I have long been an admirer of Rowan’s and it was good, as ever, to listen to someone with such a huge brain and a gracious manner.  Many subjects were covered in the hour, but of particular note, perhaps, were his reflections on the word ‘spirituality’ (which for him involves connectivity with others), the distinction between knowledge and scientific facts (on which he took a fairly Platonic line), and the robustness that should be part of the Christian’s response to criticism (in regard to which he quoted one of his lecturers at university who declared that a good religion is one that trains its own critics).

In the afternoon we took a coach out to Hopetoun House where students from St Andrews were performing ‘The Tempest’ on the beach. The parts of Ariel and Prospero were particularly Prospero & Miranda well-played, but all the actors caught the spirit of this wonderful final play of Shakespeare’s; and the waves of the Forth beside us added to the atmosphere. We moved, enchanted, to various points on the beach as the action progressed; and we drank in the wisdom of the bard, filtered through the modern approach of the young performers.

Amazingly, we had reasonable weather throughout our stay in Edinburgh. Each night at 10.30 the peace was shattered by bangs as the fireworks marked the end of yet another Tattoo performance, and we were even able to catch a glimpse of them from our window.

On now to my next poetry reading, which will be in Norfolk next week.
As ever: ‘Poetry is always moving’.

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