Writing Poetry in the Computer Age


The following appeared in The Pitt News, 2000.

Photograph taken in the North Side.

It aptly describes my mentality at age 20.

I’m writing a poem on Microsoft Word. I call it, “The Maple Tree.”

a grainy stalk with gnarled fingers

stretching wide like Rip Van Winkle

weeping crimson leaves

Without warning, squiggly green lines emerge underneath every verse. This is my Grammar Check springing into action. According to my word processor, my syntax is abominable. I’m an English major and my computer claims I can’t even write a complete sentence.

I click my mouse on the first verse: “a grainy stalk with gnarled fingers” is a fragment. But it’s not a fragment, I think, because I include the verb in the next line.

Yes it is, replies my computer. You pressed Enter, didn’t you?

Oh, yeah? I think. I click “Ignore Sentence.” Take that, Mr. Intel Inside.

The next line doesn’t have a subject. The verb “stretching” is doing so for its own sake. And “Rip” is conjugated incorrectly. But how can it? I’m using Rip as a name, not an action. And I mean “Van” as in the Dutch word for “from,” not the vehicle. Who ever heard of ripping a van? Doesn’t my computer know anything?

And Winkle is not misspelled. I rather resent the little red line underneath his last name. My computer is implying that I don’t know how to spell, when really it’s Microsoft Word that hasn’t brushed up on its early American literature.

“weeping crimson leaves,” says the might Word 97, suffers from verb confusion. It suggests that the “weeping crimsons leave.”

“But crimson isn’t a noun!” I say aloud.

“Oh, but it is!” rebuts my computer. “This is why you didn’t place out of General Writing.”

Annoyed, I continue my composition:

branches mingling over cloudy gray;

my dear sky caught in nets of charcoal bark—

i feel it rough against my gaze

For a second time, every word is underlined. My semicolon should be a period. My poetic license has been revoked.

As soon as I type “dear sky,” a little box appears at the bottom of the screen, and a cartoon paper clip addresses me.

“It looks like you’re writing a letter!” it exclaims. “Would you like some help?”

I click “cancel.” For a moment I think I should thank the paper clip for offering its assistance, only to remember that it’s not real. Even if it were a real paper clip, it wouldn’t be talking to me, and I wouldn’t be thanking it. And what kind of idiot is my computer to think that paper clips can be sentient but “bark” can’t be used as a noun? I know charcoal can’t bark!

My letter “i” has become “I.” I turned my back for an instant, and now it’s capitalized. My computer capitalized it for me, thinking it was being helpful, but I want it lowercase. I’m trying to cut down on the formality of the verses, which is why the whole freaking poem is lowercase. God.

Or at least it used to be. Now my “branches” have become “Branches,” my stretching has become “Stretching.” I had no choice. My computer is writing my poem for me, against me. This calls for drastic measures.

I click on “Tools” and find the “Spelling and Grammar” icon. Another little box appears and tells me my options. I can stop checking grammar as I type, a good sign. I can also stop the spell check—but spelling is one of my weak points, so maybe I shouldn’t turn it off quite yet. Then again, what good is a spell check if it doesn’t acknowledge a common name like Winkle? I click on the Dictionary icon: All that’s listed is the cryptic CUSTOM.DIC. Is that what I’m using? What customs does it represent? My kingdom for the Oxford English Dictionary!

I return to my poem. Every verse sits in a red or green line. The program has won.

I switch off my laptop (by clicking on the Start icon, ironically enough). I close it up and take a deep breath. I think about the tree.

Then I take out my parents’ old typewriter. I snap out the first line: “a grainy talk of gnarl—”

The ribbon snaps.

Is there such a thing as poetic injustice?


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