Sat February 16, 2013
Pentametron Reveals Unintended Poetry of Twitter Users
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
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Thanks for listening in here, WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
On Thursday, Twitter lit up with tweets, of course, about finding love, and then losing it. As they poured in, one program gathered all those tweets up and organized them into something unexpected - poetry. Ranjit Bhatnagar is an artist and the inventor of that program which is called Pentametron. And he joins us from our studios in New York. Welcome, Ranjit Bhatnagar.
RANJIT BHATNAGAR: Thank you very much.
LYDEN: So this is pretty much fun. First of all, tell us what Pentametron is.
BHATNAGAR: Well, Pentametron is a computer program I wrote which just watches Twitter, watches 525 million tweets a day. And it picks out the ones that happen to be in iambic pentameter. And when it finds some of those, it looks for a pair that rhyme, and then it tweets out a couplet.
LYDEN: Whatever made you think of this?
BHATNAGAR: It was two different factors. One is I've been interested in playing around with the idea of poetry. I was kind of inspired by the exquisite corpse games of the surrealist. And on the other hand, I'm a big nerd, and I was looking at 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 I thought, wow, that would be really neat just to find a way to play with that. And what I ended up doing was combining my interest in the surrealist poetry with Twitter's API. And Pentametron came out of that.
LYDEN: So, please, I'm dying to know. Give me an example.
BHATNAGAR: Yes. Well, I looked back through the last day or two of tweets and picked some of my favorites, and here is a couple of couplets: That hesitation right before a kiss, I don't remember ever learning this. I have never had a valentine before, I'm not a little baby anymore.
BHATNAGAR: And then there is this one that I found that's for you: I want to be a news reporter, yo, I never listen to the radio.
LYDEN: I'm kind of thirsty for a valentine, my volume doesn't have a minus sign.
LYDEN: It's a lot of fun. So how does this work? How much poetry does that computer program write every day?
BHATNAGAR: It comes up with about 15 to 20 couplets a day.
LYDEN: Are these certain times of day where you find the volumes greater, that are more fruitful?
BHATNAGAR: I haven't noticed anything about times of day. But I have noticed that during big national events, like the Super Bowl or the Grammys, the volume goes up a lot.
LYDEN: And how about a couple more of these? For example, here's a couplet: I want the other Spanish teacher back. Someone actually said that.
LYDEN: And you've paired it with: Sting ray, a double-sided Scooby snack. Boy, whoever wrote that, I mean, I want to get to know them.
LYDEN: And are there any common phrases that happen to be in iambic pentameter?
BHATNAGAR: Oh, there are so many common phrases that happen to be in iambic pentameter that I have a blacklist in my program because I got tired of hearing some of them. Actually, the very first iambic phrase that Pentametron ever discovered was: I've never been in Twitter jail before. 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 in Twitter jail before a lot. So I got finally got tired of seeing Pentametron pick it up, and I blacklisted it. Another example is: I want to see "The Hunger Games" again, which, last year, about this time, "The Hunger Games" was the big new movie and everybody wanted to see "The Hunger Games" again.
LYDEN: Have you been able to analyze this any other way? I mean, are you - do you have any sense of age groups or places in the country or where this information is coming from in anyway? Obviously, it's English, so we know that.
BHATNAGAR: It's in English. And it's hard to tell for sure, but it seems to me that it's probably a pretty random cross-section of everyone on Twitter, which means that I'm exposed to more different kinds of people, more different kinds of language than I would be if I just followed the people I normally follow on Twitter.
LYDEN: It's so democratic, Ranjit. Maybe Pentametron should be, you know, the next poet laureate.
BHATNAGAR: That seems like a good idea to me.
LYDEN: Ranjit Bhatnagar is the creator of the Pentametron Twitter poet. Ranjit, thanks. It was really a lot of fun.
BHATNAGAR: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.