A Machine for Shuffling Poems

1)  Pick a poem.

2) Get two pieces of paper.

3) Look at the first word of the poem – what part of speech is it? You can be as specific or as vague as you’d like. On one piece of paper, write the part of speech as though it were the first word of your poem; on the other, write the part of speech and then the word from your poem under it.

4) Repeat for every word in your poem. When you come to a part of speech you haven’t yet encountered, make a new column; when you come to a repeated part of speech, toss the new word in with its fellows. Preserve punctuation.

5) You should now have a dummy poem that looks like:

“Noun noun verb adjective adverb!

Noun conjunction noun verb, etc.”

6) Use an algorithm of your choice to shuffle the elements of each part-of-speech group.

7) Fill the poem back in using the words in order from the appropriate group. If you’ve done this correctly, you shouldn’t have any words left over.

8) Read and determine whether you have increased, decreased, or left unchanged the sense of the poem.

So here it is in action!

I chose a current favorite poem, a super-bleak piece of Victorian humor by WE Henley:

Madam Life’s a piece in bloom
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.

You shall see her as a friend,
You shall bilk him once or twice;
But he’ll trap you in the end,
And he’ll stick you for her price.

With his kneebones at your chest,
And his knuckles in your throat,
You would reason — plead — protest!
Clutching at her petticoat;

But she’s heard it all before,
Well she knows you’ve had your fun,
Gingerly she gains the door,
And your little job is done.

I broke it down into to components – the structure:


and the ingredients:


I then shuffled the list orders using a simple p5 sketch, and the results are… I think even “interesting” is probably pushing things a bit far. But it’s recognizable as language, at least, and every now and then there’s a nice turn of phrase. Here it is:

Job throat knows a piece of bloom
End’s dogging twice:
He goes the madam in the death,
She’s a tenant on the price.

She would protest you in the fun,
You shall plead her once but well;
Or you shall reason it with the stair,
And he’ll see you at your petticoat.

At your kneebones as your chest,
And her knuckles in his ruffian,
You’ll bilk – trap – stick!
Clutching for her friend;

And he’s had him all gingerly,
Everywhere you is she’ve heard your room,
Before she’s the door,
But his done life gains little.



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