Two Kinds of Text

ellisislandpoem.com occupies the threshold between the Gutenberg Era and the Berners-Lee Era. The text exists in two deeply different modes: a printed text, which does not change, and an electronic text, which is in continuous process of random rearrangement. These two kinds of texts, meeting at the edge of Ellis Island, are like the City and the Sea.

The City

There is a stable  text, which is printed on paper in a printed volume. This text is as fixed in place as a trolley track or an imperial capital.

As in any great city, everything is carefully numbered. There are fifty-two books of twelve sonnets each. Twelve sonnets have the same number of lines as have the hours in a seven-day week. Thus, the whole poem has as many lines as there are hours in a fifty-two week year. (A whole year has one more day, a leap year two more days, but the poet has chosen to leave these unrepresented, as a sign of the incompleteness of calendars). Within the sonnets, there is also a steady numerical order, each sonnet being composed of four groups of three lines (tercets) and on group of two lines (couplets). Some of these have end-rhymes but most do not.

As in the street plan or housing map of a great city, there is an articulated relationship among its numbered parts. The poem is arranged as a large chiasmus or X. The first sonnet in the first book is answered by the last sonnet in the last book, and so on, all the way to the middle, where the first sonnet in book twenty-seven (27.1) answers the last sonnet in book twenty-six (26.12). All these pairs are easily found, like addresses in a city grid. This is the method: There are fifty-two books, numbered 1 to 52, each containing twelve sonnets, numbered one to 12. Each sonnet has an address that combines the book number and the place of the sonnet within the book. Thus the first sonnet of the poem is 1.1 and the last is 52.12. These two numbers, added together produce 53.13, which is the key to the X. Subtract the number of any sonnet from 53.13, and you will have the number of its chiastic respondent. These answering relationships are of many kinds. Sometimes there is a similarity of form, sometimes it is a complementarity of content or of diction that joins the two sonnets in question.

As in any complex built environment, the arrangement sometimes produces paradoxes and failures: not every chiastic pair of sonnets has a relationship that one can readily detect.


There is a constantly shifting text that subsists in a digital database. The appearance of this text is as hard to predict as the shifts in the wind on the bay.

As in the world of water, too, there are constant elements and great patterns of movement

The constant elements in the database are the individual lines of the sonnets and the sonnet form itself. In the Random Sonnet Generator the lines migrate unpredictably. They are free to do so because every line of the written poem is a separate event, its own hour. And it has no punctuation, no enjambment, no capital letters to tie it to any adjacent line.

The great patterns of movement in the Sea poem come from the interaction of random numbers with the written lines. From the 624 sonnets that make up the text of the printed poem, the Random Sonnet Generator employs an algorithm that enables it to produce for any user on any occasion a unique sonnet of randomly chosen lines.

Thus, 624^14 (i.e., 1,357,013,773,011,244,426,399,457,416,598,180,069,376, or one duodecillion, three hundred fifty seven undecillion, thirteen decillion, seven hundred seventy three nonillion, eleven octillion, two hundred forty four septillion, four hundred twenty six sextillion, three hundred ninety nine quintillion, four hundred fifty seven quadrillion, four hundred sixteen trillion, five hundred ninety eight billion, one hundred eighty million, sixty nine thousand, three hundred, and seventy six) different sonnets can be generated.

This sort of bounded infinity was first introduced to the arithmetic of poetry by Raymond Queneau, a major forerunner and an original member of the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature), founded in Paris on November 24, 1960. Other members included Italo Calvino, Julio Cortázar, and Georges Perec, himself author of a work entitled Ellis Island (very different from this one).

Raymond Queneau once defined Oulipo's activity as "the search for new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit." I have operated under that license, freely adapting his Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (Cent mille milliards de poèmes, 1961). This work is a group of ten sonnets. Each line on a separated strip and bound on a spiral, so that they can be freely moved. All the sonnets have the same rhymes, so that the lines can be freely mixed and matched. Thus, there are 1014 or 100,000,000,000,000 different poems. It would take some 200,000,000 years to read them all, even reading twenty-four hours a day. In Ellis Island there are occasional rhymes but no general scheme. The possibilities of variation are oceanic.

Random sonnets are not the only possibilities, of course, and ingenious users of the website will be able to produce many other sorts of text from its materials. Ellis Island was conceived in the heady months after the introduction of the Mosaic Browser on April 22, 1993, and it was written with the intent that it could exploit the endless possibilities of interaction and combination that the Web had opened to its users.