Plum Flowers

Poetry of Witness

Pseudorandom Poem Generator

Written & Coded by: Todd Pitt


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The Plum Flowers Poetry of Witness Pseudorandom Poem Generator and the original poem, "Plum Flowers—I," are both the original creations and intellectual property of Todd Pitt, Copyright © Todd Pitt 2003-2004. Any unauthorized use of this poem or software program is strictly prohibited. If anyone has questions, comments, feedback, new ideas for additional teaching modules, or any additional information on Nanking, please contact Todd Pitt at tpitt@gmu.edu.


[The Plum Flowers Project] [Poetry of Witness] • [Obligation to Witness] • [The Rape of Nanking]

[Original Poem "Plum Flowers—I"] • [Additional Resources] •[Works Cited]


The Plum Flowers Project

The idea for what has now become the Plum Flowers Poem Generator came into being during the Spring of 2002, while I was taking Carolyn Forche's poetry of witness English 464 class. It was during this time that I was first introduced to the Nanking Massacre and, after much research on the matter, was so thoroughly moved by the events as to write my original poem “Plum Flowers - I.” The poem consisted of five stanzas, each consisting of five lines that expand the previous line building to make various witness statements or questions. This was one of the best, and perhaps the most important poems I had ever written, but at the time it didn't seem like it.

Immediately, I noted a major difference in the form of this poem, and it stood apart from the several hundred poems I had written over the years. The lines seemed to be easily interchangeable, reversible, mutually and equally associative. This was the presence of parataxis in the poem. Parataxis is defined by the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry And Poetics as: “a stylistic term referring paucity of linking terms between juxtaposed clauses or sentences, often giving the effect of piling up, swiftness, and sometimes compression. A paratactic style is one in which a language's ordinary resources for joining propositions are deliberately underused; propositions are set one after another without expected particles, adverbs, or conjunctions” (Preminger 879-880). The form of this poem was obviously, conducive to poetic tinkering, and so I began at first, randomly rearranging the lines into different sequences, manually creating different iterations of the poem.

I made twenty five manual iterations of my own concoction, by assigning each line of the poem a number, then writing out sequences or patterns of the numbers one through twenty five, later plugging in each poem line to the corresponding number to make a new poem. This process spawned another idea. Could a computer make a better arrangement, a better poem than the ones I made, using computer generated sequences of numbers? I went online, found a website that could generate pseudorandom number sequences of the numbers one through twenty five, and I printed out twenty five iterations which were computer made. I learned that no number sequence generated by a computer is truly random because all of them are based on mathematical algorithms. The process of manually cutting and pasting twenty five lines, twenty five times to create the computer manufactured counterpart to the first 25 poems was very tedious and time consuming (25x25=625 lines). These fifty poems became my poetry of witness final project which I called Plum Flowers – An Experimental Witness Project and was the mother what of has now become the Plum Flowers Poetry of Witness Pseudorandom Poem Generator.

This process for the generation of new witness poems was too tedious to continue doing manually and I sought to use computer programming as a way to have a computer do all that work for me, because I always prefer working smart, not hard. I wanted to find a way to write a program that would create a new poem every time by calling twenty five random numbers were associated with the poem lines, checking to make sure that the lines did not repeat, and then print the poem out to the screen so people could experience different random associations of the language. In Fall 2003, I took IT 108 Java Programming as a required course for my IT Minor and learned the programming skills to make this dream a reality. I used the object oriented programming language JAVA to created the Plum Flowers Poem Generator which creates a new way using parataxis and technology to interactively witness, the atrocity we have come to call the "Forgotten Holocaust."

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Poetry of Witness

The poetry of witness is a new kind of poetry recently identified, compiled and edited by Carolyn Forche in her 1993 landmark anthology entitled Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness . This newly recognized type of poetry pertains to “poets…who endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century—through exile, state censorship, political persecution, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare, and assassination” (Forche 29). In the past much of the poetry that now appears in Forche's anthology of witness was simply referred to as war poetry. However, this war poetry genre did not include many important poets who endured extremity, censorship, persecution, execution, exile at the hands of the state, when the state was not officially at war with another country.

The qualifier for the poetry of witness as Forche defines it, is that these poets “must have personally endured such conditions; they must be considered important to their national literatures; and their work, if not in English, must be available in a quality translation” (Forche 30). In The Art and Craft of Poetry , war poetry is broken down into two subcategories of poets, where the poet is either a first person “eyewitness” or second person “visionary” (Bugeja 92). The qualifier for the “eyewitness” category in this text suggests that the poet should be a veteran, military person, civilian writer with first hand experience, usually with content related to the war experience as viewed or felt by the participant (Bugeja 92). It is also stated that the eyewitness usually conveying or emphasizes to the reader the effects of the experience on the survivor (Bugeja 92). This eyewitness subcategory of war poetry was the closest definition I could find anywhere, which even remotely resembled Forche's definition. The “visionary” method assigns more weight to the poets opinions, perspectives, or views of an event and the poet can be either a participant in the war, or someone who was completely uninvolved (Bugeja 92).

Forche's works “seemed controversial to her American contemporaries, who argued against its “subject matter,” or against the right of a North American to contemplate such issues in her work, or against any mixing of what they saw as the mutually exclusive realms of the personal and the political” (Forche 30). She argues that a third term needed to address the space called “the social” (Forche 31). “By situating poetry in the social space, we can avoid some of our residual prejudices. A poem that calls on us from the other side of a situation of extremity cannot be judged by simplistic notions of “accuracy”…” (Forche 31). Forche was indeed on the right path of moving away from the prejudice of the poetic elite and their arbitrary judgments as to what poetry is, or is not.

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The Obligation To Witness

Being a poet is not always about writing what you want to write about or just feel like writing, sometimes it is about writing what you must write about. On some subconscious level, I felt an undeniable obligation to witness, to speak for those who could not, or for what ever reason, would not.

In this Plum Flowers Project, and with the creation of the Plum Flowers Poem Generator, I am taking Forche's notions one step further. I assert that there are different types of witnesses, but that they are all witnesses none the less, and each has their own obligations to witness. Most importantly, I am stating that poets should be judged on their own individual merits, and each work should be assessed in a similar matter, not according to an elite status or arbitrary classification system. To call myself a “visionary” as Bugeja would say by definition, is to me, presumptive and arrogant. I would not call myself, nor do I consider myself, a “visionary”; I am simply a new breed of witness. One who uses a new medium (technology) to enable others to witness also, and in doing so have created a continuous witnessing experience. This experience is not finite, nor is the number of witnesses that can interact with the event through the language, accounts and pictures. Yet no one witness experience will be the same. Somebody asked me why I did this project (which has taken over two years) and my response was that “I don't have a choice in the matter…I have an obligation to witness.”

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THE RAPE OF NANKING

The Rape of Nanking occurred from late December 1937 through early March 1938 when (what was then) the capital city of China fell to the Japanese Imperial Army, which had successfully fought its way into the heartland of China during the Sino-Japanese War. This event was one of the major events that sparked World War II. The Japanese Army seized Nanking with relative ease and what ensued was seven weeks of – slaughter, arson, mass looting, torture, gang rape, and random kidnapping of Chinese girls of who were forced into sexual slavery as “comfort women” at “comfort stations,” which were Military brothels organized by the Japanese government. These Japanese soldiers were largely unrestrained by their commanders (sometimes even encouraged), and their methods of murder were abhorrent - shooting, stabbing, raping, mutilating, burning, bludgeoning, drowning, burying, decapitating and bayoneting. What must be understood is that these methods were used not just in killing surrendered soldiers, but also in killing civilians.

It must be stated that there are now in 2004 about fifteen or twenty books out about available in English on the Nanking incident. One of the earliest was by Iris Chang. This book sparked a firestorm of replies in the form of other books disputing the number of people killed and many different facets of the incident. It must be said that any book is only as good as its sources, and do not believe everything that you read. Do your own research and decide for yourself. Some Japanese authors claim that the pictures of the incident are doctored, and that the high numbers factually unsustainable. Other Chinese claim that Japan is trying to downplay the incident because of its horrific nature to avoid political ramifications, and reparations due China. The argument passionately continues to this day. In creating this project it is not my aim to convince the viewer or readers of one argument, rather its objective is solely to witness the event and in doing so, educate, and bring the event into a larger public awareness. The following numbers are the a reflection of the opposing arguments I encountered in my research, which is ongoing.

The number of people killed in the Nanking during the seven weeks of Japanese ruthlessness and lawlessness ranges from 40,000 to 360,000 people. I believe the true number is probably somewhere in the middle, between 100,000 and 200,000 people killed. The estimated number of rapes that occurred during the event ranges between 20,000-80,000. The true numbers will never be known because many women were killed immediately after they were raped (to avoid “problems”), and never lived to tell their stories.

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The Original Poem

Plum Flowers—I

how do you
how do you count
how do you count all the plum flowers
how do you count all the plum flowers blooming over thousands
how do you count all the plum flowers blooming over thousands of murdered civilians

count on man
count on man's inherent ability
count on man's inherent ability to become
count on man's inherent ability to become quite creative
count on man's inherent ability to become quite creative when it comes to genocide

you do not need
you do not need any examples
you do not need any examples of this
you do not need any examples of this because
you do not need any examples of this because you already know them

what is an example
what is an example anyway
what is an example anyway that can't be
what is an example anyway that can't be seen or heard
what is an example anyway that can't be seen or heard because there were no survivors

can you have any hope
can you have any hope knowing now
can you have any hope knowing now that you are
can you have any hope knowing now that you are associated with this
can you have any hope knowing now that you are associated with this by your humanity

Written by: Todd Pitt, Spring 2001

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Additional Resources

Related Links to the Nanking Massacre

Selected Accounts (click to open new window)
         Quotes and First-Hand Accounts

Teaching Module
       Student exercises for the Plum Flowers Poetry of Witness Pseudorandom Poetry Generator

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Works Cited

Auden, W. H. Collected Shorter Poems 1930-1944. London: Faber & Faber, 1950. (279- 280)

Brook, Timothy. Documents On The Rape Of Nanking. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. 2002.

Bugeja, Michael J. The Art And Craft Of Poetry. Cincinnati: Writers Digest, 1994. 83-97.

Canadian Meihuazhuang Association. Introduction to Meihuazhuang. 7 February 2004. <http://www.meihuazhuang.ca/introduction.htm>

Chang, Iris. The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Drury, John. The Poetry Dictionary. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1995.

Fogel, Joshua. The Nanjing Massacre In History And Historiography. Berkeley: University of California. 2000.

Forche, Carolyn, ed. Introduction. Against Forgetting Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. New York: Norton, 1993. 29-48.

Harris, Sheldon L. Factories of Death. New York: Routledge, 1994. 102.

Kaiyuan, Zhang, ed. Eyewitness To Massacre. New York: East Gate. 2001.

Katsuichi, Honda. The Nanjing Massacre. New York: Sharpe, 1999.

Rabe, John. The Good Man of Nanking. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Rees, Laurence. Horror In The East. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2002.

Timperley, Harold. Japanese Terror In China. New York: Books For Libraries. 1969.

Yamamoto, Masahiro. Nanking Anatomy of An Atrocity. Westport: Praeger. 2000.



Honorable Mentions & Thanks

The author would like to thank – Carolyn Forche for teaching me the most important kind of poetry, Mel Nichols for her guidance as a teacher and for exposing my poem generator to the poetic forces that be, Kenneth Thompson for recognizing its inherent value and requesting its submission for publication, Brendon Wicks for his graphic design skill and patience, Martha McJunkin for teaching me the basics of Java, and Mike Walker for his help in debugging the code.

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