The Daily

On Poetry

Postcards from Another Planet

September 3, 2014 | by

The art of spam.

Stamps_of_Germany_(DDR)_1987,_MiNr_3132

Detail from a 1987 German postage stamp

The Daily gets thousands of comments a day. Nearly all of them are spam. This should be annoying, and I suppose it can be. Problem is, I find myself captivated by our spam, so much so that I keep a running list of my favorite comments. As far as I know, they’re entirely computer generated: an algorithm hurls together bits of text from around the Internet, hoping to rustle up enough verisimilitude to trick our spam filter. The results are unduly captivating—they’re by turns ludic, cryptic, disquieting, emotional, and inadvertently profound. On many days they’re more interesting than the comments we receive from real people.

Here, for instance, is an automated comment from “geniadove”:

If you give it your name it will call you by it when you start up the GPS. These incidences come about quite normally, showing that Peter dislikes his daughter. A huge clue that your ex boyfriend still has feelings for you. —geniadove

That swerve at “Peter dislikes his daughter”—whoa! Dissertations have been written about less. And to see a clinical phrase like “These incidences come about quite normally” next to a casual one like “A huge clue”: What does it all mean? The mind searches restlessly, somewhat desperately, for connective tissue, some semblance of conventional narrative. Like autostereograms, these comments always verge on resolving into a discernible whole; unlike autostereograms, they never do.

Here’s another, from “getfave.com,” with the original spelling and punctuation preserved:

The Helmet Communicator is currently available in three different configurations - the HBC 100 Moto, the HBC 120 Snow, and the HBC 130 Bike. Nellie enjoyed playing bingo, going to the Caymans dead or alive. Cheap Sympathy Flowers can be ordered online, or by telephone, you must be a registereed menber and loggedd in. Mr Nicelli responded hat Mr. These memorial timber are planted by the name of the particular items and services you offer and where they can get tooo vague. Frankly, if they are willing to do violate the family’s privacy that way?

The best spam coalesces—with its typos, its competing voices, and its gloriously infelicitous phrasings—into a sort of nauseous goulash. Reading it is roughly akin to parsing the overlapping fragments of dialogue in a Robert Altman movie or sorting through the polyphony in certain works of high modernism: Gaddis’s J. R., maybe, or William Carlos Williams’s Paterson.

But there are a number of literary antecedents here: found poetry, Dadaist ready-mades, collage and bricolage, cutups, aleatoric poems, various Oulipo shenanigans. Most especially, there’s spoetry, spam lit, and flarf, similar movements from the past two decades that have made poetic hay from the Internet’s endless detritus. Flarf descends from Gary Sullivan, who collaborated with other poets online, constructing abhorrently bland poems from the results of random Google searches, workplace memos, Associated Press stories, and the like. (“awe yea You see, somebody’s done messed up / my latvian women’s soccer team fantasy REAL bad, / oh pagers make of cheese,” goes a representative sample.) As the flarfist Sharon Mesmer told Poets & Writers in 2009,

There’s this idea that juxtaposition creates a little pop in your mind to take you out of your immediate, mundane reality. When we do these crazy things with Google, a lot of times we’re putting something beautiful together with something ugly, and it makes this third thing that is completely delightful and unexpected.

And in 2008, the Guardian ran a piece on spam lit and its practitioners, especially Ben Myers and Lee Ranaldo, both of whom have published volumes of work derived from spam:

These instances of found poetry—often containing nuggets of unwitting but unalloyed beauty—seemed, in Myers’s words, like “scriptures from the future” or “postcards from another planet.” Discovering them in your inbox made you feel like Cocteau’s Orpheus picking up cryptic poetic messages from the underworld on his car radio.

That sense of private discovery, of trespassing, is key to the somewhat vertiginous feeling you get from reading a quality piece of spam: you’ve gone past the edge of something, and you’re not supposed to be there, but there you are, enjoying the vista.

I admire the impulse behind spam lit, and I’ve read some of it with great interest, but I’d argue that any sort of human interference, even if only to “curate” the spam, dilutes its strength a bit—it’s best encountered in its natural environment, which is to say your inbox, where it can baffle, perturb, interrupt, and otherwise fuck with you. Even so: here, for your edification, amusement, or abrupt dismissal, are a few of my favorite recent spam comments.

Many of us have been in love only to have it taken away. The rest of the participants then go on to vote to try to identify the false statement. They have quite a few free printable baby shower games, one thing they have is a baby shower word search. —megapolis hack

I began an AfricAmerican yellow pages to simply help minority-owned enterprise in nearby areas. Now add flour and milk and mix till a mixture gets shaped. —yellowpages.aol.com

towards the bottom is a not damp riverbed. —New Arrival Louboutin Gold Isolde 160mm For Sale

Rooney was a peripheral figure, pushed to the margins of the game on the left flank. Because epi inositol could conceivably be converted to myo inositol and may contain up to 10% of the active isomer (WR Sherman, personal communication), it was hypothesized that a low dose of myo inositol, coadministered with a biologically inactive isomer, may be equally effective in reducing the effects of lithium. —uggs boots stardoll

To qualify for this job, you need to be licensed as a dental hygienists in a State or territory of the United States or the District of Columbia. —Soon

gammons  ganache  ganders  gangers  ganging  ganglia  gangrel  gangsta.
heists   hejira   heliac   helios   helium   helled   heller
  hellos. lintiest lintless linurons lionfish lionised lioniser lionises lionized. —modular kitchen dealer

The company started in 1999 and has built the best reputation, when it comes to car body repairs in Leeds. —car body repairs in leeds

Breakfast seems like a huge challenge, since it is so common in our society to eat toast and cereals, however there are some tasty options that are child-friendly. When we try to muscle through with just conviction as our army we’re doing it the hard way. Hair color refers to the coloring of all the hair while highlighting refers to coloring only some strands of hair in a lighter color than the rest of the hair. —Gluten Free Society

“I see these changes as changes that are happening outside of me, “The download thing is probably the wave of the future. Rosmene feels the choice she’s facing is unfair,” Imeneo and Tirinto both claim they will die if they cannot have her. you’ve got plenty of responsibility. It was an early rock ‘n’ roll record.For a few minutes the other night the old divide between “real” and “fake” (“rock” and “disco, a lithe and gripping account of one of the essential workouts for any orchestra, The career of the young British conductor. —Air jordan 17

french fries prompted him of make one particular single their self. —Ugg Stoneman Sheepskin Boot Mens

While driving, l remembered Lynn’s terrible story of her mother’s death when Lynn was ten years old. Bill and Jackie Romaniecki, along with Susan and my mother, were aware that Lynn Crocker knew what happened to her former husband’s Office – Land franchise and that it was, as they all were, sold to Staples. Or, you started shopping and kept getting more credit cards and now you’re afraid you need to file bankruptcy. —car sales jobs in south florida

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5 Comments

  1. Hugh Mon Elemunth | September 4, 2014 at 11:53 am

    shame a shape of sixpenth, and peep a brought warren (elizabeth warrants ;)

  2. Hugh Mon Elemunth | September 4, 2014 at 11:53 am

    o my fucking credenza!!!

  3. Dan Piepenbring | September 4, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    I’m honored.

  4. Rich | September 4, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Submitted for your consideration: http://ilovespampoetry.tumblr.com/

  5. kathleen | September 4, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    Can someone tell me what the driving motive is to get nonsense posted on message boards? Is there some financial gain? I’ve never understood the why. Seems like a lot of damn work.

6 Pingbacks

  1. […] Piepenbring, “Postcards From Another Planet,” The Paris Review (website) 3 September […]

  2. […] going to love this post. I found it in the Paris Review when I was going through Flipboard. I know that every one of you can relate. As a matter of fact, […]

  3. […] at 7:15 on September 6, 2014 by Dish Staff by Dish Staff Dan Piepenbring close-reads an automated blog comment with fascination: If you give it your name it will call you by it when […]

  4. […] transcend penis pills and get-rich-quick schemes to almost reach the high art of found poetry. [The Paris […]

  5. […] posting my last piece about spam lit I’ve realised I recently read this piece in the Paris Review by Dan Piepenbring on the very same topic: the potential for ‘automated comments’ generated by spammers’ […]

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