Gestalt grammar

04-06-05_image-1_thumb 1.jpgJon Trowbridge, AB’91, SM’92, has been a fugitive alumnus. “It took years but somehow I’ve eluded the Alumni Association,” he says. “They no longer ask me for money, but I never get the Magazine either.” Now Trowbridge has stepped out of obscurity and back onto the University’s radar to introduce Gnoetry—with a hard “g”—to the campus community. With cocreator Eric Elshtain, a PhD student in the Committee on the History of Culture, he presented their four-year-old invention Monday to a Franke Institute for the Humanities audience of about 20 poetic-minded students and faculty.

Gnoetry, born of a conversation between the two friends “one morning over bad coffee and French toast,” creates a space where “humanities and math overlap,” Elshtain says. A computer program analyzes the language of out-of-copyright texts, including Heart of Darkness, Huckleberry Finn, and Notes From Underground. Software written by Trowbridge then reconfigures the analyzed language into a prescribed poetic form, including blank verse, Renga, or Tanka.

Because Gnoetry uses complete texts rather than random lists of words, it maintains the essence of the original work, Elshtain says. So when Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class gets Gnoetry-ed, the result, he supposes, “is as if we said, ‘Hey Veblen, could you write us some T-shirts?’” For proof he referred to Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country, which produced the line their glances met in a mist of bargaining and hyperbole—a phrase that struck Elshtain (and the audience) as a “pretty accurate distillation of Wharton’s writing.”

Meredith Meyer, ’07


Eric Elshtain (left) and Jon Trowbridge.

April 6, 2005