Monday, May 16, 2011

Which is the BEST order?

At, we find  a quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) which says, in part " ... poetry—the best words in their best order." 

Consider the two orderings of the words "were" and "we." (To choose which is best is not possible until we know more of what the writer wishes to say.)

          We were!
          Were we?

With the three words -- "three," "blind," and "mice" --  from a familiar nursery rhyme we have six permutations (several of which are sensible):

          Three blind mice
          Three mice blind
          Blind three mice
          Blind mice three
          Mice three blind
          Mice blind three.

What better way to find the BEST order than by considering ALL orders of a list of words?  Suppose I'd like to write a new poem.  I have several words I like -- both for their sound and their sense.  Let's consider their permutations: 

My four words are

           plum       sum       poem       smoke

Using a permutation-generator I obtain the complete list of  24 arrangements of the four words; several of the word-orders suggest lines I might like for a poem -- I have written them afterward:

     plum poem sum smoke  
               Pluck a plum, pitch a poem, shave a sum.  Smoulder and smoke
     plum poem smoke sum
     plum sum poem smoke
     plum sum smoke poem

     plum smoke poem sum
     plum smoke sum poem
     poem plum smoke sum
     poem plum sum smoke
     poem sum smoke plum
               My poem is a sum of a plum and a smoke
     poem sum plum smoke
     poem smoke sum plum
     poem smoke plum sum
     sum plum poem smoke
     sum plum smoke poem
     sum poem plum smoke
               The sum of a poem and a plum is a skyward plume of smoke.
     sum poem smoke plum
     sum smoke plum poem
               The sum of rising smoke and a ripe plum is a poem. 
     sum smoke poem plum
     smoke plum sum poem
     smoke plum poem sum
     smoke poem sum plum
     smoke poem plum sum
     smoke sum poem plum
     smoke sum plum poem

Which word-orders are your favorites?  What lines of poetry do they suggest to you?

More on word permutations may be found in The Oulipo Compendium under the topic "Lescurian Word Square."   Prior blog postings related to the Oulipo include these in 2010:  November 17,   August 23and March 25.


  1. > What better way to find the BEST order
    > than by considering ALL orders of a
    > list of words?

    For word sets of size 3 or 4, exhaustive listing is OK, but Shakespeare's Sonnets use around 11,817 words (depending on how you tokenize) for lines that are around 8 words long, and which include repeated selections. Furthermore, for non-trivial cases the words selected for a given line will be dependent on the words selected for the other lines of the poem. This is too much for a computer to exhaustively process, let alone a human.

    Luckily, computer scientists have developed local search methods for non-exhaustively exploring state spaces, such as hill-climbing, beam search, simulated annealing, and (my favorite) genetic algorithms. The tricky part is figuring out an effective evaluation strategy! For this, I agree with your implied conclusion: approaches such as permutations are best used to interactively suggest poems to a human, rather than providing a final poem by themselves.

  2. Thanks, edde, for your informative comments.

    As a poet I want to escape the rigidities of my habitual thought and find lines and stanzas that are free and original. Mathematical ways of manipulating words may lead to phrases that unlock doors to new ways of seeing and saying.