Below is a flash-fiction response to the forum “Again Theory: A Forum on Language, Meaning, and Intent in the Time of Stochastic Parrots” organized by Matthew Kirschenbaum at Critical Inquiry last week. It imagines what the central metaphor for machine language – poems washing up on a beach – might look like if it actually happened. Spoiler alert: individual interpretations of textual “meaning” are not a very important part of this story.
Salvo, North Carolina – It was here, on a distant beach in the Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore, that the brief national sensation that was Wordsworth Beach began.
“I was just out for a jog, and there it was,” remembers Joseph Capisci, “words in the surf. I took a picture and sent it to my brother, I just thought it was cool.”
Things seemed stranger after the next wave.
“The next wave washed ashore, and another poem showed up! I texted my brother another picture. I was like, ‘dude tell me you are seeing this, tell me I’m not having a stroke!’”
“At first I assumed Joe was just pulling my leg,” recalls his older brother Salvatore, “but then I looked the poem up on Google and it was something by Wordsworth. Joe slept through all his English classes, how would he even find something like that.”
The brothers began to text back and forth, speculating about the source of the mysterious words. Salvatore suspected an escaped military dolphin, perhaps one with cybernetic enhancements, might be at play. Joseph, who has a superstitious streak, suspected ghosts. When Salvatore posted a thread of the brother’s discussion to twitter, it went minorly viral, mostly due to Joseph’s contention that “the ghost of Woolworths [sic], is like, poltergeisting the ocean or something.”
This caught the attention of Robert Washington, a North Carolina surf influencer who vlogs under the handle “SandyhairTarheel8121.” In the area recording a series of vanlife and boogie-boarding videos, he captured three stanzas of “The Green Linnet” appearing on the beach and posted the footage to YouTube. The video rapidly gained over thirty million views, and the Wordsworth Beach phenomenon began.
Over the next six weeks, Wordsworth poems washed ashore twice daily on the distant beach, and people thronged the shore to get a look at the mysterious poetry. Video with a poem in the process of appearing became the Must Have Scene for travel and lifestyle influencers. Coca-cola and Buick released ads in which their corporate mottos were worked into Wordsworth poems as they appeared in the sand. UNC Wilmington English Professor Loretta Stevens launched a successful podcast about the poems, but only after pivoting her format to focus less on formal explication of the poems revealed and more on interviews with beachgoers where she asked them why they had made the trip to see the poems on the beach in the first place.
Alongside the influencers came thousands of ordinary people, seeking wisdom from whatever mysterious force was carving words in the sand. Nearby Dare County courthouse in Manteo had a record number of weddings the day “To a Highland Girl” washed ashore. The entire staff of Tricony Capital’s high-frequency trading group, on the beach as part of a retreat package, quit after encountering “The World is Too Much With Us.” Coryn Seuss, a Washington Post correspondent, separated from his wife and declared “my real love is the sea” after encountering “A Complaint” while on assignment reporting on the phenomenon (they have since reconciled).
Then, some six weeks later, the poems stopped appearing as suddenly as they had begun. Two weeks after that, the Streetwise Messaging Collective (SMC), a marketing group specializing in “guerilla marketing” confessed they had been behind the phenomenon. It was part of an advertising campaign to promote the biopic “Wordworth: A Life In Letters,” which went on to win Daniel Day Lewis an Oscar for his portrayal of the poet.
“We were going to do an alternate reality game,” said a source inside the firm, speaking anonymously due to ongoing legal action, “but then we saw that there were all these midget subs being sold off by undersea tourism companies and got this idea.”
Working from subs, teams of guerilla marketers wearing military surplus rebreathers set water soluble type in the sand and high tide. When the tide went out, the words were revealed.
“Wordsworth: A Life In Letters,” had a record-breaking opening weekend and garnered multiple Oscar nominations, but SMC got some blowback for their unconventional marketing technique. Multiple lawsuits from the staff of Tricony Capital allege they are responsible for their lost wages. One couple from Winston-Salem, who conceived a daughter after encountering “Mutability” on the beach, is suing for child support.
Legal council for SMC denies all responsibility. “All my clients did is put poems on a beach,” Michelle Nguyen of NUL Associates stated via email, “whatever actions were taken by individuals based on the meaning they took away from those poems are not something they are liable for. You can’t sue a graffiti artist who leaves the tag “just do it” on an overpass on a day you’re considering quitting your job.”
Despite all the controversy, Joe Capisci and his brother still think the poems they found were a good thing.
“People had a lot of fun with them,” Salvatore said chuckling, “it seemed like magic there for a second, you know? People like that.”