News stories are not often places for poetry — filled, as they are, with facts and grafs and ledes and quotes, all arranged in pyramids. But that’s changed with the launch of “Times Haiku,” a project that turns The New York Times’ copy into splendid 15-word poems.
Subtitled “serendipitous poetry from The New York Times,” the blog’s launch comes concurrent with National Poetry Month. It’s powered by Jacob Harris’ algorithm, which he wrote “scans each sentence looking for potential haikus by using an electronic dictionary containing syllable counts.” Harris, a senior software architect at the Times, reversed-engineered the coding behind @horse_ebooks for his @nytimes_ebooks last year.
The new algorithm’s only requirement is numeric: Like classic haikus, its selections must contain five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five again in the third. “The nice thing about haikus is they’re very short, so they’ll fit inside a tweet,” Harris said.
The choices are then reviewed by actual people, who make the distinction between a piece of bric-a-brac and beauty; but the original mechanism — a kind of endless sieve — produces a surprising amount of gems. An author profile out of Zurich becomes this, while a quote in a college basketball gamer includes that.
The blog was launched to honor poetry (though Harris said there were some readers who wondered at the incidental April Fool’s timing) and there are plans for it to continue past April. He’ll continue to tweak the algorithm, as he has already by stretching the dictionary to incorporate new words like “Rihanna.” Readers, meanwhile, will continue to experience the curious transformation between news content and poetry. “I wouldn’t read an article about carrot purée,” Harris said about his favorite so far, “but I wanted to see where that haiku came from.”
Best, I think, is what comes of this piece about a family of immigrants; or maybe this food review out of Brooklyn; or this, about college cost calculators, which is thrilling and inane. Or, or, or — there are more than 70 haikus uploaded to the site so far, and more coming every day. What’s your favorite?