Poetry Machine
South East

In the South East, poet Keith Bennett set schools the challenge of inventing Poetry Machines, leading workshops and building partnerships in the region to find out what this meant. The Laboratory kept a blog of its investigations over the months, which you can read here.

The Challenge: Build a Poetry Machine!

  • Could your school design, build and operate a Poetry Machine?
  • Could they do it before October 6 2005?
  • Would they be confident enough to compare it with others?
  • Would the poems it creates really be poems of the future?
  • Are you sure?

On October 6 2005 at Quay Arts Newport, the Poetry Society's Isle of Wight Stanza invited schools to send its Poetry Machine to be compared with other Poetry Machines that were designed and built across the Island by other schools.

The challenge aimed to give schools the chance to work with real, live poets, to help them design, build and operate a poetry machine.  Schools also had the chance to compare their machined and the poetry it produced with the creative juices that poured out of the other poetry machines designed and built on the IOW.

The Costs

Time. Commitment to providing design and technology students with a truly creative challenge; commitment to opening schools to a creative challenge that crossed all disciplines from A-is for art to Z-is for the Zapping of the future. And logistics in getting poetry machines to Quay Arts Newport for October 6th.


While the challenge was running (and the funds available) the Poetry Society's IOW Stanza offered to provide funds for poets to come into school for an extra half day, giving schools a buy-one-get-one-free on a half-day visit.

The Poetry Machine Lesson Plans

The two exercises below can be used with students at all levels. At Key Stages 2 and 3 use both quotes and be prepared for machines that incorporate animals. Whole class debate can be counter-productive, so breaking up into smaller groups to solve the problem(s) is beneficial. Working together is actively encouraged and mixed groups of practical and creative types would be a real bonus. The objective is not so much the finished article of a poetry machine - although this would be a wonder for all to behold and naturally its output lauded by the literati - the real objective is the journey towards the creation of the machine. Children often decorate their written work with artwork and they can be actively encouraged to do this here.

Keith Bennett
The Clockwork Poetry Machine


The way of it was this

a crystal face

and a silver handle

a rosewood case containing

the slight machinery

that dipped into the gourd

where the million words were stored

written on grains of rice.

Its spring was grafted bamboo

green and tuned to the Beaufort Scale.

Four pale feathers in a fan

drove the hickory spindle around

the Archimedes Screw that drew

each grain to form a line

bent into sight by the crystal

till the cast brass bell rang

at the end of each stanza

and chimed

when the poem was done.


One turn of the handle

returned the grains of rice

to the word hoard gourd

it ticked and it fizzed and stirred

the pool of rice even when it was resting.

Sealed against the wet its full weight

in the hands reminded the bearer of lead

yet it was light and there was no way of telling

where the next idea

was coming from.

Mathematicians arranged strange formulas

by way of explanation

but each broke down at the defining moment.

Blind people nodded their heads

they knew exactly what it said

though it never spoke.

It needed only a zephyr to drive it.

Only the rumour of wind

to set the spring off

for the poetry

to begin again.


Exercise 1

Take a class of design and technology students, woodworkers, metalworkers, IT students and/or science students.

Read the poem.

Read: 'If a million monkeys were sat at a million type-writers (keyboards) given un-limited time, their random banging away on the keys would eventually produce Hamlet by Shakespeare'.

Question for assembled class: Is it possible to build a poetry machine? If yes, design and build one. If no, befriend a poet because they will never be replaced by technology.

Learning points: This encourages creative thinking in practical people. Typical questions asked are, 'What is a poem?'; 'How does a poem work?'; 'What random word generator programmes are there on the net?' 'Can you write long words on a grain of rice?'; 'Rhyme?'; 'Simile and metaphor?'; 'Who owns the copywrite of the poem, the machine-makers or the operators?

Exercise 2

Take a class of artists, english students, linguists, musicians, drama students etc.

Read the poem.

Read: 'The un-original poet imitates. The great poet steals and makes something new, strange and wonderful with what is stolen.' 

Question for assembled class: Is it possible to build a poetry machine? If yes, draw, paint, write, translate, sing/play, or act one. If no, become a poet because you will never be replaced by technology.

Learning points: This encourages the creative people to think practically about the creative process. Typical questions asked are, 'What is a poem?; 'How does a poem work?'; 'How heavy is a million grains of rice?'; 'What is an archimedes screw?'; 'Can we get an arts council grant for our machine?'; 'What colour should it be?'