Chance operations are methods of generating poetry independent of the author’s will. A chance operation can be almost anything from throwing darts and rolling dice, to the ancient Chinese divination method, I-Ching, and even sophisticated computer programs. Most poems created by chance operations use some original text as their source, be it the newspaper, an encyclopedia, or a famous work of literature. The purpose of such a practice is to play against the poet’s intentions and ego, while creating unusual syntax and images. The resulting poems allow the reader to take part in producing meaning from the work.

History of Chance Operations

The roots of using chance operations to generate poetry are generally traced to the Dada movement in Western Europe in the early and mid-twentieth-century, involving writers such as André Breton, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Philippe Soupault, and Paul Éluard. The Dadaists were deeply interested in the subconscious, and they believed that the mind would create associations and meaning from any text, including those generated through random selections. In one section of Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto on Feeble & Bitter Love,” he offers the following instructions to make a Dadaist poem, here translated from the original French by Barbara Wright:

     Take a newspaper.
     Take some scissors.
     Choose from this paper an article the length you want to
        make your poem.
     Cut out the article.
     Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up
        this article and put them all in a bag.
     Shake gently.
     Next take out each cutting one after the other.
     Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the
     The poem will resemble you.
     And there you are—an infinitely original author of
        charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by
        the vulgar herd.

The use of chance operations in contemporary poetry has been used most famously by the international avant-garde group Fluxus, poet Jackson Mac Low, and the poet and composer John Cage. A good example of a poem that was written using chance operations is Jackson Mac Low’s “Stein 100: A Feather Likeness of the Justice Chair,” which also includes Mac Low’s explanation of the methods he used to compose the poem.

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