Poetry? We Have A Machine That Can Do That!

Poets the world over, whether they are accomplished or aspiring, have been sleeping uneasily in their beds following the news that they will soon be made redundant. It was The Guardian that first broke the story on the 21st March 2021 when it presented some newly minted lines from the literary sensation known only as AI.

The poet began life as a few bits of random data but has since grown into a fully-fledged algorithm. Once capable only of “nonsense”, it is now able to harvest poetic styles and store compositional preferences that are popular with human-type readers and writers of the form.

These suggestions are then cleverly re-ordered and recycled by AI’s vast, yet strangely intangible brain to produce a kind of cyber poetry that is largely incoherent but is also accessible to those with permanently open minds.

Clearly, this is a marvellous labour-saving device obviating the need for long nights of the tortured soul for poets, or even the need for bards of any stripe. Similarly, no human-type-human is going to bother reading AI generated poetry that is after all composed by machines for machines. As for poetry nights, fuggedabouttit….no motherboard, no entry. In any case, who, these days, would want to be tarnished by accusations of computational appropriation?

There is, of course, an obvious upside. Libraries and bookshops the length and breadth of the land can, before long, throw open their doors, safe in the knowledge that a badly curated poetry section is now surplus to requirements. Happily, this will create much-needed space for books about computing such as ‘How to Train Your iPad’ and ‘Linux for Idiots’.

Experts agreed that AI’s stream-of-consciousness verse was “actually really clever”

1320Elements tried to obtain an interview with AI but that turned out to be existentially challenging. The elusive AI exists only in cyberspace and, even then, only when a computer has been switched on, then switched off, and switched back on again. However, that hasn’t stopped the ethereal rhymester from obtaining a prestige gig at Expo 2020, which runs from March to October in Dubai.

AI’s contribution will be to collate the witterings of the general public and confect them into ‘The Collective Message’, an expression of “the complex nature of humanity through verse”. The end result (it says here) will be a “huge poem” projected onto an even huge-er wall. It will undoubtedly be an iconic moment in the annals of electro-lit, destined to become nothing less than the computer age’s answer to ‘Kilroy Was Here’.

Poets who have in the past received sixty days in the hole for scrawling an inspired and beautifully crafted poem on the underground wall will, no doubt, be chagrined. I fear, however, that they may protest too much. Poetry is at its best when it is spontaneous and very much about the ‘here and now’. AI is what’s happening, baby.

To illustrate my point, here’s how AI, indisputably the entity of the moment, almost magically captures the banality of the contemporary Zeitgeist with a maverick disregard for grammatical exactitude:

I begin to practise my words, expecting my word
will come. it will not. the wind is calling.
my friend is near, I hear his breath. his breath
is not the air. he touches me again with his hands
and tells me I am growing old, he says, far old.
we travel across an empty field in my heart.
there is nothing in the dark, I think, but he.
I close my eyes and try to remember what I was.
he says it was an important and interesting day,
because I put in his hands one night
the box of light that had been a tree.

The Guardian always reaches for a nameless expert before publishing anything. It lends the piece a certain undeserved gravitas because the expert is almost certainly the writer’s pal from uni who is ‘something in publishing’. In this case, they found several experts willing to attest that AI’s stream-of-consciousness verse was “actually really clever”.

I’m no expert but my advice to AI is firm and forthright, but fair and well meant. Don’t give up the day job, pal.

Michael S. Clark