Poetry Written by a Computer
I am taking a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) on Modern and Contemporary Poetry from the U of Pennsylvania. It has been a learning experience – as it was intended to be. But what I learned was probably not what was intended – which in a way, is a tribute to the open-mindedness of the course.
What I could not help noticing as the course progressed (see the syllabus here) was how mechanical it was becoming. Sometimes this was conscious, with poets like John Cage who used algorithms to make their poems (and their music). But usually, with poets like Gertrude Stein – unconsciously. With all kinds of mixtures in-between.
I am nervous about being a critic of poetry – a very esoteric calling. But, on the other hand, I have suffered from it (as well as benefited from it) and am stubbornly determined to have my say. And the subject of people and their machines is dear to my heart.
It does seem to me that poetry should be more aware of this. That poets, of all people, should be more sensitive to the effect of the Machine.
I am sure computer technology can be useful in analyzing poetry – and even in composing it. The human ear is probably the best overall, but the computer is best at routine drudgery. It never gets bored.
But poets are not programmers. And they are not much good at detecting the unconscious effects of anything in their work. They have always imitated each other (mostly unconsciously) and they now are imitating the computer.
I remember when I was attending the U of Illinois in the late Fifties (where I became an Engineer) that there was a professor writing programs that created classical music in the style of various composers (such as Mozart and Beethoven). I never heard any of his music – and evidently it wasn’t too impressive, because I never heard of it again. But the idea is intriguing – he no doubt learned a lot about classical music from writing his programs.
Computers are now used routinely to write all kinds of fairly ordinary things - such as TV scripts. There is no reason they could not write routine poetry. Artists would still be needed for overall direction, or to fill in the details.
I am reminded of Marlboro billboards, where standard images are manipulated in fancy computers to create eye-catching effects – the outline of this image is printed in sections – the sections are mounted on a large frame – and artists paint in the sections – using a little creativity themselves to enhance the overall effect. Which sells lots of cigarettes.
Or animations – with characters people like even better than real actors.
There is only one problem to all of this – few people are interested in poetry – in contrast to cigarettes.