Musing on Poetry: Can a Computer Write Art?

An article, "The Poem that Passed the Turing Test" popped up recently online about a young man who modified a computer program to write poetry. He submitted a suite of poems to The Archive, Duke University's undergraduate magazine, which was founded in 1887, and one poem "For the Bristlecone Snag" was accepted and published in the Fall of 2011. Feeling curious, wary, and a tad defensive, I read the poem. It was awful. To be fair, I looked at every line and at the poem as a whole to see if any juxtaposition, any metaphor, any rhythm could redeem it. The first line seems promising, "A home transformed by lightning." If the student, Zackary Scholl, who published the poem under his own name without any editing or additions, had simply taken that first line and run with it himself, it might have had more character. But the third line, "this insatiable earth of a planet, Earth" is just clunky, as is the rest of the poem. "They attacked it with mechanical horns" brings up an intriguing image, but it dissolves into more strange repetition and cliché: "because they love you, love, in fire and wind." To me, this poem, written by a computer, screams "rewrite!"

What's missing? I remembered seeing the first poem written by a computer in a book published in 1984 called The Policeman's Beard Is Half-Constructed. A search yielded an online transcript, and the fact that you can still purchase a used copy for very little money. Racter, the author, a computer program designed by Bill Chamberlain, was actually very sophisticated; it included rules of syntax, grammar, and the ability to maintain "a thread of what might initially pass for coherent thinking."

An excerpt of phrases I find delightful:

More than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity.
I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber.
I need it for my dreams.

The shift from the valuable minerals to a force to food to dreams is fun.

Slide and tumble and fall among
The dead. Here and there
Will be found a utensil.

The words "The dead" seem abstract, but when "utensil" is added we are suddenly grounded in death as an everyday, quotidian occurrence. A couple lines more absurd and less successful:

Enthralling surgeons will dance quickly with tripping
stenographers. They will sing and chant of their passion
and their love and their desire. They will yodel their
dreams of stenographers who will answer and respond:
"We ponder that hedges are like bushes."

It's a mixed collection of poetry and prose and a whole host of limericks you can read at the link, above, which are all labeled, "Work of stupefying genius number:…" There is much amusement and play at work in these. Interesting that the word "dream" appears frequently; I'm guessing this is on purpose, to try to get the reader to identify with the works. The writing is accompanied by collages made from a combination of old engravings and computer-generated graphs and lines. The choice of collage seems fitting as both the writing and art are made of pieces creating a whole, also this type of artwork was popular in the 1980s. Someone has posted a few pictures of the pages here.

What is the difference between one program and the other? Scholl wrote that his program could "create poetry indistinguishable from real poets," which seems astonishingly brash until you realize that he wrote "real poets" not "humans" or "good poets." Bill Chamberlain's motivation was curiosity, the thought that computer-generated writing "can be fascinating, humorous, even aesthetically pleasing," and he wondered what would happen if you removed the "human experience" from the writing. The core of one appears to be an attempt to imitate a human activity, the core of the other, a deeper investigation into what makes it a human or non-human activity. Chamberlain's project contains almost enough rules to shape the writing humanly before it is even written. In the article, Scholl admits his program is simple. I think it is too simple to be more than a hack: a kind of clever joke.

In 1999, an eight-year-old girl brought me a printout. "How did you make this?" I asked. She had typed a string of letters with random spaces between, then hit "spell check," which, at that time, meant that a list of words would pop up and the writer would choose the right one. In this case, she chose what she felt was the best one. It's rather a shame that we have auto-correct these days. We probably wouldn't have gotten this (excerpt):

…daises ate
the number  eight vibration and the duck and the
cats fade into the shade young dogs sniff the  iris by
the moon light the sun is fading away unselfish
flywheels pod;for ever flu oh hug edge ah juice! jar
hedge quirk rye whey

I've always loved the sound and rhythm of, "Oh hug edge ah juice! jar hedge quirk rye whey." Here is another Spell Check Poem, in entirety, solicited and published in Amphibian , a short-lived, letterpress printed 'zine by Leif Fairfield ('zine mentioned in Fingerprint: The Art of Using Hand-Made Elements in Graphic Design).

TV true
but Utah Joe you 
Mom of by jug 
or Hawaiian ugh!
this unusual jug 
Tao tardy
  us you try 
unite turn turn earn guy?
  Utah us ray 
rut us, us you earn.
does Joe’s tire grow?
we go to Minneapolis.

The computer suggested the words, but the girl wrote the poem. This time it is quite absurd and funny, particularly the last line wrapping it up. Still, a great sense of sound. She doesn't write Spell Check Poems anymore. She writes music.

The night after I read the article about Scholl, I woke at 2 A.M., wide awake, and reached for Bender: New and Selected Poems a 2012 book of poems by Dean Young that I've been reading in the middle of the night on my iPad for a couple years. I wondered what it was about his poems that made them so much better than anything written by a computer. A few days later, I had to get the paper book from the library so I could see where Young intended the lines to break (not something completely clear in the ebook version when you change the font or size). I've mentioned Dean Young before here, and here, and here.

From "Side Effects" (p. 204, first hardcover printing)

…snow approaches
the house and turns back, forgetting why it came.

Young puts the reader inside the imagery. The  snow is anthropomorphized: a human inside, or easily projected onto. A snow forgetting, turning back like sheets on a bed revealing sleeping people, however deep you want to imagine.

From "So the Grasses Grow" (206)

I looked down the road
where someone was buying shoes.
Is it possible to choose a pair
solely by the prints they'll leave
in the dust and snow?

In these lines he makes you think about shoes in quite a different way. The reader thinks about the marks made in life, temporary, but hoping for some kind of permanence. The use of the word "solely," referring to shoes, is a subtle wink, not an oversized pun-gesture.

From "The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish" (185)

The typical lightning bolt
is one inch wide and five miles long.

This one factual statement has an emotional impact at the end of this poem as you imagine something so thin and bright and sharp but nearly unending. And one more I love:

From "Selected Recent and New Errors" (199)

Do you think the dictionary ever says to itself
I've go these words that mean completely
different things inside myself
and it's tearing me apart?

In short, they are delightful and insightful, projecting human feeling onto objects or injecting the reader's empathy into them. I've chosen examples that grabbed me, and most are humorous as well as human. Overall, Young's poems seem dreamlike, random like the computer-generated ones, yet in his work, each poem circles around a solid, chewy, emotional center. Every time you think he's thrown a ball for you to fetch and you're sure it's gone, the elastic snaps back and you understand the connection again and it's good. Occasionally, he loses me, leaves me behind at the rest stop and forgets to come back. I wander around wondering which snack to pick but lose interest, not hungry, and turn the page. See, he's even had an influence on my prose. The unshaped computer poems don't do that.

The computer poems, particularly Scholl's version, produce not a fire, but a picture of a fire; the reader can imagine whatever fire they have previously experienced, but the fire on the page provides no real warmth. If there is no intention or message behind it, it is just a little mirror, a straight reflection, undigested, disconnected: not poetry, not art.


Hmmmm... I have to agree with you about the computer poems; they just have no "soul"?
Alisa said…
Hi Sharmon,
Thanks for reading!