As humanity’s most delicate skill, poems represent both quality of beauty and intensity of emotion. But is this art as closely related to our species as we think?
I came across this poem today. The last bit, I find particularly unique, particularly human. You tell me if you think a robot could write this:
you are inscribed in the lines on the ceiling you are inscribed in the depths of the storm
Notice anything strange?
A robot did indeed write this poem, yet 80% of people who read it at botpoet.com thought otherwise. You might have just been duped by the most humane bot poem ever uploaded to the site. I was.
The idea is not new, but the technologies and mediums are. In 2010, Duke University undergrad Zackary Scholl modified a program that used a context-free grammar system to spit out full-length, auto-generated poems. He then submitted the output to online poetry websites, in order to gauge reader reaction (in his words, it was “overwhelmingly positive.”)
One of his poems was actually accepted by the Duke literary journal, The Archive. This is it:
A home transformed by the lightning
the balanced alcoves smother
this insatiable earth of a planet, Earth.
They attacked it with mechanical horns
because they love you, love, in fire and wind.
You say, what is the time waiting for in its spring?
I tell you it is waiting for your branch that flows,
because you are a sweet-smelling diamond architecture
that does not know why it grows.
The editors had no idea the poem was not his, and Scholl didn’t want to embarrass them (or anyone who had read it, for that matter) so a few years passed until the trick was revealed.
If you are impressed, we are just getting started.
I have been accused on Twitter of following more bots than people, but who can affirm that these haiku-types from poem.exe don’t have a little something going on:
just simply alive— poem.exe (@poem_exe) March 21, 2017
through the young leaves
caught by the nettle tree
an empty shell— poem.exe (@poem_exe) March 19, 2017
clothes cast off
asleep at noon— poem.exe (@poem_exe) March 19, 2017
on a bare twig
among cherry blossom shadows
It does make you wonder about the roles of writer and reader. Those looking for answers will find them anywhere from a shampoo label to a string of random words. So why not a bot?
Here’s another Twitter favourite of mine, feelings.js:
now and again, i feel like an untenanted giraffe against a line-up— ✧ ➳ feelings.js ✧ (@feelings_js) March 19, 2017
also i feel not unlike an eviction— ✧ ➳ feelings.js ✧ (@feelings_js) March 18, 2017
And of course there is more to bot poetry than twitter. Check out for example this heartbreaking Google’s AI exploration after being fed 11,000 unpublished books into its formerly happy-go-lucky neural network:
yes, right here.
no, not right now.
“no, not right now.
“talk to me right now.
please talk to me right now.
i’ll talk to you right now.
“i’ll talk to you right now.
“you need to talk to me now.
Pretty mournful, ay? One more:
there is no one else in the world.
there is no one else in sight.
they were the only ones who mattered.
they were the only ones left.
he had to be with me.
she had to be with him.
i had to do this.
i wanted to kill him.
i started to cry.
i turned to him.
Bot poetry (just like bot generated music) might suffer the fate that so many have before, and slowly slide into oblivion — at least until some 20-year-loop trend brings it back like high-rise pants and mini SNES consoles. Perhaps it will soon be overshadowed by truly intelligent conversational interfaces, or by algorithms that make it utterly impossible to detect any blood (or lack of) behind it.
Yet I feel the simpler and random the bot, the more meaning the reader can put into its words, and the more humane the experience can become. There is a reason why ELIZA is still being used effectively to treat mild psychological conditions. We seemingly cannot let her simple, redundant words go.
Poems have been said to be mirrors in which we come to realise that others share our same thoughts and feelings. But was poetry ever really about others? Is the sometimes sudden and intense feeling that gives origin to a poem the same as the equally -yet very varied- intense emotion it produces? Is a poem meant to be read, written or both? And is the thing then actually invalidated if not all three conditions are met?
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Yisela Alvarez Trentini lives and works in Frankfurt am Main building useful things. You should follow her on Twitter