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This report is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.

Can a Program Write a Poem? Daniel Brown
I WAS STRUCK BY SOMETHING in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman: not the opinion, which I’ve forgotten (my fault, not the estimable Friedman’s), but a mention in passing of some news from the poetry world. Computers are now writing poems that pass for poems by people.

I hadn’t been aware of this development, but it isn’t terribly surprising. Computers have been writing convincing-sounding music for a while now, and chimpanzees, not to mention elephants, have been painting canvasses that aren’t just passable but salable, so it only stands to reason that a program can write something indistinguishable from poetry by a human. I’m thinking in particular of the dissociative sort of poetry that inspired the title of the critic Stephen Burt’s engaging book about it, Close Calls with Nonsense. (Burt emphasises the ‘close calls’ part; another critic might have proceeded differently.) I’m no programmer, but I don’t see why the production of such poetry couldn’t be automated: hook a lexicon up to a randomiser and you’d be halfway home. It would be harder to program the writing of a more sensible sort of poetry, though to go by the existence of code that produces decent prose (which tends to make at least a bow to reason), such programming wouldn’t seem to be impossible.

But even the cleverest code would have trouble coming up with something like the opening of W. S. Merwin’s ‘For the Anniversary of My Death’:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   ...

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