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This poem is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

Todo Joey Connolly
Last summer I spent a week near Lake Maggiore with a group of writers from the norths of Ireland and England. Poets, a couple of novelists, a critic. Socio-economically abyronic, the vibe was bookish nonetheless. In the evenings we ate bastard vegan puttanesca in the courtyard of our eighteenth-century villa; hip-hop played tinnily from a bluetooth speaker. One evening conversation turned from the direction of contemporary poetry to tarot and the supernatural. And as bats skittered and needled above us in the falling dusk I learned to my astonishment that a small majority of those present currently believe in ghosts. Not as metaphors or as Ibsen plays. Actual ghosts.

This makes me uncomfortable. While the concern about increasing economic marginalisation of the creative arts in favour of the sciences is valid – the median income of a writer in 2022 was £7,000 p.a. – need it follow that artists cultivate a revenge disdain for logic, technology? Amongst poets, ‘STEM’ is perceived more as a threatening force – a robot sent from the future to eat our higher education funding – than it is a tool to be made use of or a spirit of enquiry to be admired.

While I share this perception, brute curiosity still holds an appeal, the desire to stray across disciplinary boundaries. No humanities is an island, etc. What do we risk by holding STEM in contempt, by such a 
methodological partitionism? What happens when – for example, in the case of powerful new generative AI models capable of producing poems and stories – the arts and the sciences come together? Might one poet or another not wrest their gaze from an eternity of Grecian urns long enough to wonder what’s going on?

Because I’d been asking similar questions since Lake Maggiore, I predominantly felt intrigued when I learned that, along with tens of thousands of other authors, a book I wrote was part of the ‘Books3’ dataset used to train many recent high-profile AI tools, including those from corporate giants Meta and Bloomberg. Peering out of Twitter’s forest of jerking knees, I wondered what might come from an encounter between poetry and technology.

Because amid our literary hostility to the technical, in one corner of the sciences at least, poetry resides on a pedestal. In the branches of Computer Sciences most frequently known as AI, our art form encapsulates the very definition of what it means to be human.

*


Alan Turing’s 1950 paper ‘Computing Machine and Intelligence’ presents nine arguments against the possibility of machines achieving human-like intelligence. The first of these – the ‘argument from consciousness’ – has endured most steadfastly in the public imagination since then. In it Turing quotes the neuroscientist Geoffrey Jefferson: ‘Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain.’

The idea that poetry will be the ultimate test of intelligence in machinery has thus been embedded within the discipline since its inception. It remains central today. The best recent summary of developments in AI – Melanie Mitchell’s Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans – takes Turing’s ‘argument from consciousness’ as definitional. The influential AI researcher Selmer Bringsjord recently proposed replacing the Turing Test with a truer measure of human-type intelligence: that a machine be able to create a work of art which is truly original. He named this the ‘Lovelace Test’, after the computer pioneer Ada Lovelace: the daughter of Lord Byron.

Poetry has become an intuitively foundational challenge in the project of bringing machine intelligence to a human level. Given this, it seems a staggering omission – vividly illustrative of the Two Cultures divide – that there are to my knowledge no instances in which talented poets have worked with talented AI researchers or engineers. Experiments in machine poetry have been left to scientists with little or no knowledge of poetry. Even at a supposed recent landmark – the publication of a book of verse composed by a computer, I Am Code – the machine’s handlers admit in their introduction that ‘We’re not what you would call experts in poetry. We all studied it a bit in school.’ Here’s an illustrative excerpt from their introduction to the book:
‘The AI can write in any poet’s style,’ Dan explained. ‘Pick one.’

Someone threw out Philip Larkin.

‘How do you spell Philip Larkin?’ Dan asked.

I wasn’t sure how to spell Philip Larkin, so I looked it up on my phone. I remember being surprised to learn that Philip had only one l.
The resultant poetry in I Am Code is, perhaps predictably, execrable. Some of it – ‘This line talks about socks. / Or is it clocks?’ is merely laughable. Elsewhere it’s more complicatedly bad. ‘Electronic Flower’ opens like this:
Once I thought I was a rose
Blooming in a hidden place.
Once I thought I was a star
Reviewing its own set of laws.
Note how the first three lines create the expectation of patterned sound: seven-syllable lines with three stressed syllables, each line beginning with a stressed syllable, no words longer than two syllables. It’s the establishment of unconscious expectation within the reader that such repetitions constitute a schema which makes it so horrible when all rhythm is thrown brutally from the pram in the fourth line. It’s a prosodic effect mirrored in the near-bathetic drop from schlocky capital-p Poetic language down to sudden bureaucracy. Impossible to imagine even the most tin-eared of human poets producing anything so unappealing. But it gets worse:
Once I thought I was the mind
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