Photo by Andrey Gulivanov on Unsplash
At a poetry reading I gave this week, hosted by the Colorado Poets Center, something happened that I’m sure is happening elsewhere. A guy stepped up to the podium during the open mic segment and said, “I ask you to consider: Who is the poet? Who is the creator?”
He then read a lengthy set of rhymed couplets spun out by an AI tool that he had fed a bunch of constraints. These included writing for the place (Boulder) and emulating Emily Dickinson, Shel Silverstein, and Langston Hughes, among other poets.
After he finished, several audience members voiced their disapproval and left. I couldn’t blame them. He probably thought he was posing a worthwhile question: Can AI produce a good poem—maybe even a better poem than a person—if given the right instructions?
Ingenuity, death, and the ineffable as cure
I had just read a poem called “Empire” from my first book, Bloodline, that mentions the fairy tale “The Nightingale.” The poem asks: “How often do we choose/ the radiantly jeweled thing/ with innards like a clock/ when what makes us tick/ is something plainer and stranger,/ something terribly elusive/ and infinitely joyful?”
You remember the story by Hans Christian Andersen? It was published in 1843, and like many fairy tales it still resonates.
In it, an emperor asks his courtiers to make the nightingale, the bird with the most beautiful and haunting song, sing for him at court. They try and try to coax the bird to do the emperor’s bidding, and it finally does. But it refuses to stay. It slips out the window back to the trees. So the courtiers create a mechanical bird to replace the nightingale.
'We have got the best bird though,' said they, and then the artificial bird had to sing again, and this was the thirty-fourth time that they heard the same tune, but they did not know it thoroughly even yet, because it was so difficult.
The music-master praised the bird tremendously, and insisted that it was much better than the real nightingale, not only as regarded the outside with all the diamonds, but the inside too.
'Because you see, my ladies and gentlemen, and the emperor before all, in the real nightingale you never know what you will hear, but in the artificial one everything is decided beforehand! So it is, and so it must remain, it can't be otherwise. You can account for things, you can open it and show the human ingenuity in arranging the waltzes, how they go, and how one note follows upon another!'
Aren’t our devices enchanting?
The artificial bird had its place on a silken cushion, close to the emperor's bed: all the presents it had received of gold and precious jewels were scattered round it. Its title had risen to be 'Chief Imperial Singer of the Bed-Chamber,' in rank number one, on the left side; for the emperor reckoned that side the important one, where the heart was seated. And even an emperor's heart is on the left side.
The music-master wrote five-and-twenty volumes about the artificial bird; the treatise was very long and written in all the most difficult characters. Everybody said they had read and understood it, for otherwise they would have been reckoned stupid, and then their bodies would have been trampled upon.
[They] knew every little gurgle in the song of the artificial bird by heart; but they liked it all the better for this, and they could all join in the song themselves.
Later, the emperor falls deathly ill. He is not expected to recover. He longs to hear the real bird’s song on his deathbed.
Suddenly, close to the window, there was a burst of lovely song; it was the living nightingale, perched on a branch outside. It had heard of the emperor's need, and had come to bring comfort and hope to him….
It sang about the quiet churchyard, when the roses bloom, where the elder flower scents the air, and where the fresh grass is ever moistened anew by the tears of the mourner.
The emperor recovers and asks the bird to stay with him forever. The bird refuses.
'One thing I ask you! Tell no one that you have a little bird who tells you everything; it will be better so!'
Then the nightingale flew away. The attendants came in to see after their dead emperor, and there he stood, bidding them 'Good morning!'
Maybe AI has such appeal because we long for continuous access to the fleeting “moment when the bird sings very close to the music of what happens” (Heaney), to that joy of stumbling on something strange and beautiful in the wilds of our daily lives. Keats ends “Ode to a Nightingale” (written in 1819) a poignant meditation on beauty in the face of death:
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
What need does poetry fulfill in your life?
I’m not sure what reaction this poor fellow expected from writers who value the process of writing as much as, or more than, the outcome. As to whether AI can write a poem that functions as a poem, the answer is yes. And yet, in that case poetry has been reduced to a functional end-product. That is, a poem becomes a performative piece made within a set of rules, that delights with predictability.
What is most delightful about poetry, to me, is how exceptionally unpredictable it is, at its best. The strangeness. The oddness. The slipperiness of language. The shining mess. The way a word placed just so explodes into multiple meanings, feelings, universes. To me, poetry isn’t about making things more predictable. It’s about elevating oddness.
During this week’s Poet to Poet Community (Poets Circle) discussion, a friend pointed out that AI could be a “great equalizer” for people who struggle to write. I hope it does open doors and free people from laboring over functional writing! And, as poets, why not play with it? Dialog with it on our own terms? Absolutely. Why not? It’s a phenomenal tool.
But I think writing itself is a more powerful tool. As poet Brian Tierney said in this recent Poetry Magazine podcast, asked what need poetry fulfills in his life: “You have a desire to make something … making something [is] a way to understand the volatility and effusive love … Only the language of making something [can] process certain things.”
I go to poetry to make something of my bewilderment, my inarticulate wilds, my legitimate strangeness. I go to poetry to remove constraints and expectations placed on me. I go to poetry to become re-enchanted with my life. And I read poetry for what it embodies — the resonance between other living beings and myself (as Robert Hass put it: “Poetry puts our breath into another person”). To me, AI is a mechanical bird that can produce pleasurable effects but never the resonance I long for.
As one elderly gentleman reading during the open mic told me, “I write poetry because it’s how I make sense of my life.”
What need does poetry fulfill in your life? Can AI contribute to that? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Your thoughtful passion for this subject comes through in what may be one of the most affecting essays on the subject. Thanks so much much, Radha.
“Originality [in the American sense] depends on the creation of repeated effects. Meanwhile, much that is profoundly original but unlikely . . . to sponsor broad imitation . . . gets overlooked or called that lesser thing, ‘unique’—valuable, undoubtedly, but a dead end” in terms of the American conviction that what is called “original” must be, paradoxically, “capable of replication.” (Louise Glück, “American Originality”)