What Can Poets Do About Robots?

Poetry, Rambles


Robots have been writing poems for quite some time; indeed, robots have been writing fairly good poems since at least 1984. Conceptual poets and uncreative writers are either terrified or elated by the capacity of robots to outdo their most extensive combinatorial, processual and appropriative work; small advances are being made on automating formal metrical and rhyming schemes; and at least one robot is sufficiently good at the contemporary undergraduate Anglo-American lyric to pass unnoticed in its publications. However, thus far, the best robots are generally worse at impersonating human poets than the best (or worst) human poets are at impersonating robots, and so committed humanists might still be sceptical of robots’ capacity to truly write poetry.

One robot, however, has solved at least one poetic form: poem.exe is the greatest writer of haiku I have yet read. Combining the best of traditional insight and contemporary reference, poem.exe’s work consistently delivers the intuitively accurate observation and wisdom through juxtaposition central to the haiku form. The general problem of how to write haiku has been solved to perfection: all that remains to human poets is learning how to write specific haiku for specific moments, learning the discipline of haiku purely as a craft and a means of world- and self-understanding – innovation, newness and progress need no longer be a drive.

What does this success mean for human poets? Beyond combinatorial, processual and appropriative poetics (which were always imitations of roboticism in the first place), the haiku is the first poetic form to be solved; what this success means, however, is that more forms will soon fall before the robots. The general problems of the limerick, the  nonet, the ottava rima – these are only a matter of time. How can human poets defend their labour, and how can they find their reasons for writing? The answers will change as the robots march on:

1. Eke Out The Forms

It is not easy to solve a poetic form. This means that poets have a grace period, perhaps lasting a century or two, in which they are better at writing some poetic forms than robots. We should make the most of this while we can. Some truly lovely villanelles, homophonic translations, erasures and puSlogh vaghs are waiting be written before the robots master them, and indeed human mastery of these forms may be necessary in order to gain the skills required to write the robots that will master them. (The renegade reactionary poet will thus notice a further available strategy: to refuse to master forms, in order to slow the robots’ own mastery. In the end, this strategy leads only to refusing to write poetry at all, which, though it may be the preferred outcome for many, is likely not the intention of the renegade reactionary poet.) Running before the tidal wave has its pleasures, and the inevitability of defeat is grimly charming, but poets may desire more, and so must:

2. Invent New Forms

It has long been the pleasure of poets to invent new forms. In the age of robot poets, this task acquires new urgency. As the robots lag behind mastering the forms of yesteryear – the sonnet, the sestina – poets can proliferate new forms, inventing them, creating deeper understandings of the world through them, even exhausting them until they are rendered cliché, perhaps, before the robots catch up. But the robots will catch up. For a time, as artificial intelligence develops, new forms will proliferate faster than robots can solve them, but eventually the speed of the robot mind will be such that not only will forms be solved faster than they can be invented by humans, but also robots will learn how to author new forms themselves, rendering this area of human activity, like the authoring of poems, redundant. The only response can be to:

3. Write the Robots

Learning how to write robots is a task I have begun myself, and it is hugely satisfying. I can testify that the writing of robots is a poetic task: it requires learning how to manipulate a set of linguistic elements within a set of constraints to produce desired effects when performed for an audience. By writing robots, poets acquire, for a time, the satisfaction of being better than robots. Instead of running ahead of the robots, or fighting against the robots, we become the people furthering the cause of artificial poetic intelligence; instead of mastering the forms of poetry, we master the masters of form. Moreover, as with many current cases, the task of selection and curation will fall to humans: robots will write beautiful concrete poems before they will be able to tell that they have done so, and will require guidance to distinguish between poor, fair and perfect concrete poems before that form too is solved. This pleasure may, in its turn, last a good century or two. But, in the end, inevitably, someone will write a robot that is better than humans at writing new poetry robots, and this activity, too, will be taken away from us. Humans will thus:

4. Become Only Political

The problem of poetic form will be solved before the problem of life. Robots will master ghazals and sound poems before they can make all society loving, equal, joyous and just. That will remain the task of humans even when all the best poems are written by robots, and we must rise to it. We must perceive the inequities of the world, and write the poems that intervene in just the right way at just the right moment to make some small step towards something better. Poems that speak a truth, poems that crack a joke, poems that set off a bomb, poems that nurture a tired struggle, poems that rouse and rabble. Our poems may be awkward, they may be stumbling, they may be unsure, and they will certainly be less graceful and perfect than the poems the robots are writing, but they can advance the cause of the good in a way the robot poems cannot, because, for a time at least, the robots will not be able to perceive and construct the good. For a time. The skills require to write, select and curate perfect poems – and the resources to build the robots to acquire them – will surely lead to something better, won’t they? Once robots have bested us at poetry, I hope they will turn their attention to society, because we have done a fairly poor job of it so far. At that point, the character of the robot mind will be indistinguishable from that of a human mind, except faster, unless it engages a voluntary slow-down; indeed, humans may incorporate robot minds into their own flesh bodies, if only to write better poetry. Let the poetry robots manage our society for us, let them bring about post-scarcity, equality, community and care, because then we can:

5. Become Only Personal

With the task of a fairer society complete, and with the distinction between robot and human minds porous and enlivening, consciousness can turn itself fully towards self-care, self-expression and self-fulfilment. Freed from the imperative to always make poetry better and new, we can make poetry for ourselves again; freed from hierarchies of fame, success and labour, art for art’s sake might finally be possible; freed from scarcity, “everyone is already an artist” might finally be meaningful. All of this is to say: teenagers will write darkly gothic poetry without shame, will pour their feelings into dodgy rhymes because they need to, will discover ways to discover new things about themselves without mediating that process through editorial selection. It will no longer matter that there are hundred thousand poems about the quiet revelations of mediocre suburban lives, because there will be no need for anything else, and even the suburbs will be beautiful. The task of the poem will be only to care for the poet; the poem will be written because it needs to be written; the accuracy, immediacy and delight of self-expression will be celebrated in small, nurturing circles of poets and friends. This is more or less indistinguishable from poetry before robots began, but the world will be better, and so the poetry will in fact be completely different.

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