Back in the 1970s, there was a primitive chat program called Racter. Rudimentary though it was, it had been given a sort of personality (“Excuse me a moment, I have to load some files”). Even then, people wondered if this was the beginning of a kind of robot assault on the beaches of language.
Today, with chatGPT, the question is being asked much more seriously. We see that artificial intelligence can produce a term paper that strings together, rather convincingly, a series of conventional word-clumps gleaned from human writers. A.I. can write prose just as badly as we do. When will it come for the poets?
It doesn’t take much fooling around with the tool to conclude: Not very soon. Asked to write a poem featuring “Jim,” “gull,” and “unemployed,” chatGPT comes back:
Alone by the sea, where waves gently sigh, Stands Jim with dreams 'neath the vast, open sky. Unemployed and adrift in life's endless spree, He finds solace and company in a lone seagull, free.
Well, okay, what if it’s asked to do some lines in the style of Emily Dickinson? Not much different:
In Emily's style, this verse does weave, A tale of woe, yet hope to retrieve. Through unemployment's bitter sting, A resilient heart takes to the wing.
Not even a dash or a mid-sentence capital letter? Really, this is no fun. Okay, let’s try e. e. cummings and specify free verse this time:
so let the gull cry let the unemployed wander through the maze of possibility and find a path to a new horizon.
Many poets—and artists in other fields—have poked the AI dragon and come away unimpressed. And reassured: no competition here! But aren’t they missing the point?
AI, in its present state of development, isn’t going to threaten human poetry. But maybe it could actually help us out a bit.
Further evolved, AI could imitate going modes just well enough to challenge us to write better. It could serve as a sort of sparring partner and silent critic. How hard could it be to teach it to write the ubiquitous, confessional prose-poem? How hard would it be to tell it to scatter words and lines across the page, in what some have called “typewriter gymnastics?” How hard would it be to charge it with the language of versified social protest or uplift?
So I’m kind of rooting for A.I. Maybe it will get subtle enough prod us a little. Maybe it will get good enough at writing bad poetry to make us think harder about what makes poetry good.
Maybe by showing us what poetry isn’t, A.I. will spur us to explore, more seriously than many are currently doing, what poetry is.