What does it mean if robots can write poetry? As artificial intelligence grows, don’t we always turn to the arts as the last refuge and proof of humanity? Do bots like poem.exe prove that there’s nothing technology can’t do?? Is all poetry a scam???
Probably not; the bot is created by a human, after all, and so are its source materials: according to the poem.exe website, the basis for the poems is a corpus comprised largely of English translations of haiku, supplemented by other short poetry and some word substitutions. The project is less proof of a robot uprising than a continuation of the long-standing poetic tradition of found poetry, which dates back as far as 4th century centos comprised of re-assembled Virgil. But projects like this are exciting in that they continue to raise questions about what poetry can be, and how new tools can create new ways to play with language.
poem.exe has long been one of my favourite twitter bots because its products are consistently charming: while not every tweet is a winner, the bot consistently produces captivating imagery, and in some ways the incongruity of the random selection only heightens the effect: poetry is about making things new, about seeing the world in fresh and vivid ways, and a bot’s lack of self-doubt leaves it free to make bold (though sometimes absurd) juxtapositions. Like a human poet, the bot “reads” a selection of poetry and then assembles its own work, in this case based on constraints for the number of lines and appropriateness to the current season; unlike a human poet, the bot is relatively unfettered by more abstract concerns with what might be considered “good” or “bad.”
Drawing from haiku is perhaps a particularly strong choice in terms of creating enjoyable poetry without human intervention; my impressions from what I’ve learned about Eastern poetic traditions, especially haiku and Taoist poetry, is that these poetics aren’t necessarily meant to be about individual human experiences — the poet is a vehicle for conveying wisdom and emotion that already exists, through simple and vivid descriptions of nature. If these observational forms of poetry are about reducing the speaker’s presence to create a truer vision of the world, maybe this further step away through the use of technology can allow an even purer view, or at least create another layer of meaning.
Ultimately, poem.exe might just be a fun project and a soothing presence in the twitter-sphere. But any way that technology can be used to play with the boundaries of art — to connect old and new in unexpected ways — strikes me as a hint as to how we can continue to move forward: to create poetry that engages with the digital world not just superficially, but structurally; to create art that keeps up with the internet’s frenetic pace, yet remains an oasis among it.