Can robots write poetry??: poem.exe

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.

What I’m listening to: Parallel Person by VARSITY

listen here: varsity.bandcamp.com/album/parallel-person

Listening to VARSITY on repeat has become a summer tradition for me. I first discovered the band in summer 2016, and spent long bus rides to work shuffling through Cult of Personality/So Sad, So Sad and the self-titled album; last summer I dug into the older, more rock-y EPs and learned all the words to Still Apart while trying to hold onto long-distance relationships and friendships. So I was eagerly awaiting Parallel Person, and it’s begun to worm its way into my seasonal consciousness just as its predecessors did.

On first listen, the album is both what you would expect from the progression of VARSITY’s previous work, and maybe also a bit lacklustre, with a mellower and cleaner sound, and a slower pace that lacks some of the earlier albums’ more punk-y edge. But after a few more listens, especially with a decent-quality stereo, the subtleties become increasingly intoxicating. And while a sunshiney sound is one thing that keeps me coming back to VARSITY each summer, the true hook is the quirky and honest portrayals of interpersonal relationships, specific in story but universal in the underlying emotions; this album takes the space to dive into this aspect, with a number of characters being introduced.

“Settle Down” didn’t excite me all that much as a single; while the video, with its ever-growing procession of kooky characters, is endearing and fun, art about making art runs the risk of being too self-reflexive, and maybe a bit lacking in emotional intensity. But “Must Be Nice” adds a more driving energy, with rock refrains more reminiscent of the band’s earlier work. This song, along with ones like “Isolation” and “Lied for You” emerge as the higher-energy and catchier pieces of the album. But what becomes increasingly intriguing in even the mellower tracks is the push and pull; there’s a delicacy to the lighter pieces, with sunny pop sounds moving in and out of minor-key dissonance and lyrics that trace the complicated territory of changing relationships.

The most new and exciting aspects of the album appear in some of the later songs, where experiments with instrumental aspects emerge; “Discipline” has a haunting quality, fading out almost completely before returning to a final refrain. The final track, “Alone in My Principles,” runs a confident eight and a half minutes, and feels like a conclusion to both the lyrical and musical themes of the album — speaking of both loneliness and growth, and building through echoey repetitions that let you really sink into the synthy sounds. This track is a personal favourite of mine — I have a predictable weakness for “songs about leaving,” and this is certainly one; what starts as driving away weaves itself into a more complex exploration of the process of trying to re-create yourself, with the hollow backdrop of loneliness and impermanence. But ultimately the refrain is “I will go on;” ultimately the track is both haunting and strangely uplifting.

Parallel Person has the finesse that comes from being a more mature album, with layers well worth digging into. As always, VARSITY captures the complicated realities that come with growing older, but always with a sense of catharsis or lightness; and as my own life gets more uncertain, the message to carry seems to be this optimism — to accept and even celebrate the complications, and keep moving forward.