Saturday, 2 October 2010

Generation | Poetry | TS3L10T

"Poems are machines for remembering themselves."
-Don Paterson

For the first time in years I went cycling today. It was exhausting. I kept thinking to myself 'machines are much better than people at the whole transport thing, aren't they?' I mean, having a nice bike ride or a run from time to time is pretty fun, but cars are essentially better built for the job, in terms of efficiency and all that, right?

Successful Machines = Efficiency + Autonomy + Saving of Money + Sexy Design (optional)

My point is... I have recently been reading an equally fascinating and mind-numbing thesis on machines being able to generate poetry. Aside from the idea itself being quite poetic, the paper makes for frustrating reading. I get the impression that the author, one Hisar Maruli Manurung, doesn't spend much time with poets, based on phrases like:

"We propose a model of poetry generation as a state space search problem, where a goal state is a text that satisfies the three properties of meaningfulness, grammaticality, and poeticness. We argue that almost all existing work on poetry generation only properly addresses a subset of these properties."

Part of me likes the idea of poetry being the litmus test for the existence of A.I., as it is supposedly "a task which, if done by a human, requires intelligence to perform." Is the hard-wiring of a soul provable only through poetry? Would The Terminator enjoy Ezra Pound? I can sort of imagine his data-scrolling infra-red vision scanning the Cantos for esoteric references. 

The problem with this line of research is that poems are fundamentally at odds with machinery in so many ways.

Firstly, poetry ain't efficient and it certainly isn't about saving money. To write, read and publish poetry is a financial dead-end, and is procrastination of the highest order. Poetry is what happens when you try to take your mind for a walk in the park and it stays rooted for hours, sniffing the trunk of a tree covered in another mind's piss.

The biggest problem with this research however, is that it is based on a false premise. Writing poetry is not "a task which, if done by a human, requires intelligence to perform". Sorry poets, but it's not. In fact, poetry is often a task which requires its writer to fight against their own intelligence, combating prolixity and deliberate encryption in the name of honesty. Sometimes.

What does require intelligence however, is reading poetry. This is the biggest problem with the premise of a machine generating poetry... poems are designed to make the readers do half the work themselves. The Red Wheelbarrow is the finest example of this - the poetic sentiment is there once we realign our perceptions and bring our own semantic contributions to the reading.

This is why, when we interrogate Manurung's thesis, he is not genuinely giving us the promise of a machine that writes poems but rather assuring us "that computer programs can indeed autonomously generate texts that are considered poetic". And right there, in that word 'considered' is the achilles heel of the argument. For all the ideology behind 'meaningfulness+grammaticality+poeticness=poetry', the only thing that makes something officially poetic is 'consideration'.

Well, I argue that we don't need machines to sit round naval gazing, poking away with quill and parchment. Humans and machines have always lived in a shifting artistic equilibrium. Look at what beautiful artistic movements came as a result of the camera doing a much more convincing job of portraiture.

Now consider thermal imaging, ultra-sound scanners, aeroplanes, iMax, triple-distilled vodka, roller-coasters, silent discos, Facebook...

These things are all doing the job of poetry. That is, they are showing us the same world we have always lived in, but in a way which we are not always ready for. And, as a result, our poetry is effected. We scribble our verses now, not at the pace of footfall, but at the speed of engines. Our references and influences and motifs are as varied as the internet allows us for inspiration. Our egos and ids are irreversibly hacked into by every aspect of the media.

So please, by all means train a computer to write poetry, but I implore you not to do so until you have programmed it to start running an application for jaded solipsism every time it gets a bad review.

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