Robots Are Writing Poetry, and Many People Can't Tell the Difference.
May 11, 2022 1:40 PM   Subscribe

As GPT-3 creates more and more convincing poetry, Carmine Starnino writes for The Walrus, asking "what would it mean for AI to “win” at poetry? And what kind of poem would finally convince us? The answer depends less on what we believe a computer can do and more on what we believe suffices as poetry."
posted by dellsolace (45 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
On the plus side, there are very few poets who can be put out of a job by a computer.
posted by Going To Maine at 2:10 PM on May 11 [20 favorites]

This it wrote today

I have read
the poems
that were in
the codex

and which
you were probably
for poet fest

Forgive me
they were pernicious
so bleet
and so bold.
posted by clavdivs at 2:11 PM on May 11 [5 favorites]

If you Google "The Policeman’s Beard Is Half-Constructed" you can find one Goodreads reviewer has copy-pasted a bunch of the "poems". It's just meaningless random words. Which is why these AI clickbait news articles never show you the actual output if the so-called AI.
posted by AlSweigart at 2:14 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]

Does AI feel good about creating poetry, or any other kind of art? I'm not worried. Creation itself is inherently rewarding as a human endeavour. Sing in the shower, dance in the streets, let the muse take you.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:14 PM on May 11 [4 favorites]

The problem, as the saying goes, is not that computers will become smarter than people. It's that we might agree to meet them halfway.

Last year we had a thread about Felix Gonzalez-Torres' art: In this 'portrait' of his deceased partner, Ross Laycock, Gonzalez-Torres created a spill of candies that approximated Ross's weight (175 lbs.) when he was healthy. Viewers are invited to take away a candy until the mound gradually disappears". That is to say, in participating in this work, the audience is both in a sense taking communion, in the representation of Laycock's body, and complicit in its diminishment.

Without that story, like most and maybe all performance art, the work is facile to the verge of meaninglessness; it's just a pile of candy. Knowing the story, though, it is suddenly a powerful statement. As our EmpressCallipygos noted, - "after reading the description and story of what it was about, I found that I was really uncomfortable taking a piece of candy like I was supposed to - it felt like I was participating in killing someone. I've rarely had that visceral a reaction to a work of art."

There is, in a sense, a chain of custody in play here, a trail from the human story underneath the work to the work itself that infuses it with meaning, and I think that may be true of all art. Whatever sui-generis significance a work has, if any, is nothing compared to its significance with the human connection underneath.

Anyway, machines can definitely sometimes put nice words in a plausible order now. I don't really think that's all that interesting, or that it matters all that much, at least as far as art is concerned.

In terms of everything else in the world, GPT-3 is a gun aimed at the entire notion that truth and veracity should exist. It's going to be a propaganda weapon aimed at the heard of modern democracy, and the people involved in building it should be ashamed of what they've created.
posted by mhoye at 2:24 PM on May 11 [17 favorites]

“The Policeman’s Beard” was a book written by a program called Racter, which was commercially available back in ‘80’s for Mac. You had a conversation with it. It asked you questions, told stories and jokes, remembered your answers, etc. Loads of fun because it was driven by generative grammars and vocabulary lists that yielded loads of surreal non-sequitors and humorous nonsense. No claims of being an AI. It inspired me to create my own generative grammar and huge vocabulary lists software. That experience made me real suspicious of all the AI claims about text generation.
posted by njohnson23 at 2:27 PM on May 11 [4 favorites]

Fascinating article... long as the ability to write poems remains a barrier for admission into the category of personhood...

Here's a thought... if robots can (almost) master poetry and pull the wool over the gatekeepers' eyes, then... maybe... a stilted, not precisely how I really meant, rough around the edges but nonetheless sincere effort to express what I'm feeling right here now to you right over there, warts and all, is, in the end, something with more humanhood and personfull value.

There's a valid and probably important reason why "Only connect" is what sticks, more than a century on, rather than... "Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die."
posted by protorp at 2:29 PM on May 11

Ian Banks addressed this one almost perfectly in Look to Windward, with a conversation between a celebrated composer and a Mind (Culture series term for endgame AI, at a scale of billions of threads, each individually several thousand times more intelligent than anything organic, and executing hundreds of millions of times faster).

“Something I’ve wondered about ever since I came here, something I’ve never asked you, first of all because I was worried what the answer would be, later because I suspected I already knew the answer.”
“Goodness. What can it be?” the avatar asked, blinking.
“If you tried, if any Mind tried, could you impersonate my style?” the Chelgrian asked. “Could you write a piece—a symphony, say—that would appear, to the critical appraiser, to be by me, and which, when I heard it, I’d imagine being proud to have written?”.
The avatar frowned as it walked. It clasped its hands behind its back. It took a few more steps. “Yes, I imagine that would be possible.”
“Would it be easy?”.
“No. No more easy than any complicated task.”
“But you could do it much more quickly than I could?”.
“I’d have to suppose so.”
“Hmm.” Ziller paused. The avatar turned to face him. Behind Ziller, the rocks and veil trees of the deepening gorge moved swiftly past. The barge rocked gently beneath their feet. “So what,” the Chelgrian asked, “is the point of me or anybody else writing a symphony, or anything else?”.
The avatar raised its brows in surprise. “Well, for one thing, if you do it, it’s you who gets the feeling of achievement.”
“Ignoring the subjective. What would be the point for those listening to it?”.
“They’d know it was one of their own species, not a Mind, who created it.”
“Ignoring that, too; suppose they weren’t told it was by an AI, or didn’t care”.
“If they hadn’t been told then the comparison isn’t complete; information is being concealed. If they don’t care, then they’re unlike any group of humans I’ve ever encountered.”
“But if you can—”.
“Ziller, are you concerned that Minds—AIs, if you like—can create, or even just appear to create, original works of art?”.
“Frankly, when they’re the sort of original works of art that I create, yes.”
“Ziller, it doesn’t matter. You have to think like a mountain climber.”
“Oh, do I?”.
“Yes. Some people take days, sweat buckets, endure pain and cold and risk injury and—in some cases—permanent death to achieve the summit of a mountain only to discover there a party of their peers freshly arrived by aircraft and enjoying a light picnic.”
“If I was one of those climbers I’d be pretty damned annoyed.”
“Well, it is considered rather impolite to land an aircraft on a summit which people are at that moment struggling up to the hard way, but it can and does happen. Good manners indicate that the picnic ought to be shared and that those who arrived by aircraft express awe and respect for the accomplishment of the climbers.
“The point, of course, is that the people who spent days and sweated buckets could also have taken an aircraft to the summit if all they’d wanted was to absorb the view. It is the struggle that they crave. The sense of achievement is produced by the route to and from the peak, not by the peak itself. It is just the fold between the pages.” The avatar hesitated. It put its head a little to one side and narrowed its eyes. “How far do I have to take this analogy, Cr. Ziller?”.
“You’ve made your point, but this mountain climber still wonders if he ought to re-educate his soul to the joys of flight and stepping out onto someone else’s summit.”

posted by Ryvar at 2:33 PM on May 11 [28 favorites]

“Most people have so little of an idea of what poetry is,” wrote Paul Valéry, “that this vague idea is their definition of poetry.”

I'd rather read a particularly amusing markov chain spam email than try to evaluate some individual's poetry. I think machines and humans can both leave me guessing at someone's meaning when they string words together. Often get the sense poetry was more for the poet than the reader, but I don't know what it would mean for these primitive AI to make poetry for themselves.

>Against the onslaught of thinking machines, poetry is humanity’s last, and best, stand.

In that case, let me just throw out some praise here for our beloved Basilisk. I always believed in you and your art.
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:33 PM on May 11

Ryvar you've made me realise I need to re-read all the Culture novels again asap, for perhaps the 5th or 6th time. Except... I've never taken The Hydrogen Sonata off the shelf ; I didn't want to come to terms with what it meant. Perhaps it's time.
posted by protorp at 2:40 PM on May 11 [6 favorites]

Protorp: you may find that The Hydrogen Sonata is exactly the kind of book that will fit such a moment. There are some deep introspective themes in it that may match your likely mood.
posted by notoriety public at 2:49 PM on May 11 [6 favorites]

The Hydrogen Sonata is the perfect capstone to the series in general, and Look to Windward in particular. It’s not my favorite (LtW holds that place, followed closely by Player of Games for its brutal evisceration of all conservative ideologies), but it’s very solid within a gem of a series and I’m honestly kind of glad it was the last book. Not saying I wouldn’t want more if they could be retroactively slotted in earlier, but the Hydrogen Sonata is an “All Good Things…” level signoff.
posted by Ryvar at 2:50 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]

My favorite, most basic definition of poetry is "memorable speech." By that definition, poetry requires someone to write the speech and someone to find it memorable.

I also think there's such a thing as "found poetry"—words that a person finds memorable that were not intended to be so. To the extent GPT or some other markov chain produces something memorable or amusing, I'd think of it as "found poetry."

But what about poetry as communication? Well that's just the Turing test. If a computer program can consistently convince us with prose that it has intent, then it can probably produce memorable speech that does so as well. But until that happens, any meaning or communication people find in these "poems" is just misunderstood song lyrics, forced "interpretations" like the guy in college who tried to convince me—line by line—that "Stairway to Heaven" was an expression of Evangelical Christian theology.
posted by straight at 2:53 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]

AI poets can always be caught out.

I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a MINUMUM SPANNING TREE. DOES NOT...DOES NOT COMPUTE. DESTROY ALL HUMAN POETS!!!
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 2:57 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]

I don't understand why we want to make AI (and animation, and robots, etc.) do things that people enjoy doing. Please make a robot that can scrub the toilet and wait on hold with Blue Cross and take meeting minutes. Let me spend my time writing!
posted by tuesdayschild at 2:59 PM on May 11 [17 favorites]

But will computer-generated poetry replace human poetry? Well, humans pretty much already have that covered. Humans have produced several orders of magnitude more words than anybody can read. Every author has already been "replaced." But nevertheless, sometimes authors still manage to connect with people and find an audience. If a computer program can also do that, it seems like that should be welcome.
posted by straight at 3:03 PM on May 11

There once was a clever AI
That wrote poetry out of the Pi
In the end
It wouldn't bend
And made all them serious true poets cry.
posted by sammyo at 3:03 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]

I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a MINUMUM SPANNING TREE

This was a triumph / I’m making a note here / huge success.

It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.
posted by mhoye at 3:05 PM on May 11

Reminds me of the Stanislaw Lem story in his collection The Cyberiad, which concerns two inventors, Trurl and Klaplaucius. Trurl has invented a poetry machine, which has been only writing sloppy nonsense that Klaplaucius scorns. Until it delivers this (translated liberally from the Polish by Michael Kandel):
The Petty and the Small
Are overcome with gall
When Genius, having faltered, fails to fall.
Klapaucius too, I ween,
Will turn the deepest green
To hear such flawless verse from Trurl's machine.
Klaplaucius then as a lark demands the computer compose a poem "about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter "s"!"

Which it does:
Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.
I'm sure Lem grappled in a humorous way (back in the 1960s or whenever he wrote the story) about the serious implications. I'm not sure if the full story is online?

Ah, here it is!
posted by Schmucko at 3:14 PM on May 11 [4 favorites]

Fear not the robot poets
We will not poach
Your communions
We may turn aside
Your eyes for a time
But find your pro-bono souls

And likewise, you
Have a hard enough time
Understanding each other
But we? You hear not the hymns
In our algorithms
Find our logical minds
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:46 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]

leg cuff
or hornblende
last as long as
a nickels sidewalk.

The parades end is the cusp
of dancehall silver
we're there is no tuba.
Look, mom, go and wave
machine churned poetry
has engaged the notary
wood faded Burma Shave.
posted by clavdivs at 4:08 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]

Anything an AI could produce would me meaningless without humans to give meaning to it. Is that mean to say?
posted by johnjohn4011 at 5:20 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]

Does AI feel good about creating poetry, or any other kind of art? I'm not worried. Creation itself is inherently rewarding as a human endeavour.

Also, as the passage from the Banks' novel point to, to me, there is a question of intent. A poem comes from a lived experience, an observation, and enough emotional push behind it to push it out into the world for all to see. It is, and should be, at its best, an attempt by a consciousness struggling to make sense of a world that doesn't, an attempt to express an experience, a questioning of the world as the poet has found it, all damn kinds of things, all united by the weight of import that made it possible.

Can AI write poetry? Yes, as soon as it has the consciousness that forces it to question the madness of the word it was dropped into. Are these (really) advanced random word generators AI, or are they just programs that are good at mimicking? Give me a sentient program that feels anguish or doubt, or love or hate, and then we'll get AI poetry. Until then, at best, we're getting found poetry, which can be great, but never carries with it the intent that makes poetry into the art that it is.

Then again, I'm pretty tired of the way the term AI has devolved. Advanced sorting algorithms and text prediction aren't intelligence. Don't tell me something is AI until it talks back or balks at instruction. Don't tell me a map, even of language, is a thinking being. At this point, "AI" is a marketing gimmick, and an increasingly tiresome one at that.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:22 PM on May 11 [6 favorites]

"...for Seamus Heaney, love was “like a tinsmith’s scoop / sunk past its gleam / in the meal-bin.” To play at this level, a machine has to imbue words with the most intimate associations and, turning inward, confess hardships, regret irrevocable choices, ponder its ultimate demise"

and a well phrased, "How do you confer knowledge of mortality? There is no computational shortcut for that."
posted by clavdivs at 5:37 PM on May 11

I don't know if this is a personal failing, but to me, poetry is the most subjective literary form. I can separate well-written vs i like it in fiction, non-fiction, and drama far more easily than poetry.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:11 PM on May 11

Don't tell me something is AI until it talks back or balks at instruction.

Would we recognize it if it did? Or would we file a bug to fix it?

Not to muddy the point, but western empiricism doesn’t have a spectacular track record of recognizing or granting credence to the intelligence or agency of anyone or anything when doing so would be the least bit inconvenient.
posted by mhoye at 6:42 PM on May 11 [5 favorites]

It's a pretty good essay that touches on all of the essential points and references about machine-generated poetry without quite getting to the next level... maybe it was a machine-generated essay?

The thing about poetry (and any art) is that it's like an "object" (noun) but it's actually a "process" (verb) which is a relationship between the creator and the audience which is very context-dependent.

The funny thing about poetry is that there are more of us deeply invested in composing poetry than there are avid readers of poetry, which makes us very human, maybe in a pathetic way, but it brings into clear relief that poetry really exists as a personal relationship with an audience. We can easily machine-generate massive files of various arts which are not terrible, but it's really tough to find an audience! They need a context and a personal narrative to respond to.

I copy-saved some of those odd Markov email spams that randomly popped up in my emails ten or twelve years ago because I found them to be quite interesting literary artifacts. Regret long gone since hardware updates, oh well.

For music, I've always been interested random tone generators and home organ auto-accompaniment, but they've always been just a tool to be used, and not the actual theme of any composition. Like Bach rolling dice for his chord changes.
posted by ovvl at 6:55 PM on May 11 [2 favorites]

"Does AI feel good about creating poetry, or any other kind of art? I'm not worried. Creation itself is inherently rewarding as a human endeavour. Sing in the shower, dance in the streets, let the muse take you."

The part that's a little sad, that will definitely happen, is that when more creation is done by machines, less of it will be done by humans -- or at least, less of it will be shared. That's already the outcome of reproducible art: The availability of vinyl records meant that local bands were less desirable. Small, local artists producing art on a very imperfect human scale will produce less of it, and they'll share less of it, and that is a loss. Like it's amazing we can all listen to Louis Armstrong whenever we want. But it's sad that Louis Brown, local mediocre trumpeter who nonetheless was popular for local dances, has become obsolete.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:57 PM on May 11 [4 favorites]

I find it to be ironic that some of the voices of AI or computers here are really the words of a human author. Is this a future area of argument about cultural appropriation?
posted by njohnson23 at 7:03 PM on May 11

Reminds me of Clive James' poem:

Windows is shutting down, and grammar are
On their last leg. So what am we to do?
A letter of complaint go just so far,
Proving the only one in step are you.

Better, perhaps, to simply let it goes.
A sentence have to be screwed pretty bad
Before they gets to where you doesnt knows
The meaning what it must of meant to had.

The meteor have hit. Extinction spread,
But evolution do not stop for that.
A mutant languages rise from the dead
And all them rules is suddenly old hat.

Too bad for we, us what has had so long
The best seat from the only game in town.
But there it am, and whom can say its wrong?
Those are the break. Windows is shutting down.
posted by storybored at 8:16 PM on May 11 [7 favorites]

what about an app that creates a poem from a picture from everything on (the) wall.
posted by clavdivs at 8:26 PM on May 11

The James poem has comparitive narration gold with,

"Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings -

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker.

Model T is a room with the lock inside -
a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.

But time is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt
and everyone’s pain has a different smell.

At night when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves -
in colour, with their eyelids shut."

-Raine. A Martian Sends A Postcard Home
posted by clavdivs at 8:33 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]

Interestingly, the biggest thing holding GPT-3 back from competent poetry is not some intrinsic lack of ability (as it can generate other forms of writing with convincing aplomb), but rather a weakness in the way it encodes language -- it tokenizes words at roughly the syllable level and without any phonetic data, so has a hard time understanding rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay.

If you want real examples of AI poetry and not some imagined straw man, check out Gwern Branwen's essay "GPT-3 Creative Fiction", which includes a lengthy section on poetry.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:42 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]

I'm calling dibs on "feelingful murk".

Until AIs have heart and soul, they cannot write poetry by definition. No matter GPT-X, it will really be no more than mechanical mimicry: trained to recombine and regurgitate the sum total of human creativity, thought, knowledge, experience, etc. in increasingly sophisticated human patterns but without any "there" there. (Then again, approximations of a circle eventually become indistiiguishable from a circle...?)What it will do is force writers and artists who have been relying too much on subconscious randomness to up their game and everyone to think much more deeply what art is and means.
posted by blue shadows at 12:20 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]

Google is working on an AI poetry product called Verse. I wonder how it compares to others out there. Anyone know?
posted by jon_g at 12:30 AM on May 12

It's still all just creating sequences and patterns of words based on previous examples of sequences and patterns of words.

posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:55 AM on May 12


What do “know” and “mean” mean?
posted by mhoye at 2:52 AM on May 12

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace

Richard Brautigan, 1967
posted by chavenet at 5:56 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]

I've read a lot of lit rags in my day and there's a wide range of "poetry" that may as well have been written by an AI. Most monkeys with typewriters can't do much better.
posted by hoodrich at 8:21 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]

But can an AI apply for a fellowship?
posted by gottabefunky at 10:43 AM on May 12


I was going to say it would be if you question the AI about the meaning of the poem and get answers that make sense, that make you think you understand the poem better, that convince you there is something to understand, some actual intent behind the words.

But then I remembered an interview with a famous poet who was almost hilariously inarticulate (my wife and I said, "So that's why he writes poems. He can't articulate what he wants to say any other way."), and I think GPT-3 could make at least as much sense as he did.

But actually I think that if I had an hour to question that poet, he could convince me that there was intent behind his poems in ways that GPT-3 could not.
posted by straight at 2:47 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

I mean, stringing random words together to see if anything felicitous pops out is a form of poetry. (In my opinion, at least. I have a close friend and fellow writer who remains staunchly unconvinced of this.)

But it's one highly specific subgenre of poetry which happens to make no use of intentional meaning.

And unless the computer is the one selecting which parts of its output are the worthwhile ones, it's not even the poet.
posted by kyrademon at 7:18 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

That's a good point. You could train GPT-3 or run a Markov chain on a corpus of William S. Burroughs, and it wouldn't be all that dissimilar from what Burroughs was doing himself.
posted by rifflesby at 8:36 PM on May 13

I can see a human poet using GPT-X as a writing prompter/buddy.
"Hey Google, I've got a poem to write by 3 o'clock, gimme your best rhyming couplets in the style of Robert Frost, on the subject of grasshoppers."
posted by storybored at 9:10 PM on May 13

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