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Byting Rhymes : A Sensitive Soul Decries the Idea of Poetry 'Penned' by a Computer

August 21, 1988|JACK SMITH

IN ANSWER TO MY recently expressed doubt that computers will ever create great poetry, I received a program called "Poetry Generator" from its creator, R. K. (Rosemary) West of Mission Hills.

West's instructions said that the program must be used with a hard disk and that it must first be "uncrunched."

One, I do not have a hard disk; two, I was utterly intimidated by the prospect of "uncrunching." I phoned one of my sons, who has a hard disk and considerable computer expertise. I took the floppy disk to his house; he uncrunched it and got the program going. If you don't know the difference between a hard disk and a floppy disk and what crunching is, forget it. It doesn't matter.

I was disappointed to find that I had no part in the computer's creation of poetry. I simply told it to go ahead and create, and it did. The poetry, according to the prefatory notes, is composed by the computer at random from 20,000 words and phrases supplied by West. So, inevitably, I suppose, it reflects her creative sensibilities.

As she said in her letter, "All of us (fellow computer poets) find that a large percentage of nonsense verse is unavoidable." (If you want to try "Poetry Generator," inquire of West at P.O. Box 8044, Mission Hills 91346.)

Ready? Here's the first poem:

"As you keep spilling things on yourself/We discuss the possibility of revolution/No one is affected by/Celestial music/And someone asks that/I've learned to love myself."

OK. Poetry being relatively free of rules, that's a poem. It makes as much sense as much modern poetry I read.

Here's another:

"The disco dancers who never eat pork/Still expect to be paid/They don't care about your opinion/And without hesitation/You think about giving up/And the real story is/That your secret has been sold."

All right. That has a sort of meaning. But of course, like all poetry, it means something different to each person.

Try this one:

"You'd like to trust/The people who openly mock each other/They have no religious convictions/Even though you beg them not to/They've worn down your resistance/So there are rumors/That this door is closed forever."

Here's a haiku that's as good as many haikus I've read:

"Next to a temple/Ten priests walk in single file/As a lone dove cries."

Here's another poem to ponder:

"The sailors who like danger/Have forgotten childhood/Unless you wake up/They giggle among themselves/They have heard about you/And it was all worth the pain."

All right, how would you compare all those with this one?

"This quiet dust was Gentlemen and Ladies/And Lads and Girls/Was laughter and ability and sighing/And frocks and curls/This passive place a Summer's nimble mansion/ Where Bloom and Bees/Fulfilled their Oriental Circuit/Then ceased like these."

That's by Emily Dickinson. Do you sense why she was a poet and the computer is not? Consider this:

"I never saw a Purple Cow,/I never hope to see one;/But I can tell you, anyhow,/I'd rather see than be one."

Like the computer poetry West speaks of, that verse by Gelett Burgess is nonsense; yet it is all of a piece; it makes sense as a whole; it obviously was not composed at random.

One final example:

"I am lonely in the limpid night/Lonely as a feathered arrow/Silent in its starlit flight/On its path so narrow/Flying from your golden arms/Your kisses and embraces/Keeping of your poison charms/Only fatal traces."

That isn't exactly nonsense. It isn't exactly poetry, either. Maybe that's because I wrote it myself.

What this proves, it seems to me, is that poets are sports. They are random products of evolution, like heavyweight champions and child prodigies. They can't be made in a laboratory.

On the other hand, that haiku wasn't bad. But it didn't sound random. Also, I wonder about this one:

"St. Francis/Has a subscription to Playboy/You know arguing is pointless/And you have forever to think about this/The air on this summer night sears your throat."

Do you think a computer could have thought of St. Francis' having a Playboy subscription merely at random?

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