Friday, October 14, 2005

Can a Computer Write Poetry?

In my weekly weblog crawl, I came across a mention of a Cybernetic Poet--software developed by Ray Kurzweil.

I decided to download the free trial of this and see what it would do.

So I began to type a sentence in the text editor, asking the program to complete the poem in the style of Kathleen Wheeler. This is what it compiled:

Let go of the memory of the river
Of myself, because we can never see the price?

warm glow from a furious flutter of sky
as approaching death.
So close, you know you.
And lead me up the icy silence, stand and faith
Went slowly toward the sun. I envy them until
they only look away, embarrassed to live.
A chill wintry wind tears sting in and pine.

There are some interesting word juxtapositions, but is it poetry?

If poetry is just words nestled with one another, cheek by jowl, then sure, this is poetry. But I believe poetry is far, far more than this.

The poet conciously explores sensory images to evoke emotion. The computer picks patterns of words that are congruent with the pattern of word choices of human poets. Sure, some of the lines can be forced into relevance and meaning, but that has more to do with the human mind's ability to find patterns and make meaning than with the computer program's skill at "writing."

Mr. Kurzweill promotes his program as a tool for the poet. On his website, he states:
The Poet’s Assistant provides a simple word processor ("poem processor") in which you write your poem or song lyrics. Besides providing standard text editing features, the Poet’s Assistant monitors your "poem-in-progress," and provides a wide range of helpful suggestions as you type. These suggestions are based on the poetry of other poets.

Reading a sample of the poems that his program has compiled, I am struck by how disconnected the images are.

Here is one posted on the site:

A poem written by Ray Kurzweil's Cybernetic Poet
after reading poems by Patricia Camarena Rose and Sue Klapes Kelly

Beams of the dawn at the angel
with a calm, silent sea
with a hundred times we write,
with a chance we can open up
a steady rhythm in his face
silent room
desolate beach,
Scattering remains of love.

If this were posted for critique, I would try to give the poet feedback about writing poems using 'angel', 'beams of dawn', and 'remains of love' for starters. These are terribly cliched phrases. Despite concrete images, the poem still feels abstract, as if it uses 'shorthand' for emotional expression, instead of letting the emotion build with specific and rich images. This is a poem I might expect from a begining poet or a young student trying to say something profound about love and loss.

So perhaps this is a larger achievement than I give it credit for. Mr. Kurzweil has written a computer program to generate adolescent angst poetry. Now if only it could give a cogent critique.

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