A laptop with html code and the word Poetry on the screen.

Does Poetry Require Humans?

computers, Poetry, Technology

By Christy Tidwell

To end National Poetry Month and my exploration of the relationships between poetry and science, I want to turn to the process of writing poetry rather than poetry that addresses scientific ideas. More specifically, who – or what – writes poetry? Can an algorithm write poetry? Poetry is usually considered a particularly human thing. It’s an art form that requires linguistic ability, and it is associated with subjective experience, emotion, and interiority. Algorithms have access to language, but they lack individual identity, experiences, and emotions. Algorithms can be programmed to write poetry, so the question is really: does that count as poetry?

Bot or Not (sadly now defunct) takes up this topic by exploring whether we can actually tell the difference between poetry written by a human and poetry written by a bot. Check out some samples and see how you do. Here’s one example to consider:

Red flags the reason for pretty flags.
And ribbons.
Ribbons of flags
And wearing material
Reason for wearing material.
Give pleasure.
Can you give me the regions.
The regions and the land.
The regions and wheels.
All wheels are perfect.

Does this seem like the work of a human poet? If you’re looking for expressions of emotion and interiority – as I primed you to do in the introduction – you might suspect this is the work of the bot. It’s not, though. It was written by Gertrude Stein, who was famous for challenging expectations of language use anyway. Kind of a tricky one. Ultimately, though, Oscar Schwartz, one of the creators of Bot or Not, said that 65% of their human readers failed the test for some of the poems in their database, indicating that it’s not just about Gertrude Stein being Gertrude Stein. There’s some real confusion about what’s human about poetry – and about humans themselves.

“My poetry generator passed the Turing test” by Zack Scholl provides another example of poetry confusing human readers and their expectations. Scholl wrote a poetry generator and submitted a poem it created to a literary journal. He actually submitted several poems, and one was accepted (human poets are also frequently rejected before getting work accepted), which seems to indicate that an algorithm can write convincingly human poetry. Try creating your own poem here and see whether it feels like a “real” poem. This is one of the ones I got through the generator (chosen for this post because it was a short one):

Title: The Production Called The Eyelids. Text: Branch of a wiped hollow saxophone. / From her shoulder and her brain dawn / roots of the earth.

This has the shape of a poem but is somewhat difficult to make sense of. It seems a bit random rather than guided by human thoughts. But it still features some interesting juxtapositions and images and, honestly, I’ve read human poetry that makes about this much sense.

What is it, then, that makes poetry human? Is there something that makes poetry human? If an algorithm can produce art, without having a subjectivity behind it to create meaning, what is it in the poem that makes it art? This might seem a trivial question. If it feels like art and we enjoy it or get meaning from it, why not call it art?

A larger and more significant question follows, though: If poetry – or art more generally – is not something created by humans alone, then what makes us human? What makes us unique? A great deal of energy has been expended over a great deal of time to try to prove that humans are special. Nonetheless, we continue to discover how similar we are to other living creatures. Nonhuman animals and human animals are never as distant as some humans would like to think. If we also share abilities – say, the ability to write poetry – with algorithms, AI, robots, computers, and other nonliving technologies, what makes us special?

Perhaps nothing does. Perhaps this is the wrong question. Instead of asking what makes us special, I might suggest asking, How can we connect with others? Even: how can poetry be one tool to help us do so?

Returning to the question of the title (does poetry require humans?), I would say no. But also yes – or at least a strong maybe. Poetry does not require humans to write it, as we’ve seen. But it might require humans to appreciate it (for now).

For more on science & poetry for National Poetry Month, check out these previous posts:

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