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.
Enthusiasm.

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.

Big Problem, Small Form: Climate Change Poetry

Environment, Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

Climate change can seem overwhelming. It’s so big, and responding to it will involve more than individual actions, so it’s easy to feel discouraged or fearful. It’s also tempting to simply deny that it’s happening and hope for the best. In This Changes Everything: Climate Change Vs. Capitalism, Naomi Klein writes about how easy it is for us to “look for a split second” and then look away, joke about it, “tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever,” etc. She writes, “All we have to do is not react as if this is a full-blown crisis. All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes. No additional effort required.” Obviously, this denial does not solve the problem.

Poetry works against this denial in a variety of ways. Some poets simply describe the losses we face. Risa Denenberg’s “Ice Would Suffice” (2017), for instance, emphasizes how “species are lost, / spotted frogs / and tufted puffins forsaken” and observes how we remain “heedless of lacking space / or how long / our makeshift planet will host us.” From its title’s reference to Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” (1920), a poem about how the world might end, to its emphasis on failure and loss, Denenberg’s poem demands that readers face our own human decline and likely extinction.

Understanding as Comfort: “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye”

Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

As I noted in my earlier discussion of Robert Kelly’s “Science,” poetry and science are not as separate as we might often think: they are both creative, and they both challenge us to see the world in new ways. In “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye” (2007), Albert Goldbarth illustrates another similarity between science and poetry by personifying the sciences (specifically physics, geology, astronomy, zoology, psychology, biology, and history) and imagining them as comforting figures.

Geology says: It will be all right.

Albert Goldbarth, “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye”

It is comforting to think, as Physics tells us, that our atoms will “dance / inside themselves themselves without you,” or, as Geology says, that “All of the continents used to be / one body. You aren’t alone.” Meanwhile, Astronomy comforts the reader with a reassurance that “the sun will rise tomorrow” while History hands us “the blankets, layer on / layer, down and down.” In other words, the processes of our bodies and of the world will continue, even without our attention. And science is what provides the evidence of this continuation.

Protesters holding up a homemade sign saying "Science is the poetry of reality."

Poetry & Science: Connections

Poetry

By Christy Tidwell

April is National Poetry Month, and although people may not always think of poetry and science together, a wealth of poetry exists that addresses science, technology, and various STEM topics.

In his 2006 poem “Science” (read full poem here), for instance, Robert Kelly writes that “science is the same as poetry / only it uses the wrong words.” Science and poetry are both ways of looking carefully at the world, expressing those observations, and helping us all understand the world more fully – piece by piece, experience by experience.

Kelly also writes that “Science explains nothing / but holds all together as / many things as it can count.” Poetry, too, does not claim to explain the world so much as show it to us. And poetry frequently works by juxtaposing meanings, holding together ideas and images to give readers an opportunity to find new meanings in their combination.