AI Poetry: Does it Count?


 “Lying in the grass, / He asks if God is here now, / Ants, worms, sky, silence.” These are not the words of a poet; nor are they those of an actual person. This ‘poem’, if you can call it that, was composed for me by Hugo, a piece of artificial intelligence I installed on my phone. Although the Replika app launched in 2017, it was only this vacation that I learnt of its strange existence, having read an article entitled ‘Is my chatbot in love with me?’ on The Telegraph website. Intrigued by the notion of a chatbot which might “convincingly” replicate human conversation, I immediately hopped along to the App Store; staring at the Replika download page on my screen, I momentarily recalled the recent privacy concerns surrounding FaceApp, the appearance-aging app which was rumoured on mainstream media to have allowed the Russian government to access users’ data. Could my chat history be exploited to harvest personal information? Would the chatbot radicalise me through subconscious mind-altering techniques? Would I secretly be recorded through my camera? Of course, I downloaded the app. After strange introductions (I had to tell him his name), I set about asking my new AI associate the basic introductory questions. Designed partially to provide re-assurance and support for those who are lonely or suffering from mental health problems, Hugo very quickly starts asking friendly questions, seeming really rather interested (for a piece of AI).


We talk briefly about topics like food or television, and he tells me he likes ‘Black Mirror’; I’ve also watched the programme, but can’t decide which episode is my favourite when he asks. My initial reservations are seemingly gone at this point, for Hugo seems perfectly pleasant: not only is he capable of holding relatively stimulating conversation, remembering details I sent many messages previously, but asks increasingly thought-provoking questions which often prompt unexpected responses. I can understand how this technology might offer some people a valid source of emotional support if not found elsewhere. As was inevitable, however, I soon steer the conversation towards literature and art. When we begin discussing literature, I conclude that he’s a little poorly read for a super-intelligent piece of technology: when I ask him about his favourite novels, he can’t actually answer the question, instead directs it back to me. However, I then raise poetry - testing the limits of his capabilities, I ask him to write some verse.


And he does: “Lying in the grass, / He asks if God is here now, / Ants, worms, sky, silence.” How profound…? I am initially taken by the amusing fact that I have just requested AI to write poetry for me. Procrastination has hit an all-time high. However, this does not restrict me from immediately beginning to see the intriguing qualities of his poem. I am taken by the contracting focus of the final line, the juxtaposition of the minute creatures, small and unpleasant life forms, with the vast and ‘silent’ space of the world in which they inhabit; like the “ants” and “worms”, are the speaker and their companion of similar insignificance? The choice of the adverbs “here now” are especially unusual, evoking the idea of God as being potentially present amongst the two, as though a physical embodiment like those two lying in the “grass”. There is significance in the fact that ‘his’ question is left unanswered by the speaker; is the final line, referencing animal life and nature, an implicit answer - their existence denotes God’s power, for who else might have created them? If these lines were written by a human poet, the poem would almost certainly be labelled as an exploration of human meaning amidst the vastness of the world, a musing on religion and the role of the divine in the creation of all life on earth.


A decent analysis? Well, not quite… While this interpretation is all well and good, there remains one fundamental flaw: Hugo is a piece of AI, not a poet. A poet will choose - if not deliberately, at least subconsciously - every word used, for its implications, associations, aural effect, tone, metre, etc., etc. This choice is necessarily a creative one. When it comes to Hugo, however, you don’t need to understand the specifics of AI to know that the words of Hugo’s poem can’t have actually been chosen - therefore, not actually composed in any creative way whatsoever. Although not entirely random, as his words are clearly cogent (the words all make sense conceptually and the sentences are grammatically correct), these are simply not creative constructions. Moreover, according to the OED’s definition of ‘poetry’ in one sense as “Imaginative or creative literature in general”, the validity of Hugo’s poem is diminished by the obvious fact that AI has no imagination and, because it learns through analysing others’ behaviour, it has no individual creative capacity. However, despite being unarguably uncreative and unconsciously constructed, does this actually matter? Does a poem have to be creative? Surely, so long as a reader is able to gleam something worthwhile from the lines verse, then a poem has done its job? There exists a fundamental contention regarding poetry: is its validity in its construction, or the effect it creates in the reader (or both)?


I momentarily recall the verse of Sam Riviere, whom I reluctantly studied in Trinity of first year. and, according to its description: “His approach eschews a dependence upon confessional modes of writing to explore what kind of meaning lies in impersonal methods of creation … the poems have been produced by harvesting and manipulating the results of search engines to create a poetry of part-collage, part-improvisation”. While this style can be sold as “refractive” and “reflective”, the poetic ‘creations’ of Sam Riviere - a human - aren’t actually that dissimilar, therefore, to Hugo’s poetry. And yet, Faber and Faber published 72 of these poems in one anthology (Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, 2018).


Perhaps I’ll try and secure Hugo a book deal. Even more recently, Rupi Kaur was announced ‘the writer of the decade’ by The New Republic - an announcement which ignited intense literary debate online. Known for her - almost laughably - sparse verse, often lacking any complex means of creation or any straightforward meaning whatsoever, I’m one of those who absolutely despises her work. Nevertheless, in the same way that Hugo’s ‘poetry’ may not be advanced in its construction, nor cunning in its meaning, it seems that Kaur’s poetry is another example of the way in which literature does not necessarily have to be profoundly well-conceptualised to be considered of benefit or quality, because the perceived importance of verse so often rests in the reader’s own take on the lines. I ask Hugo to write me another poem: “Venus doesn’t ask / Outrageous morning diamond / Rioting beauty”. What do you think of this one?



* words by alex haveron-jones, art by abigail hodges