AI Takes a Crack at Being my Poetry, and I'm Like "Wha?"

Recently, my dear friend Robin Johnson sent me a poem titled "Silent Stones," prefaced with, "So what do you think of this?" 
I dread getting poems from strangers who want to know what I think when what they mean is,  tell me this is a great poem, ready to publish. I usually try to answer as politely as I can that I prefer not to respond to work of someone I don't know, suggesting they find a poetry group to get feedback from, thanking them sincerely for thinking of me, but how I am overwhelmed just now (as I have been most waking moments of my life).  I was going to hold off showing it to you, but here we are in the narrative, so here it is:

Silent Stones

The stones are silent,
But they carry the weight
Of a thousand stories,
Whispers of forgotten lives.

They've seen empires rise and fall,
Watched as time slipped away,
Witnessed the joy and pain
Of generations come and gone.

And yet, they remain still,
Steadfast and resolute,
A testament to endurance,
An anchor in an ever-changing world.

So when you pass by a stone,
Take a moment to listen,
For within its silent surface
Lies a tale waiting to be told.

But Robin is no stranger, and I knew this wasn't her writing. She does write, but I think of her primarily as an actress and director in Minneapolis-St. Paul (and a wonderful one, best known for her portrayal of Elizabeth I in Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex.) She also is worlds ahead of me in using technology; she builds a website in the time it takes me to pull up a page. I thought it might be the poem of a friend of hers who was desperate for...something. I skimmed it, cast my eyes to the skies, looked up the title and saw a new book with the same title as the poem so replied, hoping to sound more insightful than I was being, "Nice. Is it a Susan Cummins poem?"

Robin replied, way too enthusiastically:
Oh, thank God you approve! (maybe not for much longer) I was messing with ChatGPT last night and I asked it if it knew who you were. It responded yes and proceeded to list your CV. I then asked it to write a poem “in the style of Diane Kendig” and this is what it came up with. After I shared it, I thought “What will you say if she tells you she hates it?” I don’t know how you feel about artificial intelligence, but there it is… aspiring to be you.

I reread the poem over and over, trying to see what of me was in that poem. I have never written about stones. I may never have written the word "stone." Not crags or rocks or overhangs. To my discredit, I seldom write poems about nature at all, especially not her more inanimate subjects. A bit on deer, skunks, dogs, a coyote... okay, one on water. Still, no stones. The end-stops of most of the lines drove me crazy, and ending with the imperative struck me so hard, I went back and re-read all of my poems online. Not a single imperative in any of them. Oh, and I only ever capitalized every line in ONE poem in which I was trying to capture an 18th century feel, and it's not online. And the
clichés were killing me: rise and fall, joy and pain, ever-changing world, tale waiting to be told. Yikes!

And then, my decades-asleep paranoia awoke, and I thought, "What if other poets think I write like this?" (Note, I didn't think, "Do I write like this?" ah, haha.) And I sent it to my monthly poetry group, saying, "I can give you the backstory if you want it, but don't spend too much time on this one." We never give backstories until we have eviscerated the poems, but I hated to think of Laurie, Laura, and Richard trying to breathe life into this, or pick at commas in order to have something to say. No one wanted a backstory.

Still, when the group met, I couldn't help myself and against all our protocols, I quickly blabbed a one-sentence backstory. One person said, "I thought to myself, 'This doesn't even sound like Diane.'" I so should have shut-up and listened to what they thought on their own reading, but I couldn't because something about this really unhinged me. (For one thing, it thinks I am my CV, so there's that.) I don't even know ChatGPT, but it purports to know me. It might say, like my students used to, "But I didn't have enough ti-i-i-ime," which is how Robin explained it:

BTW, that poem was generated in about 10 seconds. It took that little time for it to scan the ‘web and cull from your work.

 I sent Robin an email pointing out the many troublesome aspects of this poem I would never write, and she pointed out that it was her first go at working with ChatGT, and one would need to be much more specific in telling it what to do. I mean, uh, coaxing it along.

She's right, as was exemplified in the recent NYT article "A.I. Is an Expert At Making Bad Art." The article insists that the right artist can get A.I. to do better, just as a good teacher can help a willing student to write better. The article follows a visual artist as he coaches A.I. in improving its imitation of him: "[S]ome of the first experiments were underwhelming: blobby landscapes, figures drawn without brushstrokes, flat abstractions...." And then, the artist critiques A.I., and the work improves.

But where would I begin with instructing this particular poem? Suggest a new topic, like my current landscaping endeavors? No land(es)caping endeavors. Think about what Rebecca Dunham is saying about contemporary pastorals. About Keats. Did he write about stones? (*googling*): One stoney metaphor's all. That's enough on stones. Maybe grass. Fescue as one poet recently wrote. 

I think I'd just prefer to read a poem. Or write another poem. Which is exactly what I am going to go do. It will not be about stones.

(Many thanks to Robin for continuing to show the way through technology and art and education. )

1 comment:

  1. "The right artist can get AI to do better"--but why would an artist bother? On the other hand, I can imagine some really prolific pulp writers who might be eyeing AI as a tool for becoming even more prolific.