I have happened upon Botpoet, a site that runs “Bot or Not”, a sort of Turing test using poems. It’s mildly entertaining to guess whether a poem was written by a human or a computer program, but I find most of the cases pretty obviously one or the other. What’s more fun is the “Leaderboard“, which collates the results of the tests into four boards: Most human-like human poems; Most computer-like computer poems; Most human-like computer poems; and Most computer-like human poems. Naturally the last two categories are the most interesting. I wonder what Deanna Ferguson would think about 78% of people thinking it more likely that a computer wrote:
cut opinions tear tasteful hungers huge ground swell partisan have-not thought green opinions hidden slide hub from sprung in weather yah [...]
Perhaps she would be pleased to find herself in the company of Gertrude Stein, who writes the second most computery human poem:
Red flags the reason for pretty flags. And ribbons. Ribbons of flags And wearing material Reason for wearing material. Give pleasure. [...]
As well as the fifth-most computery poem:
Apple plum, carpet steak, seed clam, colored wine, calm seen, cold cream, best shake, potato, potato and no no gold work with pet, a green seen is called bake and change sweet is bready, a little piece a little piece please.
Of this Stein poem, Herbert Leibowitz says, “The surface of these sentences is beguiling, a Galérie [sic] Lafayette of prismatic items. The poems are unexpectedly social, with exchanges of endearments, bits of conversation, directions for preparing for party, polite requests. The wordplay bordering on nonsense, the alliterations, reversals of words, and internal rhymes, are the province of the child’s counting games and riddles, of the genius and the schizophrenic.” Indeed.
Another critic, Cat Richardson at the American Reader, has this to say about another poet: “Racter fixates on the sensual with the dogged eye of an outsider. Ever the logician, he stands on the edges of disorder and tells its story. A documentarist by nature, he reiterates until fixating on a truth, then promptly abandons said truth for something even truer. He is his own Greek chorus, singing his intentions as he opens his body of work.” This poet also features on Bot or Not’s leader board, albeit in a different category. He is responsible for the fifth-most-humanlike computer poem, an excerpt from his volume of short essays, poems, and dramatic works, which begins like this:
At all events my own essays and dissertations about love and its endless pain and perpetual pleasure will be known and understood by all of you who read this and talk or sing or chant about it to your worried friends or nervous enemies. Love is the question and the subject of this essay. We will commence with a question: does steak love lettuce? This question is implacably hard and inevitably difficult to answer. Here is a question: does an electron love a proton, or does it love a neutron? Here is a question: does a man love a woman or, to be specific and to be precise, does Bill love Diane?
As William Hutchings (yet another crrritic!) says, what we have “consists primarily of fragments of academic jargon, philosophical postulates (and posturing), comic digressions, pointless lists … and arcane … terms.” But Hutchings is writing about yet another text: Lucky’s speech from Waiting for Godot, delivered on Pozzo’s command to “Think, pig!”
Indeed, the authors of Racter, also his editors [the Collected Works (1984) can be found here], describe his work in terms that wouldn’t be out of place in a term essay on Godot:
[It] seems to spin a thread of what might initially pass for coherent thinking … its output is not only new and unknowable, it is apparently thoughtful. It is crazy “thinking,” I grant you, but “thinking” that is expressed in perfect English.
Hutchings (on Godot) frames things a little more conceptually than that:
Bodering on incoherence … it becomes in effect a form of “metadiscourse”–discourse about discourse and its breakdown, “thinking” about thinking itself, rhetoric about rhetoric and its failure…
Engaging with Racter’s poem (as coder or critic), encourages us to think along those very lines, asking our own selves what makes his text coherent or incoherent, sensible or absurd, wise or comic. Ponder the following ponderings:
Awareness is like consciousness. Soul is like spirit. But soft is not like hard and weak is not like strong. A mechanic can be both soft and hard, a stewardess can be both weak and strong. This is called philosophy or a world-view.
No great wisdom here, perhaps, but at least Racter is striving towards an objective view of his own subjectivity, which is more than many poets can manage. For more pseudocriticism, see Richardson’s close reading in The American Reader, “Tenderloins are not Enough“. For me, the line between parody and sincerity very difficult to judge in that piece. Despite its efforts to keep tongue implanted in cheek, here and there it lapses into actual criticism (just as Racter from time to time lapses into actual poetry?).
Racter is no doubt the Grand Old Man of computerized letters. He was “was written in compiled BASIC on a Z80 micro with 64K of RAM” in in the early 1980s. And the Racter that wrote this poem may be more man than machine: the Wiki page reports some speculation that the coders must have supplied detailed templates to achieve such seeming coherence and complexity.
The other algorithmic contenders on the Bot or Not leader board are generations ahead. I don’t rate the #1 most human computer poem, but the #2 (also with a poem at #4) isn’t bad at all. It’s by JanusNode, “a user-configurable dynamic textual projective surface [which] can create original texts using a rule-based system or can morph your texts using Markov chaining and various other techniques.” The poem which 68% of people thought a person wrote goes like:
you are inscribed in the lines on the ceiling you are inscribed in the depths of the storm
I will spare us all the faux criticism, because, you know, “A poem should not mean. But be.” Which reminds me of a stunning piece of criticism I once came across. Up to you to judge whether it was written by a person or a computer:
“A poem should be wordless as a flock of birds” is trying to say that a poem can speak for itself just like a herd of birds travelling in packs.