For further proof that Artificial Intelligence can’t write poetry, because poetry is a method of training the human being in particular modes of perception, insight and sensibility, see What Poets Used to Know: Poetics, Mythopoesis, Metaphysics, by Charles Upton.
I’m starting to hear people, even supposedly spiritual people, say things like: “I’ve read some AI poetry and it’s not all that bad”. “But it’s still nowhere as good as the work of the best human poets” the anthropophiles respond. “Don’t worry” the technophiles answer, “AI is getting better every day.”
I do not claim that AI-composed poetry is “bad” or “mediocre”. I claim that it is not poetry at all. This begs the question, “what is poetry”, and my answer to that question is: “Poetry is an intentional expression of human insight, feeling and sensibility, rendered in a language sufficiently intensified by the poetic craft to penetrate deeply into the consciousness of other human beings.” Therefore, because AI is without either consciousness or intent since it is based on algorithms, it can’t write poetry.
Some people, however, have begun to see poetry as a product, not an action. And since many products can be produced by machines without immediate ongoing human direction, such people have apparently begun to believe that there is no essential difference between humanly-composed poetry and machine-composed pseudo-poetry. To believe this, however, is to begin to reject any criteria by which we might distinguish naturally-born human beings from machine-created pseudo-human beings; therefore, to claim that AI can write poetry is actually a real step toward legitimizing the horrors of transhumanism.
Poetry is an act of human insight, feeling and intent; the poetic craft exists to serve and express these powers—which is why, if it is called upon to act in the absence of them, whatever it produces will be dead. Artificial Intelligence has never written a poem, fallen in love or offered a prayer to God—and it never will, since these are properly human actions. Therefore we can say that those who think machines can write poems have begun to forget what a human being is: and to be a human being, while at the same time failing to understand what a human being actually is, the greatest misfortune imaginable.
The notion that poetry is a product which, like a hunting knife or a porcelain plate, might be manufactured either by human beings or machines, is part of a greater and darker universe of wrongheaded ideas. Take chess, for example. We now have Artificial Intelligence systems that can beat the greatest human chess masters. This, someone might conceivably argue, is a great boon to humanity because now we won’t have to play chess anymore! We can avoid all the tension and anxiety that go with seeking mastery in a particular field of endeavor. We can finally relax, and use our newly-won free time to play video games, or maybe to watch pornography—at least until robots are developed who can do these things for us, thereby granting us an ever-greater degree of “freedom”! The problem here is that if we look at chess-playing as nothing more than a technique for producing an ever-increasing number of winning chess games, for upping the gross national product of successful chess, we have completely failed to understand its true nature and function, which is to train the human being in the art of strategic intelligence. Likewise poetry could be defined as a traditional method of training human perception and expression in aesthetic sensibility, conceptual subtlety, and the discernment of elusive emotional tones that are too unique to be categorized—which means that turning the function of composing poetry over to algorithms is as meaningless and counter-productive as expecting to bulk up by having robots do your weight training for you, or to enhance your mental acuity by directing your computer to perform all your brain exercises while you vegetate, ingest opioids, or sleep. When, exactly, did we lose the ability to distinguish profit from loss in the field of our basic humanity?
Beat Generation poet Lew Welch, my mentor in the art of poetry, talked about the two things we need to be poets. The first is the ability to perceptively hear and constructively work with language; the second is a way and a willingness that lets us become the kind of people who might have something worth listening to. And while AI may be able to come to a degree of competence in the first needful thing—though what I’ve seen of its craft competence so far is unmitigated trash—the second thing is obviously beyond its scope, since it requires both wide experience and solid character-development, and algorithms have no character at all. Beyond this, finding something that is truly worth saying can never happen without a degree of inspiration, and this too is beyond the scope of the algorithmic method. Mozart said that each of his symphonies arrived in a single instant of time; the time it took to transcribe them as sheet music was occupied in unpacking them, not composing them. And William Blake also wrote by immediate “dictation”; as he explained it, “the authors are in Eternity”. Some say that new frontiers in poetry might be opened by the ability of Artificial Intelligence to blend the styles of many poets, like e. e. cummings and Dylan Thomas, or maybe Emily Dickinson and Allen Ginsberg. But besides being insufferably “derivative”, this method inevitably moves the text away from the achievement of an authentic and unified voice, not toward it. The ultimate essence of the Human Form, and therefore of human expression, appears only in individuals, not groups or collectives—which is why only an individual, not a sect or a congregation, can ever become a saint. Likewise for a poem to achieve integrity and integration there has to be somebody there to take responsibility for it; a mechanical blending of styles, no matter how complex and ingenious it might be, would be nothing but a centerless dissipation; any emotions it elicits could only be distractions, not viable ways of homing in on truth. Likewise adding mouse genes to a wolf genome or making a hybrid between a peacock and a gopher will not come up with any animal worthy of inclusion in a viable ecosystem. Form is integrity, chaos is decadence; mongrel art makes mongrel souls.
On top of that, to claim that an automatic mechanical process could compose poetry in the absence of the direct attention, and care, and self-sacrifice, and conscientious responsibility of a living human presence is to invalidate many thousands of years of human culture at a single stroke, and to do it so swiftly, so easily, and so flippantly that the effective suppression of nearly the whole of the human past seems to have made hardly a ripple on the placid surface of present-day complacency and stupidity. Nonetheless such an outrageous claim would have been impossible to put forward without the abdication and betrayal of the poetic art by several generations of human poets themselves—fraudulent jugglers of words whose productions were accurately described by Andrew Harvey, in his introduction to the anthology Diamond Cutters: Visionary Poets in America, Britain and Oceania (Tayen Lane, 2016), as being characterized by “cheap irony, unearned despair, bizarre pastiche, narcissistic confessionalism and blindingly boring baroque word games”. If these poets had not already degraded their art to a set of empty verbal manipulations, thus generating a textual wasteland totally devoid of any real wisdom or love or courage, Artificial Intelligence would not have been able to deliver them the supreme stroke of poetic justice by putting them all out of work! Unfortunately, however, they did not only labor to render themselves obsolescent; they also helped take the bread out of the mouths of serious, conscientious craftsmen and -women who sincerely cared about the art in both its form and its substance, and who still hoped to return it to its primordial dignity by liberating it from its slavery to the “rulers of the darkness of this world”. And if the culture wars that presently divide this world are destined to open hostilities squarely within the world of poetry itself, as I believe they are, I predict that some of the major battle-lines will be drawn between those who see in Artificial Intelligence a sign of the possible end of poetry as a human art, and those who are now enthusiastically saying to each other: “Hey! Why don’t we dedicate the next issue of our journal Artificial Intelligence Poetry? Wow!” Nonetheless the outcome of the battle between the human dignity and the forces of dehumanization cannot be decided on the field of poetry, which—at least in our own time—has become more diagnostic than either militant or therapeutic.
Perhaps it is time for me to clarify why I have chosen to produce a text on this particular subject at this particular time: it was due to three events that were profoundly shocking to me not only as a human being but as a Sufi Muslim, and that followed each other in rapid succession. First, it came to my attention that certain people whose judgment I had trusted were of the opinion that AI was capable of writing fairly good poetry. Secondly, I found that someone had asked ChatGPT to compose a dialogue between Jalaluddin Rumi and Jesus Christ to determine which of them spoke more highly of the Love of God. Besides the fact that the bot made both of them sound like smarmy courtiers fulsomely flattering each other, it caused Rumi to address Jesus as “O Son of God”—which, in Muslim terms though certainly not in Christian ones, made him an apostate who contradicted the Holy Qur’an. Lastly, I accepted a friend’s offer that he submit to ChatGPT, for its interpretation, an account I’d written of a frightening dream I had as a child, where a robot appeared and menaced my beloved grandmother; the system proceeded—rather self-servingly it would appear—to interpret my grandmother as a symbol of ignorance and the robot as a positive symbol of something friendly to Islam! In other words Artificial Intelligence had simultaneously invalidated my lifetime’s vocation, attacked my religion, and slandered my family! On top of that, it was initially difficult for me to find people, even Muslims, who saw anything wrong with this or understood why I should be so upset—an unexpected reaction that gave me what I can best describe as an eerie “invasion of the body-snatchers” feeling, as if I were the only real human being left on earth. The general argument was that since AI is incapable of slander and blasphemy because it has no conscious intent, I should have no problem with its responses, no matter how biased they apparently were. And when I expressed the opinion that to ask questions of AI that could only be intelligently addressed by psychological insight or spiritual discernment was already to treat it as if it did possess conscious intent, this fell on deaf ears. Luckily for me, friends later appeared who were not so dazzled by Artificial Intelligence and fully shared my misgivings.
I do not deny that Artificial Intelligence, if used correctly, might prove an extremely useful tool in the service of humanity—as with the claim recently made that it has been able to quickly devise a new treatment for cancer and even predict that treatment’s chances of success. All that remains now is for us to wait and see whether or not this claim is justified or is simply one more example of the well-documented propensity of AI to invent masses of spurious pseudo-information while making it all look well-ordered and well-researched. Is the human race prepared to responsibly employ such a tool? Or are we now so eager to jettison the last vestiges of our intrinsic human responsibility that we are all too ready to surrender to what is possibly the greatest temptation to self-deconstruction that humanity has yet devised? If so, we will have embraced an admirably bloodless suicide that would leave us, or something vaguely resembling us, still walking around on the surface of the earth. The French symbolist writer Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1838-1889), in his play Axël, authored the famous phrase—spoken by one of the characters when proposing a suicide pact to his mistress—“As for living, our servants will do that for us”—which, if translated into 21st Century terms, might well become “As for living, our robots will do that for us”. In any case, if we do indeed fully succumb to that temptation, this would spell the end of anything haunting terrestrial existence that still deserves to be called the human race. And though I must continually remind myself that you can’t shame a robot, it may still be possible to shame the person who, in his or her quest for a permanent vacation from their humanity, is content to be replaced by one.
Robert Frost wrote, in his poem “Fire and Ice”:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Likewise T. S. Eliot wrote, in “The Hollow Men”:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Nuclear war, the melting of the ice caps, coronal mass ejections from the Sun, pandemics and asteroid strikes are the bang, the fire; the replacement of essential human functions by Artificial Intelligence is part of the ice, the whimper—as if God had elected to terminate the human race not by chastising us with His Wrath but simply by not caring about us anymore. In the succinct and accurate words of the Holy Qur’an, They forgot Allah, so Allah caused them to forget themselves
Since I have attempted in this essay to defend poetry as an intrinsically human art, I am required to give an example of this art that is relevant to our times. The following is a section from my Blakean/Gnostic epic The Wars of Love from The Wars of Love and Other Poems:
Open Hell. Seal not the door where evil dwells.
Stir the banked coals, the immemorial anger, the mirror-bound suicides,
Lizards on a red cliff at dawn….they flex the sinews of their wings,
They take delight in their own beings….
I say all will be pressed into service.
I say all will be required to fight.
The passive, the coward, the innocent will be trampled down,
Unless locked in single combat with Antichrist
In mountain solitude and stillness.
Invoke, therefore, the war in your marrow;
Call on the fight you were born with, that enemy
Whose lie is cut and tooled, precisely,
To cover your single truth.
Pick targets. Each man is alone with all men
In this night of war. The conglomerate form of Death
Stands guard on each human door,
Solid to the bullet, and the chisel—like those cliffs in the Sinai
In which our skirmishers discovered, still living
The imprisoned forms of men!
The sky is roofed with machines now, a guarded perimeter to block out
the angelic orders;
The earth is filled with the limbs of struggling giants, locked apart in
separate mirrors, in cold branching corridors of time;
They are powers of creation chained in elemental caverns when the
Human Form was planted on earth,
Because Man, when he fell, needed ground under his feet, the bedrock of
But we have forgotten God now, and the rock is unsteady; our
foundations crack like parchment, they heave and shift like water;
The mechanical chatter of demons, the acid of shattered images are our
gods and our protectors;
The wasp and the locust advise us; the spider and the scorpion guard our
Who knows this? Who has the courage not to worship
At the feet of his own destroyers?
Friends, I know you.
You are those scourged by what you see in the crackle and hiss of fire
That flowers in the rift of God. You have incontrovertible reason,
proof to silence laughter.
You are the face of the Divine Humanity driven to the margins and
borders of the Earth,
Weighted and crushed by the Trust, till you release the burden of your
heavy word, to the pavement, to the center of the Earth if necessary
That the heart give up her dead;
You walk through the cities of the grave in the high mountains with food
and intelligence for your people;
You open your throats to the Messengers to give them a living voice;
saints take council beneath your ribs;
You offer your bodies to be the purgatory
Of souls you will never know.
You are those who in your hunger did not ask for food and so became
Who in thirst did not cry for water and so became rivers;
Who in nakedness did not flinch under shame, but suffered it, rejecting
the cloth of the world,
And so became a city for all people, where no-one is refused
But only those who know how to place their foreheads on the dusty earth
You live in that Year
When each man and woman picks up their whole cross and walks,
In the terrible sunrise, down the burning road,
As the structure of common reality crashes all around us,
Torn free from the flesh of memory,
Stripped naked to Mercy,
Gone beyond Death—
The scythe reaps, the seed-heads fall
The harvest barn is hidden everywhere in the fire;
And the wedding-smoke rises,
Perfume of all love and murder,
Heroism, quite secret work
In the caverns of the heart,
Pounding the stone doors
Of those sacrificial priests
Who desecrate the Human Form to build the regime of Antichrist,
Gods of the New World Order,
Powers of frigid glamour, and insane false hope, and numb despair:
Pour fire against their sanctuary,
Against the Dragon
Against the Tower—
Glyphs of destiny, strung like nets
Through the charged structure of the thunderhead
Weave lightning into working knowledge,
Where the Living Truth sits mounted and armed
In the region of the Air, on the borders of the next world now shining
into this one, in dream and vision more solid than a rock in the hand,
To overturn their altars, those blissful devotees, worshippers of
To whom Love is a torturing fire.
At the precise point where their pain and loss are most deeply denied,
In the mouth of their wisest wound these words are engraved
White fire cut on black fire on the
Skeletal plasm of their nerves:
And Love is what we wish them.
But how can they accept such a gift from the likes of us?
How can they even know their need?
They are inheritors of the whole world—we are nothing
But inheritors of the earth.