June 8, 2010

Artificial Intelligence

Every once in a while a new technology comes along that changes the way poetry is written.

The printing press, for example, broadened the audience of poetry in England, formalizing and popularizing what had been, essentially, the courtesan's genre of flirtation and sniping. The press gave the poet access to an audience beyond the court, a means of transmission more reliable than the whisper and the hand copy, and so poems became less conceited and more likely to address cultural and political subjects.

The innovation of the typewriter allowed poets to essentially publish as they wrote, seeing iterations of the finished page emerge as they created. This not only made poets more (self)conscious of the published artifact and the poetic tradition which they addressed, but made them more aware of the poem's presence on the page. It's hard to imagine a poet like e. e. cummings existing before the typewriter, and it's equally hard for me to imagine Emily Dickinson pecking away at a keyboard.

The connections I draw in these examples are, of course, debatable, and none of these developments occurred in an historical vacuum; it may be argued that it was not the keyboard that changed poetry in the 20th century so much as World War II, or the explosion of academic institutions, or the cinema. The influence of technological change is probably miniscule compared to the influence of culture. But it seems common sense that the tools affect the craft.

And the constant of technological advancement has met, again and again, with the same generational suspicion. The young man's progress is the old man's entropy. I try not to think in polarities, good and bad, when it comes to change. I try not to say that autotuned hip hop songs are anti-musical farces written by cynical hacks and piped out the mouths of Horatio Alger-urban caricatures. I try not to then spit on the floor. In all earnestness, dismissal of change is often just fear of irrelevance; as the stock of the young rise, so will my stock fall. It ain't T-Pain's fault. It's these kids today.

So, it is in the shadow of this obese preamble that I finally come to my thesis: Google has changed for many how poetry is written. Google is often used in place of acquired knowledge, acting as a kind of meta-encyclopedia, expressing not only facts but incidentals, influences, and esoterica.

Using Google as a collaborative resource, referencing it during the drafting of a poem, does not expand the accomplishment of the poem, but makes diffuse the voice of the poem. Knowledge gleaned from study and experience expresses itself with a natural and relatable authority. But parroted trivia feels synthetic, and because it does not honestly relate the voice of the speaker, it addresses an audience without a single precedent. The result is a poem (or a story) which requires readers to use Google to reverse engineer the sentiment of the poem. In essence, the reader must use Google to translate the poem into an approximation of the poet's vernacular.

Let me give you a very basic example of how Google might be used in the drafting of a poem. While working on a poem which included allusions to physics, I was hung up on the word "wormhole." As someone who's read my weight in science fiction novels, I was familiar with the concept. Hell, I could've recited a fair explanation of how a wormhole theoretically formed. But I wasn't happy with the word "wormhole," especially in the context of the poem. It sounded bad; it sounded a little too Star Trek-geek. So I googled "wormhole" and came up with a synonym related to the concepts originators: "Einstein-Rosen bridge." Now that had a ring to it.

I added the phrase to the poem, polished it a bit, and showed it to a friend who shared my enthusiasm for the cosmological. Pretty quickly, he spotted the phrase "Einstein-Rosen bridge" and asked what it was. I told him to Google it.

A common piece of advice to beginning writers is that they should never use a word in a poem (or story) that they didn't know before they began writing the piece. Thesauruses are often eschewed for this reason (though they have their uses). Google has provided writers, among many other wonderful opportunities, the opportunity to feign experience and accomplishment with an ease and to a degree never before possible. But in doing so, poets bury their voice. Google gives ready access to synonym, analogy, historical allegory, and more facts than have ever been available to the layman before. It's tempting to be arch and say that Google is the steroids of creative writing, but it's actually more like expensive sportswear. I can spend two minutes and one hundred dollars and buy an authentic NFL jersey, but it doesn't mean I can throw a ball.

Of course, it's not as simple as any analogy. It's not simple because I believe in research, in exploration, in taking on the challenge of the poems I read. But creative writers have to be mindful that their voice, their ingenuity does not lie in the dug-up details, nor the reader's goose-hunt. Googling is not creative. It's deference.


  1. Why I don't have internet at home, and also why I spend at least one day a week vacuuming all my bookshelves.

  2. an interesting tension. the ease with which we can "know" things versus the length of time it takes to get to know things.

    i like that you told your friend to google it.