Issue Three

Spring 2012

 

The Turing Test for Poetry

Alan Turing famously proposed in 1950 that if you held a conversation with an unknown persona, perhaps one concealed in another room, and were unable to tell if that persona was truly a human being or computer, then any such computer is ‘intelligent’. Or at least, as intelligent as an everyday conversationalist: a machine that can successfully imitate the conversational game.

In the 80s, the early days of microcomputing, I was interested in this notion of machine intelligence and wrote several computer programs designed to replicate properties of intelligence. Each was a subset of the conversational game: generating new ideas, solving problems, making decisions, creating stories and, indeed, writing poetry. All worked, up to a point, but none would be able to pass Turing’s test without the aid of a human editor. All these programs essentially were manipulators of text and, like all such programs, all followed quite simple rules.

It worries me that some poets seem to work in a same way. Put them in Turing’s room, ask them to write a few verses, and see if a reader can distinguish between them and those composed by  computer. I feel that sometimes the difference would not be noticeable.

There are, of course, those poets who feel that if they’ve written fourteen lines of rhyming iambic pentameter then they necessarily have a sonnet. But it’s not this particular group I’m anxious about here, it’s those poets who learn a basket of technical tools and then appear to consider their frequent use sufficient to make poetry. We need such tools, of course. They’re spanners that normally we can use to tweak and tune the engine of natural language into poetry.  But the poets I’m irritated by are those who toss those tools into the works of normal language expecting the resulting grind of gears and screech of sparks necessarily to be a poem.

I’m not averse to technique. Nor to experiment. Nor to the exploration of new tools. But I don’t think in themselves they’re sufficient for a good poem.

We can, according to Chomsky (and who am I to argue?) generate an infinite number of original sentences using a very simply phrase structure grammar, that is, a grammar which produces phrases of proper “well-formed” structure. (This is, parenthetically, the kind of grammar that also defines most computer languages.) With such a grammar, and a dictionary to feed it, one can make previously unencountered sentences. For example, here’s such a grammar:

Sentence = NP + VP
NP = (article or possessive pronoun) + (adjective) + noun + (PP)
VP = verb + (PP)
PP = prep + NP

Give it a normal dictionary, and it can produce interesting sentences such as “The penguin walked along a knife” and “I tiptoed through the steelyards of my dawning carpet“. This simple grammar can create an infinite number of sentences and any sentence could be infinitely long.

Some poets seem to string words together a little like this. It creates semantic surprise. Others have discovered that, though novel, a grammatical sequence of unexpected words rarely produces poetry. They may therefore choose to use another rule the computer could apply: find a point of little meaningfulness and split the line there into two. This creates syntactic surprise:

I tiptoed through the
steelyards of my dawn car
pet.

Splitting a line on a preposition or article, or at a syllable boundary, are possible ways to do this. (Interestingly, such poets rarely split within a syllable. These units of sound seem to hold fundamental nubs of meaning).

Of course, more capable poets know that a poem, as a whole, can’t simply be an accumulation of such fragments. So they might call on additional rules for ‘coherence’ or ‘progression’ to produce an overall movement through the poem. Here’s an example of such a rule: “First, create a sentence in the first person. Then, follow this with an impersonal, contextual sentence. Finish with a sentence containing an abstract noun.”

I tiptoed through the
steelyards of my dawn car
pet. Beyond, a
hurricane gaped across
stubbled flood. Emptiness
rises, white as defeat.

Both Turing and the 80s lacked the internet. In a final enhancement of our poem, we can trawl the googleverse seeking some esoteric particulars to tie our poem to the real. Use a web-spider to trawl the web. Find one cultural reference for the title, preferably including a gerund. (It can be useful to have a default title subroutine which substitutes the name of a 30s jazz musician or obscure artistic movement in case of difficulty) and an exotic placename of unusual spelling to substitute for any noun phrase. Here’s such a poem:

Appreciating Metamodernism

I tiptoed through the
steelyards of my dawn car
pet. Beyond, a
hurricane gaped across
Tenochtitlan. Emptiness
rises, white as defeat.

This, I contend, a computer could write. It’s not enough. Yet here at Antiphon we routinely turn down poems not too far from this. Experiment, fine. Make up rules and break them. All good practice. But such poems do not pass the Turing test for poetry. Where is the music? Where is the heart? Where is the conviction that another soul sits somewhere in its darkened room, desperate for its voice to be heard, recognised, known?

 NW