THis is how the powerful critic F.R. Leavis described the possibility back in 1970 in his essay ““Literarism” versus “scientism”“.
I was, I confess, a little amused when, sitting at a formal lunch next to the director of a City Art Gallery, I was told by him, in the tone of saying something very impressive: ” A computer can write a poem”. I replied, very naturally, that I couldn’t accept that, adding that it was one of the things I knew to be impossible. When he responded by being angry , fierce and authoritative, I reflected he was a German, if an emigre, and that in any case his business was Kunst and he hadn’t said a computer could paint a work of art. The other occasion on which I was confronted, point-blank, with the preposterous and ominous claim, which by then I had discovered to be pretty current, it made a profound impression on me. The testifier was a philosopher, a lady and cultivated; her place and conditions of residence gave her access to a friendly computer laboratory. She had taken advantage of the opportunity, I gathered, to develop an intense experimental interest: “It’s incredible” she said, ” what a computer can do; it’s awfully fascinating; you know a poem can write a poem.” I couldn’t let that pass; with the appropriate urbanity I said: ” Well, “poem” means different things” there was no Teutonic anger this time. There was a sudden descent, a heightened nuance of pink, a concessive philosophic laugh, and then “O well, yes; but it’s great fun”.
Leavis is a very fine writer. As criticism this works in a novelistic way. The two characters encountered are made vividly alive (we are perhaps less happy with asserting national cultural characteristics so boldly, as Leavis does with the art director, but in 1970 our kind of political correctness in these matters was less common ) and the types of contrasting ways of defending the idea are very effectively presented. On the one hand, there is what one might call dogmatic materialist fundamentalism that does not brook dissent; on the other, a kind of philosophical playfulness, subject to embarrassment when it senses opposition, while resting on a self- indulgent sense of fun. Both kinds of response , one might add, remain characteristic of our modern Britisn intelligentsia.
You might read the passage and say however, “Well this was fifty years ago, in a different world in which people had not adjusted to the new reality computers were to bring”. Leavis, however, goes on to ask the fundamental question and to demonstrate the danger of letting go the meanings of our most important words.
That any cultivated person should want to believe that a computer can write a poem!-the significance of the episode, it seemed to me, lay there. For the intention had been naive and unqualified. It could be that because of the confusion of different forces of the word “poem”. And yet the difference is an essential one; the computerial force of “poem” eliminates the essentially human- eliminates human creativity.
We can , of course, choose to “want” to believe a computer can write a poem. The technology is far advanced from its rudimentary 1970 stage and computer addicts can develop programmes in which an Emily Dickenson poem, say, is broken up into individual words which when fed into a programme can be so managed as to produce a combination of words and phrases put together in short lines which can give it the look of a quizzical Emily Dickenson style composition-until, that is, you begin to read it. Or you can organise rhythmic and rhyme pattern that present a ballad-form. You can even-for I have checked You Tube- organise events in which you get people to choose between two “poems”- one written by a human the other by a computer, and find the audiences, by immediate reaction with a show of hands can mistake one for the other. “Great fun!” as the philosopher in the story said.
Or is it? The value we put on the word ” poem” and the creativity it manifests is made a mockery of if it can also mean it is “created” by a computer programme being designed to follow the human brain’s linguistic patterning. Because poems are not cerebral constructs, they are not merely or mainly brain-work but creations of the whole person, body, mind and spirit working together.
To pretend a computer can write a poem is to reduce the significance of the word and the wondrous power of the creative imagination as it expresses itself in language.
But in an era, dazzled by technology, in which science and technology are made the central agents of progress it is vitally important to insist what it is science within its limitations can do and what it cannot and what computers can do and what they cannot.
So let us be grateful for well-designed and programmed computers; but for the sake of what is precious in our humanity don’t become over-impressed.