“COMPUTERS CAN WRITE POETRY”: “YES THEY CAN”; “NO THEY CAN’T”.

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.

FROM TOWER OF BABEL TO PENTECOST

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language;and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence

(Genesis 11; 6-8a KJV)

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they {ie. the disciples} were all, with one accord in one place.

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

And there appeared to them unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

Acts 2:1-6

In the Tower of Babel story human beings use their collective knowledge and speech to seek to arrogate their status to become gods. God shows this is the way that leads to disintegration. Their collective knowledge and speech is lost and they are scattered abroad speaking many tongues.

In the second story God sends the Holy Spirit to his chosen disciples who carry the knowledge of the resurrection in their hearts. They now have one message to speak to the hearts of people of all tongues.

In our own language we are made aware God speaks to us of love of Him and love of all. We are to bring that assurance to our own culture and participate in its sharing with all cultures.

RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER: PART VI

FIRST VOICE
"But tell me,tell me! speak again,
Thy soft response renewing-
What makes that ship drive on so fast? 
What is the ocean doing?" 

SECOND VOICE 
Still as slave before his lord, 
The ocean hath no blast; 
His great bright eye most silently 
Up to the moon is cast-

If he may know which way to go; 
For she guides him smooth or grim. 
See, brother, see! how graciously 
She looketh down on him." 

FIRST VOICE 
"But why drives on that ship so fast, 
Without or wave or wind?"
SECOND VOICE 
"The air is cut away before, 
And closes from behind. 

Fly, brother fly! more high,more high! 
Or we shall be belated: 
For slow and slow that ship will go,
When the Mariner's trance is abated. 

I woke, and we were sailing on 
As in a gentle weather; 
Twas night, calm night, the moon was high;
The dead men stood together. 

All stood together on the deck, 
For a charnel-dungeon fitter:
All fixed on me their stony eyes, 
That in the moon did glitter. 

The pang, the curse, with which they died, 
Had never passed away: 
I could not draw my eyes from theirs, 
Nor turn them up to pray.

And now this spell was snapt: once more 
 I viewed the ocean green, 
And looked far forth, yet little saw 
Of what had else been seen-

Like one that on a lonesome road 
Doth walk in fear and dread, 
And having once turned round walks on, 
And turns no more his head; 
Because he knows a frightful fiend 
Doth close behind him tread.

But soon there breathed a wind on me, 
Nor sound nor motion made: 
Its path was not upon the sea, 
In ripple or in shade.

It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek 
Like a meadow gale of spring- 
It mingled strangely with my fears, 
Yet it felt like a welcoming. 

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too: 
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze-
On me alone it blew.

Oh! dream of joy is this indeed 
The light-house top I see? 
Is this the hill? Is this the kirk? 
Is this mine  own countree?

We drifted o'er the harbour-bar, 
And I with sobs did pray-
Oh let me be awake, my God! 
Or let me sleep alway. 

The harbour-bar was clear as glass,
So smoothly it was strewn! 
And on the bay the moonlight lay, 
And the shadow of the Moon. 

The rock shone bright, the kirk no less, 
That stands above the rock:
The moonlight steeped in silentness 
The steady weathercock. 

And the bay was white with silent light,
Till rising from the same, 
Full many shapes, that shadows were, 
In crimson colours came. 

A little distance from the prow 
Those crimson shadows were: 
I turned my eyes upon the deck-
Oh, Christ what saw I there! 

Each corse flat, lifeless and flat, 
And by the holy rood! 
A man all light, a seraph-man, 
On every corse there stood. 

This seraph- band, each waved his hand, 
No voice did they impart-
No voice;but oh, the silence sank 
Like music on my heart. 
But soon I heard the dash of oars, 
I heard the Pilot's cheer; 
My head was turned perforce away 
And I saw the boat appear. 

The Pilot and the pilot's boy, 
I heard them coming fast: 
Dear Lord in heaven! it was a joy 
The dead men could not blast. 

I saw a third- I heard his voice: 
It is the Hermit good! 
He singeth loud his godly hymns 
That he makes in the wood. 
He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away 
The Albatross's blood.

 

  
  

It seems to me there are two ways readers might regard Part VI. If the poem is seen as simply story, plotting a development from a wicked misdeed, with gothic incident, spells, supernatural visitations thrown in to create a tale of fantastic incident, then the ending of the poem over this part and the next might seem a malingering. What has to be done is after all becoming clear: the mariner has to be got home, an exit has to be arranged for the corpses, a moral neatly relayed. For such readers Part VI might seem unduly extended. But increasingly I have become aware that this is a spiritual poem in every sense, that it is an organic poetic unity and I am more and more impressed by the way in which mythological and cosmic elements give depth to the redemptive process. The mariner- and we along with him -has to learn that his crime is meaningless destruction; it is something that goes against not only the natural order but the spiritual interconnectedness of living beings. The conclusion has therefore to be given time for working out.

In terms of the poem’s unity note how effects are repeated. Stanzas and phrases are repeated, recalling earlier stages of the (spiritual) journey. The mariner although on the way towards home and redemption has flashbacks which threaten to immerse him. Once again he cannot escape the accusing eyes of the dead, he is trapped by the inability to pray, he is, as before ( in Part 1), like one pursued by a foe. In effect, Coleridge is maintaining dramatic interest as we shift between the possibilities of the mariner being trapped and finding escape. An example of this is the invocation of Christ ( another echo, this time from Part 2) which leads us to expect the worst when in fact, this time, it leads to a wondrous seraphic visitation.

Coleridge knew -if anyone knew-that the road to spiritual redemption is not linear. Malcolm Guite in his marvellous book on the poem (Mariner) and Coleridge’s life which I would encourage every reader interested in this series of posts to read, links these reversions to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Guite connects this condition with the agonies and self- recriminations the opium- addicted Coleridge had to contend with. It is true when Coleridge first wrote the poem (which appeared with Wordsworth’s in the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads) he was not an addict but Guite argues that imaginative fore-seeing is one of the powers at work within the poem. It is certainly remarkable the extent to which the mariner’s journey towards redemption reflects that of the great poet. as Guite so effectively shows..

The Part re-invokes the spiritual and redemptive qualities the Moon retains throughout the poem (see earlier parts of the discussion):

See, brother,see! how graciously 
She looketh down on him.

  

The supernatural aspect is brought out by the seraphic -band:

A man all light, a seraph-man, 
On every corse there stood. 

This seraph -band, each waved his hand, 
No voice did they impart- 
No voice; but oh! the silence sank 
Like music on my heart.   

This has a spiritual beauty underlined by the redemptive effect of a silence compared with the power of music. The passage seems to me to possess a wondrous quality which is nevertheless connected with a practical purpose. The ship having reached the harbour-bay would normally signal by light to the harbour pilot for guidance for entering the harbour walls.

The Part then continues the marvellous interplay of story with spiritual symbolism, with the regressive pull of defeat mixed with the progressive urge towards redemption encouraged by the ever present gracious Moon and the startling supernatural sublimity of the seraphic presence. It ends with a note of hope- on the mariner spying the Hermit on the pilot boat with the inevitable final recall of the last stanza to the (always capitalised) Albatross:

He'll shrieve my soul, he'll wash away 
The Albatross's blood.

WILLIAM BLAKE : “JESUS WAS AN ARTIST”

Verily , verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the earth and die it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.”

GoSPEL OF ST. JOHN 12.24

Curiously, although brought up on the Bible, I never noticed this saying until I read Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov where it is used as an epigraph. The power of the saying acting with the creative insight of poetry immediately struck me.

The saying relates, of course, to Jesus preparing his disciples for his death and its consequences. The single grain of corn if left on the surface is unfulfilled. The buried seed is as dead, but contains new life bringing forth new seeds of growth.

If this sounds like great poetry bringing out the deepest meaning, is this what Blake meant when he distinguished Jesus as an artist? For Blake this did not mean that Jesus expressed himself through the arts. Like Socrates, Jesus produced no written work. Blake sees, however, in Jesus a power of creative imagination central to being an artist or a poet. The Imagination is the quality which Blake, rather like Coleridge, appears to see as the supreme gift.

For creative imagination we might single out his “sayings” or his power of vivid speech. He speaks creatively not by presenting rules or flat statements or simple directions but by utterances that involve us in seeking to puzzle out what he means. Whether it is by direct teaching or by telling stories, as parables, he leads us into re-thinking. His sayings are ever memorable: think of a few of dozens:

“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man hath not where to lay his head”,

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,

Ye are the salt of the earth but if the salt hath lost its savour wherewith shall it be salted”,

He is an artist as shown by his pervasive story-telling. (But without a parable spake he not unto them. Mark 4.34). Think of the parable of the prodigal son, called the most perfect short story ever told. How he gets us to enter into the state of mind of both sons! with the younger: And he fain would have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat and also with the elder But as soon as this thy son was come which devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf . But he also takes us into the mind of the Father, not directly by thought, but by action: But when he was yet a great way off his father saw him and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him. At the end the Father sums up the reason for joy which the elder brother has to decide if he is going to come to terms with : This thy brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost and is found. In the shortest compass we have been invited to use our imaginations to access three minds and work out our own feelings.

Or think of the parable of the of the Good Samaritan ever an inspiring tale, exposing bigotry, of a person of rejected background acting with charity as against those with official religious duties who passed by on the other side. It is a tale that runs so deep in our culture that we use the phrase, to be a good Samaritan.

The imaginative power that enables Jesus to create such tales also enables him, with supreme quickness, to see into the minds of those seeking to bring him down. Think how he deals with the challenging questions of those seeking to trap him: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not? and Jesus’ answer ” “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. Always he seems equipped through his imaginative understanding of the questioner and what is at issue to answer in a way that, instead of falling into the trap, he puts the questioner on the spot.

But it is not only his speech and parables that show creative imagination. He also acts creatively on those who need healing. He is sensitive to the touch of the woman, who, afraid to speak to him, touches his robe. He brings her forward, in fear, but having “made her whole” he reassures her beautifully: Daughter be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. To those whose illness or mental disturbance is caused by awareness of sin he is again reassuring: Son thy sins be forgiven thee

His imaginative capacity to see beyond limits means he refuses dogmatism. Brought up in the Jewish tradition he naturally respects the Law but is also daring enough to challenge its whenit limits thinking.”Ye have heard it said “Thou shalt love thy enemy and hate thine enemy”, But I say unto you, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” To those who would condemn the stoning of the woman taken in adultery he challenges” Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone”.

With creative power and highly developed critical understanding, he challenges conventional attitudes both towards sinners , and exposes the self-righteous. Once heard who can forget the story of the Pharisee and the publican?: The pharisee thanked God he was not as other men are. and he is contrasted with the publican who stood afar off and would not so much as lift his eyes to heaven but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me , a sinner

Creative people prize spontaneity and have a natural love of the openness of children. Jesus held up children :

Unless ye become as little children ye shall in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven”.

And also he held up those devalued by society : much to her amazement, St John has him in long conversation with the ostracised Samaritan woman at the well:”Give me to drink” and then proceeds to tell her what she needs to know:

Whosoever shall drink of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give them shall never thirst; but the water I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”.

His imaginative action is also declared in his life purpose, his journey carrying his sense of God’s calling. We might pick out particular actions of dramatic power: the Palm Sunday parade on a donkey, the cleansing of the Temple protest, the passover meal, the washing of his disciples’ feet . These are all acts of a man who understands the power of dramatic teaching pointing us to understanding of the meaning of what he is doing.

Wondrously he sees himself not only as a prophet but also the point, God-guided, towards which the Jewish tradition is leading him. On tradition T.S.Eliot is helpful here: by understanding the way in which he, in his art, has been shaped by tradition he develops the awareness of the way in which he can extend the tradition. Jesus steeped in the Scriptures- in the Psalms ( quoted on the cross), in the prophetic understanding of Isaiah and Daniel and Zechariah-understands in what direction he must go, even though that direction leads to the Cross.

To call Jesus an artist is not to delimit him but to point to the nature of his creative power.

“GETTING YOUR RHYTHM RIGHT”

Photo by pavan gupta on Unsplash
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance, 
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence, 
The sound must seem an echo of the sense; 
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows, 
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows; 
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore, 
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar; 
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw, 
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain, 
Flies o'er the unbending corn, and skims along the main. 
Alexander Pope Essay on Criticism    

“Pope lived in an age when dancing was an art, not just for professionals, but for all requiring physical suppleness and co-ordination, good rhythmic sense, nimbleness, grace, and lots of stamina. Those who understand the discipline needed for good dancing can understand by analogy that good writing comes from a similar taxing discipline; and can appreciate, moreover, the dancelike steps and grace of Pope’s lines and how, reading them aloud, the sound does echo the sense. ” (P..J.M. Robertson Criticism and Creativity Brymill 1987)

This excerpt from Pope is an excellent guide for writers of verse dealing with that perennial problem “How do I get the rhythm sound right without getting the meaning wrong?” Everyone will remember getting into a jogtrot rhythm which starts a poem well but cannot be adapted to changes in meaning. So they try free verse and then find it comes out flat and prosaic. Whatever you try the important thing is to make the sound adapt to the meaning of what you are seeking to say. The changes in Pope from light to powerful from laboured to swift gives a good lesson on this.

WHAT KIND OF READER ARE YOU?

Quotation from Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

Readers may be divided into four classes: 1. Sponges, who absorb all they read, and return it nearly in the same state, only a little dirtied. 2. Sand- glasses who retain nothing and are content to get through a book for getting through the time 3. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read 4. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also. (Coleridge Notes and Lectures Upon Shakespeare And Some of the Old Poets and Dramatists )

Dear Reader, I cannot claim to be anything like a mogul diamond, though all reports from Coleridge biographies suggest that was very much what he was, from the days when as a schoolboy in the dormitory of Christ’s Hospital school he would enchant his fellow pupils with stories from what he had read to the time when at university he would relay the latest speeches verbatim from pamphlets he had read earlier on the progress of Wilberforce’s Anti-slavery campaign in Parliament to fellow students.

The other day I heard the actress Miriam Margoyles speak passionately about the great English critic F. R. Leavis in his English classes who would inspire her and countless other students with the passion of his love of literature. How we need to be in the presence of teachers like that! In days when there is so much talk of teaching being done by internet, how we must emphasise the importance of the teacher being present, sharing his or her passion.

I would not dream of putting myself beside these “diamonds”. However, if in these blog posts, in an infinitely more modest way, I have gained profit from what I have read, my hope I can pass on some of that profit too.

WORDS TO RE-CHARGE 1: “COMFORT YE , COMFORT YE MY PEOPLE”.

When words are allowed to weaken, they may need to be re-charged. After all language, as well as being out there, is within. When a valuable word becomes softened something is diminished within us: a meaning that might be precious. Take the word comfort” or its cognate “comfortable”. We say to “live in comfort” and we mean to live at ease, in comparative prosperity. “Comfortable” we may associate through advertising and colour supplements with furniture: a comfortable sofa. “Are you sitting comfortably, then I will begin!” reminds us of being young children, listening to a story.

It may surprise you then to hear that the word originates from the Latin fortis meaning “with strength”. To give strength, to give encouragement to, is its verbal meaning, widening to being a source of solace, relief or support in distress or affliction.

It is the emphasis on strengthening or solace that tends to be its Biblical meaning. So the quotation, in the heading, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people ” is from the prophecy of Isaiah (Is, 40: 1-2). You may well have come across this use of the word from the stirring Handel aria of that name from the oratario The Messiah . Dr Patrick Sookhedo of the Barnabas Charity for persecuted Christians writing in the Charity Newsletter adds a further dimension to our understanding of the word.

“the Hebrew word is nachamu …..Its literal meaning is “to cause to breathe again”, letting ones breath out in relief. It is an emotionally charged word that certainly includes the idea of consolation in grief… But it means more . It also describes a process of learning to think differently about a situation. A rabbi explains : ” Comfort begins when we can re-frame the immediate pain of a loss in a larger, more encompassing way”.

All of which suggests in using the word we should think less of material and physical benefit, more of spiritual strengthening. For finding ” comfort” as spiritual strengthening may lead to a deeper, wider understanding of your affliction and encouragement to face the future with renewed determination.