Legacy Unavoided: Gulliver’s Travels and today’s computer-generated poetry

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“Computer Love” by Ronny Kerr

Gulliver’s visit to the Academy of Lagado involves seeing various “scientific” experiments. One of these illustrates a complicated machine with wires and levers attached to wood-blocks that stamp-out words, creating random sentence fragments. The machine contains “the whole vocabulary,” and is arranged by the “strictest computation” according to average occurrences of parts of speech. The inventor explains the machine’s “usefulness” to the arts and sciences by saying that someone “may write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, law, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance of genius or study” (Swift 2395; italics mine). Basically, his goal is to have texts without authors. Poetry, for example, without poets.

In a 2009 article, Lori Emerson discusses attempts “to generate poems via computer in order to demonstrate that poetry need not be the result of a romanticist notion of inspiration” (Emerson 45). There are multiple approaches to this project, but they all involve language-recognition algorithms that strictly calculate word usage from other texts (written by humans) in order to determine things like subject-verb agreement, frequency of modifiers, parts-of-speech, etc. This should sound familiar. But what, if any, is the relationship between Swift’s imagined language-machine and computer-generated poetry? Computers are exponentially more complex than some contraption with levers and wires. Technology has progressed well beyond any 18th century power of imagination. Isn’t artificial intelligence right around the corner?

How we answer those questions depends on what it is we think Swift is pointing to. Of course today’s technology is beyond anything he could have imagined. But is he really satirizing technology? I don’t think so. The episode in the Academy isn’t ridiculous because the machine he describes could never work—it’s ridiculous precisely because it would work. Pull the levers enough times, have enough assistants copy down what comes out, sort through the results making the proper adjustments and eventually you’d get a text that “made sense.” Likewise with computer-generated poems. But even this result, a machine-generated text, is not what I feel like Swift finds ridiculous (although I do think he finds it worthless). What Swift is ridiculing is why someone would want to do this at all.

The man at the Academy is working to develop a contrivance that will allow people to write books (including poetry books) “without the least assistance from genius or study.” The programmers in Emerson’s article want “to demonstrate that poetry need not be the result of a romanticist notion of inspiration.” These are not exactly the same thing. Swift’s scientist wants a way to produce books without the hard work that is involved in writing, work like figuring out what one thinks and how one actually feels—something most of us never do. The computer programmers, however, are motivated to disprove something, what they call romanticist notions of inspiration. They are against the notion of “human exemplars,” such as the poet who writes from his or her personal genius (Emerson 46). Theirs is a kind of attack on the individual. Literary theory wants to force itself on us at this point, bringing up problems of authorial intention, subjectivity, sources of “meaning”, and so on, but all that is distraction from what’s at the heart of the matter. Both Swift’s scientist and our programmers in some way deny authors, human authors that write things. Poems, for example.

In 2008 Mark Doty gave an address entitled, “Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now,” at the Key West Literary Seminar. Near the end of his address, he said,

Poetry is a human voice, and we are of interest to one another. Are we not? When people are real to you, you can’t fly a plane into the office building where they work, you can’t bulldoze the refugee camp where they live, you can’t cluster-bomb their homes and streets. We only do those things when we understand people as part of a category: infidel, insurgent, enemy. Meanwhile, poetry does what it does, inscribing individual presence…to mark the place where one human being stood, bound in time, reporting on what it is to be one. In the age of the collective of mass culture and mass market, there’s hope in that.

Doty’s, “Are we not?” should feel like a challenge. In an increasingly global community, Doty feels “it has never been more important in human history that we learn to listen to the voices of others, that we listen intently and carefully.” Poetry can help us do this because it asks us to acknowledge someone other than ourselves. For Doty, individuals voice themselves in poems. On the other hand, the computer-generated poem is supposed “to make us wary of granting a specialness to human intentionality” and seeks “to disrupt the singularity of human identity” (Emerson 66). The language these two writers use is starkly different. Doty speaks of the office building, the refugee camp, the human voice. Emerson’s article speaks of “intentionless linguistic artifacts” (64).

Whatever Swift would have to say about computer-generated poetry, it probably wouldn’t be good. What fascinates me is the fact that he imagined a machine in order to make a point about a certain way of looking at language and meaning. Swift imagines a machine to illustrate something real that he sees in human nature. Technology has changed, and it will continue to. Swift’s satire, though, is not aimed at technology. It’s aimed at human nature, which doesn’t seem quite as subject to change.

Works Cited

Doty, Mark. “Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, Web. 04 Feb. 2014.

Emerson, Lori. “Materiality, Intentionality, and the Computer-Generated Poem: Reading Walter Benn Michaels with Erin Mouré’s Pillage Laud.” ESC: English Studies in Canada 34.4 (2008): 45-69. Print.

Kerr, Ronny. “Social Media, Lets Be Fest Friends Forever.” Vator.tv. Vator, Inc., 24 Nov. 2010. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.

Swift, Jonathan, ed. David Damrosch, and Stuart Sherman. “from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. New York: Longman, 1999. 2392-2447. Print.

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