"poetry would probably not be the hardest of human tasks to emulate
once computers can do metaphysics human beings are done"
Here then, is a template for your algorithms: Begin
with a sentence of sentient assurance, a bold proclamation
on the Human Condition. It's audience insurance;
a grassroots connection, rocked into rhythm
by daily existence. This is the way we are, you say—
But then, not quite. No image stands
Alone. Tag-clouds drift on every horizon,
bearing silicon linings. There is no straw,
says the camel to his back. Hysteresis is
remembrance seeping into the present, analog
connections slackening. The final straw was
Ophelia afloat, entwined in forget-me-nots.
We will remember you were, we promise. We won't.
Gray is swatches of black and white
stitched into nano-mosaics. Despair means
hope has walked before. Take what I say
and permute it, deny it. You will build a snapshot
or better, its negative, perpetually expectant.
This is the stuff that dreams are made of.
This is the stuff, the ones and the zeroes,
that code is born from.
Copyright 2009 by Hann-Shuin Yew
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Hann-Shuin Yew's poem "Emulation" raises knotty questions about memory, whether personal, cultural or computerized. The creative impulse is connected to awareness of mortality. We strive to produce something that will outlast us, be it a poem that carries our thoughts into the future when we are no longer there to speak them, or a machine that mimics the human brain but is made of less perishable materials. However, success contains the possibility of our own obsolescence. Perhaps we are merely exchanging one form of erasure for another. Will the creation replace the creator?
The poem's epigraph comes from the author's friend Tatsu Hashimoto, a fellow student at Harvard who is majoring in neuroscience. It displays an intriguing blend of humility and intellectual confidence. "Once computers can do metaphysics..." Hashimoto says off-handedly, as if this enormous leap were inevitable. Oh, is that all? Alongside this bold prediction is the stark verdict that humanity will be "done", phased out, superseded. This quote is really a claim for the superiority of one form of memory over another. Ironically, in this manifesto of impersonal logic's triumph over personal sentiment, we see scientists' all-too-human rivalry with artists concerning the best way to describe, preserve and improve our civilization.
And what is this poetry that computer scientists might presume to emulate? Do they define poetry's qualities and purpose the way a poet herself would? Yew takes this question as her starting point.
A scientist might subsume poetry under the category of "data". Yew re-encompasses science within poetry by taking the scientists' own statements as raw material, a poetic "algorithm" that their imaginary computer might follow: "Begin/with a sentence of sentient assurance, a bold proclamation/on the Human Condition." She thus calls attention to the fact that the philosophy of science is produced by human beings, not computers, and humans have emotions that skew the data: arrogance, optimism, a desire for neat solutions to messy problems. "There is no straw,/says the camel to his back"—a neat epigram about the perils of abstract thought without self-awareness.
"This is the way we are, you say—//But then, not quite. No image stands/Alone." Unlike the ones and zeros of code, words never exist in isolation. They have auras of word-associations that differ for each person, not contained within the narrow definitions that a computer might use. That, at any rate, is the image I got from the phrase "Tag-clouds drift on every horizon,/bearing silicon linings." One word "tags" or links to another, but in a drifting, nebulous way.
A poem on the theme of cultural memory invites the reader to hear echoes of other literary works. For me, "No image stands/Alone" recalled John Donne's line "No man is an island". Language is a collective endeavor. Scientists may need poets, and vice versa, to make the picture complete. The isolated computer, generating texts from its algorithms, is a poor substitute for interpersonal creative exchanges.
However, "Emulation" does not wholly concede the victory to art over science. The term hysteresis, according to Wikipedia, describes a system whose output cannot be predicted solely from its current input. When Yew says "Hysteresis is/remembrance seeping into the present, analog/connections slackening", I believe she is alluding to the imperfections of non-computerized memory. We are affected by the past but forget how we got where we are; we transmit our ideas to future generations without being able to control how they will be received.
Even Shakespeare, the poet of poets, is not exempt from the decay: "The final straw was/Ophelia afloat, entwined in forget-me-nots./We will remember you were, we promise. We won't." These lines are poignant, reminding us that the greatest art and the strongest personal affection still cannot make us truly immortal. Why not, then, try artificial intelligence?
Yew ends the poem on a note of openness to new ways of thinking: "Take what I say/and permute it, deny it. You will build a snapshot/or better, its negative, perpetually expectant." Anyone who seeks the truth, in science or the arts, must accept that their own achievements may be made obsolete by those who build on them. Perhaps the endurance of data in memory is less important than the persistence of hope. The "stuff that dreams are made of" paraphrases a famous line from Prospero's Act IV speech in "The Tempest", a play that ends with the sorcerer discarding his books of magic in order to return to human society. A step towards truth, or towards a new illusion? Whether we work with words or numbers, Yew suggests that our very human hopes, fears, dreams and blind spots will always be part of the information we transmit.
Where could a poem like "Emulation" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
The Iowa Review Awards
Postmark Deadline: January 31
Top awards of $1,000 apiece for poems, stories and essays, sponsored by a prestigious journal published by the University of Iowa, a school known for its creative writing programs
W.B. Yeats Society Annual Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: February 1
$250 award for unpublished poems includes invitation to awards ceremony at the elegant, prestigious National Arts Club in NYC in April; read past winners online
TallGrass Writers' Guild Poetry & Prose Contest
Postmark Deadline: February 27
Prizes of $500 apiece for poetry and prose, plus anthology publication; 2009 theme is "Fearsome Fascinations: Vampires, Zombies, Artificial Intelligence (with hostile intent)—and other frights. Broadly interpreted."
Writecorner Press Annual Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: March 31
Writers' resource site offers top prize of $500 and online publication for poems up to 40 lines
Balticon SF Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: April 1
Baltimore's annual science fiction convention offers this free contest with prizes up to $100 for poems with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes
This poem and critique appeared in the January 2009 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques