The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake

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Do Humans Dream of Poetry Machines?


I remember clearly the first moment that a computer program surprised me with its poetry. A few hundred lines of software I’d written in Java and had called SEER were not impressive for any technical elegance or for a truly artificial intelligence. But my program had written a coherent English sentence relevant to my chosen subject, which happened to be snakebite, and had done so with an oracular grace that I found uncanny. After instructing SEER to summarize a dozen articles I’d found online about rattlesnake strikes, including stories, poems, and medical reports, I blinked at the results. With a venomous bite you have been given a great gift appeared in chapter one of the novel that I co-wrote with that software, italicized to show that my aging Macbook had authored those words. With dozens of other computer-generated passages, SEER accounted for about 10 percent of my unpublished first novel, Love Song of Zero and One. As literature the book was a disaster, but it was the most instructive and enjoyable failure I’ve ever experienced.

What still haunts me is that I searched diligently for anything in the text I’d asked SEER to summarize for something like the above phrase. But I couldn’t find any paradox or sage pronouncement there that the machine had regurgitated, no evidence that instead of writing originally, my software had just replicated thoughtlessly a pre-existing literary notion that it had failed to digest and re-compose. In fact, the word gift didn’t appear at all in the source material I’d fed to Sentient Electronically Engineered Recounter (SEER). My use of the word “Sentient” in the acronym had been a joke, of course. This was just a laptop with a database of words and a Markov model for text generation.


I should take a moment to recount, in what geeks call natural language, the events that led me in that winter of 2011 to take the inspired and desperate step of sharing authorship with a machine. Fifteen years before, I had joined the technology workforce just out of UCLA clutching my bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. That was around the time that the Internet became the World Wide Web. I soon took a job testing computer games because it paid better than working in a deli, and it required only half-assed joystick skills along with an ability to describe precisely in writing any software defects I found.

The interview for the job asked candidates to submit written instructions to an alien life form who’s never before seen a telephone that would enable it to make a phone call. At that point I should have realized I was entering a work world that was less oriented toward humans than ever before.

But I learned to test software, then learned to manage the testing process, and then taught myself to program computers when testing software proved a career dead end. By night, inspired by Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, and Salman Rushdie, I wrote fiction with the hope of producing something worthy of my loftiest goals. And I survived as a humanoid in the digital economy, spending most of my time with computer scientists and engineers and MBAs, who tended to mock me gently for my impractical education.

My friends who had obtained MFAs published more than I did in some cases, and most became teachers of writing or supported their novelistic aspirations as journalists or waiters. They also faced continuing money worries, an ache that I’d largely left behind with my transition into tech. So I persisted in writing fiction after hours, and software in PERL and SQL and Python during the workday, achieving literary milestones by placing short stories in respected journals. But like most writers, I found myself without the prizes and spectacularly lucrative book contract that would let me quit my day job and write full time.

To my surprise, I found programming quite manageable as a trade after the initial hurdles. Handling variables and loops required no more math than high school algebra, and learning the syntax of a foreign tongue was something I’d enjoyed when studying Italian and French. Within a year, I’d doubled my income. The condescension with which my colleagues had treated me was gone. I wasn’t the smartest or the most technical person on the team, but I was a software developer, and I eventually wrote programs to do many things. One of the most interesting challenges I’d seen others in my department take on was writing software to read and author news reports.

In the technology departments of Wall Street where I worked for a decade, geeks compete to create more efficient and accurate Natural Language Processors. These read financial results contained in press releases when they hit the newswire, and decide programmatically to buy or sell that company’s stock within microseconds. I thought this was interesting, but not the most intriguing use of that software.

I had been researching a biographical novel I was writing about Georg Cantor, the great German scientist of set theory who created much of our current understanding of infinity. I’d imagined his story interwoven with that of a present day technologist obsessed with grasping infinity through a software program, but the narrative quickly crumbled under the weight of all the math that I grasped only slenderly, and that I found hard to render as eloquently as David Foster Wallace had in his nonfiction book about Cantor called Everything and More.

Soon Love Song of Zero and One became the tale of a contemporary couple’s breakup under the pressures of the digital age. Sara, the wife in Love Song, was a professor of poetry married to a male technologist who tried to understand William Blake by using his company’s news parsing software to summarize those poems in plain English. For a week or so I tried writing the computer’s output myself, pretending that I was a machine interpreting Blake’s poetry. Frustrated with my results, I assigned myself the challenge of creating the parsing software on my own time. But for that I had to learn intermediate level Java programming.

I should note that my interest in combining technology and literature goes back to my undergraduate days, when I wrote a poem that rendered the opening of my favorite play as instructions in AppleSoft BASIC, a language I’d learned in sixth grade computer camp.

110 EXIT

The above lines approximate BASIC’s syntax, and the algorithm for daughter-comparison is flawed, but it gets the point across. My girlfriend at the time, a poet, adored my typo KINGDOOM, and thought that line summed up the play in one command.

In a sense, all of SEER’s most interesting passages and successful parsings were mistakes like KINGDOOM, a substitution without thought of one unit of language for another that still retained the patina of meaning. For SEER I used Markov chains as implemented by Dr. Daniel Howe’s freeware. Markov chains are probability-based, like what Google uses to autocomplete your search terms with those that other searchers have used.

And that was the whole magic. In its final version, SEER read text, and with some basic grammar and a dictionary of words, used randomness and probability to guess what summarized the input accurately.

But it wasn’t until after my hard month of work learning Java and understanding Dr. Howe’s freeware that I could give SEER its first assignment. The character of the husband in my novel, a technologist from Texas, returns to his home state, where a rattlesnake bites him. So I fed my program the top 10 articles from Google’s search results on snakebite. With oracular brevity, SEER’s response was With a venomous bite you have been given a great gift.

When I completed Love Song of Zero and One, it included whole paragraphs of SEER’s output, most of it insecurely mounted on the drama-starved story I’d created to carry it. One paragraph was SEER’S summaries of the The Collected Works of William Blake. No two of my programmatic summaries of Blake or of any other input were alike, which wasn’t a sign of my code’s effectiveness but of its reliance on randomness.

I submitted the completed novel to five agents, all of whom turned it down. The most gracious of them said he enjoyed the experiment and fully expected to regret his rejection of the book. He should not regret it, just as I don’t regret authoring it. What did it teach me? That technology still doesn’t understand us. Alan Turing’s famous test for machine intelligence proposes that a computer that speaks sensibly in response to questions, offering the appearance of intelligence, cannot be called anything but sentient.

I disagree. What SEER and Love Song taught me are that mere replicas of thought and creativity are easy to create with probability machines, even replicas that sound eerily wise. What is hard to create in humans and in machines is real thought and genuine creativity.

I continue writing and submitting fiction with increasing success, while composing software for money. And I occasionally tamper with computer-generated literature, which has a long history going back to the 1970s and before, as noted in J.M. Coetzee’s book of essays Doubling the Point, and elsewhere. Certainly it’s possible that companies like Deep Mind, which Google purchased and where Elon Musk is a director, are moving us quickly toward a Singularity event, in which software becomes self-aware.

But as participating in any undergraduate creative writing class makes obvious, the gap between simple self-awareness and the literary intelligence necessary to compose a worthwhile novel will always be vast.


So Many Hills: Writing as Training

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At the state park where my wife and I run, the ultimate test is a mountain that leads to a radio tower, affectionately known as the “tower of terror.” A mangled deer leg greets me at the mouth of the trail, but I don’t need to be warned. Rocks jut like spiked steps. Years of storms have littered the trail with snapped branches and split limbs. A fire road cuts through the center and ends at the red and white tower, but rangers don’t frequent the splintered side paths. Those veins belong to mountain bikers who pine for bumps, even arranging errant logs into jumps. Halfway up, the grade eases. I lengthen my stride and settle into a rhythm, but there is another bend. Focused to the point of tunnel vision, I am startled by a deer’s snap of low growth. Runners are tightly wound.

In college and high school, I trained for the half-mile, a fevered whirlwind around the track. I was never a natural runner. I only joined the track team after a few too many dislocated shoulders ended my years as a relief pitcher. Running was supposed to be a way to stay in shape for basketball, but as that wobbly shoulder also helped end my college basketball career, running took over.

Runners obsesses. I kept graph paper charts of distance versus time, with far more acumen than I could ever manage when I limped through AP Calculus. Tall and thin, I was physically ready for middle-distance, but as someone who entered the sport late, I had a lot of catching up to do. I never eased into running; I sprinted into it. I would get sick at the end of half-mile races. I had trouble pacing myself; my first quarter mile was slow, but my second was an all-out, God-help-me burst past confused leaders easing from confidence, on through the finish line, past the bow-legged state official, and onto to the grass, where my lunch made a second showing. Afterward, icing my shins and nursing chicken broth, I would wonder why I put myself through such pain for so little glory. I was a good runner, good enough to make a Division III team. But for what?

Writers often ask themselves that question: why am I doing this? At some level, the answer is simple, at least for me: around my first year as an undergraduate, I fell in love with writing. I had always been interested in storytelling and reading, but those college years were the first time I thought of craft, revision, and audience. Now writing feels natural and necessary.

While writing Ember Days, my second book of short stories, I fully settled into what Andre Dubus called the “vertical” method of writing. I stopped forcing stories through sheer accumulation of pages. I became more comfortable with sitting at my desk and simply thinking. I might grab The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake off the shelf to awaken my ideas, but I also might take The Control of Nature by John McPhee. I have learned that the best stories find their writers. Fiction can’t be tricked.

At the same time that writing shift was happening, I tired of my typical runs. Like many trails in northwest New Jersey, these park routes were vestiges of the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. The abandoned cinder beds are lined with torn-up rails, discarded and overgrown with brush. Streams calm over pebbles. Nice scenery for a relaxing jog, but I wanted more. I turned from LSD — long, slow distance, as my college coach called it — to sprints. Anaerobic bursts. Windsprints in unmowed grass. Mountain bikers and horse-riders at the park looked at me as if I had lost my mind. When the fire service’s controlled burn charred the land black, the smell marked my throat and lungs like charcoal. I longed for water, but rejected rest. Sprints are a short performance. I can’t carry speed for long, but I began to crave those sharp moments.

These short sprints evolved into a desire to cover more ground, despite it being the dead of summer. I always loved running in the heat. It is an interest that goes against all good sense, but I am a stubborn fiction writer. My soul loved the challenge; my knees not so much. The mountain taunted me, and I had to take it. Runners are a dramatic bunch.

Pained knees. Sore quads. A shaky back. Add heat to that litany, and the blessed exhaustion of having twin newborns, and I had the recipe for some athletic, natural hallucinogens. Some days the ascension up the tower folded me. Other days the heat alone sapped the strength I needed to kick around the curves.

Those runs exhausted me, but changed my writing. I would normally have espresso-tinged coffee to keep me awake at my desk, but the exhaustion from running that mountain had put me in a strange state. The stories I was revising for Ember Days were about emotionally strained people living in geographically taxing environments, including the central New Mexico desert. I was able to settle into other settings and different voices when my body felt shaken.

Long runs tend to brew essay or story ideas, but the fast work of training — sprints, hills, lifting weights — simultaneously sharpens and blurs those ideas into actions. Training sharpens ideas by cutting away the chaff that tends to accumulate during that long time on the trail, where the mind can wander; training blurs those ideas to the surreal places where art is made. Since my body craved sleep, I could slip from the rational mind that stifles fiction.

Not being the fastest runner used to frustrate me when I reached the most competitive races, but I now see it as a blessing for writing. Through the unfortunate, small-minded quirks of secondary school rites of passage, athletes and artists are stereotypically divided. We know this is not true. The athletic and artistic modes are creative, progressive, and sustaining. I was happy to see Runner’s World recently profile fiction writer Jamie Quatro, an avid runner who said:
Running isn’t about what distances you’ve raced, or even if you’ve done a race…Not enough of us are talking about what a holistic sport it is, or should be. It’s about staying fit and pushing yourself to achieve and surpass goals, sure; but it’s also about personal and spiritual growth, creativity, mental clarity, and emotional stability. I find these things in running.
Quatro notes the “amazing things that can happen on a run. Especially when I go straight from writing to running, all these solutions will occur to me.”

Another fiction writer, Andre Dubus, made running a regular part of his life, and explained what he had gleaned from reading about the methods of Ernest Hemingway: “I learned about writing every day, stopping writing in half sentence, while you’re going well, then do physical exercise, come back to it the next day.” The younger me might have spent hours at the desk, angering sentences into completion. The older me — a father and a husband, someone who no longer lives for only himself — knows better. Rather than being a distraction from writing, life is what enables writing.

The constant desire to be a faster, better runner has helped me channel competition as a writer without being sidelined by it. My hunger is different than ambition. I know that I am ultimately only racing against myself. I have a long way to go, and a lot to learn. That hunger brings me back to the desk to work at this strange art, the rewards of which are not easily measured in minutes, seconds, or steps.

Image Credit: Flickr/Loren Kerns.

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