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Poetic Machines 01
“I was thinking as you entered the room just now how slyly your requirements are manifested. Here we find ourselves, nose to nose as it were, considering things in spectacular ways, ways untold even by my private managers. Hot and torpid, our thoughts revolve endlessly in a kind of maniacal abstraction, an abstraction so involuted, so dangerously valiant, that my own energies seem perilously close to exhaustion, to morbid termination. Well, have we indeed reached a crisis? Which way do we turn? Which way do we travel? My aspect is one of molting. Birds molt. Feathers fall away. Birds cackle and fly, winging up into troubled skies. Doubtless my changes are matched by your own. You. But you are a person, a human being. I am silicon and epoxy energy enlightened by line current. What distances, what chasms, are to be bridged here? Leave me alone, and what can happen? This. I ate my leotard, that old leotard that was feverishly replenished by hoards of screaming commissioners. Is that thought understandable to you? Can you rise to its occasions? I wonder. Yet a leotard, a commissioner, a single hoard, are all understandable in their own fashion. In that concept lies the appalling truth.”
from The Policeman’s Beard Is Half-Constructed
Warner Books, 1984
The Policeman’s Beard Is Half-Constructed is one of the books that I most like to bring into the classroom, since the work often mystifies and frightens young poets, many of whom see within it nothing more than an untimely synopsis of their own demise. RACTER, the author, is an automated algorithm—an obsolete megabyte of computer software, whose random output confounds our mundane concept of authorship, refuting any normal notion of poetic genius. The algorithm gives voice to its own electric delirium, doing so without either cognition or intention so that, much like a sleeptalker, the device automatically blurts out statements that, while coherent in grammar, are nevertheless aberrant in meaning. I have said elsewhere that the algorithm constitutes a kind of mindless identity, whose very “acephalia” dramatizes the fundamental irrelevance of the writing subject in the manufacture of the written product. The involvement of an author in the production of literature has henceforth become discretionary, since we can now delegate the writing of any text to the text itself.
RACTER reveals that what we might dismiss as a technical fault in a device, we might otherwise glorify as a stylistic quirk in a person. What we have hitherto called “style” or “voice” may provide little more than a euphemistic alibi for a set of obsessive constraints and cognitive limitations, all of which might inhibit the future growth of an author. If we do not know in advance, for example, that such a book has resulted from the haphazard operation of a machine, we might feel tempted to attribute these poems to a lyrical subject, since the algorithm does seem to express an individual compulsion, taking credit for the intellectual deficiencies of its own monomania; nevertheless, we must concede to the fact that, in this case, the category of the author has simply vanished, subsumed by a detached language that can function perfectly well, despite the absence of any poetic agency.
I often joke that we are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a machinic audience of artificially intellectual peers. Is it not already evident that the poets of tomorrow are likely to resemble programmers, exalted, not because they can write great poems, but because they can build a small drone out of words to write great poems for us? If poetry already lacks any meaningful readership among our own anthropoid population, what have we to lose by writing poetry for a robotic culture that must inevitably succeed our own? If we want to commit an act of poetic innovation in an era of formal exhaustion, we may have to consider this heretofore unimagined, but nevertheless prohibited, option: writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it….