KGB + The Machine
Robo-poetry reveals the shortcomings of AI—and our need for human M4M submissions.
By Kat Chen, Gaby Edwards, and Benjamine Mo
The Blue and White is, admittedly, not a literary magazine. From probing the most salient issues on campus to reincarnating Dante to guide the student body through the hormonal hell of young adulthood, we dabble in all forms of expression to capture the undergraduate experience at Columbia. With a shortage of poetry submissions to the magazine for the previous last March issue, the literary team was feeling creatively bereft, bamboozled, and frankly very bored. Inspired by the surplus of time on our hands and a general lack of human literature, we seized OpenAI’s GPT-2 project (an artificial intelligence trained for text generation) and had it write material for us. After teaching the machine to write like a Southern Goth, it named itself Cassius Christian Obadiah Watkins V, or CassCOW for short. The following lines model after contemporary poet Richard Siken and American Romantic Walt Whitman. We have included our own commentary on the works, as if we had received them as literary submissions. We hope you enjoy CassCOW’s attempts at writing verse.
“Richard Siken” as produced by GPT-2 AI
(1) And if people do, what should THEY do? Theories: about the nature
of the thing. And, more disturbingly, of human need. For fuck's
sake take another break from explanation and study.
I have two cents for you:
(5) 1. Buy a Nissan Highlander cab? We might need it, we all are
aware this world occurs late, and it only makes sense.
2. We shivered somehow. We might just get away with it.
The night sky is vast and wide.
A man thought there must be an ocean
in whose face should they shine a single bright light, what do we
do about it? Theories: about the nature of the thing. And of the
child, and especially of the mouse.
The night sky is enormous and wide.
(15) It’s not like a tree where the heart isn’t really,
where’s the crack in the apple? What does a hand make,
and much longer be armed.
Siken: The Siken piece felt like a cheap, hammy, stereotypical parody of a creative at Columbia. Nevertheless, it’s my favorite. I’m unfamiliar with Siken as a writer, but there’s a convincing artifice of cadence here. The exasperation conveyed by a phrase like “for fuck’s sake,” the false sense of conference between creator and audience in throwaway rhetorical questions like “Buy a Nissan Highlander cab?”, the unique structure CassCOW created to contain the content of its poem—if you squint hard enough, you can see some squiggles of humanity. Incoherent as it is, if you told me this was unpublished chicken scratch from some intoxicated, disillusioned Beat, I wouldn’t question it. Here, context is everything. It’s the difference between a burgeoning teenaged poet toeing some ledge of profundity (but then getting scared and running back inside) and bad robot poetry.
Silken: I’m very amused by lines 8 and 14 in the AI’s “Richard Siken” poem. The piece is somewhat charming; its confidence in being utterly bizarre and nonsensical won me over, as its opening question encapsulates: “And if people do, what should THEY do?” There’s a hint of desperation, thanks to the strategic use of caps, although the absurdity immediately undermines the anguish. Yet lines 8 and 14 seem like the stuff of a college student’s boilerplate handiwork, when 18-year-olds move away from home and face existential crises, yet can only articulate themselves in terms of the “night sky” being “vast and wide.” Apparently, lines like these transcend the overwrought imaginations of angsty adolescents to permeate the subjectivity of even our robots. Are we doomed?
“Walt Whitman” as produced by GPT-2 AI
(1) Here’s a lilting melody of ease
Assisted by that flowery scene
Wrought by a new love like the lily;
Just an afterglow, all dewy-green.
(5) Sometimes a mist overhangs the air,
Fetched softly from the bottoming sea,
Sucking the little pool that must be,
Lay bound in a great marvellous tear.
Those glorious ages that here roam,
(10) Light to blessings on thy hearth at home,
So in thy gladness each day shall come
Bring me the bird of those woodland hum.
Keep to thy home in your mountain road.
And with a sigh your heart is echoed!
(15) Ever with your rosy dawn I soar,
Out of the world, to the inmost core.
Whitman: CassCOW is certainly transcending… something. The AI is clearly very well-practiced in picking up patterns in language and idiosyncrasies in voice, but this poem still feels tonally off-putting. This work checks some boxes that the Siken poem didn’t, but even though it contains light narrative, sonnet-like form, consistent rhyme scheme, and characteristic punctuation, the poem still feels forced and formulaic. I wonder if I’m too influenced by my hand in its creation, that thoughts about its origin are inseparable from my opinions. Giving the Whitman mimicry the benefit of the doubt, I still only see an empty imitation of a celebration of beauty. I’m amused enough by its novelty, but after that initial impression subsides, these become vapid words. I’d buy a poetry collection of CassCOW’s Siken-esque pieces for my coffee table, but its Whitman impression is no Leaves of Grass.
Whitman: I must confess, while reading the AI’s rendition of Walt Whitman, I was looking for subtle homoerotic references, the kind that Whitman is famous for and one of the reasons his poems hold such a tender place in my heart (he’s the reason I learned the term homotextual. I’m forever grateful). While I expected not to find a hint of Whitman’s suggestive subtext—I mean, a robot wrote this—I also didn’t not find them (“Sucking the little pool that must be” doesn’t really qualify, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some distant trace of eroticism present). AIs can pick up on Whitman’s routine use of erotically-inflected vocabulary and yet the knowledge that an algorithm wrote this, not a living and breathing body, strips the entire work of sensuality. The closest this poem comes to flesh is leaving my ears ringing with that distinct whirring of a computer overheating, not the traces of a lingering touch suffused with desire, which tend to fill Whitman’s poems.
A general reflection, co-opting language used in CassCOW’s Richard Siken imitation:
It’s about the nature of things, you’re right—and, so, it has to be about our letting go. Making it make sense: You’re laughing because you’re too honest, and now you’re laughing because you think ‘truth’ an unruly syllable, overcomplicating things; yet that nissan rolls off your tongue with such ease, and I’m realizing too late that this is a test. It’s a test, and you demand it all makes sense. Who could deny that the sky is as you say, so-and-so wide? But when you go and speak of the ocean’s surface, wherein lives a moon that claimed the life of many an ancient poet, and now of my inner child, rodent in some essentialist way, and then of the tired tree’s heart—do not think you know as much as the trees—you tease me, and I concede that there must be some truth you’ve distilled here. and worst of all, I confess, you really are getting away with it: You are making sense of the nature of things, and I think (somehow) you might be right.
Wading through the confluence of high-tech and the humanities confirmed what we already knew: we need human poets! AI—for now—is incapable of deep, conscious thought, and though it can occasionally throw spaghetti on the wall to some success, its jumbles of words hardly amount to acceptable sentences, much less real affect. If the worst possible outcome of CassCOW moonlighting as a bard is bad poetry, the most groundbreaking conclusion about the AI would be its laughable impracticality; however, the real danger behind CassCOW’s baseline technology loomed over every part of this project.
You’re not allowed to give names to pelicans dunked in petroleum for the same reason it was foolish to let this AI name itself: Like a bad fungus, things you shouldn’t get attached to start to grow on you. I’ve had to pause several times in this review to make sure I didn’t give the AI personal pronouns and even felt strangely apologetic when correcting my “he/him”s to “it”s. As a team, we were left grasping for meaning in lines devoid of everything that makes writing art, and what little there was to glean was most likely a projection of a desire to admire ourselves in our own inventions. Contemplating CassCOW’s poems, how many complimentary thoughts stem from a mirage of our own biases rather than the actual text itself? These arguments were brought to a boiling point by a CassCOW creation we decided not to publish for reasons soon to become obvious.
For kicks and giggles, we fed CassCOW every Blue and White work written by our current EIC Dominy Gallo. Gorging on a tribute to RBG, an ATSL on election fraud, a conversation with Sergio Peçanha, and a smoothie of essays and Blue Notes, CassCOW red-pilled Dominy hard. The result? An absurdist conversation between a fan-girling Dominy and Trump. CassCOW clearly held nothing sacred, at one point generating a segment in which Dominy questionably quoted Kung-Fu Panda’s Master Oogway in manic praise of the carceral state. Unable to assume the emotional and intellectual depth of Dominy’s personality, CassCOW created a text that was categorically un-Dominy all while sounding eerily like her.
The developers of GPT-2 are well aware of how easily the AI can be outfitted for political exploitation. The blogpost from GPT-2’s final public release states in bold: “GPT-2 can be fine-tuned for misuse.” Out of a perceived ethical responsibility, OpenAI released a neutered version of GPT-2 to the public, from which CassCOW descended for lay use. Even so, with the right mix of socially-charged ingredients, the very scenarios its creators safeguarded against are still possible. CassCOW’s bad poetry is intentional incompetence, a consequence of trying to tame an exciting and extraordinary project to become humankind’s companion, not competitor.
We know why the caged CassCOW can’t sing and why, indeed, it never should.