November 14, 2018

Can a robot write poetry?

Can a robot write poetry? That is the question posed in the headline of an article on The first reaction of most poets would probably be a quick No. 

The article is really about technology, but my own answer is that artificial intelligence can write poetry. One reason I believe that is because it is so hard at times for us to say that a poem is a Poem. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) has had trouble with pathos, empathy and humor. It is great at learned tasks but creativity without human input has been more difficult to achieve.

Computer scientists (in this example, at Microsoft Research Asia) are working on designing AI that can be creative. You have probably seen or heard of examples of AI writing music or creating images. This new experiment attempts to have AI write poetry using images as a "writing prompt."

You look at an ocean wave, a painting, a foggy sunrise and you are inspired to write. Are all your resulting poems great?  

Up to this point, AI auto-generation of text has been getting better. Computers/robots/AI (choose your term) can write sports articles based on stats about a game and some rules about the descriptive language used in sports reporting. An algorithm to be poetic is a ot harder to create.

These researchers trained their AI with 8,000 images. When is "looked at" this bare winter trees country scene, 

it wrote this haiku-like (after all, it is Microsoft Asia) poem:

Sun is shining
The wind moves
naked trees
You dance

Is it a poem?  If one of the elementary students I work with in a workshop gave it to me, I would take it as a poem. I think I'd accept it as a short form poem from almost anyone, in fact.  

Is it a good poem? That is always harder to answer.

November 9, 2018

'The Practicing Poet' - Book Launch Event

If you are in the New Jersey metro area this weekend, I invite you to join me at a book launch reading for The Practicing Poet: Writing Beyond the Basics on Sunday, November 11, 2018.  I am one of a number of poets who will be reading our poems that are in this new craft book.

The event will be at the West Caldwell Public Library (30 Clinton Rd., West Caldwell, NJ, 07006) at 2:00 PM.

Check out the event on Facebook.

Please join us to celebrate the publication - and get some poetic inspiration from the readers, including Jessica deKoninck, Deborah Gerrish, Tina Kelley, Adele Kenny, Jennifer Kosuda, Camille Norvaisas, Susanna Rich, Maxine Susman and the editor of the book, Diane Lockward.

A reception will follow the reading. Everyone is invited and books will be available for sale and signing.

November 7, 2018

Prompt: Translation

Translations are an important part of the poetry world.  Even translating the deceptively-simple haiku is difficult and worthy of argument. We use the phrase "lost in translation" more often in situations that don't have to do with going from one language to another.

You probably have tried one of the translation tools online, such as Google Translate, and very likely found the results to be so literal that something was lost in the process. This is more likely when translating poetry and literature and language that is more figurative.

The poem "On Translation" by Mónica de la Torre suggests that the translator's job is:

"Not to search for meaning, but to reedify a gesture, an intent.
As a translator, one grows attached to originals. Seldom are choices
   so purposeful."

Translations can be far-reaching, such as those done for politicians in places like the United Nations.

Our prompt this month deals with translation in poetry, but not necessarily of poetry.

One poem in Charles Baudelaire's collection Fleurs du mal  (a title that easily translate to Flowers of Evil) is "Harmonie du soir."  Just looking at the first stanza of that poem in several translations shows us the "problem" with translations.

Baudelaire wrote:

Voici venir les temps où vibrant sur sa tige
Chaque fleur s'évapore ainsi qu'un encensoir;
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!

That stanza was translated by William Aggeler as:

The season is at hand when swaying on its stem
Every flower exhales perfume like a censer;
Sounds and perfumes turn in the evening air;
Melancholy waltz and languid vertigo!

But in the translation by Roy Campbell, the stanza becomes:

Now comes the eve, when on its stem vibrates
Each flower, evaporating like a censer;
When sounds and scents in the dark air grow denser;
Drowsed swoon through which a mournful waltz pulsates!

Cyril Scott translated that stanza in this way:

The hour approacheth, when, as their stems incline,
The flowers evaporate like an incense urn,
And sounds and scents in the vesper breezes turn;
A melancholy waltz — and a drowsiness divine.

And the version translated by Lewis Piaget Shanks looks like this:

the hours approach when vibrant in the breeze,
a censer swoons to every swaying flower;
blown tunes and scents in turn enchant the bower;
languorous waltz of swirling fancies these!

Which translation is the right one, or the best one, or the closest to what Baudelaire would have wanted to say in English?

I can't ask you this month to do translations of poems since many of us don't have multiple languages to use. Let us think about other instances of translation in our lives.

In "Elegy in Translation" by Meg Day, she notes something we have all done - hearing a song lyric incorrectly:
"I saw Joni live and still thought a gay pair of guys put up a parking lot." 

Even after hearing the song sung live - like hearing a poet at a reading - she didn't hear the correct Joni Mitchell lyric ("They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.") though she may have known that was the actual line.

In the haiku-like "Elvis in Translation" by Elaine Equi, she writes about one of the other kinds of translations we do in our lives.

"Sometimes the blue in Blue Hawaii
gets lost. But Elvis’s eyes speak
pure Esperanto."

My own thought is that we are all translators, whether it be in our everyday lives or in the ways that we take experiences and translate them into poems for others to read and experience.

For this month's prompt, I ask you to focus on the act of translation in any form - actually translating from one language to another, interpreting and translating a conversation in our own language or a gesture or a facial reaction, a baby's cry, a pet's attitude, the meaning of clouds moving towards you - the possibilities are wide open and many. Is that translation accurate, successful, or is something lost or mistranslated?

I offer up my own take on translation as this month's model poem.


My grandparents would speak Slovak
with my father, the aunts and the uncles
at the Sunday dinners at their home in Newark
when they didn’t want us to know.
In those days, the priests spoke Latin.
That was the mystery of the faith.
The boys on the #42 bus spoke Spanish
as I rode to my afterschool job
and when they laughed, looking in my direction.
Too fast for my B+  Spanish III  understanding
but enough that it hurt.
The waiter at the Chinese restaurant
changes my order into words
that I want to understand, 
but will  never know.
This is the poet’s job, 
and the job of the reader too.
We have been in training
all our lives.

by Kenneth Ronkowitz

Deadline for submissions is November 30, 2018