February 22, 2020

February Words

I was looking through some February poems and it was rather depressing. Most of them were filled with rather grim winter images.

"Afternoon In February" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow starts out like this:

The day is ending,
The night is descending;
The marsh is frozen,
The river dead.

and I didn't want to go further.

Things are not much better in "February: The Boy Breughel" by Norman Dubie with its deadly nature imagery.

The birches stand in their beggar's row:
Each poor tree
Has had its wrists nearly
Torn from the clear sleeves of bone,
These icy trees
Are hanging by their thumbs...

And a fox crosses through snow
Down a hill; then, he runs,
He has overcome something white
Beside a white bush, he shakes
It twice, and as he turns
For the woods, the blood in the snow

There's only a brief line of hope because those poor tortured birch trees are "Under a sun / That will begin to heal them soon."

The only hopeful February poems I cam across concerned themselves with thinking beyond February.

Jane Kenyon was looking ahead in her "February: Thinking of Flowers"

Now wind torments the field,
Turning the white surface back
On itself, back and back on itself,
Like an animal licking a wound.

Nothing but white the air, the light;
Only one brown milkweed pod
Bobbing in the gully, smallest
Brown boat on the immense tide.

A single green sprouting thing
Would restore me...

Then think of the tall delphinium,
Swaying, or the bee when it comes
To the tongue of the burgundy lily.

I saw my first green sprouting things - crocuses and the tops of daffodils - this past week. It is a hopeful thing.

And Ted Kooser in his poem "Late February" must also have been thinking on one of those early warm days when:

...by mid-afternoon
the snow is no more
than a washing
strewn over the yards,
the bedding rolled in knots
and leaking water,
the white shirts lying
under the evergreens.

But it's a brief respite from winter, a false spring and:

by five o'clock
the chill of sundown,
darkness, the blue TVs
flashing like storms
in the picture windows,
the yards gone gray,
the wet dogs barking
at nothing.

And in his final lines, those hopeful green things of early spring take an unexpected and horrible turn.

Far off
across the cornfields
staked for streets and sewers,
the body of a farmer
missing since fall
will show up
in his garden tomorrow,
as unexpected
as a tulip

Oh February, "month of despair" as Margaret Atwood describes it "with a skewered heart in the centre," you need some optimism.

I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You're the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.


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February 12, 2020

A Robot Who Thinks She Is Emily Dickinson

You keep hearing that "the machines are coming" and taking over our jobs - and maybe our lives if you believe the worst-case scenarios.

You may have thought that poets were safe from the AI/robot/machine takeover, but programmers have been trying for at least a decade to get them to write poetry.

I had a conversation with some poet friends a few months ago about this topic. Though the feeling was that AI was not going t write any good poetry, we also thought that it might be difficult to determine if it is good or bad poetry.

All of us have read published poems that we thought were not good poems and maybe even questioned if they were poems at all. Differences of opinion.

An article on lithub.com states that "The Machines Are Coming and They Write Really Bad Poetry."

It's true that robots will ultimately be more lifelike. They will look more like us and sound more human and less robotic in their speech and writing.

The article gives several examples of AI-generated attempts, including ones in the styles of famous poems and poets. The machine was given a poem as its prompt to write.

Her is one that is supposed to be in the style of Emily Dickinson with the Emily prompt poem and the AI result.

The poems come from a program called GPT-2, a project of the San Francisco-based research firm OpenAI. Using that program, some people have compiled a collection of attempts by the AI to complete famous works of poetry and it became a chapbook, Transformer Poetry, published by Paper Gains Publishing (read online). You can read them and decide.

I don't think it's a totally serious project and I'm sure most readers here will say either that these are lousy poems or not poems at all, but it is an interesting experiment. GPT-2 was not built to be a poet, but the ultimate hope is that it would be able to learn how to predict the rest of a piece of incomplete text regardless of content or genre.

Maybe we should look at these poems in the way we look at the poems by new or young poets. Did the AI imitations (and almost every poet did some imitating at the beginning - it's how we - and computers - learn) understand diction, grammar, and syntax? Not bad. How about rhyme, meter, imagery and figurative language such as metaphor? Not good. But not so different from the way humans develop and use language, and the way first attempts at poetry turn out.

Am I praising these AI poems? No, but I do find the experiment interesting.

I think we poets are safe for now. But not forever.

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February 5, 2020

Prompt: Time Passes

A Copernican calendar based on the Sun's movement through the seasons

Humans have many time-keeping traditions. Our calendars track the movement of the Sun or the Moon. You could have a celestial calendar that tracked the movement of the stars.

I suspect that some people might track the year based on the changing seasons. You might personally mark the new year on your birthday. After 40 years of teaching, it is difficult for me to not feel that September starts a new year. The way we mark time throughout a day or year is often personal despite the larger time-keeping that is supposed to organize time for us.

When I mentioned to another poet that I was thinking about using a writing prompt about keeping time, she said: "You mean like in music?" That was a natural way to view my prompt for her because she is a musician.

In Walt Whitman's "To Think of Time," his thoughts turn to questions all of us have had at some point.

To think of time—of all that retrospection!
To think of to-day, and the ages continued henceforward!

Have you guess'd you yourself would not continue?
Have you dreaded these earth-beetles?
Have you fear'd the future would be nothing to you?

Is to-day nothing? Is the beginningless past nothing?

In our model poem for this prompt titled "Time Passes," Joy Ladin personifies Time which seems to have as much trouble dealing with itself as we have dealing with it. I love that while the other three dimensions are sleeping, Time is sweating it out in the middle of the night and feeling lost.

Time too is afraid of passing, is riddled with holes
through which time feels itself leaking...
Time has lost every picture of itself as a child.
Now time is old, leathery and slow.
Can’t sneak up on anyone anymore...

All of our attempts to control time ultimately fail. Even the best calendars and clocks are off at some point. Laura Kasischke has a poem titled "The Time Machine" which suggests that long-wished-for-ability to go back or forward in time to somehow change the present.

My mother begged me: Please, please, study
Without it
I would have no future, and this
is the future that was lost in time to me...

When I first read T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the image that stayed with me was of measuring a life with coffee spoons.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

This month, we ask you to write a poem that measures the passing of time using some personal metric that may only be useful or relevant to you.

Deadline for submissions: February (Leap Year!) 29, 2020

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