Living in Brexile, you find excuses for the UK’s exhilaration of dribbling. You explain to mystified non-Britons that whatever they’ve put in the water will one day run out. May Merlin return with Excalibur and Alec Guinness. Everything will be fine again.
So I visited the UK pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai this week with concern, not least because I knew poetry was part of the deal.
Some good news first. The UK Department for International Trade has ordered a structure which is not covered by Union Jacks. You won’t see any mention of WWII, derring-do, or Victoria sponge. Unlike the Chinese Pavilion, where Chinese President Xi Jinping greets you on a Big Brother screen at the entrance, there is no Boris Johnson and no evidence that Downing Street decorators have passed by. Unlike England, my Spanish partner was able to enter without feeling like a criminal.
Among the largely cuboid national hangers in the Expo Opportunity Zone, the British Pavilion juts out like a giant ice cream cone made of popsicle sticks with an LED word at the end of each wooden spar. Creator Es Devlin explains the concept as follows: “He uses an advanced machine learning algorithm to generate the cumulative collective poem that lights up its 20m diameter facade. “
So far, so good. Everything looks very edible. But does artificial intelligence (AI) have a poetic meaning?
As a bettor, your user experience goes a bit like this. You take an uphill walkway that folds back on itself several times before reaching the start. Just like poetry. Halfway up, a man tries to sell you useless American soft drinks. If you ask for Irn-Bru or Laudanum, he will tell you to speak to a supervisor. Upon entry, you are prompted to download an app to enter any word you choose via your mobile into the evolving poem-a-thon. Here Keats may have struggled. Byron would have fought.
The Merry Wizards in Panama Hats explain that the resulting masterpiece will be launched into space next year as part of a mission to develop a deeper understanding of Britain among the forms of extraterrestrial life. I guess all the little green men with heavyweight licenses top the list. They warn you that not all words will pass the algorithm test. Proper names like Nigel or Hancock are not considered poetic enough. Anything inflammatory like cunnilingus, Millwall or socialism will be judged by the AI as non-lyrical.
My first attempt failed. I thought that the “shoes” would be pedestrian enough to pass, having dismissed provocations like “stiletto” or “crampon”. A text message advised me to try again.
“Aardvark” had to work. The dream of lexicographers. Besides, I had already seen “doves” up there on the front of the building. Blaaaaarp. Try again. Maybe English animals, then.
I knew the “goth” was doomed. Just like “biker”. When the algorithm accepted “punk”, a beautiful thing happened. My mobile screen turned on and within seconds I received the next piece of artificially intelligent worm. . . and there in the garden, looking at the moon, I’ll be the poppy and the thug.
Soft blue wave noise
My immediate response, as a poet, was to think about what could have been. . . and there in the shoes, watching for the goth, I will be the aardvark and the crampon. More to my liking, but I’m not an algorithm. What do I know? I checked the official poem on the front of the building to see if my “punk” had been included, but AI changed it to “pink”.
Eight more attempts were bombed until I hit “vague” in desperation. Once again my phone beamed and the next verse arrived. . . The sky made a vague, soft blue noise. With his own voice we could hear.
Thank you, British poetry. Relieve your iambic feet, Carol Anne and Imtiaz and Warsan and Simon. I nailed it. This is Britain’s message to the cosmos in 2021. A soft vague blue noise.
Yet the two successful verses had an eerie comfort. Words like “sky” and “moon” and “garden” are the perfect poetic tropes. If I had been sitting there all day sending my deviant words into the “scent cloud” I’m pretty sure they would have found “haze”, “stars” and “dreams” on their travels. While they would never have engaged in a “hanky panky”, they could very well have made “love”, and certainly had “kittens”, probably in front of a “sunset”.
Was all this digital witchcraft just my old English teacher in the basement furiously deleting us all on his Blackberry? Or could it be part of a bigger design? Here’s what Google’s algorithms told me.
The set of ground rules for generating poetic verses were shaped by AI experts and programmers with consultation with the Poetry Society, the Scottish Poetry Library, and the Poetry Archive. Together they have provided 15,000 poems by over 100 British poets to “express the complex nature of humanity through verse”.
Nothing on Hallmark greeting cards, but I bet the International Trade Department laptop had a big, shiny “optimism” button on it. No one wants to run into a ‘sociopath’ or ‘yeast infection’ at an international trade fair, although at launch a UK official described the experience as a cross between Davos and Glastonbury.
Getting back to the massive question, at what level does AI poetry work? Perhaps there are accidental conjunctions that stimulate ideas and images in the reader’s mind, much like watching the drops and whirlpools in a Jackson Pollock. Yet even Jack the Dripper involves human action and a certain degree of intentionality. The neo-pavilionists could then argue that by shaping the poetry of hundreds of poets, they have effectively aggregated a poetic human voice. The more words then chosen by the public only serves to make this voice even more human. Unlike the monkey-typewriter-Shakespeare example.
Yet, without direct intention, what truth will the space poem illuminate? That in 2021 we like “hope” and “roses” and “birthdays”? That “needles” and “ska” did not exist? (Both on my reject list.)
I’d rather believe it’s the work of a maverick Mandarin in Whitehall. “Build me a monument that embodies the existential crisis of the digital age. Emphasize our constant need for personal validation in an increasingly virtual world in which social media shapes human relationships. And do it before Nadine Dorries becomes Minister of Culture.
If so, welcome to the desert, Ozymandias.
Mark Fiddes is a poet and creative director living in Temporary Brexile in the Middle East. His latest collection is Other Saints Are Available (Live Canon). Expo 2020, hosted by Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, runs until March 2022.