Waking up and feeling poetry blocked, and having just received a wonderfully bizarre 1988 Björk video in my YouTube feed, I decided to play with found poetry and ChatGPT.
Found poems, as defined by the American Academy of Poets, “take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems.”
The raw transcription of this short video is already lyrical, enhanced by Björk’s distinct voice and mannerisms:
Hello, it is Christmas time, and I'm sitting here by my TV. I've been watching it very much lately because I'm on a holiday and I have been seeing all those programs, all sorts of things, about Icelandics being very happy about Christmas, very gay and also very serious and spiritual. And also seeing Icelandic comic people making jokes which they are very good at. But now I'm curious. I've switched the TV off and now I want to see how it operates. How it can put me into all those weird situations. So, it's about time. See, this is what it looks like. Look at this. This looks like a city, like a little model of a city, and all the houses which are here and streets. This is maybe an elevator to go up up there, and here are all the wires. These wires. They really take care of all the electrons when they come through here. They take care of that. They are powerful enough to get all the way through here. I read that in a Danish book this morning. This beautiful television has put me, like I said before, in all sorts of situations. I remember being very scared of it because an Icelandic poet told me that not like in cinemas, where the thing that throws the picture from it just sends light on the screen, But this is different. This is a millions and millions of little screens who send light on you, some sort of electrical light. I'm not really sure but because there's so many of them. And in fact, you're watching very, very many frames when you're watching TV. Your head is very busy all the time, to calculate and put it all together into one picture. And then, because you're so busy doing that you don't watch very carefully what the program that you're watching is really about. So you become hypnotized. So all that's on TV, It just goes directly into your brain and you stop judging if it was right or not. You just swallow and swallow. This is what the Icelandic poet told me once, and I became so scared of television that I always got headaches when I watched it. But then, later on, when I got my Danish book on television, I stopped being afraid because I read the truth, and that's the scientifical truth, which is much better. You shouldn't let poets lie to you.
Let’s see what ChatGPT (a “large language model” or LLM) can do with this block of text. First I ask ChatGPT to summarize the text:
ChatGPT response: The speaker is watching TV during Christmas time and reflects on how the programs they've been watching depict Icelanders as happy and spiritual. They express curiosity about how the TV operates and how it can put them into different situations. The speaker mentions that they were once scared of TV because an Icelandic poet told them that the TV sends light directly into the brain, hypnotizing the viewer. However, after reading a Danish book on television, the speaker no longer fears it. The speaker concludes by saying that people should not let poets lie to them.
This is a reasonable functional summary but leaves out the dreamy, ASMR quality of the text and especially the feeling of watching the video (ChatGPT is currently limited to responding to text). ChatGPT also doesn’t have an emotional connection with Björk, with her music and memories of seeing her in concert, or how Björk may be connected to life events.
Next I asked ChatGPT to create a poem based on this text:
'Twas Christmas time, and by my TV, I sat and watched, a holiday escape. Icelandics happy, gay and spiritual, Comic folks, with jokes so dutiful. But curiosity got the best of me, I switched it off, to see how it operates. This little model city, wires and screens, Electrons flowing, in powerful beams. A Danish book, I read this morn, Explained the truth, so I was no longer torn. Poets lied, with tales of hypnotize, But science spoke, and cleared my eyes. So now, I watch with care and thought, No more headaches, as my mind is taught. Don't let poets lead you astray, Seek the truth, in what they say.
This is, again, functionally a poem but lacks an emotional connection with Björk, the dreamy ASMR-like quality of the video, and any memories that watching Björk might trigger in the viewer. It’s really a summary of the text in a poetic form.
In looking at the found text and watching the video a couple of times I think of Björk’s music, her surreal and magnetic personality, her iconic Oscar appearance in a swan dress, the first time my wife and I saw Björk perform live, standing at the back of a club in Toronto during her first solo tour, when the crowd was so enthusiastic for another encore that she repeated a song because she’d run out of encores. As I think about creating a found poem from this video, I’m thinking about all of these things in addition to the found text. That’s where ChatGPT is limited, it lacks an emotional connection with the source material and doesn’t have memories to draw from (perhaps in the future ChatGPT will have the memories of someone embedded in the model – like Rachael in Blade Runner).
Here’s my early take at creating a found poem from this text and incorporating that memory of seeing a Björk concert with my wife. I’m also immediately struck by her closing line and think it will be a terrific starting point for the title of the poem: “You shouldn’t let poets lie to you.” And I play around with form – how to interleave setting context, my memory from the concert, and the found text from the Björk video. For now, at least, ChatGPT can’t “think” of these things, where the words are placed on the page, the displacement and use of white space.
You shouldn't let poets lie to you (and other things Björk gifted me) (with excerpts from a 1988 interview with Björk - https://youtu.be/75WFTHpOw8Y) Björk is the perfect pixie young and grainy in the video as she deconstructs a Sony TV to expose a cathode-ray tube that bulges like a thyroid-diseased eye her narration euphonious in Icelandic-English.
I've switched the TV off. I want to see how it operates, how it can put me into all those weird situations. This looks like a little model of a city, all the houses and streets. These wires take care of all the electrons powerful enough to get all the way through here.
And I’m transported Mary and I, twenty-something, dressed alternative in 80s black and peering over shoulders, through smoke plumes as Björk flitted across the Danforth stage
This beautiful television has put me in all sorts of situations. I remember being very scared of it because an Icelandic poet told me this is millions and millions of little screens who send some sort of electrical light. Your head is very busy all the time, to calculate and put it all together. So you become hypnotized. It just goes directly into your brain and you stop judging if it was right or not. You just swallow and swallow.
We wouldn’t let the concert end roadies ready to take the stage encore done, Björk returned bowing and apologizing she’d run out of songs.
But then I got my Danish book on television. I stopped being afraid because I read the truth, the scientifical truth which is much better. You shouldn't let poets lie to you.
To quote musician Nick Cave (from his recent post on ChatGPT): “ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.” Poetry without the human experience is hollow mimicry and nothing more.