What Does an AI “Think” About Poetry?

Poetry offers readers an alternate and unique way of viewing the world. The oldest recorded documents were written in poetic form, and the oldest known literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem. Enheduanna, a priestess born over 4,200 years ago, was the world’s first poet and author, but one of the first writers.

In contrast, AI is the newest writer and source of information, so I thought it would be interesting to see what AI “thinks” and what perspective it has of poetry.


Strictly speaking, this post discusses a machine learning (ML) model, which is still artificial intelligence (AI) but with a subtle a difference. And you probably wouldn’t take notice of the title if it said ML, but maybe I’m just too pedantic. According to Forbes:

  • AI is the concept of machines being smart
  • ML is an application of AI that says machines should be given data and “learn for themselves”

In that sense, the ML app that I tested has to learn about poetry from a seemingly endless array of data.

Defining Poetry

Poetry has been notoriously difficult to define. It’s so hard to define that the Encyclopædia Britannica that usually gets straight to the point says:

The present article means only to describe in as general a way as possible certain properties of poetry and of poetic thought regarded as in some sense independent modes of the mind.

This article considers the difficulty or impossibility of defining poetry; 

Howard NemerovEncyclopædia Britannica’s Poetry

Can an AI Help Further Explain Poetry?

Talk to Transformer is based on OpenAI’s GPT-2 transformer-based language model, a powerful machine learning model that can generate text. Talk to Transfomer is a neural network capable or recognize patterns in a loosely similar way to how the human brain interprets data, meaning the network learns to perform tasks rather than requiring pre-programming to perform that task.


So I entered poetry into the input on the Talk to Transformer website and received the following back:

We are a group of people who have a passion for poetry. We are looking for poets who are also passionate about music, art, and culture. We have a variety of opportunities for all types of poets.

Talk to Transformer

That’s still connected to poetry, but the output is somewhat vague. Then again, if you asked most humans what poetry is, I don’t imagine much less of an ambiguous answer.

Some output doesn’t work that well, and the system outputs words connected to poetry:




Talk to Transformer

But the system does detect anything related to poetry:

The poems I’ll be putting in the mix are a bit older and less frequently revised than the stories. That is my intention, but the older pieces tend to be more poetic, more personal in a way. I like that.

I’ve been doing a lot of self-publishing on my site recently. If you want a book with a picture, here you go!

I’m also doing a lot of work with the folks at Erotic Artisans for their poetry anthologies. Those books are awesome, and I’m glad to help out.

Talk to Transformer

What is Poetry?

So I then asked: “What is poetry?”

“Poetry,” we are told, is “a piece of music.” We have to “enlist” to be able to play “poetry.” And then “poetry” turns out to be the music that makes the “enlistment” possible.

A good poet will be a great musician. The best musicalists are poets. It is a well-known fact that the greatest writers of all time wrote their best music. They wrote their best poetry.

Is that a bad thing? Or is that an important part of the creative process?

That is the best and most famous part of the creative process, that the greatest writers wrote their best poetry. I know this is true because they were writing at the same time as they were writing their best music. It was not like they had a moment where they went to the piano and started playing. They were writing, writing, writing,

Talk to Transformer

Who is it for? I’d like to take a moment to talk about one of my favorite poetry and prose books: David Foster Wallace’s On Writing. Wallace, whose books include Infinite Jest, The Pale King, and The Broom of the System, is known for his witty, incisive prose style, and his knack for capturing the complexities of people’s lives. Wallace’s poetry is even better. It’s often short, funny, and self-deprecating. It’s full of little parables, observations, and quotes from philosophers, artists, and musicians. It’s funny and beautiful and poignant, and it has a sense of humour that will melt your heart and melt your brain. In his work, Wallace reveals the secrets of the human heart and our brains: how we deal with the loss of loved ones, how we feel about things that make us feel bad, and why we choose to write at all.

Talk to Transformer

I Googled that paragraph and each line separately. However, I could not find any of it anywhere online. Of course the AI generated the text, so I didn’t expect any different of an outcome. But to whom does the I refer: a writer the AI based its text on or the AI itself? I guess the AI’s persona is as ambiguous as much of the modernist and postmodernist poetry or even poetry from before that. Is the “I” the speaker, the poet, a mix of the two, or something else?

Poetry is…

I thought of a different approach, as Talk to Transformer is a text generator that uses prompts. So I prompted it to generate text based on the phrase, “Poetry is.”

[Poetry is] a sort of science in its own right.

(5) It is a science

in its own right and its science

is its own object.

The subject of the poetry

is, as it were, the same

as the object of science.

Science’s subject is

the same as the object of poetry.

Science cannot be the

subject of the poem.

The science of poetry is

the same as the science

of mathematics and of art.

Science is, in its essence,

the art of making the same

object out of two or more things,

with different qualities and

with similar qualities.

And therefore the art

of science is not the art

of making a thing out of nothing.

The art of science

is the art of making the

same thing out

Talk to Transformer

[Poetry is] a thing to do,

it is to think,

and to express,

not to make things,

not to change the world,

but to make poems.

Talk to Transformer

AI and Poetry

I found Talk to Transformer an interesting option for trying to understanding more about poetry. It has much to learn, so it’d be interesting to see what kind of text about poetry it generates in future.

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