Judgement Day

by Justin Clemens


I’m not down on literary festivals, as some readers of my previous post seemed to think. On the contrary, I love them — although that doesn’t mean I don’t think their current excrescent phosphorescence has something suspicious about it. Love is a funny word, a complex feeling, and an intense, involved process, and I’ve never really understood why, when whatever love is is in question, anybody should stop questioning either the love or its nominal object. In fact, I’d suggest that love without self-questioning barely deserves the name of love at all. If sometimes you go too far, well, that’s too bad. It might even turn into good poetry — if not necessarily good syntax.

In any case, one of my favourite annual Australian literary festivals is imminent. This year, the Queensland Poetry Festival (QPF) is under a new double directorship, that of David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu.[1] Sarah Gory, the outgoing director, had established a memorably surreal umbrella slogan for QPF: Spoken in One Strange Word. While retaining the ideal of an orienting phrase, Stavanger and Te Whiu have replaced Gory’s with William S. Burroughs’ prophetic (and sinister) declaration Language is a Virus.[2] This places the emphasis on questions of transmission and transmissibility (live or undead?), survival (personal and environmental?), and the future of poetry (does it have one?). Based at the Judith Wright Centre in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, where contemporary art, theatre, music, and writing are aggregated at an architectural level, QPF typically mixes visual poetry, comedy, hip-hop, straight-up one-person readings, cinema, experimental mash-ups, computer games, prize-giving ceremonies, and much much more. This season’s eminent apparitions include Les Murray, Lionel Fogarty, Mayda del Valle, Kate Durbin, Quan, Krissy Kneen, Angela Gardner, and, yes, the politician-billionaire Clive Palmer Himself. If at any time you tire of the sparkling linguistic effervescence, you can always roll down the hill and straight into a Valley Club for a goon bag of alcopops and beer slushies.[3]

I’ve been an enthusiastic attendee at QPF for the last half-decade. One of my roles has been as a judge on the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. The prize comes with a decent whack of cash, currently around AUD $3000, but probably its most desirable feature is a contract with the University of Queensland Press for the winner’s unpublished poetry manuscript. Shapcott himself is one of the judges; the poet Felicity Plunkett, also a past winner of the prize, is a judge ex-officio as UQP’s poetry editor. UQP does a pretty nice job of publication, too: the series design is elegant yet precise.

Restricted to authors living in Queensland, the list of past winners is extremely impressive, including the aforementioned Felicity Plunkett (2008, well before, I hasten to add, she became a judge!), Jaya Savige (2004), Sarah Holland-Batt (2007), and the new QPF Co-Director David Stavanger himself (2013). A philosopher-friend who teaches at the ANU just informed me that Rachael Briggs, the 2012 winner for Free Logic — a truly strange and brilliant book — has recently been the object of a frenzied bidding war between two major US universities eager to make her a full professor of philosophy. He was surprised when I told him she was a fantastic poet, as he knew her only from her ground-breaking work on fundamental logical problems in possible-worlds theory. Cripes. As he put it, it’s only once or twice in your life that you might find yourself in the presence of such incandescent genius.

I have a bundle of anxieties regarding the very notion of a poetry prize, not least the rigours of judging itself. When that gigantic cardboard box of manuscripts turns up on the doorstep, all the old emotions stir: you can’t not feel overawed by the deranging intensity of want distilled into those bulldog-clipped bundles; you can’t not tremble with the existential angst that derives from the forced comparison of unevaluable differences. Moreover, it’s difficult to shake off the sense that there are few things inherently more preposterous than being a prize judge for poetry: it’s like putting a ring in your nose and hauling yourself off to market for slaughter. To quote L.K. Holt on the matter:

The judges can’t all be in perfect error.

All in their autumn, bureaucratic black
turning religious browns,
they are shades of right
in no order particular.[4]

It’s very nearly a joke: what’s brown and black and almost perfectly wrong all over? A poetry prize panel. Still, here I squat, near-bald, persisting in the late half-light in front of a yellowing desk, my monk’s drab habit draped over an ill-fitting dark suit, itself encasing a dissipating subhuman shadow, reading and rereading all the submissions, being slapped across my haggard spectral chops by a variety of verses, drawing up a shortlist, comparing it with the shortlists of the other judges, emailing them, arguing, rereading, yelling at the ceiling, moaning, whining, rattling my habit-suit-chains, rereading again, being caught up once more with the excitement of poetry, before the confabulation of judges finally decides after further interminable argy-bargy on a Particular Order Of Right. (POOR the acronym may be, but marrying Lady Poverty was good enough for Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, aka St. Francis of Assisi.) The Final Judgement made, black caps are donned, gavels are banged, and the winner’s name is dutifully intoned according to the ancient rites before the scaffold of the prize ceremony. To be honest, I’ve also developed a slightly indecent penchant for sporting a cheap (bureaucratic black) suit and standing behind Plunkett at the QPF awards night when she announces the winner. Like one of those pollie’s goons you see regularly on telly at the minister’s shoulder, I nod vigorously at everything she says. For some reason, I find the pantomime incredibly satisfying.

The other big thing I have to do at QPF this year is MC a session titled ‘Machines Can Do The Work’ at 12.30 on Saturday 29 August, discussing the ‘future of poetry’ with Michael Farrell, Karina Quinn, and Melinda Smith. The QPF Directors have helpfully given us some good starters, including: ‘Does poetry need to return to nature or will machines do all the work?’, ‘Is there already enough poetry in the world?’ and ‘Will the future of poetry be an eternal chain of panels discussing the future of poetry?’ Named after a track by Fat Boy Slim vs. Hervé — whose refrain, ‘Machines should work/People should think,’ is at once incontrovertible yet controversial — the panel will set about debating such pressing questions for contemporary poetry.[5]

Anyone who doesn’t have a terror of our cybernetical era — with its militaristic determinations by command, control, communications, computers, collaboration and intelligence — has something wrong with them. I don’t mean to say that our brave new world doesn’t offer some unprecedently exciting possibilities for thought and action, but it’s probably crucial not to forget it’s governed by the most destructive, universal and relentless war-machine ever invented. As first-world teched-up consumers bleat away in their amniotic media tubs like lubed-up electronic sheep, what we used to call ‘Nature’ is undergoing the so-called ‘Sixth Great Extinction.’[6] Even start-up billionaire visionaries such as Elon Musk have begun to have bad dreams about the impending cyborg apocalypse.[7] This would be funny if it wasn’t in such bad faith — after all, who are the only attested actually-existing mass killers on the planet but the cyborgs we call ‘human beings’?

No wonder the future of poetry has come into question with absolutely everything else. When automated jail sentences, algorithmic reporting, driverless cars and killer robots are already roaming our information superhighways (remember that great 1990s buzzword?), it’s no longer clear to anybody whether humans are the best people to be writing poetry.[8] Spambots have been stuffing our inboxes with de facto poetry, bristling with neologisms, syntactic distortions, and radical imagery, for at least a decade. Now that Google (original mission statement: don’t be evil) has morphed itself into the Alphabet[9] — undoubtedly our species’ most successful iteration yet of Leibniz’s Characteristica Universalis — the tsunami of state babble from the great beak of the exterminating Silicon Cthulu just ain’t gonna stop.[10]

You can see why Les Murray laments the computerization of all things in ‘The Privacy of Typewriters’:

I am an old book troglodyte
one who composes on paper
and types up the result
as many times as need be.

The computer scares me
its crashes and codes
its links with spies and gunshot
its text that looks pre-published….[11]

The young Australian poet Oscar Schwartz has a hilarious website bot or not dedicated to the question of whether computers can write poetry.[12] Its front page clearly explains: ‘This website is a Turing test for poetry. You, the judge, have to guess whether the poem you’re reading is written by a human or by a computer. If you think a poem was written by a computer, choose “bot”. If you think it was written by a human, choose “not”.’[13] In its canonical form, the Turing Test — one of the founding documents of ongoing AI research, certainly much criticized and often modified — tests a machine’s capacity to simulate human responses.[14] The machine can be said to have passed the test when the human evaluator cannot discriminate the machine’s answers from another human’s. Judgement Day, indeed.

It took me a while to get what Schwartz was on about, but one of the lessons I’ve drawn from his project is the following: aside from affronting the usual bumpf pedagogues love to spout about the expressiveness of poetry and so forth, what the Turing Test really shows is that no such thing as ‘the human’ exists, except as a kind of low-level projection. Yet that doesn’t mean that befuddling productions of algorithmic provenance are equivalent to poetry. Perhaps one day computers will be able to think their own coding; I don’t see any reasons why not. In the meantime, they can used to produce things that look exactly like poetry. But indiscernibility is not identity.[15] Whatever other uses may be made of it, the name ‘poetry’ precisely marks the possible impossibility of its own definition as an abiding question for and about ‘us.’ This was certainly one of the meanings of the word ‘Muse’ for antiquity: a figure of inhuman inspiration that leapt the dissimulating abyss between constraint and invention. But the Muse ‘herself’ did not speak or write. If today the Muse has become a Mac, and the spirit silicon, this only illuminates the situation without resolving anything: the question of poetry is not (yet) a question for bots, but a question about the enigma of in-human creation.

In other words, the real question is: has any human being ever written poetry? The jury is still out. Perhaps the sessions at QPF this year will finally provide a definitive answer to this world-historical puzzle.

Photo credit: Michelangelo, ‘Last Judgement’ detail, found in the Web Gallery of Art

[1] See a brief interview with the new directors in Tincture Journal, http://tincture-journal.com/2015/08/ accessed 16 August 2015.
[2] See this year’s QPF program here http://www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com/site/festival-program/
[3] Some time ago, Kent MacCarter and I made precisely this mistake together. Never again.
[4] L.K. Holt, ‘Seeing Fives,’ in Keeps (St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2014), p. 30.
[5] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUDKGyXpitw
[6] See, for example: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/21/mass-extinction-science-warning
[7] See http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-07/27/musk-hawking-ai-arms-race
[8] Regarding proposed automatic sentencing, see: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/08/04/the-new-science-of-sentencing
Regarding algorithmic reporting, see: http://www.theguardian.com/media/pda/2010/mar/30/digital-media-algorithms-reporting-journalism
Regarding driverless cars, see: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/11/25/auto-correct All accessed 17 August 2015.
[9] See http://recode.net/2015/08/10/google-renames-self-alphabet-gives-sundar-pichai-better-title/ See also M.G. Zimeta, ‘Don’t be evil: Google, Alphabet, and Machiavelli,’ http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/08/12/dont-be-evil/ Accessed 18 August 2015.
[10] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Characteristica_universalis
[11] L. Murray, Waiting for the Past (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2015), p. 25.
[12] See https://prezi.com/j0h-s2zxir7t/a-turing-test-for-poetry/ for further explanation by Schwartz himself. Accessed 17 August 2015.
[13] See http://botpoet.com Accessed 17 August 2015.
[14] A pdf of Turing’s classic paper ‘Computing Machines and Intelligence’ can be found here: http://orium.pw/paper/turingai.pdf Accessed 17 August 2015.
[15] For a rigorous philosophical demonstration of this claim, I refer the interested reader to A. Badiou, Being and Event, trans. O. Feltham (London and New York: Continuum, 2005), esp. Part VII: The Generic: Indiscernible and Truth. The Event — P.J. Cohen,’ pp. 327-387.