What Poets Know That ChatGPT Doesn’t

There’s a reason the AI writes pretty awful verse.

A poet writing with pen and paper; the image is half black and white, and half pixelated green
Getty ; The Atlantic

One of the least discussed aspects of the AI language generator ChatGPT might be its ability to produce pretty awful poetry. Given how difficult it is to teach a computer how to recognize a syllable, I’m not disparaging the technical prowess of the chatbot’s creators and testers. But very few of the AI-produced poems I’ve read actually follow the prompt that’s been provided. “Write a poem in the style of Seamus Heaney”? This is not that poem:

In a garden green and fair,
A flower blooms, a sight so rare.
But is it meant for me, I fear?
Will I, like it, bloom this year?

Odds are good that this poem, titled “Is It for Me?,” will not win the National Poetry Series. The final phrase seems plucked from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which gives the last line an unintended comic air, because Eliot is referring to a corpse.

Poetry, with its heightened states of emotion, intimate address, ecstatic proclamation, and enchanting song, would seem to be one of the limit cases that prove the point: ChatGPT can write anything we can write. It can indeed compose poems from prompts such as “write a poem about the estate tax.” Asked to write a sonnet about socks, it will produce a poem with the opening line “Oh socks, my trusty companions on my feet.”

Such goofy attempts could be said to emulate praise poetry, that venerable form of ode-making. They could just as well have been spoken by Brick Tamland, Steve Carell’s character in Anchorman, who is prone to spouting cryptic one-liners—including, famously, “I love lamp.” (As a teacher of poetry, I can’t help but imagine an overly eager chatbot in one of my creative-writing workshops in the year 2030. “Do you really love the lamp,” I picture myself asking it, “or are you just saying that because you saw it?”)

Heaney wrote a poem about the death of his mother called “Clearances” that—like the AI-generated “Is It for Me?”—also uses rhyme, meter, and nature imagery:

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.

The difference between ChatGPT’s Heaney-esque poem and Heaney’s actual poem is not simply that one is bad and one is good, or that one is sentimental and one is elegiacally beautiful. The difference is that Heaney lost his mother, and the poem expresses the emotional urgency of this fact during a reflective moment sometime after the event. Heaney’s poem carries the ineffable sense that the poet has not only pillaged from the horde of words that already exist but has also worked on them himself, claiming them partly as his and partly as a treasure loaned to him from centuries of poetry written in English.

I could point to other aspects of the language: the pause in the second line, the similarity between the sounds of decked and chest-, the lingering syllables of wallflowers. Above all, there’s the mystery of the mourning poet’s meditation—that missing tree that both orients and eludes him.

ChatGPT can write poemlike streams of regurgitated text, but they don’t mourn and console and mystify with an image like the chestnut tree, which casts an immersive spell. They don’t satisfy the minimal criterion of a poem, which is a pattern of language that compresses the messy data of experience, emotion, truth, or knowledge and turns those, as W. H. Auden wrote in 1935, into “memorable speech.”

Ian Bogost suggests that ChatGPT produces “an icon of the answer … rather than the answer itself.” This is correct: The poem it spits out is an emblem of what a poem is rather than an example of a poem. It is closer to a found object than to Emily Dickinson’s four-line poems in rhyme, which take “unorthodox, subversive, sometimes volcanic propensities” and channel them “into a dialect called metaphor.”

That’s what the poet Adrienne Rich found in Dickinson’s poetry—a hint as to how poems are made, a trace of their creation. Rich thought it was critically important that a poet’s imagination be followed back to her confining circumstances. For Dickinson, that was a house in Amherst in the 1860s and ’70s. For Rich, who wrote a century later, it was raising three children while questioning her sexuality and political commitments.

Not that the relation between the life and the poem is ever easy to make out: Indeed, Rich spent her career learning radically new ways to thread her experiences—as a mother, a homemaker in the suburbs, a lesbian, a feminist, a Jew—into language, changing the language in the process. She was like the poet she imagines in “Poetry: II, Chicago,” written in 1984:

Wherever a poet is born     enduring
depends on the frailest of chances:
Who listened to your murmuring
over your little rubbish     who let you be
who gave you the books
who let you know you were not

Poems, she continues, are “fiery lines” that say, “This belongs to you     you have the right / you belong to the song / of your mothers and fathers     You have a people.” They are almost always precarious in their transmission, whether they get to the poet from a god via Plato’s chain of magnetized iron or from the “inconstant wind” of human inspiration that Percy Bysshe Shelley likened to a fading coal. Now is not the time to give up on that essential strangeness and fragility in favor of productivity and predictability. The world needs more poems, not faster ones.

ChatGPT cannot write poetry—or prose, for that matter—that is “the cry of its occasion,” as Wallace Stevens would have it, because there is no lived “occasion” other than the set of texts it can read. Neither can there be emotion recollected in tranquility. There’s no involuntary memory that’s stimulated by the taste of a madeleine. Creativity requires more than an internet-size syllabus or a lesson in syllables. So does essay writing, which is why, even though many acknowledge that ChatGPT can write passable high-school and undergraduate essays, I’m not concerned about that either.

The poems that ChatGPT writes are riddled with cliché and wince-worthy rhymes, but it isn’t just issues of quality that separate AI- and human-generated compositions. Poetry, whether in the style of Heaney or Dickinson or your journal from fourth grade, comes from the felt necessity to speak a truth, whatever kind of truth that might be, in a tongue that you’ve inherited or learned—or that has been imposed upon you by force or violence. That’s obvious to anyone who, for reasons they can’t fully explain, sits down and organizes their words into a pattern that’s slightly different from the language they use at the dinner table.

Whatever upgrades might come for ChatGPT, what it writes likely won’t emerge from the burning sense that something is missing from the world. Poetry speaks in the words of the dead, words sometimes borrowed from past poems—but the desire to use those words comes from an intuition that something is still hidden in them, something that needs to be heard in the harmony between our present voices and those earlier ones. The resemblance between AI-generated writing and human-generated writing is surface level. We know a little more now about how computers arrange words into patterns. The real question—the question that we keep trying to answer with vital metaphors of “fiery lines” and fading coals—is how humans do.