If it is not the duty, it should at least be the delight, of poets to contemplate the world of science
Edwin Morgan, ‘The Poet and the Particle’ (1974)
The Particle Poem Collider is my latest project in collaboration with Ray Interactive and the Push the Boat Out poetry festival – a performance and a pamphlet of poetry generated by AI from the work of the PTBO 2022 poets. An edited version of the AI was printed in a pamphlet and performed at the PTBO reception by poet and novelist Kevin MacNeil. You can view or download the pamphlet on this page. I’m reproducing the introduction here:
This poetry in this pamphlet was written using artificial intelligence (AI). However, although that statement is technically true, AI is only one of a long list of authors that form the collective that is the Particle Poem Collider, and AI is (almost certainly) by far the least ‘intelligent’ author on that list.
The Particle Poem Collider was built for Edinburgh’s 2022 international Push the Boat Out poetry festival, where the words of visiting poets were smashed together by an algorithm in an ambitious quest to generate the perfect lyrical fusion of man and machine. The resulting verses were writ large on a 4 meter LED ticker tape during the Summerhall festival. An edited version appears in this pamphlet.
Inspired by the irreverence and innovation of Push the Boat Out’s patron saint, Edwin Morgan, the poetry of the PPC pushes the boundaries of both literary convention and scientific creativity. With a nod to Morgan’s Particle Poems, which explored quantum physics, the PPC is a critical project which provokes important questions about the future of creativity, authorship and value in an age of AI and machine learning.
With these questions – and Morgan’s ethic – in mind, we decided to collide some poetic particles of our own. A rather old-fashioned AI (the latest generation are just too good at aping styles, and tend not to make interesting or amusing mistakes) was trained on the guest poet’s work, generating a steady stream of doggerel, letter by letter, in the vein of whichever poet (or poets) takes its fancy in the moment. As with many applications of so called ‘artificial intelligence’, the PPC output text has been curated with human intervention and innovation at every stage of the process. It was trained on the work of humans, procured by the PTBO festival, fed to the AI by human hand, designed and edited for the benefit of human consumption. Can the generated text really be called ‘AI poetry’?
Rendering this ‘text’ en masse in a printed pamphlet as well as on LED panels adds another layer of provocation: if the system stumbles upon a perfectly turned original phrase, or an exhilarating insight, who gets the credit?
As you will see, the PPC has indeed generated some aesthetically joyful poetic snippets. What (human) poet would not have been happy to compose lines such as “Our flask of sugar wombs” or “A squall dies a woman”? And who would have envisioned the strangely Scottish phrase “haddock-radging”, or perhaps what is the perfect description of this whole project, “Bitscribery”.
In the words of Edwin Morgan, it is therefore both our duty AND our delight to present the work in this pamphlet. So much more than ‘AI poetry’, we hope that ‘sonnets to space happened’, a long form poem by the Particle Poem Collider (2022), is both an enjoyable and provocative exploration of creativity and science in a digital age.
With thanks to the Edinburgh Futures Institute and University of Edinburgh School of GeoSciences for funding, as well as PTBO contributing poets.
Edwin Morgan, Katie Ailes, Isabelle Baafi, Brian Bilston, Thomas Clark, Suzannah Evans, Jay Gao, Nora Gomringer, Leyla Josephine, Iona Lee, Hamish MacDonald, Peter Mackay, Helena Nelson, Andrés N. Ordorica, Pascale Petit, Alycia Pirmohamed, Denise Riley, Joelle Taylor, Samuel Tongue, David Wheatley
Pip Thornton, Beth Cochrane, Emma Collins, Sam Healy
Coding & Design
Front and back cover images generated using Basu Jindal’s fork of Stable Difffusion.
PPC text prompt: ‘Bather in grass in my remembering, on the carpet, water spiring and that, forever even his eye then released.’