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Jottings on poetry and selfhood



1. Shuntaro Tanikawa, a leading contemporary Japanese poet, shocked and upset fellow poets in the 1980s with the verse line, “I have nothing to write”. A decade later I wrote a poem titled ‘Thus spake Electric Boy Tron’ in which the speaker talks about how he writes poems. According to this poem, Tron selects and combines the ‘memories’ of his particular languages, and depicts the type of poems that he finds most interesting (and challenging) as "plain, nonsensical, yet real ones”. I placed this poem at the very end of my first book, suggesting that all the poems in the book might have been written by Tron. 

2. Both of the above pronouncements can be read as the self-expressions of 'non-self' poets, those who do not have much to say about themselves, or not much to 'express' at all. Shuntaro Tanikawa and I often talked about John Keats' concepts of 'chameleon poets' and 'negative capability'. Although we both felt affinity to 'non-self' poets/poems, the majority of modern Japanese poets were, and still are, more self-expressive. They seem to have clear and urgent things to write about themselves, true cries from deep within their souls. For them, the 'non-self' poet may appear as a minor writer of light-verse, who fondles words without clear sense of identity and existential commitment.

3. A few years ago, I wrote my first novel, A Brief Biography of A Fake Poet, a story about a man who has a burning desire to write poems but nothing to write about. He finally finds his own way to writing poetry by translating, editing, and combining other people's poems, originally written in foreign languages. He is essentially me, and just like Tron, except, being human, he needs the translation process as a substitute for an AI poetry algorithm. 

4. 'Non-self' poets, however, were not unusual in classical Japanese verse. Poets in the  Heian period (8th to 12th centuries), the peak of the Tanka tradition, were mostly aristocrats and their wives and daughters, who lived in the palaces of emperors. Their poems are essentially occasional poems, dedicated to particular events or people. The concept of poetry as a tool for self-expression came only later, first among Buddhist poets and then as a new mainstream arriving from the West in the mid 19th century. 

5. The art of Renga, chained or linked poems composed one after another by several poets, best illustrates the 'non-self' characteristics of classical Japanese poetry. Renga is all about collaboration with others, and about letting go of your ego. It has many rules (or algorithms) to follow but requires the poets to be spontaneous and responsive to the place (called 'Za') and dynamics with other poets (Renshu). Haiku, originally forming the first lines of Renga (called 'Hokku'), are extremely short (5-7-5) and require the inclusion of a seasonal word ('Kigo'). As a result, there is almost no room for 'self-expression' left. Improvisation is its essence, and whatever happens to be in front of you at that moment is most often used as material ('Shokumoku'). In a sense, Haiku is a lonely person's Renga, dealing with the seasons and scenery. 

6. The 'non-self' characteristics of traditional Japanese poetry were denounced in the middle of the 19th century, as the wave of Western civilization, with concepts of 'individualism' and 'ego' at its heart, reached Japan. In fact, so-called modern Japanese poems ('Shi'), in a free style and using spoken language, was born out of that shock wave and are clearly differentiated from Tanka and Haiku. Traditional Japanese poetry was criticized again, severely,  after WWII as the majority of poets collaborated with the military dictatorship and wrote poems praising war in traditional fixed verse. 

7. It is only in 1960's and 70's that modern poets began a sort of reconciliation with tradition and dared to explore the 'non-self' way of writing. Tanikawa explored nursery rhymes and word play among many other experiments in which he managed to make his 'self' disappear into the texts. Makoto Ooka, the closest ally of Tanikawa, revived Renga as modern Renshi. Through its practices, Ooka came up with a theory involving 'a party and a lonely heart', in which he argued the paradox that the true color of one's self shines most brilliantly through collaboration with others. 

8. Now back to the topic of AI and poetry: this topic fascinates me because it makes me ask where my poems come from. Are they coming from within me, or from somewhere outside of me? If from within, why do I have so little idea about and control over what ends up in my poem before I start writing it? I am always writing to find out what I will be writing and never copy down something I already have in mind. But if poetry is coming from outside of me, where exactly does it come from? Or who is it that uses me as a dictation device? Certainly not God, but could there be some being that transcends me? 

9. This leads me to a more fundamental question: what is 'I'? 'I' in this context is not a physical being but a consciousness. The consciousness that says "I think therefore I am". But where is it? Of what is it made? These are the so-called "hard problems of consciousness". My Kindle is filled with the books of philosophers, neuroscientists, and quantum physicists such as David Chalmers, Roger Penrose, Giulio Tononi, and Leon Lederman, etc.

10. To me, AI poetry provides useful frameworks in which to pursue these questions. It is a laboratory for thought experiments. If I write in the mode of self-expression, for example lines like "I fear death and long for love", and have Google translate them from one language to another, at which point would these lines cease to be my poem? On the other hand, if I am given a text arbitrarily generated by AI and start editing it, at which point does my 'I' appear in the text? And if someone like Israeli poet Eran Hadas is behind that AI algorithm, will he become my God?

One thing for sure: I am constantly bored with myself and looking for the ways to escape by writing poems. My 'self' is a closed system as far as I (or my consciousness) can tell, but poetry (not always, but sometimes) pokes a hole in it. AI can definitely help this process, but I feel I am still trapped in the closed system called Yasuhiro Yotsumoto.

Click here to view a November 27 event in London with Abol Froushan (in person) discussing AI poetry, with Yasuhiro Yotsumoto and Eran Hadas via video.

© Yasuhiro Yotsumoto  

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