A Visit from the Dalai Lama and 10,000 Shades of Blue

More important than what was recorded, these evenings
deepened my life: they framed every event

or thought and placed it with care by the others.
As time went on, that scribbled wall—even if
it stayed blank—became where everything
recognized itself and passed into meaning.

–William Stafford, “Keeping a Journal”

image

“The next hot job in Silicon Valley is for poets,” says the Washington Post today, describing how the tech industry is working to improve the interactive quality of the voice and personalities behind the artificial intelligences we interact with on the Internet, like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. To do this, software engineers are turning more and more to poets, fiction writers and comedians in a new wave of jobs in artificial intelligence. Additionally, an article in Motherboard, Robots are coming for our poems,”now two years old, examples are given of robots co-authoring Shakespearian sonnets and haikus. An android learns the algorithms of language you give it, makes predictions about what words will be chosen over others, and uses these to write a poem. I don’t know the definition of “co-authored” as it is used in the context of the robot working together with a human, or how many trials it took to get a poem that feels cohesive and reads like a poem, but I enjoyed the sonnet, as well as a haiku a robot created that are included in the article.

Sasha Chapin’s article, “When robots write poetry,” written this past February, also describes how the algorithms are used that enable robots to write poetry. More interesting, however, is Chapin’s statement at the end of the article, “The coming artificial beings may love good poetry for the same reason we do: how it can seem to bridge the boundaries between consciousnesses. But they will possess a consciousness we couldn’t possibly understand. And when they write poetry, it will not be for us.”

While I question whether robots have consciousness, as Chapin implies, there is a difference between a living, human mind raising questions and pondering life and poetry artificial intelligence produces using algorithms, rather than conscious reflection. The Atlantic reports that number of non-book readers has tripled since 1978. Currently, I’m preparing to present a week long workshop on poetry and poetry writing with middle schoolers at ACS Hillingdon International School, a school just outside of London. As I consider what those students’ interests and concerns might be, I’m turning over the question in my mind, why is it we write for purposes other than to carry out necessary tasks, and in particular, what value does writing poetry hold?

Though  it may be helpful to learn that the job market is currently opening up for poets and fiction writers in the tech industry, there are deeper reasons to write and to read poetry, and these have to do with the poetry’s potential to connect us to the physical world, notice its mystery, and value its presence. If you’ve not seen this short TED talk about the worldwide telescope, it’s worth viewing. What Google earth has done to map the world is now being pieced together for the universe, enabling you to map your own virtual tour of the universe with images currently available. When I watched the talk and viewed the images, I felt humbled by the wonder of all that is—the immensity of creation and the miracle that I’m alive on this planet, existing amidst it all. Writing poetry is the opportunity to reflect on that wonder. Perhaps it’s interesting that a robot can write poetry, but how much more amazing it is to experience the poetry writing process yourself—to try and put words to what it means to be alive in this moment. As Salman Rushdie describes, “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” That’s a challenging task, but certainly a valuable one.

Recently, the Dalai Lama visited the school where I work. During his talk to the student body, he repeatedly emphasized humanity’s interconnectedness with each other and with the natural world. A compassionate heart and a calm mind go together, he explained, and a disturbed mind affects the body. There’s hope for a more compassionate world if we make an attempt, he said. With anger, there is no hope, and he admonished us to make an effort.
With effort, this century can be a happy, a peaceful century, he explained. When there is too much stress, violence comes. Human rights violations are first emotional problems, he stated. Violence comes as a consequence of emotional problems. “We have to make an effort to promote more warm heartedness so there will be no opportunity to kill or bully, because we take care. No one can survive without community,” he said. Selfishness destroys your own happiness. “Society is the basis of our happy life, so we have to take care of society. West needs East. Southern and Northern worlds need each other—not this notion or that,” he said. Around us we see so much fear and distrust, yet friendship is dependent on trust, and trust is dependent on compassion, he explained. Narrow mindedness and shortsightedness brings disaster.

In aiming to build a compassionate world, poetry is a valuable asset. Poetry nurtures our inner life and helps us to understand what it means to be human and to stand in relation to the world around us. Robots might be able to write, but we are human. We want to know what that means—what we can give to the world to meet its deep need, and thereby meet our own deep desire to feel we belong in this world by knowing what we can give to it. Writing poetry, in its aim to find the best words to describe experience, requires observation and awareness, as well as reflection. Because the problems we face both individually and collectively are complex, the practices of observation, awareness are especially needed. Deep reflection, allows us to work out our connections to each other and to the natural world, along with the disconnects we experience in trying to do so. Deep reflection is the territory poetry explores.

Before Old French gave the English language the word “orange,” English speakers referred to the color as yellow-red, ġeolurēad in Old English, according to, Matt Soniak, writer for Mental Floss. It’s not that orange didn’t exist before we had the word, but having the word created a clearer picture of the idea. Tech Insider the origins of another color, blue in this video, demonstrating that without a word for something we physically experience, such as the color blue, people have significant difficulty recognizing it. This phenomena emphasizes the benefit of both verbalizing what we are experiencing, as well as reflecting on those experiences in written words. Additionally, because languages have their own music and mirrors, reflecting the world in different ways, speaking and writing in more than one language expands the potential language has to enable us all to better understand ourselves and our interconnection to others and the world around us. If we are going to find how to live together peacefully, as the Dalai Lama suggested is both possible and important, we need tools to do so. Writing and poetry in specific, is a wonderful tool to use for this purpose. As T. S. Elliot said, “Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”

It’s possible that one could sit with pen in hand or type at the computer, and plod mindlessly through a series of steps or items and produce writing. I’ve read this kind of writing before. But if taken to heart, writing can be a tool that enables the mind to unwind its string of thoughts and make patterns that hold meaning and change our lives both individually and collectively. Poetry and literature is our attempt to explore the meaning of being human. As Barry Lopez, explains, “I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one’s life. Wherever I’ve traveled–Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan–I’ve found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.” We need stories, and poetry. They are our thread through the labyrinth of existence.

While diving in the Maldives a few weeks back, the boat I was living on passed over and past 10,000 shades of blue—blues we have no word for. I found a wonderful color palate for different shades of blue, along with their names on Wikipedia, but though many colors are represented here, it falls far short of what the eye actual sees—the way the white-blue sky bends down into the sea and becomes the sea, for example, or the depth of blue reaching for infinity behind the shoals of yellow, white and black banner fish, along with all the subtle gradations between shades of turquoise as water shallows and then brushes against white sand shores. To try and name any of the experiences we have is to call them, again, into existence, and to share with others what moves us, and what is meaningful–this is what poets aim to do. It is the focus and goal of their efforts, even though what we hold most precious is often beyond naming. “The power of poetry,” says Michael Lewis, “is the ability to express the inexpressible, and to express it in terms of the unforgettable.”

If we are to build a compassionate world, we need to be able to recognize how to nurture our lives and wellbeing of the world around us. We need to be able to reflect on our lives. In his poem, “Keeping a Journal,” William Stafford, identifies the value of writing in his closing lines when he explains how through the process of writing he found his journal to be a place where “everything/recognized itself and passed into meaning.” To speak with an open heart in a journal or a poem takes courage, but in doing so, we can gain insight into ourselves and our relationship to the world, insight that can enable us to transform the way we live and interact. Writing poetry helps open our eyes and reach for meaning. As David Whyte says in his poem, “The Opening of Eyes”

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

We write and our lives are deepened. This is what is important about poetry—it teaches us how we can live.

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