Peeking out over an inescapable mask, I see once more, Women draped over ornate couches, Done with the world and its confinement, And its clothes. I see once more, Disembodied faces meeting unhinged shapes, Unsure, they attempt to devour one another. I see once more, Unlikely creatures emerging, As if willed by the vacuum of imagination. I see once more, Ambiguous structures, Soaring while more solid words explain little, Of what, perhaps, Should not be explained. I see once more, The collective embrace merge, With joint resistance, Forever twinned in a fleeting, nonchalant glance. Feeling nill, I wonder if I am measuring effort wrongly.
I wrote this sonnet in 2014 as part of a Year 9 class assignment. 7 years onwards, I still enjoy what I wrote – and in a way, this connects our February and March themes! I think it's healthy to let yourself be moved by your own work, and to appreciate the unique and personal memories of the process... I remember how I was inspired by the rhythm of Alexander Pope's Eloisa to Abelard, after watching the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Lovesong for Spring
For season that gives bless’ed days in light, Your comely looks will ever leave the shore; For you a snowdrop land out for delight, I wait and yearn for honeyed sound: amour. Oh budding youth and binding honest smells, No bird nor figure did evoke my mind; Your sweet, your caprice tale in spring we tell, Your dream of slumber wrote for me designed. For you bloom lily, iris, rose with charm, That dance, that laugh and soothe red eyes so sore; So arrows cushion frays within your arms! Complete devotion of my heart to yours. By you my lonely heart shall be adored, Go onwards, so our journey upwards soars.
For me, I don’t consciously think about self-love very often. Self love by my definition exists in the moments where I am able to stop and enjoy the natural milestones of the day such as the light: staring at the shadows of the trees on my carpet, experiencing the last light of day from my desk, especially when the sky is pink and orange and the churches are in silhouette. For me self-love is feeling mindful for those moments that break the banalities of life, amuse, inspire or calm my frantic working state. Experiencing these moments are essential for my functioning when each day seems to blend into the next. Internally, I hear myself saying “hmm… you can have SOME time for yourself but you also have a lot to do and will feel even worse if nothing is done today,” so for once I decided not to listen, closed the lid of my laptop and took to the wheel…
Five miles only?
Sealing the fields with the turning of wheels Unfamiliar with undulations on this pilgrims route I hasten, Birds of prey on telephone lines hypnotised by the blue beetle gliding between furrows sown by motion alone, The milling of gravel under rubber, the vapour of glass, the shine of steel The mercy of the sea, the resting of the heel Homesteads that peer over waning shoulders, church towers squinting on tip toes Studying the milestone to nowhere, a monolith inscribed with good will alone Faint sounds of barking orbiting around the metallic shell An instinctual compass to rely on light, light that shares the way a flint might reveal its veins or the choice of a feather to sweep the bonnet
Warnings! Deer, frogs, children, the elderly Here I am, working towards the cliff like a chess piece in slow motion Blessing the fields, farms, greens and crosses which ushered me towards The sea broad and wild, the cliffs steep and mild, A lighthouse illuminated by the sun only The epitome of the liberated lonely The tide is peeling back, the light is dying She is gone and the vehicle is sighing
I heard a rumour that April was the cruelest month Perhaps we mistake its love for dust And its hugs for must That envelops my skin Cluttering what I think As spring makes an early promise I step out each day As care Towards my present Particles of dust Participants along my walk Help me with a study of the past
My eyes itch But early bloom lets me see a future Filled with see you soons
Whispered words of stripped timber, Chanted like a spell under hot breaths, Like a song hurried through and felt. Quiet storm, do I want thee? Do I want to be, To be degraded as if in acid rain, To be a reduced solution, Part of it finally, My affects wiped away, Like paint chips journeying down the drain, Accompanied only by a swelling of circumstance.
Perhaps it is good to be reduced, Be forced towards childishness, To have to inhabit a time, When dreams were boundless, And outside of reason, A time before the weight of the appropriate and the likely. Perhaps it is a needed antidote, To the certainty and uncertainty of creeping adulthood, Perhaps we should not grow up all at once, But only in the useful branches, And stay young and budding in a few varieties of ourselves.
And then I spy a hole, Between here and my vibrancy. For just a moment, I can be excited, passionate, loud, And I can see why and how, I can be all those things and more. I have found that place, Where I do not worry or weep, For things I believe I am missing, I do not get stuck in notions of futures, Of missteps and inaction, I am living in action, And am free of the weight, That before I let crush me on this side of the wall.
The internet is a wondrous thing. When I’m writing an article and trying to steer clear of labelling something as ‘interesting’ – a term that teachers incessantly asked us to avoid – I may sift through the abundant world of the online thesaurus. I tend to struggle to find something appropriate for the sentiment I am aiming to express, because of all the choices available.
But on the other side of these digital choices and endless resources lies another issue: what are you really choosing from? In November, Google announced a ‘human-AI collaboration for writing poetry’ called Verse by Verse, which allows you to choose poet inspirations and make your own poem with a mixture of human input and artificial intelligence.
So I had a go at making my own Google poem. I was presented with twenty-two poets, three to choose as inspirations. Thirteen of these poets were white men (shock horror), eight of these were women and four of them were Black poets (one man and three women). I was asked to write my own title and first line, and given suggestions for further lines, style, and content. Putting aside the fact that it’s impossible to summarise a wealth of varied poets in twenty-two bite-size case studies, the race and gender breakdown is also an uncanny mirror to real-life hierarchies. A Creative Industries Federation report shows how much work the creative market needs to do to improve gendered and racialized discriminations.
However, another problem is precisely the inclusion of a tokenistic diversity where race and gender are made visible through AI technology. In this way, recognition becomes a tool for categorising groups according to identity. Researchers Clementine Collett and Sara Dillon put forward strategies for mediating AI discrimination with the University of Cambridge Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence. They articulate that the notion of classifying faces using AI technology reinforces socially constructed categories through repetitive processes, stating that “The concept of ‘classification’ and ‘recognition’ in general ought to be questioned as a legitimate and acceptable exercise.” In fact, a Harvard study emphasized that AI techniques employed by law enforcement for identifying potential ‘suspects’ echoed the techniques used historically to segregate and separate Black people from white people in the United States. Enforcing practices of recognition risks grouping identity with criminality.
I am a huge fan of digital landscapes as spaces for creativity and really dislike the rhetoric that implies technology is ‘killing creativity’. In fact, digital art can provide us with different modes of creativity, like graphic design or digital publication (or like me writing this article on Google Docs right now!). However, the specific insertion of AI technology into the production of poetry means that rather than the individual freely cutting up and piecing together digital space, the ‘answers’ are easily generated and ready. They don’t even really make any sense: I typed in ‘four corners’ and instantly was given some numerically themed lines based on my chosen poets – not exactly a liberal interpretation. Whilst the poem was fun to make and provided suggestions that sparked my imagination, the AI generator replaced a space for critical discussion and research with an existing world full of bias that you must mould yourself into.
Google is one of the giants that make up the term ‘Big Tech’, a phrase often repeated to the point of redundancy. Google owns and controls much of our digital creative and educational space, and it is really talented at distracting you from the bigger picture that it lives in. As journalist and theorist Rebecca Solnit writes in my well worn favourite essay of hers, ‘The Garden of Merging Paths’, Silicon Valley is a symbolic maze: “And the maze’s image is echoed in the circuit boards and silicon chips […] of centerless towns that melt into each other”, the landscape is “wholly interior” and works at “eliminating the world”. Verse by Verse stands as one path to this maze, where limited choice and outlined fun obstructs the inequalities of privatized and mass-produced education.
On the one hand, I think that there is much to be gained from understanding our identities as made up of digital and physical qualities. As esteemed theorist Donna Haraway argues in her ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, we should be wary of separating the notion of human from machine or animal for fear of implying anthropocentric authority or instating a kind of ‘human knows best’ rule. In fact, the mixture of human and AI technology in Verse by Verse could be a perfect instance of Haraway’s characterisation of human and machine intertwining.
Yet the Google generator is not an instance of merging, but a direct result of humans inserting preconceived notions of poetry and creativity into technology. Sure, Google can create some jovial lines and teach me about different poetic structures and styles, which can make up for the lack of creative access in lockdown. Yet, doesn’t it truly deny the essence of a poem, which is often based on the confusion of experience or imagination, not on the flow of superficially matching lines? It seems to encourage enforcing rules instead of breaking new ground.
In the end, it comes down to how we approach teaching and learning. As Feminist theorist Carolyn M Shewsbury states in her classic essay ‘What is feminist pedagogy?’, one of the foundations of learning horizontally and avoiding power imbalances is creating community, merging the listener and the talker. When I construct my Google poem, I am met with no response, no workshopping, no challenges. Creating genuine rather than tokenistic equality in creative or educational spaces is about creating communities that support and challenge each other. Otherwise, instead of collective creation, we are just one individual led around a garden maze.
Plucked from the tapestry, Of our happily forgotten past, A golden dragon prospers. With arms of steel and armour of plastic, They press their pointed brow forwards alone. They bare the brands, We gave them, And keep burning, Into them, With masked glory, And in return we get, The splendour, Of culture and unending perseverance. We can clap the studies away, Until our eyes are happily, Blind with gratitude, And they will still save us, Quietly, Colourfully, And at their own risk. But we will exalt our hands, To bloodied stumps, Before we act with fairness, And then they will lick our wounds, Once more.
This painting shows the awful human cost of the Siege of Paris, when the French capital was encircled by Prussian troops after Napoleon III’s surrender on 2nd September, 1870. Some artists fled, but Doré, as did James Tissot, joined the National Guard to defend the capital. Here, painting that winter, he seems to be recording a scene that he had actually witnessed. He depicts a nun carrying a child to safety along a snowy, blood-stained street, by a wall which might belong to the religious house where she hopes to take the child. A part of the city burns behind her, and someone sprawls wounded on the pavement further back. Ahead of her, a jagged piece of shrapnel lies on the snow, and at the side appears to be a large bloodstain. Curator Caroline Corbeau-Parsons writes, “Whether painter or illustrator, Doré remained above all a wonderful storyteller whose compositions were genuine theatrical scenes”.
Amidst the swarm of blacken’d heathen Two sacred spirits tender weaken As floating embers coax the stars From seething flames that reminisce The wounds of time that once hath pass’d
Wavering under trampled cloaks Glints a ruin of dreams and hopes That swell in ashen blood and ice Where pools of death reflect its glimmer And deepen shrouds of nightly shimmer.