Nearly a century ago, one of the great literary debates involved two American-born poets, Robert Frost and TS Eliot, whose proponents vied for primacy.
Both have been hailed as innovators who have abandoned existing practices – Frost with his chapter-long retellings in “North of Boston”, Eliot for his hugely eclectic “The Waste Land”.
Over long careers – both of whom died in the 1960s – Frost became “America’s bard”, while Eliot was at the forefront of literary modernism. As often happens, both statements are oversimplified.
Frost traveled to England to secure his reputation, then returned triumphantly to New England, where he spent the rest of his life. Eliot made a similar trip from his native St. Louis to Harvard to London, then stayed in England for the rest of his life.
Frost’s poetry was much deeper and darker than the popular image, while Eliot, the iconoclast, became a true Briton and an Anglo-Catholic; he also wrote wonderful verses for children.
Yet it is one of Frost’s poetic sayings that speaks most clearly to our times – his assertion that he sought to conceive “the old ways of being new”.
We have seen the decline of traditional institutions, from political parties to churches, from local newspapers to any sense of a shared literary culture. One possible explanation lies in that oldest American trait – the quest for novelty.
Ever since the founding of a “new nation” — and its Democratic and Republican underpinnings were truly something new under the sun — Americans have been receptive, perhaps too receptive, to the next new thing. One of the latest is what is called “artificial intelligence”. Am I the only one wondering if such a thing really exists?
I’ve read much of what I can find on the subject and have come to the conclusion that it’s really part of what we’ve known since the 1950s – increasingly advanced computer technology.
The problem with calling it “intelligence” is that it takes a unique human trait and projects it onto a machine, no matter how amazing and sophisticated.
Forty years ago, Deep Blue, a chess program, reached the point where it could beat the grandmasters, although to this day no one is particularly interested in watching computers play chess.
Chess happens to be a game that can be completely quantified, and so it is possible to create a program “superior” to human skill.
More contemporary dreams relate to robots that can perform countless household chores, plan our lives, and provide companionship. It seems unlikely that we will be satisfied with the results.
For better or worse, humans are stuck with each other, with all of our flaws and inconsistencies, because we respond as a species, something that a machine we program can never transcend.
What really matters is determined by feelings and beliefs, family and community ties that can never be reduced to the binary language of computers. “Data” does not have such qualities and therefore cannot be a reliable guide for decision-making.
And computers, even those programmed to write technical manuals or short stories, will never be able to grasp the complexity of language, another human acquisition that both unites and divides us.
Consider public domains where digitized techniques are taking over.
The money-driven political system hardly seems to be an improvement over political parties; it divides our allegiances to the point that it’s hard to remember what unites us.
Nothing has come to replace the newspaper for accurate and comprehensive local news, and it seems like nothing ever will.
If we are not careful, we will lose crucial elements of a common culture, which has been constantly adapting for more than two centuries, but which could be threatened as never before.
If we paid more attention to poets, we might learn something important about ourselves and how we might mend the national fabric.
When Robert Frost spoke at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, he notoriously dismissed what he had written for the occasion, which, perhaps prematurely, spoke of “a golden age of poetry and power.
Instead, he recited from memory one of his best short lyrics, “The Gift Outright,” which begins, “The land was ours before we belonged to the land.”
As a summary of our history, from the epic conflict between European settlers and those they dispossessed to the nation of today, made up of all the nations of the world, it is hard to top. It might even be wise.
As we emerge from pandemic conditions, we once again have the opportunity to learn how to gain wisdom from each other, to build better relationships than those that have led to such conflict and dissension.
At the risk of another simplification, we could content ourselves with fewer numbers and more poetry.
Douglas Rooks, an editor, commentator and journalist from Maine since 1984, is the author of three books and is currently researching the life and career of an American Chief Justice. He welcomes comments at email@example.com