Poetry for Mortality, or Imposed Obsolescence

So I’ve been watching Westworld, and perhaps more to the point, watching what narrative designers of my acquaintance think of Westworld. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about AI (both practically speaking as well as how AI functions in fictional narratives), and especially neural networks, and poetry’s position in the show–as something not just learned but processed, assimilated, and made into a complex reference system–seems apt. (Disclaimer: I am not an AI researcher and thus will gleefully use the wrong words to refer to these android characters throughout this post.)

I got into a conversation about wanting to take all of the decommissioned robots to a park and read gentle poetry on Twitter, which led to thinking about what specifically I’d want to give them. There’s a really interesting overlap between human concerns about mortality and robots which are built with either planned or possible obsolescence in mind; I’m thinking immediately of Bentley A. Reese’s fantastic “Suicide Bots” in Shimmer, which is one of my favorite stories this year. And so what follows is a list of poetry I think might be particularly healing or meaningful for droids which have been considered undesirable.

  1. John Donne, Holy Sonnet #1

I was so pleased when the glitchy robot professor/dad/whatever other roles I’m forgetting started quoting Donne, because Donne’s obsession with free will and mortality is incredibly salient here. “Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?” begins Holy Sonnet #1, and thus launches into a meditation on aging, mortality, and what can potentially be preserved–for Donne, through salvation; for robots, through saving. “Repair me now, for mine end doth haste” is a line particularly likely to win fans among the decommissioned crowd.

2. G.M. Hopkins, “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.”

Jacob Garbe mentioned this one, but this is absolutely the Hopkins I’d have included if I’d have chosen. Melancholy, with a fixation on the question if the grief of living can be transcended, Hopkins’ poetry carves out a hollow space for grappling with a world where its creator will not intervene to relieve suffering. (All right, Hopkins still believes in God, but his work has more to do with asserting that faith in the face of trials than singing praises.) This one in particular speaks to the anxieties of abandonment and the universality of oblivion: “all / life death does end and each day dies / with sleep”.

3. Edna St. Vincent Millay, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)

This might seem like an odd choice–Millay has a lot of work about aging, death, and loss, but this one is an old favorite, and dovetails neatly with the idea of memory and repeatedly-run subroutines. Favorite lines: “the rain / is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh / upon the glass and listen for reply” and “Thus in winter stands the lonely tree, / nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, / yet knows its boughs more silent than before”.

4. Eavan Boland, “Quarantine

Okay, bear with me on this one. Yes, it’s about mortality, so it plausibly counts, but it’s more specifically directed at our glitchy professor, whose directive overrode the rest of his programming to create emergent behavior. This stark paean to pragmatic love stands, in my reading, as a parallel to the sacrifice Abernathy makes to keep Dolores safe, to Thandie Newton’s character’s protection of one of her girls, to Dolores running to her sweetheart : the “merciless inventory” of “what they suffered. How they lived”. Yeah, I’m sad about robots, what of it?

5. A. E. Housman, “On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble (A Shropshire Lad 31)

Oh, Housman. My heart aches for him, caught between desire (if perhaps overwrought) and duty. This poem in particular deals with landscape and linkages, a world which retains the imprint and feelings of the people who have lived and died and vanished on it, even if only in the common behaviors they perform. And what’s more Westworld than that?

(Honorable mentions: Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas“, Ruth Baumann, “Headless Ghazal“, probably everything we still have of Sappho.)

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