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In the summer of 1961, so the story goes, the poet Allen Ginsberg visited the writer William S. Burroughs in Tangier. The two were close friends and fellow Beatniks, but Burroughs hadn’t yet read “Kaddish,” Gisnberg’s recent poem about the death of his mother.
So Burroughs asked for a copy and a pair of scissors. He planned to cut up the pages and words into fragments, and reassemble them in a randomized order. “Then,” Burroughs supposedly said, “we’ll really get the meaning out of it.”
“Allen was genuinely hurt by that. He was horrified by it,” Peter Hale, executor of the Allen Ginsberg Estate, told Decrypt. But five years later, Ginsberg was a converted man, regularly employing experimental cut-up techniques on his own poetry. “He definitely came around to appreciating the whole thing,” Hale said.
Would Ginsberg have been horrified or appreciative, then, had he been alive to witness “Muses & Self: Photographs by Allen Ginsberg,” a new exhibition currently on display at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles?
The show, which highlights Ginsberg’s prolific second career as a photographer, also employs a fine-tuned artificially intelligent language model to write poems generated from (inspired by?) Ginsberg’s photos. The outputs aren’t just re-assemblings of vintage Ginsberg; they’re entirely new, robot-crafted works written in the artist’s distinctive voice.
“I think he’d absolutely be open to the experimentation of it, to seeing what the possibilities were,” Hale said. “I'm not sure what he’d feel about the end results. But that's not really the point.”
Take a 1953 photo of the novelist Jack Kerouac, for instance, smoking a cigarette on an East Village fire escape. From that image was born “Wandering Soul,” a new Ginsberg poem, written 26 years after Ginsberg’s death.
“Poet of steel and brick, visiting the old haunts—
you stood beside me dead-still in a profound kind of
staring quietly at the accompaniment of lives suspended
across the backyard of America’s dream.
Clotheslines strung like verse catching the wind of change,
raw words on the horizon.
We were two sunflowers editing eternity,
no sunset salvation of nightfall over the restless river,
just mad grey shadows and eyes aflame with beauty.
All I wanted was to escape, run off and write a mile wide.
Ah, Jack! You own your own myth—
petals hellbent in the smoke of the ever ending sky.”
“The AI describes the clotheslines in the photo as strung like verse, which I thought was so beautiful,” Sasha Stiles, who co-created the Ginsberg language model, told Decrypt. “It happens just like with human poetry, where you see it and you know. That’s the turn of phrase. It just makes you stop in your tracks for a second.”
Stiles, who co-founded theVERSEverse, an AI poetry collective, is a pioneer in the emerging field of generative literature. She collaborated heavily on the Ginsberg machine with Ross Goodwin, a creative technologist who (among other things) created one of the first films produced from an entirely AI-generated screenplay, wrote a novel with a car, and drafted proclamations for the Obama White House.
Stiles does not see the AI poems she helped create as Ginsberg poems, per se. Rather, she sees them as riffs on the late artist’s work, which in their highest form might illuminate artistic nuances imperceptible to us flesh-and-blood.
“We didn't want to reanimate Ginsberg,” she said. “We wanted to equip Ginsburg's body of work with technology in a way that would let us get at little connections, illusions, references, and associations that we, as human readers of his work, might not be able to see with our analog minds and eyes.”
Not everyone sees the project that way. Hale, who runs Ginsberg’s estate and worked with the artist in the last years of his life, says he’s received mixed reactions on the exhibition from the poetry community. Some have found the experiment distasteful. Others have clashed with the AI’s stance on what makes Ginsberg, Ginsberg.
“One of my poet friends, he’s been like, ‘Well, Allen would probably not use as much alliteration, he’d probably remove the "the" at the end of this,’” Hale recounted. “I'm like, no, no, we’re not rewriting his poems!”
On display alongside Ginsberg’s new corpus are a series of photos the artist took over the course of the 20th century, principally capturing other artists. Burroughs, Kerouac, Gregory Corso; Jean-Michel Basquiat, Toni Morrison, Patti Smith; all of them, innovators who broke taboos to better capture the idiosyncrasies of the human spirit.
On La Brea Avenue, they gaze through the camera and down at the viewer, almost asking outright: does this latest innovation carry on their exploratory philosophy, or has something human now been lost?
Just before “Muses & Self” opened, Hale was speaking with Nicholas Fahey, the gallery’s director, in Fahey’s office. They were discussing potential reactions the show might garner, and the legacy it might leave.
“It’s showing that you can have 20th century artists participating in this new digital art revolution without making them do something cringey,” Fahey said.
He paused for a moment, reconsidering.
“Although some people will probably think what we're doing is cringey,” he added.
Hale laughed, and Fahey did too.
“Let them!” they both exclaimed, almost in unison. “Let them!”
Editor's note: This story was updated after publication to correct the order of names in the initial anecdote, as well as to correct the wording of a quote.