In the summer of 1961, so the story goes, the writer William S. Burroughs visited the poet Allen Ginsberg in Tangier. The two were close friends and fellow Beatniks, but Burroughs had never read “Kaddish,” Gisnberg’s recent poem about his mother’s death.
So Burroughs asked for a copy and a pair of scissors. He planned to cut the pages and words into fragments, and reassemble them in a random order. “Then,” Burroughs is said to have said, “we will really get the meaning of it.”
“Allen was really hurt by that. He was afraid of it,” said Peter Hale, executor of the Allen Ginsberg Estate Decrypt. But five years later, Ginsberg was a converted man, often using experimental methods to cut his own poetry. “He definitely came to appreciate everybody,” Hale said.
Would Ginsberg have been horrified or grateful, had he been alive to witness “Muses & Self: Photographs of Allen Ginsberg,” a new exhibit now showing at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles?
The show, which highlights Ginsberg’s prolific second career as a photographer, also uses a finely tuned artificial intelligence language model to write poems generated from (inspired by?) photographs by Ginsberg. The outputs aren’t just re-assembling vintage Ginsberg; they are new, robot-made works written in a distinctive artist’s voice.
“I think he’s totally open to experimenting with it, to see what the possibilities are,” Hale said. “I’m not sure how he’ll feel about the consequences at the end. But that’s not really the point.”
Take a 1953 photo of novelist Jack Kerouac, for example, smoking 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 iron and brick, who visits old houses—
you stood beside me dead-still in a deep kind of
staring silently at the company of suspended lives
across the back of America’s dream.
Clothes tied like verse caught the wind of change,
raw words on the horizon.
We are two sunflowers editing forever,
without sunset the safety of the night upon the restless river,
just mad gray shadows and eyes burning with beauty.
All I want is to escape, run and write a mile wide.
Ah, Jack! You are the owner of your own myth—
smoke-stained petals of the eternal sky.”
“QHe described the AI in the picture clothes tied like verse, which I thought was very beautiful,” said Sasha Stiles, who co-created the Ginsberg language model. Decrypt. “It happens like human poetry, where you see it and you know it. That’s the turn of phrase. It just stops you in your tracks for a while.”
Stiles, who co-founded theVERSEverse, an AI poetry collective, is a pioneer in the emerging field of generative literature. He worked closely on the Ginsberg machine with Ross Goodwin, a creative engineer who (among other things) made one of the first films made from a full screenplay generated by AI, wrote a novel with a car, and drafted proclamations for the Obama White House.
Stiles doesn’t see the AI poems he helps create as Ginsberg poems, per se. Rather, he sees them as riffs on the work of the later artist, which in their highest form can illuminate artistic nuances that are invisible to us flesh-and-blood.
“We don’t want to release Ginsberg again,” he said. “We wanted to equip Ginsburg’s body of work with technology in such a way that we could make small connections, illusions, references, and associations that we, as human readers of her work, might not see in 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 has received mixed reactions to the exhibit from the poetry community. Others found the experiment unwholesome. Others argue that AI is what makes Ginsberg, Ginsberg.
“One of my poet friends, he said, ‘Well, Allen probably doesn’t use a lot of alliteration, he probably puts “the” at the end of it,'” Hale recounts. “I was like, no, no, no we will rewrite his poems!”
Displayed alongside Ginsberg’s new corpus are a series of photographs taken by the artist over the course of the 20th century, mostly taken by other artists. Burroughs, Kerouac, Gregory Corso; Jean-Michel Basquiat, Toni Morrison, Patti Smith; all of them, innovators who break taboos to better capture the idiosyncrasies of the human spirit.
On La Brea Avenue, they look up at the camera and down at the viewer, almost asking: does this latest innovation continue their exploratory philosophy, or is something human missing?
Before “Muses & Self” opened, Hale spoke with Nicholas Fahey, the gallery’s director, in Fahey’s office. They discussed the potential reactions the show could get, and the legacy it could leave behind.
“It shows that you can have 20th-century artists participate in this new digital art revolution without them doing something cringey,” Fahey said.
He paused for a moment, thinking again.
“Although some people might think what we’re doing is cringy,” he added.
Hale laughed, and so did Fahey.
“Leave them alone!” they both shouted, almost at the same time. “Leave them alone!”