One of Robert Frost’s definitions for poetry is that which “gets lost in translation,” but leave it to Google to ask “really now?”  Meaning the company is presently at work on a program to do just that, in adapting its translation qualities to translate poetry.

I know, “the horror.”

Google’s new program (at least in the early stages) primarily focuses not only on the words of the poems themselves, but also rhyme, and meter (Here’s where the amped-on-five-Red-Bulls infomercial host flags an available camera “Just think, you can have your very own English-speaking Jabberwocky!“).  And according to software engineer, Dmitriy Genzel, currently the software behaves very much like a flesh-and-blood poet — working too slowly, and trying out a variety of lines to see which fit best.

Of course, the odds of success with Google’s plan to aid in the takeover of machines is slim, but it does raise interesting notions and issues, as to the state of American poetry and why this program would so gloriously fail.  On the other hand, one has to appreciate Google’s suggestion of poetry as another language, one that, as with any language, requires a commitment to practice, to repetition, and also sheds new light on every poetry workshop student who crinkles his forehead, or shrugs at your poem.  “I don’t get it.”

But poetry is more than simply words, isn’t it?  It’s difficult to determine as much of today’s poetry would probably read as though composed by Google’s machine.  An interviewer interviewing poet Mark Doty described today’s poetry as a kind of intellectual masturbation, wherein the poet amuses himself (and a handful of critics) with wordplay, but that it’s essentially devoid, and absent of feeling.  That poetry, in many cases, ceases being that ongoing conversation, and investigation of the human condition.  Elements of love and loss that continually connect us to one another, that makes us feel, and human.

“A poem should not mean but be.”

The problem with straining a poem through the sieve of translation is, as Frost says, what gets lost.  To whittle a poem down to what we might consider the barest unit of sense and meaning is dangerous, especially if that whittling removes the mystery and the element of interpretation each individual reader brings to a poem.  Take Baudelaire’s “Flowers of Evil,” for instance.  Each translator makes deliberate choices, devises a particular scheme for translating the poem.  While conceptually, the poem remains the same, the smaller, aesthetic choices cause it to be different in each incarnation.  It is these small differences, these subtle aesthetic choices over meaning that create poetry.  But yes, there are also words, and meter and rhyme.

So, maybe it isn’t the worst idea, Google’s writing poems.  That is, until the program learns to use a shotgun, or lays its head inside an oven.

Oooh, too soon?  Probably.

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