“And as imagination bodies forth…” (Shakespeare)

10 years

Yesterday we drove down to Davis Bay to have lunch with good friends. We sat long at the table, talking, talking, and one thing we talked about was artificial intelligence, the rise of ChatGPT, and so on. What the applications might be for such “tools”. The dangers. It’s not surprising that John and I are confounded by our culture’s eagerness to push human creativity and accountability to the sidelines in pursuit of the new. Before arriving at our friends’ home, we sat for a few minutes in our car parked at the oceanfront at Davis Bay, a place where we have seen humpback whales, fishermen, walkers, seals, little flotillas of surf scoters, yesterday a single large duck quite far out, the scent of salt and low tide flotsam coming in the window. Boats in the distance. Vancouver Island beyond, the mountains still snowy. Earlier I’d bought some plants at the nursery–a bougainvillea, light pink, to join the magenta one I overwintered in our sunroom, wishing again I’d been brave enough to fill my suitcase with cuttings of the orange ones, the deep pink ones, the red, the soft salmon, growing everywhere in Baja, but I didn’t want us held up at Customs at the Vancouver airport. (As it turned out, our entry to Canada was accomplished with the brief act of swiping our passports through a little machine. No human contact. So I could have brought as much bougainvillea as I liked.)

Anyway, AI. I’m sure there are practical applications and I look forward to talking to my mathematician son this summer about what those might be. Whether he trusts a bot to pursue the deep mathematical puzzles that keep him awake at night. I know that when he spent a term at the MSRI on Grizzly Peak, above the Berkeley campus, working with others in his research area, one of the practical applications for their work was medical imaging. Were bots involved? I’ll have to ask him. But–and this came up at lunch–do you want a bot to write a paper about the importance of George Orwell? To find meaning in the poems of John Donne? Why follow the lives of Jane Austen’s characters in a term paper when you could let ChatGPT take it from there? What about Miriam Toews’ women in that barn, talking, talking–and listening, too. Why not put their names and the crimes against them, their complicated choices, into an app and see what it comes up with. Why read, then? Why sit in a class of other students to discuss how a book, a poem, is constructed, how it fits or doesn’t with our contemporary values, why do that, and then not write about it yourself? Why go to class? Why bother? Am I missing something?

Apparently Thompson Rivers University is phasing out their Bachelor of Fine Arts program over the next three years, citing costs and enrolment as their justification. The program is described this way at their website:

Explore the dimensions of your creativity through a broad range of studio and theoretical courses in a variety of media. Benefit from 26,000 square feet of workshops and studio space and an art gallery for your work alongside other student and faculty exhibitions. Shaped around a core curriculum of studio, art history and theory courses, this degree encourages an interdisciplinary approach to learning which takes advantage of the many facets of the university community.

There are always financial and practical reasons to cancel things in this world but those can almost always be countered with excellent arguments for continuing to offer them. You could argue that students can learn anything on their own or elsewhere or that machines can do twice the work at half the price or, or, or…But I think of myself, a girl from a family for whom I was the first to attend university, a girl discovering that you could sit in a classroom and read Chaucer with others, discuss the Odyssey and Dante, understand their relevance to everything you might do next, a Miranda reading the Tempest for the first time and finding her own sense of wonder: “O brave new world,/That has such people in’t! “The first papers I wrote in university were enthusiastic but chaotic and I am grateful for David Jeffrey who took me aside to tell me that my ideas deserved better. He showed me a few grammatical, well, let’s call them anomalies, and guided me through a paragraph or two and I wanted so badly to improve. And I did. People I was university with went out into the larger world and did interesting and important things. They painted, wrote books (and continue to write them), one became a famous operatic tenor, several are archaeologists, social workers, doctors, one led the breast cancer research team here in B.C. for decades.  But why bother immersing yourself in, oh, an interdisciplinary approach to learning (studio, art history, and theory) because it’s not exactly cost-effective and there’s a computer program that could do it just as effectively and for a fraction of the cost. Why bother.

When John retired, in 2007, from the institution where he’d spent 35 years teaching composition to adult learners (he wasn’t allowed to teach literature courses or creative writing because he didn’t have an M.A., though he was invited to be a writer-in-residence at a big American university, he won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 2006, and has published many books), he set up a writing prize to be awarded to a student at the Coast campus of the institution, in any discipline, who’d written a good essay or article. He believed, still believes, that good writing is important across the curriculum. And the Coast campus of the institution had programs in tourism, in other disciplines which required good writing. For several years, he’d be asked to help select the winning essay, along with colleagues. The award would be given at the end of the term ceremony, along with other scholarships and bursaries. I remember the first year of a new president’s tenure when her opening remark to the gathering of instructors, students, benefactors, families, and other well-wishers was, “Well, we finally got rid of that library.”   Imagine an educational administrator saying such a thing. She did. (She got rid of a lot of other vital stuff as well.) And that was when the prize John initiated went sideways too. It wasn’t awarded for several years. Then the terms of the prize were changed, against his will. It could no longer be given only to students from the Coast here. He’d always wanted something for local students, for whom travel off-Coast, as well as other costs, educational and otherwise, were often difficult, even prohibitive, and then there were a series of antagonistic phone calls about his involvement in the selection of the prize winner. It was as though his desire to see good writing rewarded, from any discipline, and his support for local scholarship were old-fashioned, unnecessary. So he washed his hands of the whole thing. I think the institution sends an accounting every year (it wasn’t an insignificant amount of money that he donated) but that’s it.

We were awake between 3:30 and 4:30, talking about all this in the quiet of the night. It would have been even quieter if we’d known that the sun-room door had been left open and that was the reason the cat kept leaping, wet, onto our bed, turning around a few times at my feet, then racing outside again. (I keep hearing little noises this morning and am hoping a weasel didn’t find its way in through that open door.) We talked about our love for ideas, for extending them, of recording them, our belief in human consciousness and its difficult complicated beauty, and maybe we both sighed at the same time, realizing we were being left behind by history. Oh, goodnight, brave new world.

Why bother. Why stand outside at midnight, dazzled by the starry sky, the wash of the Milky Way to the east of the house, looking for Orion striding above the garden, why bother, when you could put on special headgear and see the whole thing in simulated glory? I’m not saying that technology doesn’t have a place in our human lives. Of course it does. Looking at those stars through binoculars makes their narratives more beautiful and complex.  This morning, leaving the house for our swim, I stopped and said, Listen! From every direction there were robins calling their urgent spring song. I didn’t need an app to tell me what I was hearing. I didn’t need an app to tell me that the long whistle, the single note, was a varied thrush, or that the soft sweet trill in the flowering maples near the pool were yellow-rumped warblers. This is the world I love and I want it in every sound and colour.

Yesterday, as well as the bougainvillea, I bought a potted camas cultivar, C. quamash “Blue Melody”.  The leaves are creamy-edged. It’s not blooming yet but the other day Angelica sent a photo of the first camas she’d seen this year in Uplands Park.


Every year I mean to order the bulbs of the native camas and I never quite get to it. So seeing the cultivated version was a reminder. When I looked this cultivar online, I read that some gardeners were disappointed that the leaves reverted to plain green. I liked that. I like that plants want their older forms, the way the little clump of Erythronium oregonum “Yellow Pagoda” I planted years ago has reverted to the soft cream of the native fawn lilies that were its parents. I like how a climbing Alba rugosa rose I planted 35 years ago has returned to its rootstock, the prickly beautiful Rosa canina, with its early soft pink blooms and its long elegant hips. The canes of this rose hang over the window by my bed and twice I’ve seen a weasel pause its travels across the canes to peer in at me drinking coffee in bed in the morning. This is the world I love, the details I love, the old renegade tendencies of plants, of birds, of two people talking in the night about the original and beautiful capacity of human imagination. We want the older forms, language dense with meaning and intention. And love.

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Quick question–ChatGPT or William Shakespeare?

6 thoughts on ““And as imagination bodies forth…” (Shakespeare)”

  1. AI wouldn’t recognize satire. It doesn’t really “recognize” anything but has such a vast database (all Shakespeare’s sonnets at the very least. likely ALL on-line sonnets!) that if you asked it for a “new” sonnet by Shakespeare it might very likely be able to produce a facsimile we would be hard-pressed to distinguish from the real thing. And many of those less familiar with or caring about the bard than we are could easily take such a thing for real, and (this is the especial danger) EQUAL to the real thing. Muddy the provenance of Shakespeare or any creative “content” and you muddy the culture and discredit creativity. AI is a very serious threat to creators, and therefore to all of us.

    1. Well put. That moment in Lear? “Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination.” The things of this earth and the heavens and the human heart are what make art, not an algorithm. Or at least I’m not convinced otherwise…

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