Prompts are all over social media, and a lot of people seem to like them. The idea is that writers need a little push to get their creative momentum going on its own, so a teacher or facilitator will suggest either a subject to write about or a formal tactic that will hopefully produce a poem or story. Full disclosure: I have lost count of the number of classes and workshops I’ve taught where I have given assignments and prompts to my students. So, if I see a problem in all this, I am as guilty as anyone of having added to it.
My own misgivings probably started with my reading. I realized one day that the poets I cared about the most don’t seem to have sat around responding to prompts. Could a prompt have given us The Waste Land? Tennyson’s “Tithonus”? Zagajewski’s “Going to Lvov”? Szymborska’s “Autotomy”? Frost’s “Home Burial”? I don’t think so. What goes into a piece of writing determines what comes out. Great poems likely originate in great inner conflict, as Yeats put it, our “quarrel with ourselves.” They don’t rely on suggestions from social media.
It’s not that suggestions are inherently bad, however. Remember, it was Rodin who told Rilke he should go to the zoo to study the animals until he could really see them. It that was a prompt, it was a damn good one, and it produced some remarkable poems. Perhaps the difference is that Rodin’s advice was to seek out certain kinds of experiences that could lead to poems, not to perform some verbal calisthenics to generate a literary product. If we can deepen our experiences, which we do in all sorts of ways, we may well write better poems or fiction. Of course, different experiences and different writers result in different outcomes. (Admit it, at some point haven’t you stood in front of the panther’s cage staring for who knows how long and not seeing anything worth writing about? It happens.)
Prompts exist as a shortcut. A writer may suffer from the anxiety caused by a blank page and a mind not ready to do anything about it. Living with that anxiety isn’t easy. The assignment is to produce something by the next class. If there’s no product by class time, then the student and the teacher will feel they’ve failed. And, it is the safest of bets that at some point someone, with whatever presumed authority, has declared to them both that writing cannot be taught. Enter the prompt. Even if it results only in fortuitous wordplay, what comes out looks like something that can be brought to class.
I judged a small poetry competition recently, and it occurred to me that a number of the poems I was reading probably originated with a prompt. The tip-off could be an abstraction in the title with a corresponding trope making up the body of the poem. The trope would usually be exhausted in a few lines, but the poem would limp along with a few additional lines of explanation. Another kind of tipoff might be a poem based around a few ambiguous images. I was never sure what those images were actually doing. They seemed to announce a kind of profundity that didn’t stand up to examination. Maybe this was my failure as a reader, or maybe it was the kind of poem that happens when the poet is unsure why the poem needs to exist at all. Such poems are highly publishable in certain journals, where the editors favor poems that make the reader work by entering the poem and ascribing meaning to it. This is nonsense, but it’s certainly present in the atmosphere. Readers will always ascribe their own meaning to poems regardless of the poem’s clarity or lack thereof, but the best poems that resist our understanding are mystical—where the experience is larger than the language that seeks to express it. These do not result from prompts.
The latest development in prompts are the ones that various tech-savvy individuals are giving to web-based artificial intelligence devices in order to receive back literary products they can submit to publishers. Many literary magazines now require potential contributors to certify that they themselves wrote the work in question, not a computer. If this doesn’t beg the question, it certainly makes the question obvious: if a computer can respond to a prompt in a way that produces a poem that is difficult to distinguish from a poem by a person that the magazine in question would consider publishing, isn’t there something wrong with the literary standards of that magazine? Possibly these journals are so used to receiving ambiguous human responses to prompts purporting to be poems that the editors are worried they’ve been blinded to the difference between the language of a human voice that is trying to make sense of its world and a conglomeration of vaguely emotive language assembled from the many corners of the internet in response to an AI prompt.
In a few weeks, I’ll begin another semester of teaching students to write poems, and I will, hypocritical as it may be, give them assignments, some of which may involve prompts. My reasons are much like those of other instructors. Some of my students will enter the class never having written a poem or a story. Those students need training wheels, and I’m not ashamed to provide them. I teach one day a week in a medium-security prison out in the Everglades. The students enjoy these classes for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that the library, unlike their dormitories, has air conditioning. As the semester progresses, we’ll move more and more toward assignments that ask the students to write about the reality of their lives. They are incarcerated, and many live with the knowledge they will never be released. That kind of awareness cannot be counterfeited by artificial intelligence or generated by prompts. We read poems and stories to connect with the experiences of other human beings. We write poems and stories so that readers we don’t know will understand the experiences and thoughts that make us who we are. I’m a pragmatist here. If a prompt will enable that process for a little while, I won’t refuse it, but if it stands in the way and creates only a clever literary product, then I have no use for it.