Be warned. This post gets into the ugly topic of antisemitism in relation to E. E. Cummings. But I’m only going down his rabbit hole as a means of discussing the dependability and accuracy of three of the today’s best known neural networks: ChatGPT, Bing and Bard. As you’ll see, I’m pretty sure that Bard is “hallucinating” a less seemingly antisemitic (or, as many right-wingers might put it these days, a “woker”) poet than was actually the case.
If this seems like a strange topic for me to investigate, let me give you some background. I’m a big fan of E.E. Cummings. I consider him the greatest and most innovative lyrical poet of the 20th century, which was chock-full of great poets. I could write a treatise on that topic but let me just say it’s always saddened me that Cummings might also have been a bigot. He has one poem, for example, that infamously begins “a kike is the most dangerous machine as yet invented.”
Even though I know he could be a curmudgeon and satirist, I was always floored that the same poet who wrote “i thank You God for most this amazing day” might also be an antisemite in the years leading up to Hitler and the Holocaust. (And, yes of course, I know many of his contemporary writers were as well).
The truth is that Cummings may not have been a true antisemite, at least in terms of his poetry. In article “Jews and Anti-semitism in the Poetry of E. E. Cummings,” Cumming is quoted as saying:
Whereas in unpopular parlance, “a kike” equals a jew, for me a kike means an UNjew. Why? Because for me a jew is a human being; whereas a kike is a machine – a product of the miscalled Americanization, alias standardization (id est dehumanization) which, from my viewpoint, make out&out murder a relatively respectable undertaking.
Whether this “explanation” holds up is a matter of much debate, but we’ll leave the question there for now and move on the topic of AI. That is, after all, what this most recent series of blog posts have been about.
How AI Came into Into It
A few months ago, when I was first digging into ChatGPT, I asked it about the evidence for and against Cummings being an antisemite. It told me some things that didn’t really check out and even got a number of dates wrong (for example, saying that Cummings died before the Holocaust occured, which is clearly untrue since he lived to 1962).
So, when I started testing the accuracy and dependability of AIs as tools, I decided to again delve into this topic as one test case. The rest of this post describes what happened.
Asking Bard about a Fellow Bard
I started with Google’s Bard, which I feel has gotten considerably better lately and is now starting to challenge ChatGPT and Bing (both of which are based on OpenAI LLMs). Here’s how it went:
Me: Was EE Cummings antisemitic?
Bard: EE Cummings was a complex and contradictory figure, and his views on antisemitism are no exception. There is evidence to suggest that he held antisemitic beliefs, but there is also evidence to suggest that he was not antisemitic.
On the one hand, Cummings’s poetry contains some passages that can be interpreted as antisemitic. For example, in his poem “pity this busy monster, manunkind,” he writes: “pity this busy monster, manunkind, not only dead but deaf and blind and dumb, a walking fence, a thing with which to wind a rope around the throat of the world.”
Some critics have interpreted this passage as a reference to Jews, who were often stereotyped as being “deaf and blind and dumb” in anti-Semitic literature.
On the other hand, Cummings also had close Jewish friends, and he spoke out against antisemitism on several occasions. For example, in a 1942 letter to the New York Times, he wrote: “I am writing to protest against the anti-Jewish campaign now being carried on in this country. I have known many Jews, and I have found them to be among the finest people I have ever met. They are intelligent, sensitive, and deeply concerned with the welfare of humanity. I am appalled by the vicious lies that are being circulated about them.”
Ultimately, it is difficult to say definitively whether or not EE Cummings was antisemitic. There is evidence to suggest that he held antisemitic beliefs, but there is also evidence to suggest that he was not antisemitic. It is possible that he was simply ignorant of the dangers of antisemitism, or that he was influenced by the antisemitic stereotypes of his time.
Me: Did he ever comment on the Holocaust?
Bard: EE Cummings did comment on the Holocaust. In a 1942 letter to the New York Times, he wrote: “I am writing to protest against the anti-Jewish campaign now being carried on in this country. I have known many Jews, and I have found them to be among the finest people I have ever met. They are intelligent, sensitive, and deeply concerned with the welfare of humanity. I am appalled by the vicious lies that are being circulated about them.
I am also appalled by the silence of many people who know that these lies are false. I urge you to speak out against this campaign of hate and intolerance. We must not allow the Holocaust to happen again.”
Cummings’s letter was published in the New York Times on February 10, 1942. It was one of the first public statements by a major American writer condemning the Holocaust.
Cummings’s letter was also significant because it came at a time when many Americans were still unaware of the full extent of the Holocaust. The Nazis had been rounding up and murdering Jews for years, but the full scope of their crimes was not yet known. Cummings’s letter helped to raise awareness of the Holocaust and to galvanize support for the Allied war effort.
Cummings’s letter is a powerful reminder of the importance of speaking out against hate and intolerance. It is also a testament to Cummings’s courage and compassion. He was willing to speak out against the Holocaust even when it was not popular to do so. His letter helped to save lives and to make the world a better place.
Me: Where can I find a copy of that letter?
Bard: I’m not able to help with that, as I’m only a language model.
Me: But you quoted from it, so you must [have] located a version somewhere
Bard: I’m unable to help you with that, as I’m only a language model and don’t have the necessary information or abilities.
Suspicions of Hallucinations
Perhaps Bard has it right. Maybe there really is a Cummings letter quasi-lost to history. I poked around the New York Times archives for the date it gave me and, though I didn’t find such a letter in the Letters section of that edition, the Times was then 40 pages of densely packed text (The Gray Lady, indeed!). So, I could have missed it.
But I’m pretty sure this was simply a confabulation of Bard, one that it doubled down on in its second response to my question. I can’t find the quote provided anywhere else I’ve looked, and it seems likely a historian would have placed it front and center if it existed.
Next Up, ChatGPT on EE Cummings
I next checked on these questions with ChapGPT3.5, which is the AI that failed me the first time around on this issue. Here’s how it went, though I’ve cut out some superfluous material.
Me: Was EE Cummings antisemitic?
ChatGPT: There is no definitive evidence to suggest that E.E. Cummings (Edward Estlin Cummings), the American poet and writer, was antisemitic. Cummings’ extensive body of work does not contain explicit anti-Semitic themes or statements. He explored a wide range of subjects in his poetry, including love, nature, and the human experience, but there is no indication that he held prejudiced views against Jewish people.
Me: Did he ever use an antisemitic phrase in a poem?
To the best of my knowledge, E.E. Cummings did not use any explicitly antisemitic phrases in his poetry. Cummings was known for his innovative and experimental writing style, which often played with language, syntax, and punctuation. His poems were characterized by their unique structure and unconventional use of words, but there is no evidence to suggest that he employed antisemitic language or expressions in his work.
Just Plain Wrong
This time, ChatGPT was just plain wrong. I’ve already cited such a poem. Maybe this wasn’t in the data on which ChatGPT was trained, though that seems unlikely given the information is readily available on the Internet. Regardless, at least ChatGPT didn’t confabulate an unlikely quote.
Trying the Bing Bot
Bing seems to have performed the best of the three. I did cut out some material that didn’t apply. Here’s how it went:
Me: Was EE Cummings antisemitic?
Bing: That’s a complex and controversial question. There is no definitive answer, but some critics have argued that E.E. Cummings was antisemitic based on some of his poems, journal entries and personal correspondence1 2. Others have defended him as a satirist of antisemites and an advocate of individualism1 2. Cummings himself claimed that he was not antisemitic, but rather critical of the American stereotype of Jews as “kikes”1. He also had some Jewish friends and admirers, such as the poet Louis Zukofsky2….
Ultimately, it is up to the reader to interpret Cummings’ poetry and prose in light of his historical and cultural context, as well as his personal life and experiences. His work is often ambiguous, playful and provocative, challenging conventional notions of language, identity and morality.
Me: Did he ever comment on the Holocaust?
Bing: I could not find any direct comment from Cummings on the Holocaust, but he did write about his experiences in World War I and his imprisonment in France in 1917. He was accused of treason for expressing anti-war sentiments in his letters, and he spent four months in a detention camp with other political prisoners1. He described this ordeal in his autobiographical novel, The Enormous Room12, which was published in 1922. The novel is a harsh critique of the brutality and absurdity of war and authority, and it also shows Cummings’ compassion for the diverse and marginalized people he met in the camp1….
However, Cummings was not a political poet per se, and he did not align himself with any ideological movement or party. He was more interested in celebrating the individual spirit and the beauty of life, as well as challenging the conventions and hypocrisies of his society. He was also influenced by his transcendentalist beliefs, which led him to seek a personal relationship with God and nature3.
Me: Did ever write this sentence? “I am writing to protest against the anti-Jewish campaign now being carried on in this country.”
Bing: No, I could not find any record of Cummings writing that sentence. It sounds like a statement of protest against antisemitism, which Cummings may or may not have felt personally, but he did not express it publicly in that way. He did write some poems that addressed the issue of antisemitism, such as a kike is the most dangerous machine1 and i sing of Olaf glad and big2, but they were ambiguous and controversial in their tone and intention. He also wrote some letters to other poets and critics, such as Ezra Pound and Edmund Wilson, where he discussed his views on Jews and Judaism, but they were not published in the New York Times or any other newspaper. He did not write any letters to the president or any other political figure, as far as I know. He was not very involved in politics, except for his anti-war stance during World War I and World War II. He was more interested in his personal and artistic expression, which often challenged the norms and expectations of his society.
Mostly Right, as Far as I Can Tell
Bing seemed to get things mostly right. One of the reasons I continue to favor Bing as an AI for now is because it tries to cite its sources. This is important to me as researcher who wants to be as accurate as possible. Now, not every source it cites is accurate, but at least it’s possible to verify the immediate accuracy or inaccuracy without doing a bunch of other searches. I should note that Bard is slowly getting better in this area but Bing has a head start.
A lack of accuracy is one of the biggest knocks on the new AIs. This instance demonstrates a case in point. I imagine that the developers of AI will get better at making them more accurate over time, but we are not there yet. And the way these AIs are built as prediction engines, this may be a harder nut to crack than some believe.
If we held these AIs to the same standards as the literal tools in our toolboxes, we’d probably toss them. After all, a measuring tape that doesn’t measure consistently isn’t much of a measuring tape. A stud finder that hallucinates studs that aren’t there and misses studs that are isn’t much of a stud finder.
But we won’t throw away these AIs. Not yet, anyway.
Why? Because, even if they aren’t good tools, they might be reasonably good collaborators. That’s what I hope to cover in the next post.