Ahead of our online exhibition exploring today’s literary avant-garde, theVERSEverse delves into how and why they use AI to deepen our engagement with legendary poet Allen Ginsberg.
“My poetry has always been a picture of my mind moving.”
– Allen Ginsberg, Illuminated Poems
Though most well known as a writer, Allen Ginsberg had a profoundly poetic eye. He initially picked up a used Kodak Retina camera in the 1950s to take snapshots of the playful nature of his now-famous friends, including writers Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Neal Cassady – and to capture the spirit of The Beat Generation, beginning to leave its mark on the world.
Twenty years later, with encouragement from photographers such as Robert Frank and Bernice Abbott, Ginsberg resumed his passion, taking portraits of longtime friends and new acquaintances – including Amira Baraka, Francesco Clemente, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Toni Morrison and Patti Smith. Fascinatingly, many of these photos are inscribed with dated, handwritten captions by Ginsberg himself – poetic timestamps that echo and amplify his more canonical words.
When theVERSEverse was given a sneak peek at a forthcoming exhibition of Ginsberg’s photos, we found ourselves wondering: As lovers of literature, what might we learn about Ginsberg and the poetic avant-garde by ‘reading’ his iconic photographs (and captions) as poems, and vice versa?
The resulting project, AFTER GINSBERG, is an ongoing literary adventure inspired by Ginsberg’s embodiment of the poet as visionary, intertwining words and images as two profoundly linked modes of creative expression and understanding. It’s also an homage to the Beat Poets’ experimental approach to writing: Ginsberg – officially onboarded to theVERSEverse in September 2023 – and his peers famously expanded language via automated writing techniques and popular technologies, such as cameras and tape recorders, in a way that resonates deeply with us as we continue challenging linguistic conventions and celebrating the cultural currency of poetry on and off the blockchain.
We are thrilled to partner with The Allen Ginsberg Estate, The Fahey/Klein Gallery, The Tezos Foundation and fxh(hash) to officially ‘publish’ this experimental literary endeavour with UNIT London – leveraging generative tools to turn Ginsberg’s photographs into poem machines equipped with a kind of cyber-poetic vision.
Part 1: A PICTURE OF MY MIND
The first phase of our project is a A Picture of My Mind, a capsule collection of 6 ekphrastic poems that uses one of the most significant tools of today’s literary avant-garde – AI-powered language models – to engage meaningfully with Ginsberg’s portraiture. We began with a dive into Ginsberg’s body of work, researching and compiling a training data set of Ginsberg’s poetry plus relevant prose and handwritten captions from over 400 of his historical photos, then used this curated poetic resource to fine-tune a cutting-edge large language model. Next, we used keywords sourced from Ginsberg’s original photos as prompts to translate each snapshot into a poetic text informed by his own words, observations, and imagination. The resulting poems, we hope, illuminate their companion photographs, transcending obvious interpretations of this towering literary figure to gaze even further into his visionary eye, and reveal the subtler echoes of his enduring voice.
Part 2: GENTEXT ISSUE 6: GINSBERG x GOODWIN
In phase two, pioneering data poet and theVERSEverse member Ross Goodwin collaborates with an AI-powered archive via cutting-edge image recognition technology via the renowned generative art platform fx(hash). In this long-form series, Goodwin explores how the use of algorithmic and AI tools in text-based art continue the long literary tradition of cut-ups, automated writing and other aleatory practices. Uniquely, Goodwin engages with Ginsberg’s portraiture by playing with the inversion of text-to-image and image-to-text – evoking his own iconic project ‘word.camera’ (2015), in which a surveillance camera describes faces in ‘spoken’ words. GINSBERG x GOODWIN is also part of theVERSEverse’s acclaimed GENTEXT series, in which we invite poets and artists to collaborate using cutting-edge technology.
In these first two phases and more to come, AFTER GINSBERG seeks to open up a dialogue around the many urgent, fascinating, complex and hotly contested aspects of artificial intelligence and blockchain as they relate to poetry and literature more broadly – from originality, authorship and legacy to copyright, commercialisation and preservation. Our aim, ultimately, isn’t to create a Ginsberg poetry bot, as some have speculated, or to resurrect a dead writer, but rather to explore how generative technologies can equip us to do more of what we love: read, write, study, reflect, commune with and learn from the most courageous, brilliant, daringly human voices and minds of all time. We see the tremendous potential in AI as next-gen tools for academia and scholarship and readership, as well as for writing – a means to curate, organise, access and analyse comprehensive troves of textual data in a way that might reveal the previously unseen, unknown, unknowable.
We like to think that Ginsberg, with his signature pastiche of styles and innovative techniques, would have respected the way new technologies enable writers to expand the bounds of poetry, publication and performance, even as they beckon us to remember our roots. Poetry has always been as indebted to the past as it is committed to forging ahead. The future of language and literature isn’t just about generating new work – it’s also about engaging more deeply than ever with humanity’s foundational and ever-evolving archive.
Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was born in Newark, New Jersey, and emerged as a prominent voice in the countercultural movement of the 1950s and 1960s. His most famous work, “Howl,” a powerful and controversial poem that challenged societal conventions and explored themes of sexuality, spirituality, and political dissent, became a touchstone for a generation seeking liberation and authenticity. Ginsberg’s relentless pursuit of personal and artistic freedom made him an iconic figure, and his activism and advocacy for social justice, including his involvement in anti-war and gay rights movements, further solidified his place in American literary and cultural history. Through his groundbreaking poetry and fearless exploration of taboo subjects, Ginsberg remains an enduring symbol of artistic rebellion and the search for individual and collective enlightenment.
theVERSEverse was founded in late 2021 by the writers Ana Maria Caballero, Kalen Iwamoto and Sasha Stiles. It is a hybrid literary gallery and collective where poem = work of art. In 2022, Elisabeth Sweet joined to support the gallery’s communication efforts. Poems and projects curated by theVERSEverse have traveled around the world as well as in the metaverse, garnering international acclaim and the support of visionary cultural figures and art institutions. Learn more at theVERSEverse.com.
Ana Maria Caballero