Only brand new gods can save me
Merel van Slobbe (1992) is a writer and journalist. In her writing, she explores the internet, intimacy, technology and mysticism. In 2019, her chapbook Aan de rand van een lichaam (At the edge of a body) was published by Wintertuin Uitgeverij. In 2023, her debut poetry collection De maan schijnt feller in de metaverse (The moon shines brighter in the metaverse) was published by De Arbeiderspers.
Merel van Slobbe wrote this article at the invitation of Poetry International for the website of Versopolis, an ambitious European collaboration that since 2015 has already united 31 countries and poetry partners, promotes the European exchange of promising poetry talent and provides a digital platform where a wide audience can learn about poets and poetry festivals from different European countries.
Afterwards, I went for drinks with some of the attendees, and we started talking about ChatGPT. Some people had not yet heard of it while others were already using it extensively, mostly as a fun tool to experiment with and give weird assignments to (write a Shakespearean poem in which Donald Trump has a conversation with Donald Duck, while the internet slowly transforms into a small diamond: Oh, how surreal this meeting of two Dons / One with a quack and the other with none / A conversation strange, of politics and fun / On the internet, now a diamond that runs). And then there were also those who had heard of it but decided not to use it at all, feeling uncomfortable using AI for creative purposes.
Digitalisation, AI, augmented reality, virtual reality – recent technological advancements have been raising interesting questions about art and creativity. The central premise of the evening in Perdu was that there were commonalities between the poem and the internet, as both followed the logic of association and constellation. One of the other speakers, poet and essayist Samuel Vriezen, has written a book in which he examines literary culture on the internet and how literature evolves in the digital age. He also explores the network-like structure of the internet:
You write something, and it is absorbed into a web of links, or in a stream of reactions: a community of other texts forms around your text and immediately attaches itself to it.
The host of the evening, poet Maxime Garcia Diaz, introduced the event by making the case that this feature of the internet was also a feature of poetry:
The internet consists of connections: between computers, networks, pages within a website and individual words. Clicking on a hyperlinked word to access a new webpage is a common experience on the internet, and a similar phenomenon can be observed in poetry, even if the word in question is not highlighted or emphasized in any way.
Maxime Garcia Diaz curated an event at which we spoke briefly about how the internet and technology were not yet prevalent in Dutch poetry. Of course, Dutch writers are producing very interesting works on these topics, but not that many, and it feels like they are sometimes met with some resistance.
At a poetry evening in my hometown of Nijmegen, someone once advised me not to write about the internet, because it’s so ‘unpoetic’. Instead, I should focus on more romantic themes, like love and/or loneliness. Ironically, when I did read a more romantic poem once, someone approached me after the performance, telling me they liked my style but that it was such a shame that women always write about love. Clearly, you shouldn’t listen to people who approach you after a reading, unless they give you compliments.
These different opinions on what themes are suitable for poetry seem to illustrate a division I feel in the poetry scene. Some embrace technology as a tool to be utilised or a topic to explore, while others shy away from it, viewing poetry and technology as somehow incompatible – an intuitive attitude, perhaps, that the cold technical language of the digital world is at odds with the language of art, of poetry. This idea seems to come from a more traditional perspective on poetry, a romantic poetics in which poetry is mostly used as a medium to invoke sentiment and emotion.
Jeroen Dera, co-author of Dichters van het nieuwe millennium, a book on the new generation of Dutch poets, points out that many Dutch millennial poets tend to reject this somewhat romantic notion of poetry. Instead, they treat poetry not as an ‘aesthetic artefact’ but as a concept, and they constantly reflect on the question of how that concept interacts with the world in which they live. In an interview in Meander Magazine, he stated:
Which is why, with the new poets, you read less about beauty and consolation, and more about, for example, the philosophy of language and engagement.
The world is a sad place, baby / Only brand new gods can save me
These lines, from the singer and producer Grimes, serve as the motto of my poetry collection. In the book, I aim to explore technology as something that can embody qualities which it is often perceived to lack: sensuality, meaning, softness. Can pixels be sensual? Can a robot be religious? How can we create a soft internet?
In an interview about the song from which the lyrics are taken, Grimes stated:
It’s about how the old gods sucked – well, I don’t want to say they sucked, but how the old gods have definitely let people down a bit. If you look at old polytheistic religions, they’re sort of pre-technology. I figured it would be a good creative exercise to try to think like, ‘If we were making these gods now, what would they be like?’ So it’s sort of about the desire for new gods.
And I was like, ‘Well, who are the new gods?’ Because we have all this new stuff. We have plastic and pollution and plastic surgery and social media. The new gods sound sick. They sound like… like the Sailor Scouts, like these sick demons.
Can we look for gods in the ruins of late capitalism? Can we look for poetry in AI? In one of the texts in my collection I write about an avatar who longingly stares out of the computer, desiring a human body, something that transforms, that ages, that moves. At the same time, on the other side of the screen, a human longs for the digital world, desiring the smoothness of the internet, the timelessness of existing in code.
Roel Smeets, assistant professor of modern literature and digital culture, who develops algorithms to study Dutch literature, read the manuscript and drew parallels to the New Sincerity movement, a social and artistic movement that values seriousness and authenticity, rejecting the detached, ironic tone that characterised much of postmodern literature. He wrote:
These themes explore how to relate to the digital revolution as honestly and genuinely as possible. Not postmodernist meaninglessness but a revaluation of affectivity.
Although the new generation of writers seems to move away from more traditional romantic notions of poetry to an extent, there also seems to be a new need for connection and emotion. Not instead of political engagement, but as a means of engagement. According to the book Affectieve crisis, literair herstel, Dutch millennial literature is characterised by an affective focus, with a great emphasis on themes such as attachment, connection, loss and desire. In the book, the authors argue that, to enable social engagement, it seems that contact with reality must be restored on an affective level:
Those who cannot find connection on the micro level of life will also not find connection on the macro level of society and politics. Conversely, the common political-critical approaches to social reality have lost so much credibility – after the deconstruction of the ‘grand narratives’ – that this reality can only be experienced affectively at first. In that sense, the affective replaces the epistemological focus of (post)modern literature of the twentieth century.
Of course, technology not only gives us interesting themes to explore, but it is also an interesting tool that has given rise to various new literary genres such as digital poetry, augmented reality poetry and virtual reality poetry. Amongst the Dutch poets who conducted pioneering large-scale experiments with digital poetry was Tonnus Oosterhoff. He published digital poems on his website, dynamic texts with lines appearing and disappearing, where the visual aspect played a crucial role in the experience of the poem. Oosterhoff has since removed the poems from his website, though they remain accessible in its archive. In an interview, he stated:
I am always curious about ‘how things work’. (...) There are so many storytelling possibilities in literature that remain untapped! If the ‘avia pieridum’ (unfathomable paths of the muses; see Handschreeuwkoor, Lucretius) lead me to explore other traditions or genres, it is only to see if there is anything new to discover, not to claim ownership or establish dominance. In this way, I remain a man without a territory. Forever young.
Virtual reality is another storytelling possibility in literature, blurring the boundaries between perceiving and experiencing. VER, for example, is a new VR-poetry installation, created by Dorien Dijkhuis, Harm Van de Ven, Myrthe Van de Weetering and Suzan Hijink. It is a hand-drawn world, a poetic VR-experience about distance and longing, which will be showcased at Poets in the Prinsentuin, one of the biggest poetry festivals in the Netherlands – clearly, these new technologies are quickly becoming an integral part of the Dutch poetry scene, although they are sometimes met with resistance. What is interesting is that the themes of this VR-experience, such as longing, intimacy and connection, are somewhat ‘traditional’ (and, of course, timeless) literary themes that directly appeal to emotions. Emotions that are enhanced by modern technologies. Dorien Dijkhuis wrote about this in a blog post for the Dutch Foundation for Literature:
Is it possible to switch off the brain for the duration of a poem? Can we purely ‘experience’ a poem, bypassing the mind and taking a shortcut to the heart or wherever poetry stirs the soul? That was the starting point of my plan. If there was a digital medium to achieve this goal, I thought it would be virtual reality. Virtual reality offers an intimate world that appeals to the senses.
After the Perdu evening, I started experimenting with ChatGPT more often. I even considered having it write an alternative version of my collection and appending it to the book, to show what it would have produced on the same subject. I order to feed ChatGPT with prompts, I attempted to summarise what happens in my poems. For instance, I requested that it write a surrealist poem that featured Timothy Morton hosting a techno party for chatbots and germs in the caves of the metaverse while contemplating the nature of time, and incorporated a quote by Paris Hilton (which, to an extent, sums up one of the texts in my collection). ChatGPT wrote:
The music pulses through the caverns, with a beat so wild and free,
Paris Hilton’s words come to mind, ‘Life is too short to be basic,’ you see,
Chatbots and germs move to the rhythm, in a trance so surreal,
As Morton ponders the nature of time, and the mysteries it conceals.
Although ChatGPT occasionally produced intriguing pieces, many lines (as illustrated here) contained clichés, platitudes and forced rhymes. I ended up not including any of its poems in the book, but I am very curious to see how these technological developments will influence the Dutch (and the global) literary scene, in terms of content, but also in the way we create and experience literature. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?
 Samuel Vriezen: Network in Eclipse. Wereldbibliotheek, 2016.
 Jeroen Dera, Sarah Posman and Kila van der Starre: Dichters van het nieuwe millenium. Uitgeverij Vantilt, 2016.
 Grimes in an interview with Apple Music.
 Grimes in her Live Podcast with Sean Carroll.
 Hans Demeyer and Sven Vitse: Affectieve crisis, literair herstel. Amsterdam University Press, 2020.
 Ursula K. Le Guin: The wind’s twelve quarters, Volume 1. Panther, 1978.