I can’t remember exactly what my sister and I were talking about on the phone when she suggested that I might find it interesting to look into ChatGPT, which went public just this past November. It could have been when I was telling her about this blog, with its focus on literature and language—and she mentioned the OpenAI language models. Or it could have been when we were wondering how teachers today, when assigning essay topics, deal with all the information available on the internet—how can they tell if an essay isn’t plagiarized?
Whatever the prompt was, I did open a ChatGPT account. I was curious to see what chatting with ChatGPT would be like.
I started by asking it simple factual questions—e.g., “How many short story collections did J. F. Powers publish?” Its answer was concise and correct. Then, at my sister’s suggestion, I asked it to “Write me a 800 -1000 word essay on the origins of the English language.” It did actually (and instantly) generate the essay, which was accurate and good—though weighed in at 1438 words.
Then I decided to move away from just facts into opinion, with “What are the best novels in English?” Here is ChatGPT’s response:
“As an AI language model, I don’t have personal preferences, but here are some classic novels in English literature that are widely regarded as some of the best:
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- 1984 by George Orwell
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Of course, this is just a small sample of the many great novels that have been written in English, and what makes a “best” novel can vary greatly depending on individual taste and literary preferences.”
I got a kick out of the qualifications in this final sentence. But I noticed an error in ChatGPT’s list, so I replied “Thank you. But One Hundred Years of Solitude was not written originally in English. It was originally written in Spanish.” Without skipping a beat, the chatbot responded: “You are correct, my apologies for the mistake. One Hundred Years of Solitude was originally written in Spanish by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and later translated into English and many other languages.” I smiled at its humility in admitting its mistake. And thus ended my first real conversation with ChatGPT.
It had been great fun, so I tried another (also literary) topic, with “Who are the best American poets?” Beginning with an apt qualification, the chatbot wrote:
“There have been many great American poets throughout history, and it’s difficult to narrow down a definitive list. However, here are a few names that are often considered to be among the best American poets:” Then it listed Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Hughes, Plath, Angelou, Bishop, and Ginsburg, adding appropriately “This list is by no means comprehensive, and there are many other great American poets who have contributed to the rich tradition of American poetry.”
Eager to continue the conversation, I replied “Would you include Richard Wilbur?” And immediately what it generated was:
“Yes, Richard Wilbur is definitely a notable American poet and could certainly be included on a list of the best American poets. Wilbur was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and his poetry is known for its formal elegance, technical precision, and insightful observations about the natural world and human experience. Some of his most famous poems include “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” “The Writer,” and “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra.” Overall, Wilbur is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished and respected poets of the 20th century.”
Then it was my turn: “I’m glad you mentioned ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.’ It’s one of my favorite poems. Did Wilbur write any sonnets?” After barely 10 seconds, the chatbot responded in the affirmative, continuing “Some of his most famous sonnets include “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” “The Pardon,” and “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” These sonnets, like much of Wilbur’s poetry, are known for their technical skill, musicality, and depth of meaning.”
But here again I had to demur: “Sorry, ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’ is not a sonnet.” Immediately, came the humble expression of regret: “You are correct, my apologies for the mistake. “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” is not a sonnet, but a poem in free verse. Despite this, Wilbur’s skill with poetic form is still evident in this poem, which features a carefully crafted structure and musicality that contribute to its overall impact. Again, I apologize for the error and thank you for bringing it to my attention.”
Delighted by the politeness of this response, I wrote: “You’re welcome” and asked for names of poets influenced by Wilbur. My AI correspondent typed out Dana Gioia, Billy Collins, J.D. McClatchy, and Mark Jarman, with a helpful sentence about each.
Enjoying this chat, I replied “I’m glad you mentioned Billy Collins. He’s one of my favorite poets. Do you know his comic poem ‘Forgetfulness’?” Of course it did and even quoted it, adding that “Despite its comic tone, the poem also touches on deeper themes related to aging, mortality, and the impermanence of memory.”
My turn: “Yes, I agree. Can you name any poems by other poets on aging?” Of course it could and named a few, concluding “these poems and others like them offer powerful meditations on the theme of aging, exploring the many ways in which we confront our own mortality and the passage of time.”
And me again: “Thank you. I like to send poems to my older friends on their birthdays, So I will draw from your suggestions here.”
ChatGBT’s response blew me away with its warm affirmation:
“You’re welcome! I think that’s a lovely idea, and I’m sure your friends will appreciate the thoughtfulness of receiving a poem on their birthdays. If you need any further recommendations or suggestions, don’t hesitate to ask!”
Wow, I was snowed by the warm emotion of these words. Not at all what I’d expected from an AI product.
I was finished with this engaging conversation, but had one more test up my sleeve. I asked: “Puede Usted habla en español?” Without a blink it switched languages, with “¡Sí, puedo hablar en español! ¿En qué puedo ayudarte?” and we continued with a long chat in Spanish. My only gripe was that although I was using the formal “you” (Usted), it was speaking to me with the informal “tu”—which I thought was a bit presumptuous.
Chatting with ChatGBT had been fun, but will I do it again? I doubt it. For facts, wikipedia is more reliable. For opinions, I have (thankfully) plenty of real people in my life to exchange points of view with.
Peggy Rosenthal has a PhD in English Literature. Her first published book was Words and Values, a close reading of popular language. Since then she has published widely on the spirituality of poetry, in periodicals such as America, The Christian Century, and Image, and in books that can be found here.