The better part of a century ago, one of the great literary debates involved two American-born poets, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, whose followers vied for primacy.

Both were hailed as innovators who discarded existing practices — Frost with his chapter-length narratives in “North of Boston,” Eliot for his wildly eclectic “The Waste Land.”

Over long careers — both died in the 1960s — Frost became seen as “America’s bard,” while Eliot was the leading edge of literary modernism. As so often happens, both assertions over-simplified.

Frost went to England to secure his reputation, then returned in triumph to New England, where he spent the rest of his life. Eliot made a similar journey from his native St. Louis to Harvard to London, then stayed in England the rest of his life.

Frost’s poetry was a lot deeper, and darker, than the popular image, while Eliot, the iconoclast, became a proper Britisher and an Anglo-Catholic; he also wrote terrific children’s verse.

Yet it’s one of Frost’s poetic dictums that speaks most clearly to our own times: his assertion that he sought to design “old ways to be new.”


We’ve seen the decline of traditional institutions, from political parties to churches, from local newspapers to any sense of a shared literary culture. One possible explanation lies in that oldest American trait: the quest for novelty.

From the founding of a “new nation” — and its democratic and republican underpinnings truly were something new under the sun — Americans have been receptive, perhaps overly receptive, to the next new thing.

One of the latest is something called “artificial intelligence.” Am I the only one who questions whether such a thing really exists?

I have read much of what I can find on the subject, and concluded that it’s really part of what we’ve experienced since the 1950s: more and more advanced computer technology.

The problem with calling it “intelligence” is that it takes a uniquely human trait and projects it onto a machine, however amazing and sophisticated it might be.

Forty years ago, Deep Blue, a chess program, advanced to the point where it could beat leading grandmasters, although to this day no one is particularly interested in watching computers play chess.


Chess happens to be a game that can be completely quantified, and hence it’s possible to create a program “superior” to human skill.

More contemporary dreams concern robots that can perform countless household tasks, schedule our lives, and offer companionship. It seems unlikely we will be satisfied with the results.

For better or worse, humans are stuck with each other, with all our flaws and inconsistencies, because we respond as a species, something a machine that we program can never transcend.

What’s really important is determined by feelings and convictions, family and community ties that can never reduced to the binary language of computers. “Data” has no such qualities, and thus cannot be a reliable guide for decision-making.

And computers, even those programed to write technical manuals or short stories, will never be able to capture the complexity of language, another human acquisition that both unites and divides us.

Consider the public realms where digitized techniques are taking over.


The money-determined political system hardly seems an improvement over political parties; it’s divided our allegiances to the point it’s hard to remember what unites us.

Nothing has come along to replace the newspaper for accurate and comprehensive local news, and it appears nothing ever will.

If we’re not careful, we will lose crucial parts of a common culture, which has constantly adapted over more than two centuries, but may be under threat as never before.

If we paid more attention to poets, we might learn something important about ourselves, and how we might mend the national fabric.

When Robert Frost spoke at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, he famously discarded what he’d written for the occasion which, perhaps prematurely, spoke of “A golden age of poetry and power.”

Instead, he recited from memory one of his best short lyrics, “The Gift Outright,” which begins, “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”


As a summation of our history, from the epic conflict between European settlers and those they dispossessed to today’s nation, formed from all the nations of the world, it can hardly be bettered. It might even amount to wisdom.

As we emerge from pandemic conditions, we have once again an opportunity to learn how to gain wisdom from each other, to build better relationships than the ones that led to such conflict and dissension.

At the risk of another simplification, we could do with fewer numbers, and more poetry.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books, and is now researching the life and career of a U.S. Chief Justice. He welcomes comment at: [email protected]




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