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Between sense and sensation



I had one of those moments recently where I had to pull the car over due to a burst of unmanageable emotion. I was listening to the American poet Andrea Gibson reading the poem ‘Tincture’, which opens with the line: ‘Imagine when a human dies, the soul misses the body.’

In each stanza, Gibson speaks to what would be missed upon death: ‘The stubbed toe, the loose tooth, the funny bone … The fingertips pulling the first grey hair and throwing it away … How the body can sleep through a dream. What else can sleep through a dream? What else can touch a screen door and taste lemonade?’

I was gripped by each line, delighting in the small sensory details that so easily go unregistered by the conscious mind. I felt myself half-smiling with awe, thinking how wild and magnificent it is that our bodies react in the ways they do.

Gibson went on to talk about how the soul misses ‘every day the body was sick, the now it forced, the here it built with fever’. I responded with an audible ‘oof’ as my memory harked back to the first time I got Covid: the body in stress, gasping, present.

Then came the closing line — the one that undid me. With a tremble, Gibson read: ‘I can’t imagine it, the stars say. Tell us again about goosebumps. Tells us again about pain.’

Poetry charges the emotional field in a way that few art forms do. It allows for felt insights into the human experience, and has a way of blowing things open: minds, hearts, ideas, norms, truths you’ve never thought twice about. It can dredge up memories from a life that had laid dormant for decades.

The capacity of poetry to shake and stir us speaks to what is irreplaceable about having human beings in the writing seat. When I took to Chat GPT to ‘write a poem, in a contemporary style, about the soul longing for its body’, what I got was something that resembled a poem but didn’t feel like one; a poem that was technically good, but not stop-and-pull-over-the-car good.

It gave me verses, rhyming couplets and imagery, and even included those small sensory details of what the soul would miss: ‘The touch of flesh, the sound of a bell, the warmth of the sun on the face.’ But I didn’t feel wonder. I didn’t gasp out loud in recognition. It was just a sense of: ‘Oh, that’s a pretty good poem.’


'What I’m reminding myself now — before the next thing inserts itself into the daily hum to make life more convenient — is that real connection, like real poetry, isn’t as concerned with making sense as it is with making sensations.'  


There is a reason Andrea Gibson was able to reach these levels of resonance in the poem: Gibson experienced deep physical suffering relating to diagnoses of ovarian cancer and Chronic Lyme Disease. The poet’s body, in its most vulnerable state, has borne witness to its changes, cries and longings. Unlike an algorithm, Gibson was able to compose something deeply personal, something so specific to the bodily experiences of being human, that it was magically felt in mine.  

A week later, I went to a friend’s birthday party, a gathering at her apartment in one of Melbourne’s bayside suburbs. As has become more common these days, I had to give myself a pep talk on the way to assuage my increasing unease of being with people I hadn’t seen in a while.

I was worrying about how I’d be perceived, the kind of social dynamics I’d have to navigate, what I’d talk about — things that never would have crossed my mind going to a social event five years ago. ‘Just go and enjoy a chat,’ I told myself. ‘You love chatting. You’re okay.’

I feigned an air of calm as I stepped inside the warmly-lit apartment and talked about things that almost felt scripted: how’s work, where are you living now, travelled anywhere recently, watched anything good?

We were like a bunch of chatbots, standing around responding to the question, ‘What should I talk about at a social event with acquaintances?’ Nevertheless, we were comfortable playing to this script. Besides throwing around the odd quip or two, no one veered off course.

I noticed on the way home I felt brighter from being among people. Like the Chat GPT poem, I got something that resembled connection — that was connection in its own way, just not the kind that would deepen any of those relationships or bring them any closer into my life. It was the quick-fix kind of connection: easy, safe, convenient, but with none of the long-term rewards.

Like a montage, some of my most impactful conversations started coming to me in flashes: aged eight, talking about difficult family dynamics with my grandmother over a late-night milo; aged 14, walking the school grounds with my best friend at lunchtime, sharing our desires and fears; aged 31, on the couch recounting big life moments with my new boyfriend until 3am.

In every scene I saw myself challenged, bare, uniquely me — the roots of connection intertwining me with my companion, uniquely them.

I realised that I couldn’t let these memories fade. They held the key to so many of the subtle forces eroding my ability to swim in the deeper end of life. I needed to remember what it looked like and felt like to reveal the harder, truthful thing in a given moment — to lean into what wasn’t being said and let the sparks of that become flames.   

A chatbot, after all, can’t be vulnerable; it can only calculate and simulate a version of vulnerability and have it ‘make sense’ to the receiver.

What I’m reminding myself now — before the next thing inserts itself into the daily hum to make life more convenient — is that real connection, like real poetry, isn’t as concerned with making sense as it is with making sensations.  




Nathan Scolaro is a Melbourne-based writer and editor interested in the intersections of storytelling and social and environmental change. 

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Nathan Scolaro, Poetry, Andrea Gibson, AI



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Existing comments

Though I might want to qualify your closing paragraph with Donne's description of his poetry as seeking "tough reasonableness with slight lyric grace", I think you've got to the heart of the matter on the difference between AI generated 'poems' and real ones, Nathan - especially in your appreciation and use of Andrea Gibson's poem, "Tincture". Thank you.

John RD | 13 April 2024  

Could a chat bot write a poem like The Waste Land? I learnt a few days ago of some of the circumstances of T S Eliot’s life when he was writing this magnificent and difficult work. And a young woman in the tv program read part of the poem in the town where it was written (Margate, England). Her expression was deeply conveyed. For writer and reader an unbreakable connection.

Pam | 13 April 2024  

Another generous and incredibly spirited article from Nathan Scholaro. One of my favourite writers.

Neda Rahmani | 25 April 2024  

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