A scrunched, fading bookmark fell from a book. It was a cutting, a newspaper poem by Judith Wright entitled “Computers”. ‘Those things make me nervous/ but not for the reasons you think,’ she begins, setting up the dichotomy that our ways are not a poet’s ways. Notice her connection of ‘things’ with ‘think’. ‘Not because they’ll take away our living;/ if we really liked living/ that wouldn’t matter,/we could start living instead. You don’t need much money to live.’ She raises this matter of ‘living’, which is about the most important subject in the world, more important than computers. Notice how she introduces money from nowhere. She seems to be making a link between computers and money, one that today has become profound. Living, for Judith, is about creating, if we are to understand the next verse aright: ‘Not because they’ll write poems or paint pictures;/ no one who knows what poetry is/ or what pictures are/ could do more than laugh at that one.’ This is a confident assertion of the originality of human creation, made with a certainty based in experience. Laughter, by implication, is not a computer’s forte. She turns her gaze to society and politics, as was oft her wont: ‘Not because they’ll start breeding, set up an elite,/ exclude us, run everything – /anyone who looks can see/ that’s happened already./ We could live in the gaps between them.’ Judith doesn’t describe these gaps, though we can intuit plenty of them in the lines of the poem. Instead, we have reached halfway, which is when she turns to the true explanation of her nervousness. ‘No, they make me nervous/ because they’re eating us;/ here a muscle, there a mind,/ an action or a vision.’ As elsewhere, she moves quickly from the particular to the immensely general, invoking in spare lines an incipient negative mood formed by computers. ‘See: when I said ‘vision’/ it made you smile./ No one now can have a vision/ because They don’t have them.’ Her conversational mode works to take us into her confidence. Then, having done so, goes up several registers: ‘We’re ashamed to fall in love/ because They don’t do it. / We analyse poems instead of reading them/ because that’s what computers do./ We think it’s square to be human/ because They aren’t.’ Actually, it’s most computers that are square (literally), not humans. But we grasp her meaning, computers are some irresistibly cool invention we tell ourselves we cannot do without. ‘Square’ is the only word that dates Judith’s poem, which googling reveals was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 18th of June 1966. So, having assessed the advent of computers, in a poem that bears close analysis, the poet does a fresh turn of thought, leaving us fairly much squarely where computers started, the root cause of the problem: ‘No, then it can’t be computers/ that make me nervous./ It’s us. Perhaps we make them/ because we’re sick of humans.’ I smile and pin Judith’s poem on the corkboard for further consideration.
Those things make me nervous
but not for the reasons you think.
Not because they’ll take away our living;
if we really liked living
that wouldn’t matter,
we could start living instead.
You don’t need much money to live.
Not because they’ll write poems or paint pictures;
No one who knows what poetry is
or what pictures are
could do more than laugh at that one.
Not because they’ll start breeding, set up an elite,
exclude us, run everything –
anyone who looks can see
that’s happened already.
We could live in the gaps between them.
No, they make me nervous
because they’re eating us;
here a muscle, there a mind,
an action or a vision.
See: when I said ‘vision’
it made you smile.
No one now can have a vision
because They don’t have them.
We’re ashamed to fall in love
because They don’t do it.
We analyse poems instead of reading them
because that’s what computers do.
We think it’s square to be human
because They aren’t.
No, then it can’t be computers
that make me nervous.
It’s us. Perhaps we make them
because we’re sick of humans