“The Robotics Problem” by Ken Poyner

Ken Poyner


How many robots does it take
To change a light bulb?
This is your central question.
Is it a matter
Of sufficient programming
So that the robot will know what it is to do;
Or a task of putting the necessary elements in order
Starting with a random beginning?
Is it the ability,
Both hardware and software,
To recognize varying sockets,
To fumble through the case
Of available light bulbs and not be tempted
To try one that will not fit only because
One that will fit is not present?
It could be the idea of pressure
Both holding the bulb and twisting
It into the socket. Or it could be
Cooperation: more than one robot,
Each robot understanding its own part
In the larger operation, each with its specialties:
With each enlightened robot understanding
No one robot has the entire picture.
It takes each robot doing its part,
With the working collective of robots
All fully understanding this.
There is the pure mechanical dexterity
Of one robot holding the light bulb
With no more, no less than the proper
Tension; mounting the wooden extension structure with
Each foot methodically secure; at the top
The bulb aligned with mathematical precision to the socket threads
And the robot itself tethered by three
Appendages to the ladder. At the last
The four mates, one on each wooden leg—
The fifth robot still impeccably balanced—
Lifting and ever so slowly marching
In a mutually calculated
And wirelessly communicated circle,
The aerial robot spinning with them, but
Fixed at the center of the spin.
The light bulb’s grooves will take hold.
The care between all of them will seem
More miracle than machinery,
A symphony of software and supplied structure,
A process adequately spaced into any execution register.
And then there will be light.

from Rattle #38, Winter 2012
Tribute to Speculative Poetry

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Ken Poyner: “In 1972, while trying to impress a young lady who was infatuated with the poetry of the day, I checked out of the library, at random, Randall Jarrell’s The Lost Day. By one poem in, I had largely forgotten the young lady, and had started to move through the inner-city high school library’s small collection of modern poetry. Jarrell was a smack in the face with a 30-pound salmon. I had read poetry in English class before, but had entirely missed the degree to which poetry communicates a range of understanding, a conspiracy between the writer and the reader, and how it creates a substantive new knowledge that, while individually held, is socially ravenous. I have been trying to duplicate that myself for 40 years. Jarrell, along with Tate and Simic, remains today amongst my favorites.” (website)

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