Revolutionising Poetry with Technology (Survey Results)

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First and foremost, thanks to the more than 300 people who took a minute or two out of their busy lives to respond to my brief survey. Clearly people want to record their opinions, and hear what others think, about poetry and technology.

You can see the general report of survey results here. I have also charted and analysed this information below, with some interesting conclusions.

Intention and Methods

First, I should say that the intention of this survey was not to get a broad picture of general attitudes toward poetry, but to focus on specific aspects in a specific group. For a good general analysis, I recommend the Poetry Foundation's Poetry in America study.

Now, a brief word about my methods. I posted the survey to my website and my social media networks, where it was generously shared by a wide range of established and up-and-coming poets. I also posted this survey to two prominent amateur writer websites, where the focus is on community critique.

I did not ask for any demographic data, such as age, gender, ethnicity, or nationality. Instead, I chose to focus on self-identified groups within this general group of what we can assume to be relatively technology-savvy people who are interested in poetry (or at least poetry surveys) in some way.

Self-Selection

In the survey, the first two questions for self-selection are: "Are you a poet?" and "Do you read poetry often?" While for some people the first question is a matter of identity and standards, for the most part answering "yes" indicates that they write poetry. In the latter case, the word "often" indicates that they read poetry as a current and ongoing activity, with some degree of regularity.

From this, we can divide the groups into four camps, based on their combination of stated reading and writing activities in relation to poetry. These fall along the same lines as the "board game of poetry" diagram I drew up earlier.

Results and Interpretation

Findings about attitudes toward technology based on statements the participants selected are surprising only in how similar they are. That is--all four groups produced exactly the same ranking of statements. The most-picked attitude was "Useful tool", followed by "Beloved plaything" and finally "Terrible time-waster", as illustrated in this table.

Attitudes Toward Technology (n=307)

 

Useful tool

Beloved plaything

Terrible time-waster

Necessary evil

Neutral object

Not Poet, Not Reader (n=66)

52

28

17

9

5

Not Poet, Reader (n=50)

35

20

12

9

4

Poet, Not Reader (n=23)

19

5

5

1

1

Poet, Reader (n=168)

137

71

42

28

17

It would seem that those involved with poetry who are also reasonably technology-savvy have similar attitudes to everyone else--or at least, if there are differences, they were not measured by this set of statements. One thing is clear--"Neutral object" came dead last in all cases, indicating that for this group, the relationship to technology is far from emotionless--rather, it seems to be more of a love/hate affair.

Results about attitudes toward poetry are a bit more interesting. Here, I have plotted the top three statements into quadrants.

Attitudes toward poetry of survey participants (n=307)

Common among all four groups is the statement about poetry that, "I sometimes find it confusing." This certainly makes me wonder whether tolerance (or even enjoyment) of cognitive dissonance (or what Keats called "negative capability") might be a major factor in whether or not people choose to like poetry. Certainly confusion has not stopped those in the top and righthand parts of the chart from persisting with it. In all three of those quadrants, the predominant statement is that poetry "is a necessary part of my life."

Interestingly, the third-place statement among both those who are not involved with poetry much, and those who read it, is "I wish there was more poetry available." What this means to each group may be slightly different--poets may wish there were more poetry books on bookshelves, while non-participants may wish there was more poetry out there that they could enjoy. It is impossible to know without further study.

One thing is clear about the non-participants--many of them had what can be interpreted as a negative experience with poetry in school, that is, "I read it in school because I had to." Reversing this trend through positive, relevant educational initiatives could be a key to promoting the health of the art.

Among those people who self-identify as poets but do not read poetry often, the third-place statement is, "I like older poetry, but I don't like contemporary poetry." These people may have encountered non-contemporary poetry at school, and may still read it infrequently. They also write poetry. But they don't like the contemporary poetry that they have encountered so far.

Indications online are that this group is very large indeed. They may well be the "sleeping giant" of poetry--that is, if they could be acquainted with contemporary poetry that they really do like, the marketplace for contemporary poetry would benefit tremendously.

Finally, on to two specific questions about attitudes toward technology. First, there is some general sense that technology is creating positive benefits for poetry, as charted below.

Attitudes toward benefits of technology of survey participants (n=307)

The group that remained the most neutral on the topic was the non-participants, which makes sense, since neutral may mean "I don't know."

Next, a more specific question about whether computational analysis could benefit the art of poetry was met with a somewhat negative reception.

Attitudes toward benefits of computational analysis to poetry of survey participants (n=307)

In short: keep your ones and zeroes away from our iambs and spondees.

Interestingly, here the two groups most sceptical of the idea that computers analysing poetry could be a good thing are the poet/readers and the non-participants. Both those most actively and least actively engaged with contemporary poetry find this statement disagreeable.

Implications

I have been interested for some time in how computational analysis might actually inform literary criticism, and reviewing the research behind tools like Poetry Assessor has stoked that flame. However, while we trust a computer to "read" our emails to determine what is spam (and are very grateful indeed when it gets things right), there seems to be a general mistrust that similar analyses might be able to teach us new things about poetry. After all, poetry is one of the most intimately human activities.

Let us bring these ideas together--of "playing the game" of ushering more people into a love of contemporary poetry, alongside the idea that technology might be helpful in that. Now combine this with the findings that there may well be some giants in our midst--in the form of poets who write but don't read because they don't encounter work they like, and participants who had a bad experience in school but wish there was more poetry around that they might enjoy.

Now imagine if we could "awaken" those populations to contemporary poetry in greater numbers using technology.

We could call it "The Poetry Genome Project". Like Pandora or Spotify for poetry, the system could adapt--based on poets you already like, or poems you have written yourself--to give you recommendations of poems, poets, and poetry books that you are very likely to actually enjoy.

This was part of the benefit I received in my MFA programme--great recommendations from experienced mentors who knew me and my work well. For the many thousands of people for whom an MFA degree is not an option, imagine what poetry recommendations could do for them individually, and collectively for health of the art.

Efforts along these lines seem to already have had some fits and starts, but research combining computational linguistics with data sets quantifying aesthetic principles, like that of Poetry Assessor's creator, would seem to be making it possible to actually relate to poetry on poetry's terms, combining recorded human perceptions with the power of large-scale computerised analysis.

Technology has done wonderful things for poetry in terms of fostering community, creating networking opportunities, and providing remote learning. Is it time to use technology to optimise how we discover those poems that can make us feel, as Emily Dickinson said, "as if the top of my head were taken off"?

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