Innovation and Craft: A Trans-Atlantic Theory of Poetry

“Poetry must be as new as foam, and as old as the rock”

-Emerson

Dichotomies are often false but useful. Contemplating the similarities and differences between British and American poetry, having steeped myself in both for some time now, I have been slicing my experiences as a reader along two axes: innovation and craft.

Ancestors to the word “craft” come from Germanic languages and originally had to do with “strength, force, power, virtue”, making the transition to mean skill in art or occupation exclusively in English. To “innovate” comes from Latin and French and has always meant, as Ezra Pound would assert, “Make it new!”.

To better define the effects of innovation and craft on readers of poetry, here are some comparisons:

Craft Innovation
Reassures us with skill Disorients us with newness
Builds trust Generates excitement
Pleases the senses Delights the mind
Refers to convention Inaugurates new paradigms

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The Decline of Goodness in Poetry

“You do not have to be good.”

-Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

What kind of poetry will people be reading 100 years from now? It is impossible to predict for sure. Yet certain quantifiable trends in the poems published over the past hundred years give a definite indication of where poetry has been, and may give us some clues as to where it is going.

Methodology

As I have said before, aesthetic matters must be confronted on aesthetic terms. In 1968 a team of researchers asked people to rate different words in the English language on various numerical scales, such as the age the person first learned the meaning of this word and whether the word denotes something masculine or feminine. In 2004, another team extended this research, giving us the Clark and Paivio (2004) Norms — a set of 32 different scores for 925 special words (hereafter “Clark-Paivio words”).

Poetry magazine may be considered a bellwether of taste in American poetry, and conveniently has made nearly 3,000 poems stretching from its inception in 1912 to the present day all available online.

I trained computer software to analyse each one of these poems, counting how often a Clark-Paivio word appeared, which happened nearly 23,000 times in the available online corpus of poems. Armed with this large collection data, I then used a strategy similar to that of Michael Coleman Dalvean, creator of Poetry Assessor. I took the averages of the Clark-Paivio word scores across all 32 variables, rolling these up into an overall score for each poem. For example, the Clark-Paivio word with the lowest age of acquisition is “toy” at 1.5, whereas “bivouac” gets a score of 6.7. If a poem used both words, the poem itself would then get a score of (1.5 + 6.7) / 2 = 4.1 for the “age” variable.
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Five British Poets to Watch in 2015 (Plus a Bonus)

2015

Though I am currently in Australia, British poetry is never far from my mind.

I have once again compiled a list of five British poets who I think out to be more widely known on both sides of the Atlantic. I also couldn’t resist supplementing this list with a bonus poet who is becoming an increasingly important part of the UK scene, despite not being exactly British herself.

Discover the five (plus bonus) on Huffington Post.


What Can Computers Teach Us About Poetry?

Colossus ComputerThe idea that analysing poetry with computers could teach us anything about the art is controversial. A recent survey I conducted of more than 300 tech-savvy poets confirmed that — while they generally agree that technology has been good for poetry in terms of fostering community, creating networking opportunities, and providing remote learning — they would rather computer scientists keep the ones and zeroes away from their iambs and spondees.

Intuitively, this makes sense — after all, we write poems for people, not machines. Poetry is one of the most intimately human of activities. Yet analytical methods, properly interpreted, can reveal new aspects of poetry that we readers and writers might miss. Blind spots can be corrected, what we sense intuitively can be confirmed scientifically, and computers may indeed help us to see old words with new eyes.
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Unconscious Preoccupations, Machine Revelations

Turnabout is fair play. Having analysed several thousand poems from Poetry magazine, I have decided to turn the same methodology on myself.

I analysed 5,751 words from the 79 poems from my current pamphlet The Silence Teacher and my forthcoming collection The Knowledge.

Here are my top twenty-five most commonly-used words:
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No Such Thing as Bad Words

“The dose makes the poison.”

-Paracelsus

In response to my recent analysis of the frequency of words used in past issues of Poetry magazine, current editor Don Share issued me a good-humoured challenge:

So, I analysed 395 poems from 13 issues of Poetry edited by Don Share from October 2013 to November 2014.

I was at first surprised to discover that the nature of the results are not substantially different than those of the nearly 3,000 past issues.
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