On the plane from London to New York, I took in three stunning debuts: Mona Arshi’s sensual, wistful, and surreal poetry; Sarah Fletcher’s imaginative, accomplished, and wry personae; Anja König’s incisive, keenly observed notes on loss — and wrote brief reviews of each for HuffPost Books.
“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant” -Emily Dickinson
It’s pretty easy, really. Take a four-thousand-year-old universal human tradition — say, poetry — and use statistical data within a relatively tiny segment — say, the last ten years in America — to extrapolate into sweeping conclusions.
This of course prompted a friendly debate on Twitter with some mathematical philosophers about poetry’s inherent lack of truth due to its freedom from alethic modality (as you would expect).
Still, I contend that it is easier to lie with statistics than poetry, since one engages statistics expecting objective truth, and often discovers subjective misinterpretation; whereas one enters poetry expecting subjectivity, but often discovers something universal. So much of deception, after all, depends on confidence.
“Poetry must be as new as foam, and as old as the rock”
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:
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.
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. Continue reading…
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.