“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.
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.
The 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.
“The dose makes the poison.”
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.
Having counted the occurrence of words in nearly 3,000 poems published in Poetry Magazine to create a parameterised random word generator, I am making some other interesting discoveries about these words.
First, as one Twitter user pointed out, the words that come up at each “frequency of occurrence” setting on the generator have their own distinct feel, as if very different types of poets might gravitate toward different clusters of words:
Sometimes I need a little help turning over the creative engine when starting a new poem. I have developed a tool that helps me to do just that, and am sharing it with the community in case it helps other poets to ignite their muse as well.
Poetic constraints — such as patterns of alliteration, metre, and rhyme — originally served as mnemonic devices in pre-literate societies. Patterned speech is inherently easier to remember, which is why recalling a nursery rhyme is still easier than memorising prose. Stylised forms of language remained in favour long after writing developed, but in the twenty-first century, the only requirement of a contemporary poet is that they somehow end up writing a poem.