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The Poetry Assessor

I recently jumped on-board with Feedly after returning from a three-month trip abroad (without internet) to find Google Reader had been dumped. It’s really great, you should try it. Amongst the slew of unread articles, I was most interested to discover on the HappenStance blog, Helena Nelson’s piece: Are Your Poems Rank Amateurs, Or True Professionals? It feels crude to summarise what is basically already a gloss of Michael Dalvean’s paper ‘Ranking Contemporary American Poems’, so I suggest you take a moment to read it.

Having been away from the HappenStance blog for a while I’m not sure whether I should read Nelson’s enthusiasm towards the idea of ‘a machine to put the poems through… to process them for value, like holding a £20 note up to the light to check it’s not a forgery’ as tongue-in-cheek or not. However, at face value I must say I find the idea of editors using the Poetry Assessor in this way to be quite concerning. In fact I find taking seriously the idea of computational linguistics as a tool for aesthetic judgement altogether quite uncomfortable.

This probably is because as a poet I have the conscious or un-conscious belief that writing and art in general is quasi-magical, and feel instinctively threatened by any reductive means of assessing what is often referred to as the poet’s ‘craft’. To reflect more rationally on it: we might reason that any notion of beauty is a societal construct and while it may be possible to create a machine which captures a snapshot of what is agreed by a specific community to be beautiful at a specific moment in history, we must remember that beauty and our attitudes towards what is beautiful is organic. Or to relate the problem more directly to language itself, Wittgenstein writes in his Blue Notebook:

The idea of a general concept being a common property of its particular instances connects up with other primitive, too simple, ideas of the structure of language. It is comparable to the idea that properties are ingredients of the things which have the properties; e.g. that beauty is an ingredient of all beautiful things as alcohol is of beer and wine, and that we therefore could have pure beauty, unadulterated by anything that is beautiful.

I should note that the term ‘beauty’ does not appear in the study, rather the distinctions between amateur and professionalsuccessful and unsuccessful are quoted from previous research, probably because they lend themselves to quantitative measures more readily than a slippery word like beauty. But in our everyday assessment of poetry (or poetries), while our judgement may be informed by several other factors we seek beauty. I am not likely to recommend a collection of poems to a friend on the grounds that it is ‘successful’ or ‘professional’.

So what is this measure of success? The study concludes that it is able to ‘rank a corpus of contemporary American poems’, and with an accuracy of 80% the Poetry Assessor can provide ‘an objective means of determining which poems are more like amateur poems and which are more like professional poems.’ [my emphasis] The corpus used is taken from Kao and Jurafsky’s 2012 study, which includes 100 poems written by a total of 67 poets (17 female, 50 male) from the anthology Contemporary American Poetry. We begin to see that in actual fact what is objectified is the subjective opinion of the two male editors Alfred Poulin Jr and Michael Waters. This is offset against works uploaded to the website AmateurWriting.net, a forum for creative writing critique: Helping writers, one writing at a time. Success, then, represents matching up to a criteria derived from an American male-centred cannon which excludes several notable poetic movements (language, concrete, conceptual etc.) at a specific moment in history.

It will be no surprise to any reader of poetry that the study found ‘amateur’ poetry ‘more likely to use perfect rhymes rather than approximate rhymes, more alliteration and more emotional words, both negative and positive’. But sifting through over-emotive rhyme-laboured submissions is part of the dirty work of editing, and if we fix what is acceptable or not in a poem then we are halted and no progress is to be made at all. Conversely, there are a good many poems that may well be ‘professional’ but suffer from being derivative (not to mention plagiarised) or too-slick.

For those who are critical of the rise of a creative writing culture, scoring poems, reducing them in this way could be seen as a logical end-point; not only is a framework handed down through the workshop process so that writers can write like other writers, but that there is a fixed criteria for the value of these works. But I can’t claim much sympathy for such a dystopian view. Despite the credibility of the paper in the field of linguistics, as writers and editors we must treat the Poetry Assessor as a bit of fun. Of course I put a couple of poems through the mangle to see how they came out the other end and for all my reservations I was genuinely pleased to have achieved ‘professional’ scores. Why is that? I was already confident that they were good poems, so did I need that kind of validation? In fact, should I be wary of having written a ‘professional’ poem? One thing I can say is that, had I scored a poem which I felt was perhaps unfinished or I was unsure of, the scoring would not affect my own personal judgement.

Posted 5 years ago

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