Things My Computer Taught Me About Poems: An MLA 2014 Special Session Proposal

March 28, 2013 – 3:05 pm

I’ve put together a special session with some special people for MLA 2014:  Dr. Natalie Houston, Dr. Julie Lein, Dr. Katharine Coles and I have proposed a formal panel titled “Things My Computer Taught Me About Poems.” Note that great mind Brian Croxall and I had the same impulse: to concentrate on results instead of methods. We’ll see what transpires!

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UPDATE 7/19/13: Our panel was accepted and has been scheduled for 5:15pm, Thursday, January 9th — the first full day of sessions. Also, the eminent Dr. Meredith Martin has agreed to preside. See you in Chicago!
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Description

Digital humanities has reached a point where its mere existence is no longer (or ought not to be) surprising, yet too often, digital humanities sessions wind up serving as apologia for digital methods of scholarship. As Ryan Cordell writes, “Only a few years ago, [digital humanities] was still a fringe field, mostly ignored by academia more widely. DHers felt not like ‘the next big thing,’ but like an embattled minority.” This defensiveness has meant that digital humanities sessions have often concentrated on explaining, teaching, justifying, or critiquing digital methods in general rather than on presenting the results of those methods: of the digitally-oriented sessions at the 2013 meeting of the MLA listed by Mark Sample, words such as “approaches,” “methods,” “modes,” “theories,” and “practices” abound. The proposed special session, “Things My Computer Taught Me About Poems,” explores how new digital methods can contribute to the study of poetry while at the same time deemphasizing method as much as possible. Conceived independently of and indeed prior to the publication of “Beyond the Digital,” Brian Croxall’s Association for Computing in the Humanities panel proposal for MLA 2014, “Things My Computer Taught Me About Poems” nevertheless proceeds from exactly the same impulse: to remind ourselves and the MLA community that, as Croxall puts it, “the output of digital analysis is not itself the goal; rather, it is a means to an end, and that end is the interpretation of a text or corpus.” We therefore propose a formal panel session composed of three fifteen-minute presentations by scholars of poetry who have adopted a digital method: these scholars will respectively discuss their new insights into particular cases of poetic influence, poetic style, and poetic time.

To begin, Dr. Amanda French (also the presider), will discuss intellectual and poetic influences on Edna St. Vincent Millay as revealed by her books. Scholars have not much considered Millay’s sources or influences, but when they have, the consensus has been that, as J. D. McClatchy put it in 2003, “Millay wrote from the bedroom, not the library” (52). Yet Millay did possess a library of more than a thousand books, and for all her reputation as an emotional rather than an intellectual poet, that very library shows her interest in classical Greek literature, socialism, Marxism, relativity, and astronomy. At the same time, analysis of the books Millay owned suggests that Millay’s most persistent intellectual influence came from the poets of her own generation, especially the lesser-known poets.

Secondly, Dr. Natalie Houston will discuss the poetic styles of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. When scholars describe the style of a particular poet, they typically identify features that support their description within that poet’s own oeuvre; in this tradition, Christina Rossetti’s language is famously “simple” and EBB’s “complex.” Dr. Houston’s paper will present a comparative analytics of four features of Victorian poetic style: rhyme, enjambment, vocabulary richness, and repetition. Examining these features within the works of Rossetti and Barrett Browning, but also suggesting how their works might be differently understood when compared against the larger backdrop of Victorian poetic production, Dr. Houston will provide concrete measures for understanding the two poets’ relative simplicity and complexity.

Finally, Dr. Katharine Coles and Dr. Julie Lein will discuss their changed understanding of poetic time. It has been commonplace for critics and poets to refer to the “lyric moment,” to contrast the ostensibly typical “stillness” and atemporal “suspension” of poetry (most especially the lyric) with the action and (at times disrupted or multiplied) sequential movement(s) of narrative. As Drs. Coles and Lein will explain, their research has persuaded them on the contrary that poetic time is incredibly energetic and dynamic—characterized by at least as much multidimensional temporal movement as narrative prose.

All four scholars could say much about their respective methods, which in themselves differ widely. Dr. French is creating a online catalog of the intact personal library of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and her method might justly be called the “epistemology of building,” in Stephen Ramsay and Geoff Rockwell’s term. Dr. Houston pays attention to pattern: she uses text analysis tools to help identify such patterns and compare them within and across poems, sequences, books, and oeuvres, not only among the works of canonical poets but also at the significantly larger scale now available through digitization. Drs. Coles and Lein, funded in the US by an NEH Digging Into Data Challenge grant, are working with computer scientists to develop poetry visualization software. Whether the particular insights of these four scholars could have been achieved by non-computational methods is open to debate, and debate of that kind will be welcome in the question and answer period (which we intend to ensure lasts at least twenty minutes). Nevertheless, it is our hope that “Things My Computer Taught Me About Poems” will also (or ideally, instead) generate debate about subjects such as poetic influence, poetic style, and poetic time.

Cordell, Ryan. “Mea Culpa: On Conference Tweeting, Politeness, and Community Building | Ryan Cordell.” Ryan Cordell 26 Jan. 2013. 28 Mar. 2013. <ryan.cordells.us/blog/2013/01/26/mea-culpa-on-conference-tweeting-politeness-and-community-building/>.

Croxall, Brian. “Beyond the Digital: Pattern Recognition and Interpretation. A CFP for MLA 2014 from ACH.” 13 Mar. 2013. 28 Mar. 2013. <www.briancroxall.net/2013/03/12/beyond-the-digital-pattern-recognition-and-interpretation-a-cfp-for-mla-2014/>.

McClatchy, J. D. “Feeding on Havoc: The Poetics of Edna St. Vincent Millay.” The American Scholar 72.2 (2003) : 45–52. 2 Apr. 2013. <www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/41221118>.

Ramsay, Stephen, and Geoffrey Rockwell. “Developing Things: Notes Toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Open-access. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 28 Mar. 2013. <dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/11>.

Sample, Mark. “Digital Humanities at MLA 2013.” SAMPLE REALITY 17 Oct. 2012. 28 Mar. 2013. <www.samplereality.com/2012/10/17/digital-humanities-at-mla-2013/>.

 

Abstracts

Millay and Her Books

Amanda French

Scholars have not much considered Millay’s sources or influences, but when they have, the consensus has been that, as J. D. McClatchy put it in 2003, “Millay wrote from the bedroom, not the library.” Yet Millay did possess an extensive library of books, and for all her reputation as an emotional rather than an intellectual poet, that very library shows her interest in classical Greek literature, socialism, Marxism, relativity, and astronomy. At the same time, analysis of the books Millay owned suggests that Millay’s most persistent intellectual influence came from the poets of her own generation, especially the lesser-known poets.

What Does Style Really Mean? A Comparative Analysis of the Poetry of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Natalie Houston

Until recently, our readings of nineteenth-century poetry have been largely directed by what Foucault termed the “author function,” the classification schemes derived from a biographical approach to literary history.   Today, the digitization of public domain materials and the development of computational tools for analysis can lead us to new comparative studies across the widest range of Victorian print culture, beyond the traditional academic canon. This paper presents a comparative analysis of the poetic styles of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti and suggests how their works might be differently understood when compared against the larger backdrop of Victorian poetic production.

When scholars describe the poetic style of a particular poet, (Christina Rossetti’s language is famously “simple,” and EBB’s “complex”), they typically identify features that support their description within the oeuvre of a particular poet.

Computational analysis can help us look more carefully at the patterns of poetic language both within a particular writer’s works and across a larger textual corpus.

Whether we are reading one sonnet or 100, a fundamental assumption in reading poetry is that the selection and arrangement of linguistic elements (words, clauses, sentences) bears an important relation to the meaning of the text. As Jerome McGann suggests:

In poems, however, “meaning” is mistakenly conceived if it is conceived as a “message.” Rather, “meaning” in poetry is part of the poetical medium . . . one textual level – Pound called it “logopoeia” – where the text’s communicative exchanges play themselves out. (The Textual Condition 15)

Our method, quite simply, is to pay attention to patterns.  Text analysis tools can help us identify such patterns and compare them within and across poems, sequences, books, and oeuvres.  Computational analysis is perhaps especially well suited to the study of poetry, given the mathematical elements always already embedded in poetic form.

This paper presents a comparative computational analytics of four features of Victorian poetic style: rhyme, enjambment, vocabulary richness, and repetition. Examining these features within the works of Rossetti and Barrett Browning provides concrete measures for understanding their relative simplicity and complexity.  I explain how the metrics offered by this analysis can contribute to a new comparative analysis of Victorian poetics, both among the works of canonical poets and at the significantly larger scale now available through digitization.

Turbulence and Temporality: (Re)visualizing Poetic Time

Katharine Coles and Julie Lein

In 2012 we embarked with computer scientists on a project to develop original poetry visualization software. This research, funded in the US by the NEH as part of a Digging Into Data Challenge grant, has led us to think about and approach poems differently than we ever have before. Most prominent among these new insights has been our changed understanding of poetic time. Each of us was initially drawn to the project in part by its promise to attend carefully to ways time is expressed and experienced in poems. But neither of us had anticipated how much this meticulous attention would transform our own views of poetry.

It has been commonplace to refer to the “lyric moment,” to contrast the ostensibly typical “stillness” and atemporal “suspension” of poetry (most especially the lyric) with the action and (at times disrupted or multiplied) sequential movement(s) of narrative. As we will explain, though, our research has persuaded us on the contrary that poetic time is incredibly energetic and dynamic—characterized by at least as much multidimensional temporal movement as narrative prose.

We have been working to visualize these multidimensional, multidirectional temporal movements via the metaphor of flow, adapting fluid simulation strategies to our perception of poems behaving as fluid (or fluids) moving via their linguistic elements, devices, and figures through a (self)defined space. This framework has helped us to articulate as turbulence places in poems where multiple flows (temporal, formal, affective, etc.) converge and interact to shape the poem as a whole. Focusing first on sound and then image, we will show how close readings, in conjunction with our collaborative research, directed us to ideas we would not otherwise have formed.

Panelist Information

Katharine Coles

Professor Katharine Coles’ fifth collection of poems, The Earth Is Not Flat, was released in March by Red Hen Press, which will also publish her sixth collection, Flight, in 2015.  Her poems, stories, and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Seneca Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Paris Review, among many other journals.  In 2009-10, she served as the inaugural director of the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute for the Poetry Foundation; on stepping down, she traveled to Antarctica to write poems under the auspices of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program.  A 2012 Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, she in on the English faculty at the University of Utah, where she founded and co-directs the Utah Symposium in Science and Literature and will receive the Distinguished Creative and Research Award for 2013.  She served as the Utah State Poet Laureate from 2006 to 2012.

Amanda French

Amanda French, a well-known figure in the digital humanities, is currently Research Assistant Professor and THATCamp Coordinator at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. In addition to her copious “meta” work supporting the digital humanities as an emerging scholarly practice, her scholarship on poetic genre has been substantial. Most recently, she contributed eight articles to the fourth edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics; in 2010, she published an article in Victorian Poetry titled “Edmund Gosse and the Stubborn Villanelle Blunder.” Her dissertation is a comprehensive history of the villanelle, the poetic form of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” She is currently at work on creating an online catalog of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s personal library at Steepletop.

Natalie Houston

Natalie Houston is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston. Her research on Victorian poetry and print culture has appeared in journals such as Victorian Studies, Victorian Poetry, Yale Journal of Criticism, Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net,  Essays and Studies, and Studies in the Literary Imagination, as well as in The Blackwell Companion to Victorian Poetry. She is the Project Director for the Visual Page, an NEH-funded project to develop a software application to identify and analyze visual features in digitized printed books. She is also a Co-Director and Technical Director for the Periodical Poetry Index, a research database of citations to English-language poems published in nineteenth-century periodicals.

Julie Lein

Julie Lein earned her PhD in creative writing and literature from the University of Utah, where she also served as a poetry editor for Quarterly West and currently works as a postdoctoral research fellow. Her poetry, fiction, and scholarship have appeared in The Antioch Review, Best New Poets 2011, 100 Word Story, Colorado Review, Phoebe, Terrain.org, Modernism/modernity and elsewhere. She is a recipient of the Larry Levis Poetry Prize.

  1. 8 Responses to “Things My Computer Taught Me About Poems: An MLA 2014 Special Session Proposal”

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