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Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ Scores a -2.50305521472

By Harriet Staff


Turns out, in the literary death match between Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop, it’s Plath all the way! Or, that’s to say, Plath’s poem “Edge” (which scored a 1.42302654867) is closer to the “professional” end of the spectrum according to the Poetry Assessor, an application created by an Australian team of computational linguists to quantify a poem’s degree of “professionalism.” More about the project:

The purpose of this paper is to examine what distinguishes a “professional” poem from an “amateur” poem. The central idea here is that professional poets are more likely than amateur poets to have grasped the basic skills associated with writing poetry and have therefore been able to produce poems of lasting quality. Amateurs, on the other hand, are less likely to have mastered the basic required skills and are therefore less likely to have produced work of lasting quality. Intuitively, we know that there are differences between the skills of amateurs and professionals in various fields and we are quick to make aesthetic judgments based on our raw subjective responses. However, the objective quantification of the factors that lead to such responses is rarely considered. By using computational linguistics it is possible to objectively identify the characteristics of professional poems and amateur poems. This way an objective basis for our subjective responses can be identified.

The upshot of identifying the characteristics of high quality poems is that we can then come up with a means of placing poems on a continuum according to how much a poem exemplifies the characteristics of an amateur poem or, at the other extreme, a professional poem. We can then use this continuum to rank professional poems and, in doing so, we can make some objective statements about which poems are “better”. There is a tradition of considering some poets as “minor” and others as “major” (Eliot, 1946). Placing poems on a continuum that is based on the extent to which poems possess the craftsmanship of a professional may be a step towards explaining why some poets are “greater” than others. Thus, an important element of this paper is the creation of such a continuum using a corpus of contemporary American poets.

So, there’s a database of poems written by “professional” poets and a database of poems by “amateur” poets, and poems that run through the assessor are judged against either data-set. It’s all fine and dandy to compare like with like, but it’s another thing to get in the “lasting quality” business of “minor” and “major” poets. After all, Ol’ Possum himself scores a mediocre 1.29599346405 for “The Waste Land.” And as far as we’re concerned, you don’t get more pro than the Possum.

But go ahead and give it try yourself.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, June 6th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.