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Text-Mining Praxis: Poetry Portfolios Over Time

For this praxis assignment I assembled a corpus of three documents, each produced over a comparable three-year period:

  1. The poetry I wrote before my first poetry workshop (2004-07);
  2. The final portfolios for each of my undergraduate poetry workshops (2007-10); and
  3. My MFA thesis (2010-13).

A few prelimary takeaways:

I used to be more prolific, though much less discriminate. Before I took my first college poetry workshop, I had already written over 20,500 words, equivalent to a 180-page PDF. During undergrad, that number halved, dropping to about 10,300 words, or an 80-page PDF. My MFA thesis topped out at 6,700 words in a 68-page PDF. I have no way of quantifying “hours spent writing” during these three intervals, but anecdotally that time at least doubled at each new stage. This double movement toward more writing (time) and away from more writing (stuff) suggests a growing commitment to revision as well as a more discriminate eye for what “makes it into” the final manuscript in the end.

Undergrad taught me to compress; grad school to expand. In terms of words-per-sentence (wps), my pre-workshop poetry was coming in at about 26wps. My poetry instructor in college herself wrote densely-packed lyric verse, so it’s not surprising to see my own undergraduate poems tightening up to 20wps as images came to the forefront and exposition fell to the wayside. We were also writing in and out of a number of poetic forms–sonnet, villanelle, pantoum, terza rima–which likely further compresses the sentences making up these poems. When I brought to my first graduate workshop one these sonnet-ish things that went halfway down the page and halfway across it, I was immediately told the next poem needed to fill the page, with lines twice as long and twice as many of them. In my second year, I took a semester-long hybrid seminar/workshop on the long poem, which positioned poetry as a time art and held up more poetic modes of thinking such as digression, association, and meandering as models for reading and producing this kind of poem. I obviously internalized this advice, as, by the time I submitted my MFA thesis, my sentences were nearly twice as as long as they’d ever been before, sprawling out to a feverish and ecstatic 47wps.

Things suddenly stopped “being like” other things. Across the full corpus, “like” turns out to be my most commonly-used word, appearing 223 different times. Curiously, only 13 of these are in my MFA thesis, 4 of which appear together in a single stanza of one poem. Which isn’t to say the figurative language stopped, but that it became more coded: things just started “being” (rather than “being like”) other things. For example:

Tiny errors in the Latin Vulgate
have grown horns from the head of Moses.

It is radiant. The deer has seen the face of God

spent a summer living in his house sleeping on his floor.

This one I like. But earlier figurative language was, at best, the worst, always either heavy-handed or confused–and often both. In my pre-MFA days, these were things that were allowed to be “like” other things:

  • loose leaves sprinkled like finely chopped snow” (chopped snow?)
  • “lips that pull back like wrapping paper around her teeth” (what? no.)
  • lights of a distant airplane flickering like fireflies on a heavy playhouse curtain” (ugh.)
  • tossing my wrapper along the road like fast silver ash out a casual window” (double ugh.)

Other stray observations. I was still writing love poems in college, but individual names no longer appeared (Voyant shows that most of the “distinctive words” in the pre-workshop documents were names or initials of ex-girlfriends). “Love” appears only twice in the later poems.

Black, white, and red are among the top-15 terms used across the corpus, and their usage was remarkably similar from document to document (black is omenous; white is ecstatic or otherworldly; red is to call attention to something out of place). The “Left-Term-Right” feature in Voyant is really tremendous in this regard.

And night-time conjures different figures over time: in the pre-workshop poems, people walk around alone at night (“I stand exposednaked as my handbeneath the night’s skylight moon”); in the college workshop poems, people come together at night for a party or rendezvous (“laughs around each bend bouncing like vectors across the night”); and, in the MFA thesis, night is the time for prophetic animals to arrive (“That night a deer chirped not itself by the thing so small I could not see it that was on top of it near it or inside of it & and how long had it been there?”).