Monday, January 26, 2009

Mapping the SoQ (and beyond)

So Ron Silliman's been stirring the pot on the question of 'what is the School of Quietude' (again), aided and abbetted by Seth Abramsom (who, on the issue of not linking my blog to his extensive bloglist, is an A******, but on many other matters is most definitely not) who is in search of a better taxonomy.

In other matters, I've just started an Open University course which aims to look at Systems (T214 in case people are interested), which includes having to read the set textbook Linked: how everything is connected to everything else and what it means for business, science and everyday life by Albert-László Barabási (ISBN 0-452-28439-2) - which is turning out to be a pretty good read.

Anyways. Mad ideas have started bubbling in my head. Rather than run with them this time round, I've decided to blog about them in the hope that exposing them to both of my readers will lead to ridicule and stop me wasting huge volumes of my personal resources.

Rik's latest mad idea (open to ridicule)

There can be little doubt that the world of poets (working primarily in the English Language, though with some of the more adventurous ones I have my doubts) is best viewed as a directional network with a scale-free topology. In other words if poets are nodes with connections between them then a few poets have a lot more connections than most of the rest of us. There's a variety of things we could use as connections: the poets that a poet cites as an influence in their writing; the venues where a poet has their poems published; the social groups that a poet attends.

Whatever we use as the poetic connection, though, when we play the Kevin Bacon six degrees of separation game we can be reasonably confident that the connection between any two randomly selected poets will pass through one (or more) of those poets who have many more connections than the rest of us - the poet hubs, if you like.

However, I can't prove any of the above because I lack a data set of poet nodes and their links. I can guess at who the poet hubs are (Ron's a poet hub, not only because of his blogging activities but also because he's met, even collaborated with, a lot of the key players in his part of the poetry world) but I can't begin to describe the sort of influence they have in our little ghetto of polite society.

The truth is, if these SoQ arguments are to move beyond the name-calling stage into more productive territory, then we need some evidence. We need a data set.

We need a database driven website.

This is my mad idea.

Build a database, using a website to collect the information. Like a sort of time-unlimited questionnaire or interview where poets can pop along and list their data - such as who were their early influences, their later influences; where they learned their poetry craft; who publishes their chapbooks and books. That sort of stuff.

Make the database available to anyone who wants to download it and examine the data - scientific types, cultural types - for free. Perhaps under a GPL licence, or even just plain old public domain.

Settle down and have a damned good argument about the results and (hopefully) come up with a map of the World of English language poetry sometime before they serve the cocktails.

Simple, yes?

Of course not!

Now I don't think the database would be much trouble to set up. You would need tables for Poets, places of learning, places of publishing. The website would be a little more complex as we'd have to make sure we were asking the right questions to get the most appropriate responses (ie well formed with little scope for input or parsing errors), but I don't for a moment think it's not do-able.

(There would be a lot of initial work, too, in populating the database with skeleton information: names of publishers; details of dead poets; that sort of thing. It would have to include some way of ripping publicly available information from existing websites)

No, the problem would be to get enough bloody poets to fill out the questionnaire. And in particular getting the hub poets interested so they could let everybody else know that the questionnaire existed.

To make the website successful (as in getting more than half a dozen poets to complete the questionnaire) I'd need an incentive.

Perhaps every poet could have their own profile page, with links to their latest publications, blogs, home pages, etc?

How about giving them a facility to anonymously assess other poets - for instance by adding tags to describe their work?

See, this is where my brilliant-yet-mad idea falls down. I don't think poets would bother filling out the questionnaire, because I don't really believe they're interested in getting an answer to the SoQ issue, or even a map of today's poetry world.

Because they're poets, see!


  1. Poetry nodes, and hubs and facts and figures... see, that's why I write poetry.. well, I used to think that anyway.

    Sounds like you are enjoying the OU... I'm not long finished in that regard, so I hope they're looking after you on the 'oul FC :)

  2. Poetry nodes - it sounds like something you go to the doctor to get removed when it's inflamed...

    This must mean you;'re some kind of genius! (And therefore, according to Rob Mac, "in"...)

  3. I love the OU. It's so democratic. I'm starting Continuing Latin this year. This will be my fourth year, I believe, with the Open University. A scary thought.

    Hubs? Do you realise that's sbuh backwards?