Seamus Heaney in Between

At last weekend’s Seamus Heaney conference and commemoration at Queen’s University, Belfast, I gave a paper in which I referred offhandedly to “a pretty conventional way, by now, of understanding his poetics” as in some way conditioned by a sense of being “in between”, which goes back to the first word of the first poem in the first book: “Between my finger and my thumb, | The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” [cf. Geoffrey Hill's self-founding debut, in "Genesis": "Against the burly air I strode | Crying the miracles of God."]

Afterwards someone commented that he thought all the “between” stuff in Heaney had been a bit overblown, and said something like “if you ask those corpus guys they could tell you right away, but I wonder if he really uses it much more than other prepositions.”

Well, I didn’t get a chance to reply to this, but what I thought at the time was, “what the corpus guys can tell us is totally irrelevant to the point”, which is about the conceptual relation represented by a particular preposition becoming paradigmatic of an attitude to life, as figured in a body of poems.

But then I thought, well, I’m kind of a corpus guy, so what the hay. Here I’ve collected some counts and frequencies of the 25 or so most frequent prepositions in the Heaney corpus Read More


“Making sense” in The Excursion

At the “Poetry and Happenstance” conference last Friday, there was a question from the floor about a line break in William Wordsworth’s long poem The Excursion. The lines are from Book IV: The light of love Not failing, perseverance from their steps Departing not, for them shall be confirmed The glorious habit by which sense […]


Poetry and Happenstance at Cambridge

Notes and thoughts from “Poetry and Happenstance”, a day-long symposium at Cambridge University, which took place last Friday, 4th April. There were eight papers in all: Anne Stillman – “What appears to be yours” In the opening talk, Stillman expressed some unease about what was really meant by the symposium’s key title word, happenstance. This […]


Is Empson responsible for “ambiguity” uptick?

A quick addendum to yesterday’s post on the increase of metpahor and ambiguity in the Google books corpus. A faithful correspondent writes that at the time Paul Ricoeur’s The Rule of Metaphor (La metaphore vive) came out in 1978 (1975), it seemed everyone was all of a sudden talking about metaphor. For once, the case-sensitivity […]


“Metaphors,” which to scholars cause pain and woe

I’ve recently been tracing out the history of a relation between two particular ideas in English culture, which I would call a metaphorical relation: one idea being described in terms of the other. In tracing it back, I’ve noticed that in the 19thC texts I’m reading, it is only rarely referred to as a metaphor […]


“Does steak love lettuce?” Most human-like computer poems (and vice versa).

I have happened upon Botpoet, a site that runs “Bot or Not”, a sort of Turing test using poems. It’s mildly entertaining to guess whether a poem was written by a human or a computer program, but I find most of the cases pretty obviously one or the other. What’s more fun is the “Leaderboard“, […]


Lightening Poles

I’ve come across a pair of definitions for lightening (n.) which, while not antonymous (or antagonymous) nonetheless represent a kind of polarity. And not any old polarity–the polarity, probably. The first definition comes from the Oxford American Dictionary: A drop in the level of the uterus during the last weeks of pregnancy as the head […]


Two Poetry Conferences in April

I’m currently getting material together for two conference papers in April. The first is for “Poetry and Happenstance” at Cambridge on April 4, which is a theme that fits nicely with the topics I’ve been pursuing over the last few years. The title I’ve given the organizers is “The way it is: authority, arbitrariness, and […]


From “London” to “Potato”, Seamus Heaney in graphs

Yesterday I tested out a method of exploring poetic diction in poetic corpora, using Geoffrey Hill’s opus up to 2012 ["Measured Words"]. I left several issues hanging in that post, which I thought I would follow up on today. For one, I implied that there might be value in comparing the general picture or footprint […]


How different is poetic diction?

In “Measured Words” I made an assertion that “some words aren’t very common in speech but show up fairly frequently in poetry, and vice versa.” This is intuitive, but I’m going to demonstrate it anyway, to make good my other assertion that “seeing what you already know or think you know displayed in an unfamiliar […]


Measured Words

Paul Batchelor’s 2012 review essay in the TLS of recent work by Geoffrey Hill and his critics was called “Geoffrey Hill’s measured words”. As many who write on Hill do, Batchelor keyed in to a series of resonant words in Hill’s work, drawing connections between Hill’s poetry and prose via shared terms such as uncouth, […]


Automation ambition

A recent XKCD: As always, make sure to mouseover the comic for the extra punchline. This discovered as the computer nears the end of its second week of churning through self-comparisons of 2.3M quotation strings from OED2. At last check it had reached string #878,745, so about 37.4467539286% of the way home. It turns out […]


Sappho, not a poetess – THE Poetess

The poetry world is all a twitter with the news that two new poems by Sappho have been discovered. And the Twitter world is spreading the news, chiefly linking to this write up in The Daily Beast: Many tweeters simply reproduce the headline, with a link. But some are evidently annoyed by the term poetess […]


Joseph Brodsky, Social Parasite

Joseph Brodsky died eighteen years ago today. Seamus Heaney, in his elegy for Brodsky, referred to it as “Yeats’s anniversary, | (Double-crossed and death-marched date | January twenty-eight)”. This year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of Brodsky’s show-trial on charges of “social parasitism.” In observance of these milestones, below are some key passages from the […]


#WOTYOTY. Because many, many #WOTY

Another week, another WOTY. Because marketing. The most recent and the final additional winner is because, chosen by the American Dialect Society a few days ago. Because “because marketing” … I mean, because expressions such as “because marketing” broke into the mainstream in 2013. This represents “new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” says Ben […]


Netflix, Algorithms, and Hard Working Humans

There has been some press today and yesterday surrounding Alexis Madrigal’s article in The Atlantic ["How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood"] on the genres Netflix uses to classify films – not just its films, but all films and television programmes. It’s a great article, and a good example of the kinds of approaches that inform the […]


Prof. Balls-Upon a Floor discusses Metadata

With all the recent news talk about metadata, it’s worth remembering that so-called big data is useless without good algorithms to parse and analyse it, and rich metadata to guide us through it. In addition to various versions of OED [which has great metadata], the biggest datasets I access regularly are Google Books and Google […]


Headline: Pentagon Requires Poetry Expertise

I’ve come across an old piece on Guantánamo Bay censorship policy, via a new piece on the same. The recent piece is about poetry going into the US facility there; the earlier article is about poetry coming out. It quotes some fascinating rationale for the close monitoring of poetry written by inmates: But most of […]


“Graduate” or “be graduated”? Graduation on the active/passive divide

On the radio tonight I heard a person use passive “graduate” in a sentence: She was graduated a year early, because she was a top student I’m aware of this usage, and vaguely aware that it can be cited as “correct” usage by mavens. But while I’ve heard the transitive active form (e.g. “the school […]


Advance Access: Method as Tautology in the Digital Humanities

My article, “Method as tautology in the digital humanities” has gone up on Literary and Linguistic Computing‘s advance online publication area. If you have an institutional affiliation that lets you access Oxford Journals, it can be found here: http://llc.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/11/30/llc.fqt068.abstract In the article I develop a concept of method in computer assisted literary criticism, using some […]


Wood, a poem

Here is “Wood”, a kind of poem:


“Fail, n.” #NOTWOTY

The social media are in the midst of a brief kerfuffle over “selfie”, Oxford Dictionaries’ “Word of the Year”, hashtag #WOTY. And “hashtag”, of course, was last year’s #WOTY, as chosen by the competing #WOTY-maker, the American Dialect Society. ADS chose “tweet” in 2009, and “app” in 2010, both of which seem to have more […]


O hell-kite! All? – Antedating verse coinages

In case you thought any of the top eleven most common words invented in verse were actually invented in verse, it’s worth following up with an illustration of the inherent contingency in any lexicographical record. As everyone knows, the OED is in the midst of its first complete revision. My list of poetic neologisms was […]


Top Eleven Most Common Words Invented in Verse

Poetry and lexicography, buzzfeed style. Having recently ranked the neologisms of prolific poetic word-coiners, I decided to look at all verse-coined words in OED [*caveat], and rank them according to their frequency in British National Corpus. Only words first attested after 1500 are included, on the basis that a large proportion of the lexicographical record […]


Unremarkable Poetic Neologisms

The word soulmate is by now at least verging on cliché, if not well in that category, which is why it was somewhat surprising and refreshing to learn that the OED lists Coleridge as the first user of the word. It was a reminder that common words can have uncommon origins–and that the coiner loses […]


Broken Hierarchies: Precursor to a Variorum?

I’ve always felt it was a peculiar kind of luck to live in the same times as many of the poets I read, and write on. Of course there’s the great luxury of hearing the poet “live” (what was Keats’s voice?)–but really what I’m most grateful for is to be able to look forward to […]


Soulmate, Yokemate, Housemate, Helpmate

Today’s Facebook brings a thread that does most of the legwork for a regular P&C-type post: In OED2, soul-mate was listed under soul, n., along with other compounds, such as soul carrier, -curer, -thief, and -twister. The new OED3 Online gives it its own headword, soulmate, n. and updates the Coleridge quotation to what you […]


Of Wingnuts and Moonbats

It appears that the radical fringe in American politics has self-differentiated into wingnuts and moonbats. That is, these are the epithets being used to describe them, usually by them, along ideological lines. In case you don’t know, wingnuts are conservative and moobats are liberal, but each is crazy, if the other is to be believed. […]


Forthcoming: ‘Method as Tautology in the Digital Humanities’

I’ve just recently sent Oxford Journals the typescript for an article due out in Literary and Linguistic Computing, called ‘Method as Tautology in the Digital Humanities’, in which I develop a concept of method in computer assisted literary criticism, using some my recent work with the OED. The article is both a case study describing […]


Hanover, Hannover

In early December I’ll be in Germany, presenting a poster and short talk at “(Digital) Humanities Revisited – Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital Age”. The whole trip is generously funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, which among its various activities supporting research in academia and beyond, puts on a series of conferences at the Herrenhausen […]


More Dispatches from Literalville

Today’s LLog ["What did Justice Scalia Mean"] brings us yet more news out of Literalville, where it seems Antonin Scalia has been giving interviews to New York Magazine: Jennifer Senior, “In Conversation: Antonin Scalia“, New York, 10/6/2013: Q: Had you already arrived at originalism as a philosophy? A: I don’t know when I came to […]