The OED in Poetry

Some poems mention looking etymologies up in the Oxford English Dictionary. Paul Muldoon’s “Cows” does this, near-rhyming ‘protestations of O.E.D.’ with ‘fade’ and ‘jade’ (the rhyme works best if you lexicalize the acronym and pronounce it with its preposition, like ‘of owed’). His “Hedge School” remembers ‘tracing the root of metastasis‘ in the New Shorter (as it happens, bought in the same St Andrews bookshop where I picked up my Faber paperback of Meeting the British). More frequently, poets make discursive use of the dictionary in their criticism, as Robert Graves, Seamus Heaney, James Fenton, Paul Muldoon, and Geoffrey Hill have all done in their respective sets of Oxford lectures. And poetry editors or annotators are often pleased to have the OED’s etymologies and sense taxonomies to rely on in explicating some poetic usage (see Christopher Ricks’s Inventions of the March Hare, e.g. — there, that plugs one gap in the O.P.o.P. genealogy. Can’t get ahold of Levi’s book right now to check, and Fenton is a stretch).

Does this look like the tip of an iceberg to you? It does to me. In addition to thinking about how the OED uses poetry, I’m interested in finding out more about how poets use the Dictionary, how the Dictionary has helped to shape poems. I’m both convinced and intrigued when poets say that consulting the OED or other dictionaries is ‘second nature’, as Hill has. And, though the OED has been invaluable to me in my readings (especially of Hill’s work, but more generally also), one effect of this is to reinforce the impression that there is more being exchanged between the poet and the lexicographer than I can detect with my poor learning.

So right now I’m looking at the electronic OED, 2nd (1989) edition, digitized by computer scientists at the University of Waterloo, and thinking about appropriate ways of comparing that mass of lexical data, with all its metadata, to poems. Eventually I hope to be able to run comparisons on a very large poetry corpus, like LiOn, to detect potential sites of allusion to etymologies, definitions, and illustrative quotations in the OED. I think that, in addition to telling us something about the reciprocal relationship between the poet and the dictionary, this could be a handy tool for the literary critic. Also, I’m interested in finding out more about the limits of this kind of computer assisted approach, which may in turn tell us something about the nature and function of allusion, and how those of us with human brains detect it.

I’ll be presenting on the pilot phase of this project at Digital Humanities 2012, in Hamburg, this July.

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