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Digital PoetryPoetry is undoubtedly one of the forms of literature whose essence is the hardest to capture. It is not just about rhymes, meters and sounds which are simple to recognize. Its metaphorical surges of feelings are more subtle and nuanced bringing us back to our own human experience in space and time, back and forth, like a ship moving slightly over a lyrical swell. In the context of Digital Humanities, these superior dimensions seem to be ignored by the current tools which are essentially based on text mining. However, some research groups have discovered new ways to explore poetry, leading to new insights beyond words and rhymes.

A New Vision

Researchers from Oxford University were inspired by the previous comparison which redefined poetry as “a fluid moving via its linguistic elements, devices and figures, through a self-defined space[1]. They model it like a complex dynamical system which is multi-dimensional, “living and relational“. Their new tool, Poem Viewer, is a first attempt in embracing this poetical complexity. In addition to be highly customizable, it gives the opportunity to highlight the links that exist within time, sound and senses well beyond the pure lexical connections.

The Close-Reading Experience

However, a second paper argues that the tools developed so far are not suited for a close reading of the poems [2]. It is this powerful reading experience that gives every reader a unique lyrical and emotional understanding. As the current tools are mainly based on the analysis of semantic fields, they content themselves only with quantitative results to understand the substance of the text. This poor logic removes humans precisely from where they are expecting to be: right at the center of the reading process which gives the poems their unique color, tone and emotions. The human factor is now pushed into the last phase of text mining, cursed with reading data not text.

Without a doubt, this philosophical issue has been extensively discussed within the Digital Humanities community. Close-reading has been considered as a technique that cannot be digitized. However, the researchers from the University of Utah want to emphasize this process as one of the keystones to build the next generation of tools for digital literature [2].

In this respect, the team of Nathalie Houston (University of Houston) made the first step to bring back humans to the center of this digital literature which yielded interesting results. It has been possible to apply the technique to an entire population but not yet to an individual reader. An encoding of the historical context allows a better understanding of the allegorical or satirical tone of a poem, with the Victorian era as a first terra incognita of exploration [3].

The Future of Data

Digital PoetryIt is clear that visualizing poems through digital tools will never replace the close-reading of an individual. It can nonetheless be a precious compass to reveal the core operations underlying the composition. It is then up to the reader to decide which direction to explore. These considerations highlight the fact that literature scholars want to benefit from the tremendous possibilities offered by computation while preserving at the same time the strong connection between the text and the human readers [2]. Capturing the emotional characteristics of the individual will then be one of the core components of the next-generation algorithms, transforming the data into metaphysical interpretations closer to the one produced by human minds.

This revolution will definitely lead to new issues concerning the human-computer interaction: the visualization tools will have to improve their flexibility in order to provide a one-to-one, unique visual experience which will better reflect the oneiric and intimate symbiosis that exists between the reader and the poem.


[1] A. Abdul-Rahman et al (2013). Freedom and Flow: A New Approach to Visualizing Poetry. Digital Humanities 2013, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. July 2013. http://dh2013.unl.edu/abstracts/ab-143.html (accessed 14th October 2013).
[2] K. Coles, J. Lein (2013). Solitary Mind, Collaborative Mind: Close Reading and Interdisciplinary Research. Digital Humanities 2013, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. July 2013. http://dh2013.unl.edu/abstracts/ab-217.html (accessed 14th October 2013).
[3] N. Houston, N. Audenaert (2013). Reading the Visual Page of Victorian Poetry. Digital Humanities 2013, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. July 2013. http://dh2013.unl.edu/abstracts/ab-274.html (accessed 14th October 2013).

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