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The beauty of a sudden outburst of emotion captured in words conveying a delicate and deliberate rhythm and rhyme has long held, and will continue to hold, the fancy of the literary world. Add to that a generous splash of modern digitization and computation, and there is suddenly a plethora of new dimensions that emerge within the world of poetry – including, but certainly not limited to, the representation of poetry in a visual format. This indeed promises to be a potent mix – not only for experiencing and analyzing poetry in a way that is completely different from traditional scholarship and text-analysis software, but also in terms of using these visual tools and cues to compose new poetry. This post will look at some new visualization tools and discuss the emerging implications, benefits and possible pitfalls of using them.

The visualization of poetry is based on the ability to ‘dissect’ a poem based on certain key components which are chosen to be highlighted by the visual tools in use. Such components could be elements such as the structure of the narrative, the metaphors used, the rhyme scheme employed, etc. The purpose of visualization, then, is to highlight patterns among these components and use them to critically analyse poetry. However, it is believed that the existing methods and tools have oversimplified poetry [1], and there is a need for incorporating more literary perspective and humanist participation into the way these tools are designed. Abdul-Rahman et al. [1] postulate that accurate visual design of a poem should focus on tracing the movement of sound through it. However, since the number of distinct variables required to accomplish this is too large (considering the limitations of human visual perception and the number of visual channels available), they present a tool, ‘PoemViewer‘, where readers can choose to view a limited set of variables at a time. Their work on sound has led them to think of a poem as ‘a fluid (or fluids) moving via its linguistic elements, devices and figures through a self-defined space‘. The vision of their work is to finally understand how the correlation of particular poetic features (such as syntax, meter, figure, etc) across poems spread over time could explain poetic responses to important or historical events, social phenomena or technological advancements.

Expanding on the importance of literary participation in the process of designing visualization tools, Coles et al. [2] believe that the surge in digitization has led to the breaking down of the process of reading poems to simply and mechanically analyzing the data that is generated from them – a phenomenon which is called ‘distant reading’. They are of the opinion that reading a poem is more of a ‘close reading’ process, which is the interaction between the poem and a human mind. They point out the benefits of collaboration with computational groups, but at the same time highlight that the literary community must preserve and prioritize the bond between literature and human readers. With this in mind, their goal was to use visualization not as a replacement for close reading, but as a supplementary visual cue to heighten the poetic experience and lead readers to new intellectual perceptions that they may otherwise miss. Guided by Robert Creeley’s words, ‘Form is an extension of content’, they advocate that aesthetic choices are necessary core design considerations for the visualization tool, and that the aesthetic representation of individual visualizations should, in some way, reflect the uniqueness of individual poems.

It is pertinent to note at this point the difference between the two approaches above – the first [1] uses the multi-dimensional aspects of the ‘flow’ and sound of a poem to generate a visualization (while not specifying whether it is meant to be a replacement or an accompaniment to the poem itself), whereas the second [2] uses aesthetic choices to individually characterize a poem while clarifying that it is to be used only as a accompanying clue to further delve into the depths of the poem, and not as a replacement for close reading.

The discussion above showed two examples of visualization tools being used for poetry analysis. We now look at an example where visualization is used as a tool to compose poetry – and how its introduction into the composition process could change the way poetry is presented. Meneses et al. [3] point out that the existing tools to visualize poetry have no relationship with the author of the poem since the poem is written beforehand. Thus, they have devised a tool, ‘Ambiance‘, which is an interactive framework which serves to create a symbiotic relationship between writing and visualizing poetry. They envision, for instance, that an author could compose a part of the poem, a different author would design the visualization for it, and the original author could then use this visualization as a further inspiration for the remainder of the poem. Thus, this interface could facilitate remote collaboration between authors over multiple sessions. This project is still in its nascent stages and it will be interesting to see the response of poets to it – in particular, whether it would work differently for poets writing in different languages, from specific genres or having certain writing styles and cultural backgrounds. It is worthwhile to note at this point that this work is, in a way, taking the spirit of the above work [2] forward by immersing the literary world into these tools to an extent where the tools become an integral part of the composition itself. However, this is of course limited by the type of methods employed to generate the visualization in Ambiance – it seems apparent that the methods employed in the first work [1] are more sophisticated and take into account a wider variety of parameters.

In conclusion, the advent of new technologies such as PoemViewer [1] and Ambiance [3], guided by the philosophies such as those enumerated by Coles et al. [2], could revolutionize the way we not only read and understand poems, but also compose them. The exact nature and magnitude of its impact on the future of poetry, however, still remains to be seen.

It would now seem that not only is a picture worth a thousand words, as is often quoted, but a poem is now worth a picture as well!

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[1] Abdul-Rahman et al. – ‘Freedom and Flow: A New Approach to Visualizing Poetry’

[2] Coles et al. – ‘Solitary Mind, Collaborative Mind: Close Reading and Interdisciplinary Research’

[3] Meneses et al. – ‘Ambiances: A Framework to Write and Visualize Poetry’

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