Thursday, April 19, 2018

Notes on "Beyond Poet Voice"

 Last year, I heard a fascinating presentation by scholar Marit J. MacArthur, where she discussed some ongoing work that she's doing utilizing digital tools to analyze sounds and speech patterns of American poets. I wrote about some of her research and findings, and how that connects with my own work. MacArthur and her colleagues Georgia Zellou and Lee M. Miller just recently published an article, "Beyond Poet Voice: Sampling the (Non-) Performance Styles of 100 American Poets" for the Journal of Cultural Analytics. I am particularly intrigued with their treatment of black women poets.

Overall, the article explains how MacArthur, Zellou, and Miller took an empirical look at the performance or reading styles of poets. They base their research on a sample of recorded poems by 100 poets. They examine differences between groups of poets, and they seek to quantify what is known as Poet Voice through the use of digital tools. For someone like me, who's been spending way too much time thinking about the implications of how poets sound and present their work, the work that these scholars are doing is really important.

And not just the examination of sounds with poetry. I also appreciate that they use a relatively large sample-size (in the realm of poetry studies at least) to address their concerns. At one point, they note that humanities scholars "are adept at generating broadly persuasive insights from a few choice examples." Literary scholars have done less, though, to look at datasets of 50 and 100 writers at a time to produce various insights.

Alright, but where I was really drawn in and excited about this project concerned the specific analyses of women and African American poets, and especially black women poets. MacArthur, Zellou, and Miller found that the 50 women poets in their sample exhibit "a wider pitch range, faster pitch speed, slightly faster pitch acceleration, and greater dynamism overall." Furthermore among the women, they discovered useful findings concerning black women poets.

For one, they note that "seven of the ten female poets with the highest values for dynamism are African-American poets born before 1960, some associated with the Black Arts movement." Those black women are Wanda Coleman, Sonia Sanchez, Harryette Mullen, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton, Jayne Cortez, and Rita Dove. Excluding Dove, six of those black women poets have the "fastest pitch speed," and five of them "are also among the ten female poets with the fastest pitch acceleration." And, three of those black women poets -- June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, and Jayne Cortez -- "are also among the fastest in terms of speaking rate."

So, black women poets are on one far side of dynamism, pitch speed, pitch acceleration, and speaking rate. Fascinatingly, black women are on the other end as well. The scholars observe that "five of the ten sampled recordings of female poets with the lowest values for dynamism are also African-American ... They are: Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Audre Lorde, Toi Derricotte, Claudia Rankine, and Elizabeth Alexander." What does it mean that black women poets comprise the highest and lowest levels of dynamism in a sample of 50 American women poets and 100 American poets?

It's worth noting that Smith, Trethewey, and Alexander are among our most decorated African American poets. Rankine's book Citizen is perhaps the best selling poetry book over the last several decades. All of that is to say that certain kinds of literary prominence do no correlate to reading performance dynamism. Or, perhaps -- and the work by MacArthur, Zellou, and Miller leads me to this idea -- low expressiveness in poetry readings is one of the requirements of being a major award-winning black woman poet?

For about a decade now, I've taught a class that enrolls first-year black women students. The empirical findings in "Beyond Poet Voice" correspond with the general and intuitive observations of my students in those classes. In short, some of the students express a lack of interest in poets that they feel lack dynamism. This article by MacArthur, Zellou, and Miller signals some possibilities for quantifying what black women students are hearing.

I'll provide more on this article in future entries.

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