Updates, and a newsletter about forgotten poems

I didn’t exactly mean to stop blogging, but life has a way of getting busy even when there are no major changes happening, and then sometimes you realize it’s been over a year since you posted anything, for no good reason. And then you try to remember everything noteworthy that’s happened in the last year. So here goes: I celebrated a milestone birthday; I’m coming up on my four-year New Yorkiversary in the fall (already?!); this semester is my third-year review at work; I had an article come out this winter; I moved uptown this summer, almost to the far end of Manhattan, and I hope to stay in this neighborhood for a while; and I’m still trying to see as much live opera as I can. And I got to march in the San Francisco Pride Parade last June thanks to the ALA conference happening there that same weekend. Oh, and I’ve been back to the sheep and wool festival, which is now something I look forward to every fall. New York’s been really good to me so far. I think I’m already spoiled for living anywhere else.

Also, I’m still working on the book project, and I decided to encourage myself to write about it in a less formal register by starting up a newsletter I’m calling “Forgotten Poems.” Every two weeks I choose a poem I discovered in a commonplace book and write something about it. It’s been fun to write about poetry again, and to stretch my muscles by writing something not-quite-academic. Something about the letter format encourages a kind of direct address that I’ve been enjoying. (A sign that I should return to blogging again, really!) If you want to check it out, the letter archive is here and you can subscribe here.

And that’s it for updates for the moment, but I don’t plan to let another year go by before blogging again.

Random bullets of the book project

The thing about writing a book (and it feels like “writing a book” now, even though the phase I’m in at the moment is revising an article that will eventually become a chapter) is that it leaves virtually no writing-brain left for blogging. Everything’s getting channeled into the larger project, even if it’s just 15 minutes of typing first thing in the morning. But what good is a blog if you don’t use it to throw some weird ideas and fragments of drafts at the wall and see what sticks? So, in Random Bullets format, a list.

  • I want to write something about the verse quotations on Celestial Seasonings tea boxes. I’m not the only one who remembers the era when the entire back of the Celestial Seasonings box featured a poem, am I? The ones I remember were all poems by the New England “Fireside” poets — Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “The Chambered Nautilus,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.” The kinds of poems that appeared on those boxes were very much in line with the kinds of poems I’ve found in commonplace books. People still commonplace them, as it turns out. It would be a side project, maybe a separate article, maybe just a short interlude at the end of the book, but I’d rather like to see if Celestial Seasonings has an archive anywhere. (I know you can tour their factory; I should email them and ask if they have any records of how they chose those poems. Research trip to Boulder! Pity I don’t ski.)
  • Another side project: I want to put together an anthology of my commonplacers’ favorite poems, probably online as a kind of accompaniment to the book project. I can’t quite imagine any publisher wanting to take a risk on a print anthology of forgotten Victorian and 18th-century poems, many of which were beloved more for their sentiment or the moral lessons they imparted than for their literariness. But I want to be able to talk about these poems and not make the reader of my book keep running off to Google to find the full text of “The Bride’s Farewell” or Charles Wolfe’s “The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna” or Caroline Bowles Southey’s “To a Dying Infant” (for example), and a lot of these poems are hard to find in print. So.
  • In fact, I might try posting a few of those poems in this space, just for the hell of it. I’ve already done that with Longfellow’s “The Fire of Drift-wood“; there are lots more I could talk about.
  • One lovely side effect of telling people that I’m working on a project about commonplace books has been learning, from various interlocutors, just how often people still do that. In fact I’m pretty sure the afterword to this book will be about all the ways commonplacing isn’t dead. I’m also thinking of doing a not terribly scientific survey to find examples of people who still keep commonplace books, or have done so at some point in their lives.
  • (Obligatory self-promotion:) If you’re going to be at MLA 2015 in Vancouver and you want to hear me talk about a small part of this project, then come to panel 606, “Textual Assemblage: Readers, Remixing, and the Reconstruction of Books,” which I would be thrilled to go to even if I weren’t speaking on it.

Testing out a teaching idea: library instruction meets close reading

Hello, neglected blog! I’m still here, just preoccupied with other writing projects, so blogging has fallen rather by the wayside. I have plenty of updates to share about said writing projects, but I’ve been meaning to post this, so here goes.

Last semester I was prepping for a library class when an idea popped into my head. I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet, because it’s specific to a particular type of literature class, and it would require a lot of advance coordination; really, it would need to be an assignment in its own right. And for that I’d need to collaborate with a faculty member who’d want to assign the assignment. But I think it would be interesting, and potentially productive, so I’m writing it down here so I don’t forget it.

One of the assignments I had to do as an undergrad English major that’s stuck with me the longest was the “annotate a poem” assignment. The way I recall it, it went like this: The class was divided up into small groups, and each group was assigned a short poem. (My group had Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us.”) Each group had to visit the library and use a set of suggested reference books to produce a set of notes on the poem, explicating difficult vocabulary and unpacking allusions and historical references. Then we had a follow-up assignment where we had to work individually, pick a poem ourselves, and do the same thing but then turn the explication into a paper.

The great thing about this assignment was the way it joined “close reading” and “research,” which are often treated as distinct categories in undergraduate English classes. You’re supposed to learn to read closely by focusing on the text and the text alone; research means finding and interacting with the work of literary critics. But — especially for relatively new undergraduates — the language of a poem can be disorienting without some background knowledge. (What, in the Wordsworth sonnet that my class read all those years ago, is “sordid boon” supposed to mean? How do you know who Proteus and Triton are if you haven’t read up on your Greek myths?) It’s hard to close-read, in other words, without at least a little bit of research, even if that research consists of looking up an unfamiliar word or trying to track down an allusion.

So my idea is to adapt this assignment for a one-shot library class. I’d keep the small group part of the exercise, and either assign them all different poems (which they’d all have to read before the class met) or sections of one longer poem, which could be interesting as well. I’d give them a list of recommended reference sources, both online and off-: the OED, the Oxford Classical Dictionary, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the Dictionary of Literary Biography (for background information on their poets), maybe an atlas or gazetteer, whatever else might help with the poems in question. Or, perhaps, each group could use a different reference source on the same poem. They’d spend a substantial chunk of the class working on their annotations, during which I’d circulate to offer help to individual groups; then we’d spend some time at the end discussing them. The groups could present their annotations during the library session or during the next class, or they could hand them in at a later point.

Obviously one would have to choose the poems and poets for this assignment carefully. I can’t see this working very well with either extremely plain-spoken poets or with very “difficult” or postmodern ones. (Though I would love to give a group of students Matthea Harvey’s “Poem Including the Seven Wonders of the World” and see what they made of it, given a little nudging towards sources that could tell them what the seven wonders of the ancient world were.) One would probably have to offer some suggested starting points. But I think the idea has potential.

If any of you are doing anything like this, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Personal anthology: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One of the side effects of working on the Potential Book Project has been that I’ve encountered a whole lot of Victorian and Romantic-era poetry that I would never have bothered to read if I were doing straight-up literary criticism. I’ve written before about how the project has challenged some of my own assumptions about what makes a good poem; and while I’ve waded through a lot of schmaltzy, cliched, uninteresting verse while looking at nineteenth-century commonplace books, I’ve also been surprised by how much I genuinely like some of the poems I’ve found.*

Take the poem I’m about to quote in full. I encountered it thanks to two strangely haunting lines in a commonplace book in the New York Public Library: “The leaves of memory seemed to make / A mournful rustling in the dark.” Whoa, I thought, after identifying the poem they came from, that’s by Longfellow? The same poet who exhorted us, in thumping trochees, to believe that “Life is real! Life is earnest!” and who wrote “Excelsior,” which I’d still call a strong contender for the title of Silliest Poem Ever Written?** This poem, “The Fire of Drift-wood,” is darker than a lot of Longfellow’s more famous poems are, both literally and metaphorically. Maybe I’m especially drawn to the way he ends the poem on that note without turning the lights back up and pushing for the Optimistic Final Stanza (TM) that’s characteristic of so much poetry of the era.

The Fire of Drift-wood

We sat within the farm-house old,
Whose windows, looking o’er the bay,
Gave to the sea-breeze, damp and cold,
An easy entrance, night and day.

Not far away we saw the port,–
The strange, old-fashioned, silent town,–
The light-house,–the dismantled fort,–
The wooden houses, quaint and brown.

We sat and talked until the night,
Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
Our voices only broke the gloom.

We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead;

And all that fills the hearts of friends,
When first they feel, with secret pain,
Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,
And never can be one again;

The first slight swerving of the heart,
That words are powerless to express,
And leave it still unsaid in part,
Or say it in too great excess.

The very tones in which we spake
Had something strange, I could but mark;
The leaves of memory seemed to make
A mournful rustling in the dark.

Oft died the words upon our lips,
As suddenly from out the fire
Built of the wreck of stranded ships,
The flames would leap and then expire.

And, as their splendor flashed and failed,
We thought of wrecks upon the main,–
Of ships dismasted, that were hailed
And sent no answer back again.

The windows, rattling in their frames,–
The ocean, roaring up the beach,–
The gusty blast,–the bickering flames,–
All mingled vaguely in our speech;

Until they made themselves a part
Of fancies floating through the brain,–
The long-lost ventures of the heart,
That send no answers back again.

O flames that glowed! O hearts that yearned!
They were indeed too much akin,
The drift-wood fire without that burned,
The thoughts that burned and glowed within.

There are a lot of Victorian poems about loss and death, and the absence of friends, and the pain of parting; but there aren’t as many about the moment when people start to drift away from each other, “[w]hen first they feel, with secret pain, / Their lives thenceforth have separate ends, … [t]he first slight swerving of the heart.” (This poem reminds me, just a little, of the almost indescribably sad ending of Robert Browning’s “Two in the Campagna“: “Infinite passion, and the pain / Of finite hearts that yearn.”) And those fragments of “the wreck of stranded ships”: is their burning a kind of redirection of the “answer” that the ships never sent back, or a further disappearance into oblivion?

Read much more about this poem at The Era of Casual Fridays, a blog I just discovered thanks to this poem. And here’s the poet J.D. McClatchy reading it out loud. (He likes it too.)

* It’s not that surprising, really: I already liked a lot of Victorian poets. What I wasn’t expecting to like were the poems I’d been taught to dismiss as treacly or sappy. I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes sentimentality appealing; there may well end up being a chapter on it in the Potential Book Project.

** I don’t care if it’s a metaphor for human aspiration. You don’t go mountaineering in the Alps improperly dressed, at night, in a storm, with all the locals telling you it’s a bad idea, unless you really want to freeze to death in a snowbank before morning. Though plenty of Longfellow’s contemporaries saw the ridiculousness too: check out this 1885 collection of parodies. Bret Harte, hilariously, turned it into a soap advertisement.

The algebra of knitting

Warning: this post contains math, as well as highly technical knitting details.

I took algebra in sixth grade, and then again in high school, and by the end of it I was reasonably good at solving for X and all that, but none of it ever seemed to have any practical application. It would have been different if I’d gone on to any kind of math-related career, but I’m a humanist at heart, and a literature subject librarian doesn’t solve a lot of equations, as a rule.

However. I’ve been working on a sweater design, and sixth-grade algebra finally, finally came in handy. The sweater in question is a slouchy V-neck pullover for my mom, who requested something like a favorite sweater of hers. I had a bunch of measurements, including the depth and width of the V-neck. I’d already worked out that the neck opening would be 50 rows deep and 34 stitches wide at the widest, which meant I’d have to decrease 17 times over those 50 rows, because each decrease row involves two decreases, one on each side of the V-neck. The question was: which rows to decrease?

Now, one could simply divide 50 by 17, get a result of 2.9, and decide to decrease every third row. But that would mean doing some of the decreases on the wrong side of the fabric, which knitters generally avoid doing because it looks sloppy. So I needed to do a certain number of decreases every two rows, and then the rest of the decreases every four rows, which is standard in a lot of knitting patterns. But how many decreases should I do before making the switch from “every two rows” to “every four rows”? What I had, basically, were two unknown variables.

I could have just worked it out by brute force. But then it occurred to me: I can solve this. Enter the algebra. I sat down and wrote it out, dredging up the ghosts of math class past:

  • Let x = the number of decreases done every two rows, and let y = the number of decreases done every four rows.
  • 2x = the total number of rows made while decreasing every other row. 4y = the total number of rows made while decreasing every fourth row.
  • 2x + 4y = 50 (50 rows in all).
  • x + y = 17 (because there are 17 total decrease rows), so y = 17 – x (or x = 17 – y).
  • So 2x + 4y can also be written 2(17 – y) + 4y.
  • 34 – 2y + 4y = 50.

And then I solved for y, and figured out that I should decrease every other row 9 times (x=9), then decrease every four rows 8 times (y=8). And now I have a formula for decreases that I can use whenever I need it. I may have just saved myself a great deal of future time and effort.

I feel like sending my middle-school math teachers a thank-you letter. I also think there’s a lesson to be learned here about math education. I remember my own early math education as an exercise in either tedium (lots of rote memorization, lots of repetitive sheets of problems) or panic (long division baffled eight-year-old me for the longest time). It was never fun; it never grabbed at my brain. But maybe you could teach kids math in a much more engaging way if you taught it through some kind of handcraft that involves calculation. Maybe you could teach programming that way, too, if you included some pattern design.

At the very least, a curriculum that joined math to fiber arts might blow the (intensely stupid, deeply insulting) “I’m a girl, therefore math is hard!” stereotype right out of the water and consign it to oblivion, where it belongs.

Oh, and here’s the sweater in progress. My next, less math-y challenge will be to put sleeves on it and finish it up before Christmas.

sweater in progress

A day at Rhinebeck

The New York Sheep and Wool Festival, held every October in Rhinebeck, NY, is one of those knitting events I’ve meant to go to for years but never managed to make it to. Until this year, when two librarian friends and I drove up the Hudson in a Zipcar for a day of fiber-fanaticism. We returned at the end of the day, laden with yarn and food products, all talking about how it was really nice to get out of the city sometimes, how maybe someday we’d all retire upstate and raise some livestock. We may have peered into a real estate agent’s window and looked at a few listings for houses in Rhinebeck. Sheep and wool festivals do that to you, I’ve noticed, even if, like me, you’re the world’s most die-hard city person.

There was perfect autumnal weather. And foliage. And apple cider. And views of the Hudson as we headed for Rhinebeck. There were sheep…

Shropshire sheep

So many sheep!

This sheep's name is Merlin.

Icelandic sheep

This breed is called the Jacob sheep. They’re spotted and have multiple sets of horns:

Jacob sheep, with two sets of horns

There were also goats…

Blurry goat

One of us, who dreams of farming goats, had her ideal goat breed picked out by the end of the day. And there were llamas…

An enormous and splendid llama.

(Just look at that majestic creature!)

And alpacas. I petted these guys, who were surrounded by a throng of admirers. Their fleece had an amazing springiness and density to it:


And there was yarn. So much yarn my head nearly exploded, some of it displayed picturesquely outdoors:

Yarn on a barn

Next year I have ambitions to knit a traditional Rhinebeck Sweater before returning to Rhinebeck. And maybe I’ll find the time to go to Maryland Sheep and Wool this spring or next. So many fiber festivals, so little time!

New York City: a love story

It’s been nearly a year since I moved to New York. You’d think my decades-long crush on this city would have abated a bit by now, wouldn’t you? You’d think I’d be used to it by now, that I’d have developed my own list of gripes and complaints (New Yorkers love to kvetch, after all). But you’d be wrong.*

I was talking with some colleagues about the New York crush, and one of them said that when she was new here, she asked someone if one ever gets tired of, say, looking uptown and seeing the Empire State Building in the distance, and the answer was “No.” And I was so relieved, because I never want to get jaded looking at that. Every now and then I surreptitiously gawk and take a picture, like a tourist.

There’s the real city that we all live our mundane lives in and the dream city, the city of imagination and longing. For the most part I live in the real city, but the dream city shows through when you least expect it to. Every time I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where it’s no big deal that I live here now, New York throws something surprising in my path: a big dragonfly cruising up Fifth Avenue among the throngs of people on the sidewalk, a man carrying one of those portable glass-sided beehives full of bees into Washington Square, an unexpected tile mosaic in the West Village. The moon sailing along over the tops of buildings on the Lower East Side (a sight that makes me think of Cosmo’s moon).

And I love riding the B or D train over the Manhattan Bridge, seeing the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges on either side, catching little rapid glimpses of Chinatown from above. I love the moments when you look up at a building and you can almost see an older New York (there are many strata of older New Yorks) superimposed on top of today. I love the blue hour right before night falls and the warmth of lighted windows in the dusk; I love the rare occasions when I’m out first thing in the morning and the city is still waking up. I love how friendly New Yorkers are, despite all that reputation for rudeness. I love the fact that I’ll never run out of new streets to walk down or new restaurants to try.

In New York you can dress to blend in, wear twenty shades of black, and feel elegant. Or you can dress to stand out and nobody blinks. My wardrobe’s gotten sleeker and darker, but I’ve also developed an uncharacteristic attraction to bright pink and eye-popping shades of orange. I go for really long walks and not a single person says “I always see you walking.” (In New York, this would be like saying “So, I notice you breathe oxygen.” In Connecticut, I heard it from literally every person I met, always with the same undertone of disbelief and vague disapproval of my conspicuous eccentricity. Walking! Who does that? How peculiar.) In Connecticut I regularly felt like I needed to explain myself. In New York, I never do.

This year I made an ill-advised attempt to grow plants in my low-sunlight office, and only the philodendron thrived; the jade plant and the coffee plant drooped and looked sad, until I brought them back to my apartment and put them where they could get some sun. Now there are shiny new leaves on both of them. I know the feeling. Ever since I moved here: bam! Metaphorical foliage!

As a favorite poet and a fellow New Yorker said: “It might give us — what? — some flowers soon?

* Okay, fine. Here’s some kvetching for you: I think the Fulton Street subway station is the worst; Penn Station, ditto. I have not yet discovered a gelato place to equal my beloved Capogiro back in Philadelphia. Sometimes the crowds make me wiggy; I get annoyed by oblivious tourists. (I have learned to avoid Broadway entirely on the weekends, and most of SoHo as well.) I suffer from FOMO sometimes. I’d still rather live here than pretty much anywhere else, though.

Libraries and the cognitive resource pool

One of the most interesting things I’ve read in the past few weeks was a post at Kathy Sierra’s new blog called “Your app makes me fat.” Sierra looks at psychological research that shows how we use the same “pool” of cognitive resources for both thinking and willpower. Tricky cognitive tasks drain our ability to exercise self-control; using willpower makes it harder to think:

Since both willpower/self-control and cognitive tasks drain the same tank, deplete it over here, pay the price over there. One pool. One pool of scarce, precious, easily-depleted resources. If you spend the day exercising self-control (angry customers, clueless co-workers), by the time you get home your cog resource tank is flashing E.

Sierra goes on to look at the implications of the cognitive-pool research for user experience design; if an app drains too many cognitive resources, what is it doing to the user?

If your UX asks the user to make choices, for example, even if those choices are both clear and useful, the act of deciding is a cognitive drain. And not just while they’re deciding… even after we choose, an unconscious cognitive background thread is slowly consuming/leaking resources, “Was that the right choice?”

If your app is confusing and your tech support / FAQ isn’t helpful, you’re drawing down my scarce, precious, cognitive resources. If your app behaves counter-intuitively – even just once – I’ll leak cog resources every time I use it, forever, wondering, “wait, did that do what I expected?”.

…If the result of your work consumes someone’s cognitive resources, they can’t use those resources for other things that truly, deeply matter.

Because I’m a librarian and I spend a lot of my working days either showing people how to find stuff, thinking about how I’m going to show people how to find stuff, or finding stuff myself, I immediately thought of all the cognitive resources it takes to do any kind of academic research. If I’m a library patron trying to locate a piece of information (or, more typically, a bunch of related pieces of information that I can then synthesize in a meaningful way), I have to navigate a dizzying number of interfaces and make choice after choice after choice. Do I want something book-length or article-length? How do I get to the library catalog? Which of these search boxes will take me there? I know there are databases that are supposed to help, but how do I pick one when there are hundreds of them? What is this search screen asking me to do? I found 10,000 results; what now? Why isn’t this database giving me full text? I have a bunch of books to look for, but how exactly do Library of Congress call numbers work? And on and on and on.

Librarians sometimes worry that if you simplify the search process too much, you’ll dumb it down to the point where the users can’t find what they need. And faculty and librarians alike deplore students’ tendency to go to Google before anything else. But the Google thing makes a lot of sense when you look at it from the cognitive resource tank point of view. It’s a soothingly uncluttered screen with one search box and two buttons. You don’t have to learn a whole new syntax to use it. You don’t have to make a million decisions. You can dump in your entire question and Google will probably put the most relevant results in the first screen. You can save your cognitive resources for the work of writing the research paper.

And then when you consider all the other potential drains on an undergraduate’s cognitive resource tank — not least of which, for students of traditional college age, is the work of growing up, learning how to relate to other people as an adult, exercising the self-control required to make decisions like “Maybe I won’t go to this party the night before I have to turn in a paper I haven’t started yet” — you start to wonder just how much of that is being siphoned off when a student has to figure out LexisNexis.

Maybe it’s not that students are lazy when it comes to research; maybe they’re just trying to conserve resources that they’re already be running low on when they get to the library in the first place.

I suspect I’m going to be thinking about the “cognitive resources tank” metaphor for some time. I think research, and the pursuit of learning more generally, are a worth the effort it takes — but like Sierra, I’m going to try to ask, where I can: is this worth the resources we’re asking people to burn? And if it’s not, what can we do to change it?

Ten years. Who knew?

It’s hard to believe, but it was ten years ago today that I impulsively opened up an account on Blogspot and semi-anonymously started my first blog. I was expecting to chronicle my transition out of academia into something else — I had no idea what the something else would be, at that point — and I was part of a wave of discontented or outright disgruntled blogging academics. It was the still-much-missed Invisible Adjunct who inspired me to start blogging; it was Rana, who also just celebrated a decade, who gave me my very first link back.

Most of us have stopped blogging, or just blog much less than we used to, or have migrated to other platforms, myself included. I find that a lot of the thoughts that used to go into my blog posts now go into microbursts on Twitter, which is where a lot of the conversation we used to have in comment threads has also gone. And that’s all right. Formats have their time and place, and other formats come along, and it’s nice to still have this space to scribble in, even if most of my scribbling goes elsewhere.

Anyhow. In ten years, I have:

  • finished the last stages of my dissertation, defended it, and become Dr. Watson (the Sherlock Holmes jokes started about half an hour after the dissertation defense);
  • decided that maybe I wanted to be a librarian when I grew up;
  • applied for and been awarded the fellowship that made that career switch happen;
  • moved from the Midwest back to the East Coast;
  • gone to library school for my MSLIS;
  • lived in four different cities and worked in four different academic libraries;
  • somehow morphed from an early modernist into a book history person-slash-digital humanist with Victorianist leanings;
  • realized that I actually really do like teaching, now that I get to teach students how to do research;
  • discovered a love for opera and a love for hiking, and got much better at (and much more obsessive about) knitting;
  • kept up some cherished friendships and made some new ones, online and off-;
  • stumbled across the research project that I want to turn into a book (or long-format thing. It might end up being born-digital, I haven’t decided);
  • traveled a lot, and traveled outside North America for the first time in my adult life;
  • met quite a few people I used to only know through their blogs;
  • wound up in a tenure-track job after all, but one that’s so much better than anything I ever imagined when I thought I’d be a professor;
  • and, finally, actually found a way to live in a city that I’ve loved since childhood but never thought I’d actually get to live in.

Ten years ago I would never have guessed that any of this would happen. It wasn’t by any means the easiest ten years of my life: I lost a parent; there were some long stretches of loneliness; there was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of second-guessing of major life decisions. But given where it ended up, I’m not complaining. Not at all.

That said, I feel weird marking a ten-year anniversary like this, because one of the things I’ve learned over those years is that life is just life; it goes on, in its plotless and usually patternless way,* with glorious moments, and sad ones, and bizarre ones, and a lot of incredibly mundane ones. Piles of good things and piles of bad things,** not necessarily connected. And chopping it up into milestones feels a bit arbitrary. Though I may change my mind about that in a couple of years when I hit a big milestone birthday that starts with the number 4 and ends with the number 0.

Hello, all of you who remember the blogosphere back in the early 2000s. Hello, all of you I’ve met since. I’m so pleased to have met you all.

* I realize this is not a stunningly new insight, but you have no idea how long it took me, with my years of literary-critical training and my love of pattern recognition, to admit that life does not actually resemble fiction.

** Another thing that happened over that decade: discovered a deep love for Doctor Who.

More fun with visualization: word clouds

I’ve been slowly and steadily adding to the Potential Book Project database that I wrote about in the previous post, and somewhat to my shock, I realized that I’ve now got entries for over 1500 individual poetry quotations from 24 commonplace books compiled between 1800 and 1900. (And I’m still nowhere near done; I’ve got many more notes from various research trips made over the past several years.) There’s going to be a ton of data when I’m done. But I’m starting to think that, yes, there’s already enough data for me to start making some generalizations, and really there could be at least a couple of articles in all of this right now. And there are a lot more ways I can experiment with visualizing some of that data to clarify my thinking about it.

Today it occurred to me, as I eyeballed the “poems” table in the database, that maybe the titles of the poems could tell me something.* On a whim, I copied the entire column of titles and pasted it into Wordle. I’m not always a huge fan of word clouds; sometimes they don’t tell you much that you don’t already know. But the word cloud I got out of the title list is actually interesting, because it adds some weight to an impression I’ve been getting all along, namely that commonplace books were the great repositories of sentimental verse:

(Click to embiggen.)

Some of the most prominent words are the obvious ones that appear in poem titles, like “song,” “sonnet,” “ode,” or “stanzas.” But the elegiac nature of a lot of the poems in these collections becomes evident when you notice the prominence of “death” and related words: “dead,” “funeral,” “grave,” and “epitaph.” Equally prominent are the relationship words: “mother,” “child,” “infant,” “friend,” “friendship,” “sister,” “daughter,” “love.” (“Memory,” I’d argue, encompasses both.) Looking at this visualization, you start to realize just how many poems are about either the bonds between family, friends, and lovers, or the death of a loved one, or both (frequently both, in the case of the innumerable poems I’ve found about grief over the death of children).

In “Reclaiming Sentimental Literature,” Joanne Dobson reads sentimental nineteenth-century American writing as foregrounding the interconnections between people:

Sentimentalism envisions the self-in-relation; family (not necessarily in the conventional biological sense), intimacy, community, and social responsibility are its primary relational modes. This valorization of affectional connection and commitment is the generative core of sentimental experience as mid-nineteenth-century American writers defined it.**

I have a theory that the same set of attitudes informed not just my compilers’ choice of poems, but in many cases the contexts in which they chose them (groups of school friends taking turns filling books with poems to remember each other by; family members passing their collections down as mementos). It’s nice to see that laid out as obviously as this word cloud does.

* This was perhaps cheating a bit, as there are a number of first lines in the title list, given the need to distinguish similarly titled poems and the tendency of poets to call their poems “Stanzas.” Or “Song.” Or “Lines.” It would probably be even more informative to do a word cloud with the full text of all the poems, but I don’t have that, because finding and scraping and cleaning up the text of every individual poem would take another few years all by itself.

** Joanne Dobson, “Reclaiming Sentimental Literature,” American Literature 69 no. 2 (1997), 267.