Poetry is Not A Profession: A Few Thoughts on The Poem Assessor

by on Jun.13, 2013

So I went off the internet for like a day yesterday because I had sad friends scattered throughout the city and I thought I could make better use of my time in cheering them up than in sitting at a desk and staring at a computer screen. I was right. After a day of walks in the park, cigarettes on various fire escapes, and experiments in cooking with balsamic-truffle oil glaze and teeny tiny bowtie pasta, I settled into my room to paint and edit poems for an hour before the very reasonable hour at which I went to bed.

Which is why I woke this morning at 6 AM to read my horoscopes and check my e-mail and saw that I had been tagged or mentioned in a bunch of things across social media outlets regarding this “Poem Assessor” business.

Remember like, a year-and-a-half ago when that I Write Like thing was super popular? I just analyzed the above paragraph and it said I write like H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a cute party game for when you’re really, really bored. And the people behind I Write Like were clearly just having fun and trying to bring a little culture to the webgame table. I played it a bunch that one week it was cool, had a few laughs, and promptly forgot about it.

Yesterday I had some poems go up on Similar:Peaks::, which is one of the few things keeping me really engaged in any kind of poetry community outside of my actual close friends. This morning I learned that some of the good folks behind SP were upset because The Poetry Assessor(s) were rating poems from their site and tweeting the scores. So I logged onto twitter and I looked at the conversation and it was annoying. They gave my poem “Red Mess” a 2.5 on their scale, equivalent to that awarded to Plath’s “Crossing the River,” which they use as an example on their website. I put in another poem from the same manuscript and it scored like, a -1.8 (positive scores being “professional,” negative scores being “amateur”), and then put in poems by poets I really like and saw that most of the poems written by people I love in real life scored on the positive end of the spectrum. I was like wow, I have great taste in people if everyone I love is a Professional Poet.

The Poem Assessor uses an algorithm (described in detail here) that defines whether or not a poem is “professional” based on word choice, variety of vocabulary, sound devices, and conveyance of emotion. The study notes that professional poems are more optimistic than amateur poems, which is obviously false because every single poem by a friend I entered that got a positive score was super sad.

What’s bothersome about this is not the existence of The Poem Assessor nor the inadequacy and obvious failings of its systems (the whole point of poetry is that it’s human – now go ahead, someone, tell me about how we should let computers do it because that’s avant-garde) – poetry exists and is necessary because society requires that a measure of its humans put time and effort into exploring the interaction between the internal and external worlds, creating bodies in which a fusion of the two can exist. What irks me is this attempt to define the Professional Poem/Poet.

Here’s a lesson I learned hard and well: Poetry is not a profession. It is not a career and it is not an investment. It’s a vocation, like becoming a priest. You don’t have to give up sex thank god but you have to give up a lot of other stuff, like dignity and a solid sense of self. No one in their right mind would do it unless they had no other option. That’s why there’s a lot of sucky poetry in this realm of the “professional” – you can’t filter out insincerity with a paradigm. You have to have the blood on your hands.

Poets of the world, “Professional” and “Amateur” alike, don’t get upset about what The Assessor says. In a week we’ll all be making those paper cootie-catchers embossed with the names of poets we want to sleep with or something.

The end.





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5 comments for this entry:
  1. drew

    hi carina. i think you’re a professional poet.

    the poetry assessor briefly bothered me because my poems didn’t score very highly. i understood why they didn’t after reading their methodology–only a pretty particular kind of poem scores highly. the trouble is when we start taking these kind of things seriously.

    anyway, i always shrink away from equating poetry with anything divine (as i’m sure you know and are bored of me preaching (get it)) BUT i do like thinking of poetry as a vocation. because it is, in a lot of ways. it’s very thankless being a poet most of the time. most of the time, it’s toil and it’s submissions and research and reviews and so on. do you maybe think that something like this poetry assessor maybe belittles what we do? i don’t really know where i’m going with this. i’m a professional poet though.

  2. Carina

    Hi Drew,

    I think you’re a professional poet too. I’m glad that if we can’t get on board together about the divine we can get there about vocation. Although I cannot help but wonder from whence comes the call if not from the divine — divine in this sense being maybe entirely secular, right? Not like a church of poetry. One time I tried to read Donne to this finance-y guy I was dating and he laughed and called poetry a hokey religion. Which it isn’t.

    It is divine/sublime, which I think is something else. Spiritual but not religious is a thing people say. And the divine is maybe natural in the sense that the call could come from exactly what makes up space, which would be necessarily otherworldly because it’s the stuff that makes up this one.

    So yes, I do think The Poem Assessor belittles what we do.

  3. The Poetry Assessor

    THe Poetry Assessor merely emulates what poetry editors do. It looks for characteristics of contemporary poems by established poets drawn from Poulin and Waters’ Contemporary American Poetry (2006)and compares these with poems written by amateurs drawn from http://www.amateur writing.com. If there is something wrong with the methodology here then there is something wrong with the way that Poulin and Waters use to select their poems. I don’t think this is the case – the collection in the anthology represents the current idea of what makes a good poem.

    The major benefit of this is that it facilitates finding good poems that would otherwise remain unnoticed. An editor can, with the Poetry Assessor, solicit thousands of poems, most of which might never have been read, and isolate those that are most like the poems in Poulin and Waters. The editor can then read this small selection and make a ‘human’ assessment. Thus, the Poetry Assessor is a preliminary filtering system based on current value judgments in the profession.

  4. Johannes

    Hi Poetry Assessor (and Carina),
    I totally missed this discussion. Or I saw it and I thought it was a joke criticizing the homogeneity of Poulin’s anthology (though I believe that Poulin’s original anthology is quite a bit different from the second edition, which was done after he’d died). I mean, does anybody really want their writing to be “professional” in that way? Further, that anthology I think is generally seen as pretty bad.

    What I find quite fascinating about this machine is the way it seems to rhyme with the recently uncovered NSA system of surveillance where the NSA has gathered too much information to actually read, so it has to depend on certain “assessing” programs that pick out certain words etc for further reading. Interesting how the surveillance state’s product (phone records) parallels the “too much” state of poetry!


  5. Johannes

    I tried a random excerpt from Haute Surveillance and I got 1.8. I must admit I was a bit distraught that I was that professional….