A computational analysis of poetic style

Justine T. Kao, Dan Jurafsky


How do standards of poetic beauty change as a function of time and expertise? Here we use computational methods to compare the stylistic features of 359 English poems written by 19th century professional poets, Imagist poets, contemporary professional poets, and contemporary amateur poets. Building upon techniques designed to analyze style and sentiment in texts, we examine elements of poetic craft such as imagery, sound devices, emotive language, and diction. We find that contemporary professional poets use significantly more concrete words than 19th century poets, fewer emotional words, and more complex sound devices. These changes are consistent with the tenets of Imagism, an early 20th- century literary movement. Further analyses show that contemporary amateur poems resemble 19th century professional poems more than contemporary professional poems on several dimensions. The stylistic similarities between contemporary amateur poems and 19th century professional poems suggest that elite standards of poetic beauty in the past “trickled down” to influence amateur works in the present. Our results highlight the influence of Imagism on the modern aesthetic and reveal the dynamics between “high” and “low” art. We suggest that computational linguistics may shed light on the forces and trends that shape poetic style. 


standards of poetic beauty; poetry; imagism; amateur poets; potty style

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