Poemetrics, Part 2

As discussed in Poemetrics, Part 1, we may be able to gain a lot of insight into what readers like about poetry by analyzing it statistically.

The 128 poems written during MMPoetry gave us a small sample of data with which to play. Without further delay, I’d like to present my quick-and-dirty results.

Under each question, I’ll show the “win-loss record” for poems tagged with each attribute, and discuss any interesting variances that are revealed.

As explained in Part 1, here again are the eleven variables that I felt lent themselves to reasonably objective evaluation, along with the results for each:

*Does the poem rhyme?

First of all, it may be of interest to note that 115 of 128 poems written in MMPoetry attempted to rhyme, at least in part. As for the records:

Rhyming poems: 57-49 (that’s 57 wins, 49 losses)
Non-rhyming poems: 6-7
Imperfectly rhyming poems: 1-8

Not much difference between rhyming and non-rhyming; they’re both pretty much 50/50. But more noticeable is the 1-8 record for what I considered to be failed rhyming poems (and I might as well take the opportunity now to say that I am not revealing my attribution for any individual poems in this analysis, so please don’t worry about that, and please don’t ask for it). People clearly noticed and reacted negatively when a rhyme scheme didn’t work. So, poets, if you’re gonna try to rhyme, you have to get it right.

*What was the structure of the poem?

Perhaps surprisingly, there really weren’t that many poems that took on any formal structure in MMPoetry. By my count, there were 11. We saw forms such as the limerick, the sonnet, the triolet, the pantoum, 1-2 acrostics, and a haiku. There were also 12 poems that I deemed “unstructured”, with no discernable pattern. But mostly, people used what I’d consider standard verse (rhymed or unrhymed), typically 2-4 lines each.

So how did each fair?

Formal structures: 4-7
Standard verse: 54-51
Unstructured: 6-6

These are pretty inconclusive. I would not cast off formal structures as unpopular amongst the 2012 MMPoetry crowd. I recall several of those votes being extremely close; in fact, this could easily have been reversed to a 7-4 record.

So, we’ll call our first poemetric analysis of structure a bust.

*Did the poem attempt to be funny?

Tried to be funny: 36-35
Didn’t try to be funny: 28-29

There were some tweeners where I couldn’t tell (!), but obviously the numbers here suggest that readers were open to both serious and funny poetry. And serious doesn’t have to mean heavy, by the way. There were a number of poems about nature or companionship or other feelings that made no attempt to be funny (i.e., “serious”) but were still rather light.

*Was the poem actually funny?

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Keep in mind, these are generally my reactions. Your sense of humor may be completely different. Still, there were some poems that I didn’t respond to that I still recorded as delivering a smile since I thought the general readership would have viewed it that way. (Again, don’t be overly concerned by this for now — we’re just getting started, and “Poemetrics, Part 3″ will talk about how we take attribution to the next level.)

So, how did comedic delivery affect a poem’s success?

Laugh-out-loud funny: 5-1
Got me to smile: 28-21
Confused me: 3-6
Made me wince a bit: 0-7

As one would expect. (Though good to know that perhaps my sense of humor isn’t too far removed from the crowd.) The funnier the poem, the better the result. And while seven contests isn’t much, it is intuitive that if a poem misses the mark on a joke, it is not going to be received very well by the public.

*How was the rhythm / meter?

This one is borderline subjective, but I am pretty well practiced in reading meter and sensing rhythm, so I feel comfortable with my attribution here. Overall, I classified 28 poems as having perfect or near-perfect meter/rhythm, 67 as doing an okay job (especially under time pressure), but 33 as having tripped me up to the point that they were hard for me to read. Here is how each class fared:

Perfect/near-perfect: 17-11
Okay: 38-29
Needed work: 9-24

Again, fairly intuitive results. Writers must attack meter/rhythm head-on if a poem is to be successful. Readers may be forgiving to a degree, but not endlessly so. I offered up this analogy in the comments in Part 1:

Rhythm and/or meter have to be precise; one wrench and it is disruptive; multiple wrenches and it destroys a poem’s worth to me. It’s like taking a long, hot shower and every once in awhile someone dumps a full bucket of dirty, ice cold water on your head. Sure, when the shower is over, you’re mostly clean, and in between the bucket dumps the shower was nice, but the experience was cruel and you never want to be in that shower ever again.

I stand by that. Personally, meter is the single biggest determinent for me as to whether I’ll buy a book of poetry or not (and there are quite a few books of poetry out there where the meter is spotty, at best).

*What age was targeted?

This turned out to be a dud question. I only tagged 9 of 128 poems as being anything other than general audience. If anyone is wondering, of the 8 tagged as appropriate for “older” audience, they went 4-4.

*What was the subject?

I could have broken this out a bit more, but I thought that these four subjects would make for a good first run:

Animals: 13-12
People: 34-27
Characters: 6-13
Other: 11-12

Hmmm. The only one that really stands out to me is the use of a character as a subject. This was sometimes a blurry line, but generally wherever the subject had a Proper Name, I tagged it as a character poem. (There were some exceptions, I think, where the poem was really more of a first person narrative and the character was more of a supporting actor than a lead, in which case I would not have used the character tag.)

So, consider this a potential warning. If you’re going to use characters, you may have an uphill battle. Certainly some poets have used characters to great effect (cue Mr. Prelutsky and Mr. Silverstein), but it is tricky, at least in my experience.

*From what perspective was the poem written?

First person: 28-18
Second person: 4-2
Third person: 32-44

I really wasn’t sure what I’d find here. I was personally pretty pleased with the result, as my style is to write my kids poems in first person to the extent possible, but I was somewhat surprised nevertheless.

Very curious to hear people’s comments on this one. This topic would definitely benefit from more extensive data collection. What if there really was an unconscious global preference for first person poems?

*Did the poem aim to deliver a punchline or otherwise strong ending?

This is again rather subjective — I tagged a poem as “Yes” on this if I thought the author attempted to end the poem on a line that packed far greater strength than the rest of the body of the poem. Even if I thought that the punchline did not succeed (e.g., an unfunny joke), I still may have marked “Yes” for this attribute. The results:

Punchline / Strong ending: 25-17
No Punchline / Strong ending: 39-47

I did not record the data in a sophisticated enough way that I could quickly isolate specific instances where a punchline poem went up against a no-punchline poem. In the future, this may yield more interesting results. For now, I’d say that a truly funny punchline is a classic in the kids’ poetry world that should always be a successful combination, and that any strong/memorable/evocative ending should always play pretty well, if done right.

*Could the poem have been perceived to break any “rules” of the contest?

There were not too many instances of this, but if you were wondering, wherever the length limit was violated (or could be perceived to be violated), the poems notched only 1 win to 3 losses.

*How central was the assigned word to the poem?

Like the previous question, this is more specific to MMPoetry, but certainly relevant to future participants if not elsewhere.

Thematically important: 38-24
Key Phrase/Line/Image: 13-21
Used Matter-of-Factly or Hidden: 13-19

The poets who were able to completely embrace their word and make it central to their poem proved to be far more successful than those who didn’t. Even an effort to use the assigned word as a relevant part of the overall poem did not seem to have an effect.

So next year when you are assigned the 16-seed word “odoriferous”, you damn well better write a scratch-n-sniff poem about smells, or you’re doomed.

Well, there it is. The world’s first official poemetric analysis. We had to start somewhere, and the votes cast during MMPoetry made sense as an initial source.

But, several of you pointed out to me a key flaw in this initial run. Janet Fagal articulated it clearly: “From a statistical POV perhaps you might ask some others to rate the poems at some point and compare with your analysis?”

YES. I believe in the mantra “Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.” (I first heard this in a product management training course a few years back and it always stuck with me.) MY opinion, though interesting for the purpose of this particular post, is irrelevant in any larger sense. No action should be taken from the above results, unless you want to write me a funny, first person love poem in flawless meter and rhyme.

Poemetrics, Part 3 (timing TBD, maybe next week … check back or subscribe so you don’t miss it!) will lay out my next few ideas for pushing poemetrics forward and starting to collect some more meaningful data, hopefully in a pretty fun way.

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  • http://www.MattForrest.com Matt Forrest Esenwine

    Interesting results, Ed. I’d agree with you that rhyme & meter are 2 big factors for me, as well. I’ve seen many published books with slant rhyme and imperfect meter, wonder how that happened! (and while meter is important, the rhythm is more of a concern to me – because even if a poem isn’t metrical, as long as it flows, one probably won’t notice. Likewise, I’ve read poems that are metrical, yet because the writer wasn’t paying attention to stressed and non-stressed syllables, the rhythm is still off)

    Thanks for your stat work, Ed…looking forward to #3!

  • http://www.katyaczaja.com/ Katya

    I’m a little surprised by the POV results… I would have thought 3rd person would have skewed more neutrally.

    What does it say about me that I want to know where my poem lay across all these dimensions (other than that I’m insecure).

  • http://www.laurasalas.com laurasalas

    Oh, I LOVE seeing stats and analysis like this–thank you! I will say I voted against the poems that were too long on sheer principle, even though you tried to give them an out. I think if there’s a stated line count, the poem has to very clearly be within it. And I loved your conclusion about use of the word. Thanks for sharing these!

  • http://www.irenelatham.com Irene Latham

    I am so glad you included that last question about how the word was used/how central to poem’s theme. I felt like I had failed in my poems because the use was pretty matter-of-fact and not that creative. I personally prefer a more hidden/clever use– and often advise people for contests to find a back door, go for the sideway entry — so it is interesting to me to see how the direct embrace actually was more successful. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://gottabook.blogspot.com Greg Pincus

    Love the analysis, Ed. I wish there was a way to take the Madness and run each “battle” by a group of 300 kids to see how different the voting would be. I wonder if humor would do better or worse, whether characters or animals would do better or worse, whether free verse vs. rhyme would do better or worse (and whether the strength of the meter and rhyme would factor in in the same way). Not that I don’t love seeing the results as they are, mind you, but when I see the data I simply want more!

  • http://www.thinkkidthink.com Ed DeCaria

    Thanks for the replies, everyone. Sorry for the slow response.

    Matt, there’s a lot that goes into getting a poem to flow. To me, syllable emphasis is an inseparable part of meter, but even when that is flawless there are also certain sound combinations that can twist up your tongue, yielding the same net effect of interrupting the reader’s scan of the poem. And then there’s the counter-problem of poets achieving flawless meter by sacrificing word choice or syntax, which results in a different kind of awkwardness. Poetry ain’t easy!

    Katya, I was just as surprised by the 1st person vs. 3rd person results. We’ll see how that plays out over time.

    Laura/Irene, I actually had a suspicion that MMPoetry voters would like to see a full embrace of the assigned word. Admittedly it would have been much easier to do that with some words than others; I’m not sure if/how that would have factored into the voting.

    Greg, there are several ways to take the Madness to a sample of kids, but I don’t know which is best. More to come on that. What I’ll say is that, like any survey, it is important to be able to cross-tab responses. Kids vs. adults, teachers vs. parents, older kids vs. younger kids, industry folks vs. outsiders, etc.

    Cue broken record: Part 3 … Part 3 … Part 3 … Part 3 … Part 3 … Part 3 … Part 3 … Part 3 … Part 3 … Part 3 … Part 3 … Part 3 …

  • Marileta Robinson

    I loved reading this analysis, which I didn’t do until after round 2, 2013. Now I’m wondering–if future participants read this before they write, won’t it skew the results? That is, you’ll have more poets trying to write funny, humorous, metrically perfect etc poems for the contest?