Public Poems: condensed version

Public Poems word cloud
(click on image to enlarge)

[audio:https://www.vianegativa.us/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/public-poems-condensed-version.mp3]

Some people don’t “get” poetry because they’re exclusively visual thinkers. For many others of a more practical frame of mind, the seemingly arbitrary arrangement of words into lines, stanzas, and units of meaning constitutes the main stumbling-block. Debates about how to reach those kinds of folks are anything but academic if you’re on a committee charged with selecting and presenting poetry to an indifferent public.

Well, I’m here to help. I’ve taken the complete texts of the first ten poems in my Public Poems series and run them through Wordle (thanks, John) which discards the most common words (a, on, the, etc.) and puts all the others into a configurable word cloud, a variation on the tag clouds familiar to anyone who spends an appreciable amount of time online. I then made an audio recording of the cloud (here’s a download link for those who can’t see the Flash player above). This sort of thing could be broadcast over a public address system at regular intervals wherever the poetry clouds are displayed, with results perhaps comparable to the well-known consequences of backmasking on vinyl records of heavy metal music back in the 1980s, only without the sacrifices of family pets. From these dense clouds a kind of condensation would take place, poetry falling like rain on the parched soil of the imagination. Or not.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

20 Comments


  1. Made me smile. Reminded me of these word (fridge) magnets our kids had where you could arrange them into poems, sayings, phrases that look like this image of yours! It’s fascinating to read the words that are grouped together, randomly I’m sure, but sometimes quirkily correct ‘why need water’, etc.

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  2. Amusing — I assume the largest words were more common — and your most prominent words are telling: “why”, “where”, “beware”… and then shifting to “water” and “drip”, and thence to “everything”.

    From basic queries and suspicion, to the most basic of all resources, and then… the world at large!

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  3. wordle’s everywhere ahh. i love the shape and the largeness of the word why in the picture.

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  4. very cool dave! now all that is needed is a trunk and you’ll have a ‘poetry tree’ ;)

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  5. People don’t get poetry because they’re visual, really? I’d have thought visual thinkers would love poetry because it is usually rich in images…I’m very visual, probably equally visual and verbal. I can see why the practical might baulk. I am actually amazed by the number of people who are so negative about poetry……I think it’s lack of exposure, they were raised on a diet of the Charge of the Light Brigade (though I loved that too). I’m happy to say though that my son, who is seven, is doing quite a bit of poetry in his English classes, lots of modern, funny poems written for kids, that’s a sure fire way of engendering a love of it (plus I force feed both boys poetry *grin* though not mine!). They’ve even had a couple of poets swing by the school to do readings, that impressed me no end. Anyways, thought-provoking post, thanks Dave.

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  6. I understand now. Alice Cooper was Eddie Haskell. I’ll return to the recording for further enlightenment, as instructed.

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  7. marja-leena – Yeah. And if you want to recapture the true magnetic poetry experience, there are several online versions of it: Shuffle Words, Magnetic AJAX, and netVerse.

    David – Yes, words are sized according to frequency of use, which you’ll see if you enter a text and choose the option to include all the little words: “the” immediately dominates the cloud as “why” does here.

    lissa – Thanks. Of course I wasted way too much time trying all the different fonts and styles of arrangement. It’s addictive.

    Cindy – Good point! I’ll have to try and do something with Wordle for the Festival of the Trees sometime.

    Jo –

    People don’t get poetry because they’re visual, really?

    “Or not.”

    I can only speak for Americans, but here it’s not just lack of exposure, it’s hostility toward intellectuality and resentment toward English teachers who tend to teach poems in exactly the wrong way – as puzzles to be solved. (See the latest link in my “gleanings from the web” on the sidebar for a good example of how to teach poetry right.) For young kids, I think the key is to link poetry and word-play to fun by exposing them to such masters as Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein.

    Peter – Regardless of the question, Black Sabbath is the answer, I find.

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  8. Dave, I love this idea and the word-cloud image. But the audio version reminds me of walking into a pub or any public place where a lot of people are talking all at once and I can pick out words here and there, but none of them connect or make sense to me so it’s a sort of word-wallpaper.
    It’s also is like a performance of concrete poetry (there were several groups I used to attend, specifically Bob Cobbing & others) but I could never ‘get’ it.
    I can certainly appreciate the surrealist exquisite-corpse element of this approach and would have fun playing with it.

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  9. Oh, I agree. It’s nothing but word-salad. People who take this kind of thing seriously drive me up the wall.

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  10. Oh, very fun! I love to see which words stand out. Made me want to run my old poems through. Maybe when I have some time… (can’t listen at the moment – have Pandora playing my Lyle Lovett station, which has Dave Matthews as somehow related – another kind of web toy, like “possibly related posts”)

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  11. Lyle Lovett ain’t got nothin’ on me. Don’t make me crack out the harmonica again…

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  12. way prefer it to Muzak, I’ll tell ya. You can start making your own poems, just from picking up words as they whizz by. Try doing that with Muzak.

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  13. I hadn’t thought of this as a potential competitor with Muzak, but you’re right: this could be marketed to banks and department stores as an alternate ambient soundscape.

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  14. Now I feel like I need to take a long, deep breath! Lots of words all at once. I like the word cloud. It would be fun if the sky really did start drizzling words. Every time one touched the ground a drop of sound would burst out. An interesting presentation of your group of poems. I love experimenting like you have here. Good stuff.

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  15. Hi christine – Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping by.

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  16. tend to teach poems in exactly the wrong way – as puzzles to be solved

    Yes, the TS Eliot sentiment that good poetry should be felt before it is understood……I will often come across an obscure writer who is difficult to decode but if the language is beautiful and there is an emotional hit, I’m happy (or not *grin*). And of course my son brought home a poem the other day, albeit very lucid, and the assignment was ‘what is the poem about?’ I’d far rather he’d been asked to pick out a line that moved him or used language in an interesting way…..happily for me, he naturally thinks like that but…..in some ways education is changing, in other ways it’s same ole same ole.

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  17. “Paul is dead, Paul is dead, Paul is dead”…

    Did I hear dismemberment rocket by in that ‘cloud’ — or was that just me fantasizing?

    I do believe you’ve blown my mind.

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  18. Jo – And it won’t change much, I’m afraid, as long as it is governed by tests and curricula. I learned more on my own, or with my parents’ assistance, than I ever learned in public school.

    Rob – Hee! Thanks for stopping by.

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