“Poetry as a sociological exercise”

A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship has a unique way of putting together poetry and sociology:

Poet Moten is working on a project titled “Hesitant Sociology: Blackness and Poetry.” The work was inspired, he said, by a piece written by W.E.B. Dubois, the African American sociologist and civil rights activist, called “Sociology Hesitant.”

Moten is a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his 2014 book “The Little Edges.” He was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry.

“I’m looking at poetry as a sociological exercise,” Moten said. “What I want to do is take on the term ‘sociology’ not as an insult or slur, but as a badge of honor, and be able to think that literature in general, at its best, is a sociological enterprise. Poetry is a form of rhythmic or syncopated sociology.”

One area of literature or writing that is often linked with sociology involves novels, particularly ones that provide social commentary or deeper portrayals of social life. Poetry could get at similar themes but in different forms – perhaps with a different rhythm as noted above.

The Dubois piece referenced here ends with this:

That there are limits is shown by the rhythm in birth and death rates
and the distribution by sex; it is found further in human customs and laws,
the forms of government, the laws of trade, and even in charity and ethics.
As, however, we rise in the realm of conduct, we note a primary and a
secondary rhythm. A primary rhythm depending, as we have indicated, on
physical forces and physical law; but within this appears again and again a
secondary rhythm which, while presenting nearly the same uniformity as the
first, differs from it in its more or less sudden rise at a given tune, in accor-
dance with prearranged plan and prediction and in being liable to stoppage
and change according to similar plan. An example of primary uniformity is
the death rate; of secondary uniformity, the operation of a woman’s club;
to confound the two sorts of human uniformity is fatal to clear thinking; to
explain them we must assume Law and Chance working in conjunction—
Chance being the scientific side of inexplicable Will. Sociology, then, is the
Science that seeks the limits of Chance in human conduct.

“Law and Chance working in conjunction” sounds like it could lead to fruitful creative interpretation.

100 years of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago poem

One hundred years ago, Carl Sandburg published a famous poem about Chicago:

For its issue of March 1914, Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine accepted Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” and seven of his other poems about the city…

And a city — in the first five lines of the work of an obscure socialist poet in a 2-year-old magazine founded by a Chicago Tribune art critic — had found its enduring descriptors…

“The poem was absolutely revolutionary when it first came out,” says Bill Savage, who teaches the poem as a distinguished senior lecturer in English at Northwestern University…

“They have a kind of omnipresence that makes it a little bit difficult for us to think and feel our way back to how original and daring this was,” Polito says. “You show something like ‘Citizen Kane’ to a group of young students. The techniques of that film have been imitated so many times, they don’t see what was startling about it. That’s a little bit true here. It’s a little bit hard for us a hundred years later to recapture. It’s almost as if it’s a combination of the Book of Genesis and the national anthem for Chicago. It’s the founding myth and the celebratory lyric.”

Reading this, it strikes me that this poem is really well-known in the Chicago area because residents feel like like it embraces all the contradictions that they enjoy (or at least acknowledge) about the city. But, is this poem well-known elsewhere? The article suggests academics elsewhere often didn’t think highly of Sandburg’s work. Is their a poetic equivalent for New York (perhaps the recent Jay-Z and Alicia Keys hit “Empire State” might be a modern version?) or Los Angeles? If so, perhaps I wouldn’t know as I’ve only really heard of Sandburg’s poem…

Improving sociological writing by putting in the form of a famous poem?

Academics are sometimes criticized for dense and jargon-laden prose. Here is one way to get around this: adopt the form of a well-known poem.

An academic has written a damning report on the shipping industry in the form of Samuel Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Professor Michael Bloor, of Cardiff University, spent 12 years, researching the conditions of maritime crews, including a month on a supertanker.

His study, called The Rime of the Globalised Mariner, is published in the academic journal Sociology.

He said he hoped the poetry would have more effect than “sociological prose”.

It would be interesting to get the inside view of the review process for this paper.

While I don’t envision a large number of academic studies now being written in poetic form, this does seem like it could be a useful exercise: see if you can express the same ideas in a different way. Perhaps this isn’t too different that asking students to write an exam essay paper in the form of a speech or to express some concepts in a skit: the process of “translating” the information into an extra form could aid retention as well as boost creativity.

As I noted in my notes on ASA 2012 in Denver, seeing sociologists express themselves (and I imagine participating in this as well) in different forms is rewarding. While we will continue our more scientific standards for most output, why not think more broadly and express ideas in ways that are more familiar to the general public?

The Freakonomics of fair use

The NYTimes’ Freakonomics blog uses the subject of poetry criticism to tackle fair use:

In a recent article, the poetry critic of the New York Times complained that to do poetry criticism right, it’s often necessary to quote extensively from a poem. Indeed, in the case of a short poem, it might be helpful to readers to copy the whole thing. But, the critic said, this can’t be done because it might run afoul of copyright law.

It is true that copyright law prohibits the unauthorized copying of any substantial part of someone’s poem, song, or other work.…Is this a good policy?  From an economic perspective, no.

The reason this is bad policy, however widely discussed, bears repeating:

Use of a small bit of someone else’s creative work to build a new creative work rarely harms the economic interests of the first copyright owner, because most “derivative” works do not directly compete with the original.

Every creator builds on what came before, and such building usually doesn’t “compete” with that earlier work in any economic sense.  Creating legal fear and uncertainty about building on the past, however, is quite effective in limiting the creation of new works in the present.