Tag Lines and Search Engines

Search engines don’t like poetry.

My brother Tony, our Homewood Studios and DownStairs Press website manager, asked if I wanted a tagline under the title (What Is Poetry For?) of this blog. After some help with what a tag line does – optimizes search engine results – I determined to use some variation of the phrase “holding language like fine crystal.” Regarding language, esteeming language, viewing language, valuing language….poetry does all of these things.   But does a search engine do these things? and if so, does it do them in the same way a human brain does?

I opted for the first impulse – holding language – because I thought it the broadest word and it might be closer to what a search engine does. Optimizing results…

Poetry opens up, by the use of imagery and metaphor, to multiple levels of meaning and interpretation. But interpretation, understanding, is secondary to the essential goal of poetry – to offer an emotional experience, to allow the reader to have the same experience as the poet, without prodding or direction. Poetry allows us to hold two (or more) thoughts as possible at the same moment.

It seems to me, a search engine wants to do the opposite – to refine all possibilities into one, the one you are looking for. Either/or. Zero/one.

I wonder if we could build a computer, like Watson who learned to play (and win!) at Jeopardy, that could read and understand poetry. Some rudimentary attempts have been made, but these accomplish little more than create a formula – adjective + noun + adverb + verb – and do nothing to offer an immediate experience of the felt world. They simply create chunks of language with smell like poetry but aren’t.

JanusNode, for example, which lets you make any style of poetry you desire – without having to write a single stanza. (And does it read the poem for you as well?) Poetry generators, per se, are common, but what sets JanusNode apart is it is programmable by the user. And still the question, Why would you want to automate the writing of or the reading of poetry? To me it makes about as much sense as creating a program to generate a reasonable facsimile of love-making.

A poem – a combination of words never so assembled before – opens us to immense, if not infinite, possibilities.

Tony continues: “Google doesn’t dislike poetry, but it probably doesn’t understand it. Google is a brute force word amalgamator. It counts and catalogs words and phrases, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense of the meanings. Insofar as you are being crystal clear in your usage of words, Google can feign a reasonable understanding of your words, but when your poetry takes language off the beaten path, Google gets lost.”

And if it is poetry we are after, off the beaten path is exactly where we want to be.

Tony again: “This is not necessarily a bad thing.” (Google getting lost, I assume.) “You’re not selling left-handed popcorn poppers. If you were, you’d use those words exactly and Google would help you. You’re doing something different. In the case of your Remembering Galway Kinnell piece, however, the words Galway Kinnell are quite catalogable and searchable. If people search for that name, they may well be directed to your site.”

But will they have experienced poetry?

rise early, if you wish. wander outside,
breathing in the stillness, the layers of silence.

watch the sky as darkness begins to fall
away. you can almost heard it sighing.

first, the deep gray of worn steel. then, the softer gray
of your grandmother’s pearl earring. you remember gazing
at its mysterious surface while she read fairyt ales before nap.
the odor of her face powder wafts across the yard.

then the transparent gray of daybreak. trees emerge from the shadowy
looming, take on green colors, leaves, rough skins of bark. rooftops
and phone lines appear, reflecting light.

and it is day.


The short poem, rise early, by George Roberts, is from an unpublished manuscript, Noticing, composed during the four seasons of 2014. Printed with permission.


Tag Lines and Search Engines — 3 Comments

  1. I think that “optimizing” in the sense websites use it, is to get people to read your blog. That’s all. Not much more or less. You deliver with your articles and retain readers who are interested. My suggestion would be to use the phrase “understanding poetry” in your tag line. “The importance of u p”, ways to u p, the beauty of u p. That would draw a large group of us who feel inadequate or unable to pick up a book of poetry and grasp what lies between the covers.

    • Your suggestion is a good one, Glenn. Tony has implemented it.

      Yusef Komunyakaa is a Vietnam Vet who has written some poems you might want to look at.

  2. George, Its great to read your thoughts and writing again. You were one of my great influences that taught me how to love our language. In these times where the reverence of both the spoken word and written word has sunk to new lows, I appreciated being reminded of the incredible beauty of the language, and the joy that can be realized when its handled as it deserves to be “like fine crystal” that it is.
    Lesson well taught.