The Poetry Assessor claims to “determine whether a poem has the characteristics of a professional poem or, alternatively, an amateur poem.”

We at Scarriet decided to have some fun with it.

This poem, which Tom Graves, one of the Scarriet editors, wrote in 5 seconds for The Poetry Assessor scored a positive (professional) score of 2.814.

The Stuff Used

The stuff used to make amends
Cannot be relied upon so easily
When a fire in the pit flames up
With weed-like flames that penetrate
The blue and smoky air.
The semblances die along horizon’s pitch
Which gathers up the birds in its cloudy arms.

Tom Graves

“A Poison Tree” by William Blake scored a negative (amateur) score of -2.67.

Shelley’s famous “Lament” (O world! O life! O time!) received a negative (amateur) score of -3.27.

The whole idea of trying to determine whether Shelley was a “professional” or an “amateur” is simply ludicrous on the face of it.  Yes, Shelley was an “amateur,” and yet many “professionals” have determined Shelley’s poetry to be highly meritorious.  So how can we even begin to say whether Shelley’s poetry is “amateur” or “professional?”

And, what if the “professional,” Shelley, wishes to “let his hair down” and express himself in a more “amateur” manner?  Isn’t this still the work of a “professional?”

The answer, of course, is: yes, yes, it is.

We understand the idea that the Poetry Assessor considers “amateur” those who write poetry of a bygone time, so the excellence of the poetry is not being calcuated so much as contemporaneity, or, to be fair to the Poetry Assessor, excellence within that contemporaneity.  But can past excellence be jettisoned so easily?  If the acknowledged excellence of past poems does not register with the Poetry Assessor, where is the proof that the Poetry Assessor is not simply registering contemporaneity alone?

The answer is: there is no proof.

The interest of any exercise such as this must lie with how parts are integrated by the machinery of calculation; parts are paramount in any calculating process, parts which can never be quite integrated into the whole of a human judgment, and this is understood instinctively.  Further, the miscalculation of a single part’s worth or lack thereof can impact the whole more than it should, and such is how the whole often betrays partial thinking.

We can work backwards in any process which relies on the mechanical integration of parts for success.  In other words, we can make partial changes in poems and see how the Poetry Assessor reacts.

We took the Keats sonnet, “When I Have Fears” and improved its score merely by replacing the word “love” with random substitutions which hurt the overall meaning of the poem.

The Keats poem receives the following score from The Poetry Assessor:  -2.34    A thoroughly amateur poem (of course!)

Now, when we remove the word “love” in line 12 and line 14 in Keats’ poem, and replace it with a random word, “sofa,” the poem’s score improves to -1.55.

A similar thing happens with “Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell.  It receives a very low score: .056, but simply changing the first line from “I love to go out in late September” to “I go out in late September” the poem gets better: .493.

Professionals don’t love.

And if they do, we all know what they are!

This, however, should make us wonder: if the Poetry Assessor, with its contemporary ideas of poetry professionalism, thinks that the more love in poetry, the less professional it is, is the Poetry Assessor leaping to the conclusion that love in a poem is the same as sex in a poem?

Is the Poetry Assessor censoring love for moral reasons, or for professional reasons?

But we shouldn’t be wondering this. Our sort of reasoning is not allowed within professional circles, obviously.  The Poetry Assessor is merely censoring crude, vague feelings even as it rewards the virtue of concrete and specific imagery.  Right?

Galway Kinnell saying, “I love to go out…” is a perfect example of this.  If the poet describes his “going out” in terms that  makes the reader understand its enjoyment for the poet, saying “I love” is superfluous; it’s empty advertisement.

But what if Kinnell wants the assonance of “love” matching “go out…among…fat, over-ripe black…blackberries…”?

Or what if Kinnell wants his “love” to contrast with the darker material the poem gets into later on and the final hint of melancholy in “late September…” (which is how the poem ends)?

Since there is a near-infinite number of ways a poem can apply “love” to a near-infinite number of shades of meaning and sound-meaning, though it might be generally true that “love” as a word is very high on the ‘cliched/empty feeling’ scale, no mechanical assessor can judge a poem based on the generalized integration of generalized partialities.


  1. June 8, 2013 at 6:44 am

    It is not that love is not “professional”, it is that emotion in general (in contemporary poems) is not professional. Using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) – a method of calculating psychological variables from text – it was found that the sample of 100 amateur poets used significantly more emotion (affect) terms than the sample of 100 professionals. Other characteristics noted were that professionals use more concrete language and write in the past tense.

  2. Dawn Potter said,

    June 8, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    “Emotion in general . . . is not professional.” Please, let me forever remain an amateur.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    June 9, 2013 at 1:05 am

    The Poetry Assessor is correct, coldly so; it is true that a random group of unpublished poems by amateurs will be more emotional than poems published by professionals–professors with Masters degrees. There are characteristics of poetry which can be observed, measured, sorted, and applied in the manner which the Poetry Assessor has successfully done, but if Wilde and Poe are right and form in art is the crucial thing, I have absolutely no doubt that emotion can exist as much as it wants in poetry without impacting form, without impacting the excellence of a poem, whether contemporary, or not. This is a universal law. I am certain this is true, though I have not the space now to go about proving it.

    Why then do the professionals show less emotion? It goes back to Plato, who banned not Poetry from the Republic, but unreasonable, emotional Poetry from the Republic.

    Professionalism is Platonism, to put it simply.

    We see at once , however, that professionals side with Plato only to find themselves in opposition to art. They remove “love” from a Keats poem and make it better; but they also remove love from Keats’ brain.

    Look at a Keats poem. It is superior in form to all the contemporary professional poems which nonetheless far exceed it in “professionalism” scores.

    The Keats poem is the solid building built to code that will not collapse, even in a hurricane. Yet it is not “professional!”

    We look about for the answer—why is the Keats poem not professional?

    Because the professional thinks it is too emotional for its Republic.

    Plato has won. The poem (Keats) that is too artistic is deemed “amateur” and is effectively banned from the contemporary republic of Letters.

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