Notes on the Composition of the At the Musarium Series
Peter J. Grieco
“Musarium,” as far as I know, is a made up word. I use it to mean “museum of the muses”—which turns out to be an unnecessary construction, and an unnecessarily wordy one to boot, since the Greek origin of the word “museum” already meant “place of the muses.” But in another sense, the wordiness of the title is appropriate, since I think of the series as a place “for preserving and exhibiting rare, interesting, or typical specimens,” and since the word specimens exhibited there certainly possess all of these traits.
I discovered the frequency lists I used as sources for At the Musarium, along with others, at Wiktionary.com. I became interested in the concept of word frequency after having read about how reading proficiency, which is an issue today in education, is tied to learning vocabulary that one encounters only by reading. Non-readers are stuck with a limited vocabulary, and are thus handicapped in their attempts as readers, because spoken language has a comparatively impoverished vocabulary. In fact the “rare word” to “common word” ratio found in printed material is so much greater than the ratio found in spoken conversation that the rare word ratio of children’s books is roughly equivalent to that found in the conversations of graduate students.
It was while searching for more on this subject that I discovered the Wiktionary word frequency lists at Wiktionary.com. These consist of numbered 100 word groups ranked from most common to least common. The first word of the most common group [1- 100] is “the”; the last word of the least common group [36601 – 36700] is “zoetrope,” frequency ties being resolved alphabetically. The source texts for these rankings is Project Gutenberg, an on-line data base of books published generally before 1923. That, together with the fact that some of the books in the collection are in languages other than English, accounts for the somewhat arcane flavor of the lists and of the poems that result from them. New texts are being added to Project Gutenberg all the time, and the keepers of these lists have promised to “resync” them every month. This means that the lists are unstable. The aggregate order of the lists I downloaded starting about two years ago would be subtly different today.
I was attracted to these lists as a source for poetry, starting with groupings from the rare word half of the frequency register, for several reasons: as an experiment, simply to see if it could be done and what would result; as a commentary on the decline of literacy through a kind of salvaging of neglected words; but mostly because I found the given format to be congenial and productive. Being presented with 100 words at a time was a number I could get my head around, a content that was challenging to absorb yet manageable. Nor did I have to decide where the cut-offs should be. These were my 100 words and my task was to take them and make a poem.
I gave myself a few “rules” to guide me. The first was to use as many words from a group as was practicable. I didn’t need to use all the words, but I should use most, while struggling to avoid wordiness for its own sake. Also, I would try to make sentences that made grammatical sense. I would avoid using words from the list more than once. I would use “little words” as needed: conjunctions, articles, pronouns, perhaps a linking verb. I would take words as I found them without altering their form (except for capitalization.) I wouldn’t change the tense or number of a verb. I wouldn’t make a plural noun singular or vice-versa. I would indulge my instinct for malapropism and mis-hearings, for jarring antithesis, for consonance and rhyme. I would generally use a ragged pentameter of roughly fourteen lines. I would modify these rules whenever I thought doing so would make a better poem.
I refer to my method as “semi-procedural.” The most “procedural” aspect of my semi-procedure does not consist of the “rules” I outline above, for these are mostly in the range of conventional practices. It consists of the fact that words for the poems were not initially selected for their “meaning content,” but had been pre-selected by a given procedure that had counted, ranked, and arbitrarily grouped them. But once selected, “intention” re-enters the process and this results in a “semi-procedural” method, which could also be termed “semi-intentional.” From a given group, I “select” for “content,” for emotional resonance, as I weigh words both for meanings and associations, while endeavoring to order them in a rhythm of grammatically varied sentences.
I plan to add a poem to this space from time to time, in no particular order, perhaps including comments from time to time. I want to thank my friend Sasha for suggesting that I begin posting these pieces, and it is in his honor that I post the first:
[1201 – 1300]
These are the king’s woods, where sons
thick with song measure delight. Daily we file
through royal hills & shoulder our honest
fate, always quietly surprised. When birds
dropped from the highest forest they told
about a tall stranger who the rain failed
to comfort. He talked of freedom, the wealth
of nations, of faces events refused to honor, July
streets, rights fully obtained, though falsely
remembered, concerning a holy surface carefully
hung to aid fingers. Anyone will choose or accept,
seek or report, bank shut the bottom, or dare
blow desired points created in advance.
Otherwise there’s the gate, & a stream to cross.
[First published: Indefinite Space. Winter 2012. Print.