When I was at university a contemporary of mine, now an eminent Classics professor at a major American uni, decided that for his PhD he would use the new-fangled computer technology to analyse the texts of Homer to nail once and for all the question of whether the Iliad, Odyssey and the Homeric hymns were written by one hand or not. You have to remember that some 40 years ago the amount of computer horse-power required to conduct such an analysis would have comfortably filled a large room, there would have been lots of whirring of drives, perhaps a little steam, and then miles of printed output on that curious light green and white striped perforated paper with holes running down each side.
Inevitably his findings caused some controversy at the time and weren’t universally accepted. For me it seemed a rather perverse line of enquiry to pursue and a questionable use of doubtless expensive and scarce computer resource. To ponder whether Homer was one person or a collective is a mildly entertaining academic past-time and can usefully occupy you at a dinner party in that time between the port running out and the coke being passed round but it misses the real point.
What is of principal interest is whether it is good poetry and to appreciate the way the composer handles language, their style, their use of imagery, what can be gleaned about the socio and political context of the time, understanding their cosmology, theism, the role of man in the world etc etc. In comparison who wrote the damn thing is about as interesting and, dare I say it, as relevant as knowing the engine make of the tube train I’m travelling on as I write this.
My thoughts travelled this direction after reading a news report that song analysts Musixmatch, after analysing 99 best-selling artists across 25 musical genres, reported that Eminem used 8,818 different words in his 100 most lyrically dense tracks. The next three places were also taken up by rappers – Jay-Z (6,899), 2Pac (6,596) and Kanye West (5,069) – whilst the icon of 60s liberalism, Bob Dylan, weighed in in 5th place, using a paltry 4,883.
My musical taste is pretty catholic – I like my music to be challenging, provocative and with something to say – but, probably because it is an age and cultural thing, I’ve never really got on with rap. After Grandmaster Flash’s Message it went downhill for me but one thing I know about the genre is that it is characterised by a stream of words coming from the rapper. It is mildly interesting, but perhaps not altogether surprising, that the pre-eminent practitioners of this musical style use a wide vocabulary.
However, the underlying message from the study, or at least the way its results were portrayed in the press, is that use and range of vocabulary equates to poetic genius ergo Eminem is significantly more accomplished a poet than Dylan. Again, an interesting discussion for a dinner party for sure but a line of argument that falls into the trap of my Homeric friend.
The hallmark of good poetry is use of language rather than diversity of vocabulary. A good poet can paint an image with very few words, by allusion, by reference, by making the reader (or listener) work on a reference. Often superficially simple poems with a limited range of vocabulary can be the most effective. Indeed, the counter argument can be made – the more words deployed, the less effective the poet.
Either way the study is another fatuous use of computer horse-power but at least it allowed me to wander back down memory lane.