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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

8 October 2011

A Sequacious Riff

The choice of name for this blog was inspired by a collection of poems called Untam'd Wing: Riffs on Romantic Poetry by my friend and former colleague at the University of Glasgow, Jeffrey C. Robinson, published by Station Hill Press. Jeffrey is a distinguished scholar of the English Romantic movement and an expert on William Wordsworth. He is also an accomplished poet and anthologist, winning the American Book Prize for the anthology Poems for the Millennium, which he edited with Jerome Rothenberg. Untam'd Wing is a remarkable experiment. Jeffrey takes the great monuments of Romantic poetry on which he has worked for many years, and subjects them to processes of poetic transformation. He reduces Wordsworth's celebrated sonnet 'Composed upon Westminster Bridge' to five key words which convey the ecstasy of a scene witnessed by early morning light. He splices lines and phrases from the poetry of Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge with lines from Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, Gertrude Stein and Paul Celan. Jeffrey finds new poems in marginal notes by Keats. He takes lines from famous sonnets of the Romantic period and mixes them up to create new sonnets which reveal unexpected and new interrelationships between the words, rhythm and imagery of the originals. He riffs on phrases and words in individual poems, setting out like a jazz musician to renew a body of standard work (in the way that, say, Miles Davies might revisit George Gershwin).

Some samples of Jeffrey's re-workings of Romantic poetry can be found on his website here. Much of the fascination of Jeffrey's work derives from the way in which it refocuses our attention on individual words and images in very familiar poems. Jeffrey suggests that the poetic quality of Romantic poetry comes from a mysterious 'unrepeatable place' in the poem. By his poetic deformations, splicings and re-orderings, Jeffrey's riffs create a situation in which 'language seeks to float on untamed wing free of its habitual moorings in syntax, form, measure, and narrative'. In Jeffrey's collection, we are constantly confronted with the evanescent quality of individual words and phrases in familiar poetry. A very good example is Jeffrey's treatment of Coleridge's poem 'The Eolian Harp', whose publication in 1795 is seen as a key moment in the development of Romantic poetry. Jeffrey draws our attention to Coleridge's use of the startling word 'sequacious', which rarely appears in English poetry. Jeffrey points out how the meaning of this word has developed over time: 'in the 17th century it meant 'following a leader slavishly'. In the 18th it was applied to objects, indicating the pliable or the flexible. And then Coleridge in 1795, just after the French Revolution, gives it a musical inflection - regularly following melody or rhythm'.

I have read 'The Eolian Harp' many times since I first developed an enthusiasm for Coleridge in my teens, but Jeffrey's poem made me think afresh about this word 'sequacious', which I had barely registered before. And this experience of being presented with new perspectives on Coleridge's poem made me wonder about how far the digital humanities can support this kind of experience, of rediscovering the transcendent and evanescent qualities of individual words and phrases in text. Increasingly, in using digital tools, our concern is to track a path through very large quantities of data. We want quickly to search our way through huge quantities of text, without really stopping to reflect a great deal on the language or poetics of that text. The digital seems to encourage whatever might be the opposite of close reading: rushed reading? superficial reading? digital reading?

If we try to use digital tools to reflect further on a word like 'sequacious', how do they help us? Well, at the simplest level we can use a dictionary to find the meaning of such an unfamiliar word. Indeed, most of the first ten pages from the 72,000 results in a Google search on 'sequacious' are from dictionary definitions. The limitations of Google are revealed in a disturbing way by a search on 'sequacious'. Google fails readily to produce much useful information about sequacious, such as that the word is used by Coleridge - you're about 12 pages in before there is a reference to a JSTOR article on 'The Eolian Harp'. If you already know that the word 'sequacious' appears in a poem, you might search on 'sequacious poem', but this causes Google to throw a hissy fit, and suggests that you must be mistaken and gives the results for 'loquacious poem' instead. If you insist on searching for 'sequacious poem', Coleridge will not be the first poet returned by Google. Instead it offers us a poem called More Sexually Sequacious Stuff by a retired clinical technologist from Minnesota called Walt Martin. It is only thanks to the Poetry Foundation that we come across 'The Eolian Harp', at the bottom of the first page of results. You really need to know that sequacious appears in a poem by Coleridge to get any useful returns from Google - which will then lead you to discussions by Douglas Kneale and Harold Bloom of Coleridge's use of the word.

Disappointed by the results of a Google search, we might turn to a specialist database such as ProQuest's Literature Online. But although 'The Eolian Harp' appears in Literature Online, oddly the quick search facility in Literature Online does not find Coleridge's poem when searched for 'sequacious', producing just one hit, a poem by Thomas Brown published in 1721 and beginning: 'As the sequacious wax with ease receives'. The quick search facility in Literature Online only searches the indexed database; a full text search of Literature Online is more satisfactory, returning not only Coleridge's poem but a reference by Dryden in his 1687 Song of St Cecilia's Day to 'sequacious of the lyre' which was perhaps an inspiration for Coleridge.

So, you can find something more about the word 'sequacious' with digital resources, but it takes some hunting and it helps if you know in advance that Coleridge used the word in 'The Eolian Harp'. Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that, in the midst of the vast quantities of data on the web, we lose sight of individual words like sequacious. It seems as if the web is determined to keep a word like sequacious anchored and tethered - to prevent it taking the 'untam'd wing'. Is this a result of the industrialisation and commodification of language which appears to be an inevitable concomitant of making use of digital machines to process language? Perhaps not. Digital poets and artists such as John Sparrow or John Cayley use different forms of digital presentation to focus our attention back on individual words. Likewise, a current exhibition at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in Cork, In Other Words: the Place of Text in Recent Art, shows how contemporary artists have presented the resonances of individual words and letters. Perhaps digital humanities specialists need to engage more with this kind of work.

How do we recapture on the web that engagement with the poetics - with the wonder - of an individual word? An investigation on the web of a word like 'sequacious' will lead us in unexpected directions, which may not take us to Coleridge and Dryden but nevertheless raises some fascinating questions. Sequacious seems to have a curious and unexpected contemporary career. There is a Flickr user called Sequacious, a single woman called Rhett who lives in Santa Cruz. What attracted her to this word? Why did 'trainwreckmollie' (who describes herself as '19. Tattooed. Pierced. Bisexual. OCD. Medicated to the point where i'm finally normal. Has 2 people in my head. Draws, paints and tries to make things. Sings for the occasional band and such. Models. Is completely feral and childish. Is paranoid people can read my mind, especially when touching me. Has a fear of weighing over 46kg') give her Tumblr page the title 'Sequacious'? What attracted Roberta, a twenty-year-old Portuguese girl living in Herne Bay who also wants to be a model, to the word 'sequacious', so that she uses it to advertise her modelling portfolio and for her Tumblr blog? (The image at the top of this post is from Roberta's Tumblr account). Was the Melbourne DJ Evan Necker influenced by Coleridge in choosing the name 'Sequacious' for his alias - a very appropriate musical link for the word? The way in which pursuing this rare word taken from Coleridge (and, as Thomas de Quincey declared, a very distinctly Coleridgean word) leads us so quickly to find out so much about this distinctive mixture of people is in many ways more striking than the limited value of the web to investigate the use of 'sequacious' in literature.

The poetry of Jeffrey Robinson focuses our attention on the qualities of a single word like 'sequacious'. One of the challenges confronting those working in the digital humanities is to ensure that, in the concern to create large searchable databases, we do not lose sight of the resonances and fascination of a word such as 'sequacious' . Digital resources often teach us to look for large connections and patterns, but one of the functions of the digital humanities must also be to stress the importance of the small-scale and easily overlooked: the individual word, line or poem. When we refocus on those words, the web can reveal strange and sometimes surprising cross-connections.


  • Annette Strauch says:
    13 October 2011 at 01:19

    I have enjoyed reading this post and found another quote using the word sequacious: “The human race is gregarious and sequacious, rather than individual and adventurous.”
    (Horace and His Influence)
    I must try to pay more attention to the single word again. On the one hand you have the fast changing technologies but the history and different meanings will always stay with each word which most people will never see. However, you can get new insights as you explain. I looked at the Latin roots of the word sequacious but liked the reference to Coleridge, too.
    I never blog these days really but I use my old blogger log-in for comments.

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