Statistics as Poetry

Friday, January 13, 2006
I never really "got" poetry. It always seemed to me that whatever it was the poet was trying to say, he or she could have said it more efficiently and much more effectively in prose. Oh, I know that reading poetry is supposed to be a constructive process, one in which the meaning you extract is largely what you put in. Sort of a demi-Rorschach. Still, I never got it, and never got much out of it. Never got much of a thrill looking at inkblots, either.

But as I eagerly await the arrival of Risk Analysis: A Quantitative Guide, 2nd Edition (David Vose), it's got my mind awandrin'. And I think I may experience something similar to what some people experience reading poetry by reading statistics.

It's a sense of puzzling out the deeper meaning, and of finding something in it that, while maybe not exactly what the writer intended, is useful and meaningful (and often surprising and wonderful) to me. And I wonder, if I were a real statistician, instead of a lover of statistics, would it be like reading a recipe?

I know there are some poetry lovers (and poets) who read this blog. Can any of you tell me... is that what it's like?

Should arrive tomorrow. I can't wait.


Buddy Larsen said...

I don't know, Morgan--your paen to the mind is pretty dadgum poetic.

Morgan said...


Must be the beer.

Seneca the Younger said...

Hmmm. Maybe more like reading/performing music: the sense of things "fitting together", the way it turns from pretty arbitrary written symbols and becomes a "structure."

At least for me.

Syl said...

Interesting juxtaposition. I agree with StY re music.

I've got to admit that when I was first programming and given a humungous piece of source code I had to make changes in, I'd pour over it and try to 'gestalt it', as I called it. I'd try to understand it in one go, would fail, then go on to analyze it in the normal way.

It took me a while before I could look at the source and see exactly what was happening--the flow, the tests, the inputs--without studying it.

But the strange thing is that it happened overnight. One day I went to work, looked at a new program, and knew exactly what it was doing.

And that type of thing happens in playing music too. Some people think you have to be able to play all the notes first before you can play with a musician's touch. Not true. Even from the beginning of learning any specific instrument, you can play and express the music. And one day it all comes together.

I don't think I'd even attempt that with statitistics though! LOL

Buddy Larsen said...

And chess--one day it's all trenchwork, the next day the vectors light up like neon.

Anonymous said...

Poetry removes the veil and illuminates the world behind the veil. And, it is not just a question of braking open the rattle to see what makes it rattle when you shake it. Nor is poetry an inkblot test, which is wholly self-referential.

Consider this, science recognizes that babies are made with a sperm fertilizing an egg; this recognition doesn't diminish the miracle of birth. Poetry allows you to appreciate the "science" of birth, and the miracle - at the same time.

In your case, statistics shows you wholly logical and systematic patterns at the same time illuminating a remarkable beauty. In some ways like birth, and certainly poetic.

Buddy Larsen said...

In the end, if it helps you understand the place you are in, you might call it poetry.

Morgan said...

Thanks, all. Maybe it is like reading/performing music (something else I never "got", despite my family being filled with musicians).

And based on StY and Syl and Buddy's comments, it looks like maybe the more expert one becomes in something, the less like reading a recipe it becomes. Which kind of makes sense. I imagine that chefs don't read a recipe as the rote series of instructions that I do. Maybe it's poetry to them.

I didn't mean to imply that reading poetry was entirely self-referential, only that it seems to me to lie somewhere between prose and the Rorschach. But then, I've already admitted that I don't really get it, so maybe I'm just wrong.

In any case, thanks for all your thoughts. I've gotta go.

My book is here.


Buddy Larsen said...

You're scared of poetry, I'm frozen in panic anywhere near 'statistics'--

Have Fun!

SneakyFeet said...

Morgan, I know exactly where you're coming from.

Please let us know if it's a good book!