The Visual Mapping of Poetry

Visualization people often talk about mapping. Mapping is the process that translates data into a visual representation, and the main challenge in the visualization of abstract data. A good mapping is one that leads to insights into the data, while a bad mapping does not. It is important, however, to keep in mind what the purpose of the depiction is, or one runs the risk of applying the wrong standards.

Enrico Bertini criticized the following image for being a bad visualization on his Visuale Blog:

poetry on the road 06

The image was made for a poster and book about a poetry festival. The following describes how they did it:

We assigned a numerical value to every letter of the alphabet. Adding the values of all letters, one gets a number that represents the overall word. (For example, the number 99 would represent the word »poetry«.)

Using this system, an entire poem could be arranged on a circular path. The diameter of the circle is based on the length of the poem. So you can see the short poems in the centre of the poster, while the longer ones form the outer circles.

Red rings on the circular path represent a number. As many different words can share the same number (»poetry« shares the 99 with words like »thought« and »letters«), most rings represents different words. The thickness of the ring depends on the amount of words that share the same number.

The organized chaos in the image certainly looks great, and makes for a beautiful poster and book cover. Each poem was also identified in the book by its ring of the whole image, thus giving it a certain visual identity.

But is it a good visualization? Clearly not. Mapping words in such an arbitrary fashion destroys a lot of information (completely unrelated words are mapped to the same number), and the way they are arranged does not give us any clues about the contents of the poems either. The different red circles and the apparent pattern that most words are on the right of the image are simply an artifact of the encoding that puts most words into a small range of values, and a few longer ones further away.

Is it a visualization? It clearly is something visual created from data, but the answer to this question depends on your definition of visualization – which makes this an interesting example to ponder.

Visualization in the analytical sense requires that the data be mapped onto the screen so that it is possible to understand or read the data from the depiction. This is similar to what is called a bijective function in mathematics. A visualization can never be truly bijective of course, due to the limited range and resolution of all the visual parameters of a computer screen. But at least getting an idea of the patterns present in the data, and a good approximation of the original data is required in visualization.

So in terms of a mapping or function, the poetry poster is similar to a hash function, which only works in one direction, and has a very high likelihood of creating different output for different inputs. Like a fingerprint, two hash functions that are different tell you that the underlying data was different, but will not convey any information about what the original data actually contained (or what the person the finger belongs to is like).

These above image is conceptually similar to J.P. Lewis et al’s VisualIDs, which create arbitrary (but unique) icons for different documents. They are also the opposite of informative art, which has the goal of being bijective and aesthetically pleasing at the same time.

A comparison of these images to visualization (Bertini mentions TextArc as the better way of doing this) therefore misses the point. It may be a bit elaborate for a simple icon, but it is still no more than one unique image per poem. Also looking at the archive of designs for earlier posters, it becomes even more obvious that the goal is not to visually analyze, but merely to represent.

9 responses to “The Visual Mapping of Poetry”

  1. Enrico Bertini Avatar
    Enrico Bertini

    Hi Robert, I found your response interesting. I agree with you, to some extent. I’ve posted a response to your response in Visuale.

  2. Robert Kosara Avatar
    Robert Kosara

    Great reply! And some good points to think about …

  3. elias Avatar

    I’d say it is a very good visualization.

    However, it really depends on what you think it’s purpose is.

    For example you could argue that its purpose is to show that there are common building blocks to all poems, that art can be very chaotic and usually does not follow simple rules, that even in chaos there is an order, and to have a visually appealing, inspiring, and easily identifiable content-based visualization to market the content.

  4. jeu de machine a sous Avatar

    This concept of visual mapping in this amazing way i have never known. It’s a technique which shows us how we can use our minds for each and every purpose in a very fine and systematic manner. But it will effect the quality of the poetry and will not provide some deep understanding which is very much essential. It has some bad effects to. But at least once it could be tried.

  5. tansel Avatar

    Interesting review and discussion. If you are interested in visual poetry you should not miss out to visit:

  6. Ashok@Internet Avatar

    It is great you have put your work under CC. Would you like to get it shared on some community and other sites? Although you already have permitted it under CC but we think better to interact with you first.

  7. Robert Kosara Avatar
    Robert Kosara

    Sure, you’re welcome to share the content here – as long as you give me credit and don’t restrict futher redistribution (it’s the attribution-sharealike license).

  8. Louis Avatar

    interesting topic
    Unsure of how one can actually do it. I own a mac g3, OS 10.
    How would a person with that computer create such a design using the above mentioned technique? I am actually very curious.
    Thank you for your time.

  9. euan Avatar

    personly I see effort being wasted in that drawing