Having recently read portions of Nigel Fabb’s Language and Literary Structure, I was struck by how remarkably algorithmic his grid method for determining meter is. (A useful summary of the Grid Theory used by Fabb can be found in this document from UPenn.) Theoretically, there seems little reason why this “algorithm” couldn’t be converted into a proper, computer-executable one. The uses of such a program would seem to be manifold. With the ability to “distant scan” hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, of poems, one could chart historical shifts in metrical form or even trace the evolution of metrical usage in the corpus of an individual poet. For my own work, the ability to quickly chart metrical variation between versions of The Prelude would be quite useful.
Software has been developed by linguists to test various notions of generative grammar: most notably the Maxent Grammar Tool developed by Bruce Hayes and Colin Wilson. Yet, to the best of my understanding (and I confess that my knowledge of linguistics is extremely superficial), the Maxent Grammar Tool’s usage in generative metrics seems to be largely related to stylistics. For instance, Hayes, Wilson, and Anne Shisko used a modified version of the software to generate a Shakespeare and Milton “grammar” to challenge the importance of the Stress Maximum Constraint in generative metrics, a constraint which essentially states that only the placement of stress maximums (strongly stressed syllables bordered on either side by syllables with relatively less stress) matters in determining meter. It would seem that such software might, indeed, be able to do the type of distant reading I imagine, though its ultimate, complex purposes create a potentially unscaleable learning curve for literary scholars without relatively intensive linguistics training. Doubtlessly, a more accessible program with more limited capabilities could be built.
TEI-encoding, of course, allows for the marking of meter, but it is tempting to imagine how computer-aided scansion could greatly increase the reach of projects that aim to database poetry based on elements of poetic form. Google’s recent work in trying to get computers to translate poetry from one language to another while preserving rhyme and meter would also suggest that distant reading of metrics and other poetic elements should be possible. Indeed, the possibility seems so likely that it is difficult to imagine that a program hasn’t already been produced. Do you know of software—developed or in development—that would be be able to analyze poetry for meter on a large scale? What uses would you find for such a program?