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The Psychology of Poetry

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Poetry surrounds us, yet we only seem to notice it when the labels ‘poem’ or ‘poetry’ are used. What effect does poetry have on us? Why is it present across the globe and the millennia? How do we use poetry in our lives, often without knowing we are? How can we harness its techniques to improve our lives?

Poetry has been around since humans could communicate. Most of the first civilisations can lay claim to a rich heritage of poetry dating from around 2500BC. For example, The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor and the Pyramid Texts. 

What is poetry?  Here is one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions: ‘Composition in verse or metrical language, or in some equivalent patterned arrangement of language; usually also with choice of elevated words and figurative uses, and option of a syntactical order, differing more or less from those of ordinary speech or prose writing.’

Here is my easier to understand, rough and ready, definition: ‘Poetry is meaning expressed in a predictable pattern.’

There are many more ways to define poetry. The fact that there is more than one definitions indicates the diversity of it form. There are huge numbers of poetic structures: over 168 different forms have been documented, by Writer’s Digest and probably there are many more that have emerged, then died out and/or not been recorded or documented. 

Poetry, can have profound effects on us. It can unleash emotions of all kinds. It can send shivers up our spines, or give us goosebumps, make us laugh and cry in the same poem. Poetry speaks to us in ways few other forms do, and it seems present in every culture and all languages

When people rate poetry highly, or find it deeply emotive, it seems to stimulate the brain in ways that can be detected on various types of brain scans. That should come as no surprise; it is no more informative than finding that the brain reacts when hands are subjected to hot or cold water. Correlation is not explanation. Observing such activity does not explain what is going on; it does not tell us why poetry can move us so profoundly. 

The difficulty of understanding how poetry impacts us is linked to the all pervasive problem in psychology: what is consciousness, what creates it, how does it work?

To draw meaning from poetry a vast amount of processing in different ways must be happening simultaneously. Here are just some of the processes that must be involved. For poetry to have such an effect, we must first have been able to understand the language in written or spoken form, then have understood the context, then have processed the conveyed meaning logically and emotionally, while also having drawn from previous knowledge and memories both personal and cultural. That is hugely complex, and frankly, requires understanding that is beyond our current grasp. We have to start with simpler questions.

What in poetry, that we appreciate, causes such elevated brain activity? What is there is some poetry that excites us? Why does some poetry stimulate and other sedates?

Many people all over the world take degrees and advanced degrees in poetry, and can offer the most impressive analyses of any poem. Yet, despite vast, after the fact knowledge of what has worked and why, very few have created the kind of poetry that is read and enjoyed across time and cultures. That indicates that we understand poetry and its effects at only a superficial level. If we really understood it, we would be able to create it, on demand, and it would work every time. Maybe in the future, that will be possible. 

Yet another reason that we cannot create brilliant poetry on demand is that we still don’t understand the formation of meaning in the brain. We don’t understand how language is processed, meaning is drawn from the language, or how emotions are created from the meaning drawn from the language. 

Despite our ignorance of how it works, when poetry works we instantly know it. 

Most people have their greatest exposure to poetry through music, songs, to be specific. Almost all songs have lyrics, which if stripped of the music, stand alone as effective poetry. Are songs poetry with another layer of structure laid on top: that of patterns of pitch? That is how some songs are created. The poem (lyrics) are written first, and then layers of music are added.

Poetry may have an effect on us which is above and beyond that of prose. Something in highly structured language seems to have an effect on us. 

Is it that the rhythm and rhyme allow us to better anticipate the meaning that comes, and as such we have more processing power available to draw meaning? 

Is that the rhythm and rhyme, in some unknown way, add meaning? Is that the logical meaning stays the same regardless of whether the meaning is conveyed by poetry prose, but that the structure conveys greater meaning, in some unknown way?

That latter explanation may have something in it. There are many rhetorical devices which have a strong similarity to poetic structure, with the same impact. Both use emotion, metaphor, and imagery.

Here are some examples:  

  • Contrast. ‘Democracy may not be perfect, but at least I don’t have to build a wall to keep my people in.’ – John F Kennedy
  • From the Gettysburg Address. The repetition of words or phrases in successive clauses, usually in threes: ‘That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.’ – Abraham Lincoln.
  • Winston Churchill repeated words in successive clauses, but with their order reversed: ‘This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

Anyone who chooses can learn about the poetic and rhetorical structures that work and seek to use them to, hopefully, achieve benefit for all. It is one thing to understand that a poetic device works, it is quite another to know why it works, when it works or how it works. 

That is the case with all poetic structures; we can observe their effects on ourselves and others, but we have so little understanding of how language is processed, or meaning extracted, or what meaning is, that we are a long way off extracting any meaning about how we extract meaning from poetry.

Perhaps that is well demonstrated by the aptness, even today, of Aristotle’s comparative analysis of poetry:  ‘Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.’

There is something psychologically poetic in that we don’t understand the psychology of poetry.

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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