Innate Interpretations: Poetry and the Brain

Written by James Cole

“It is a test [that] genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

T.S. Eliot

A couple years ago I found myself in perhaps one of the most terrifying environments known to someone of my liminal adult age. I stood between two fronts: to my rear a whiteboard of static words like “alliteration” and “theme,” to my front a blinking chorus of seventh graders perched gargoyle-like on a carpet. My opening question fared about as well as I’d expected, but that didn’t leave the intervening silence any more palatable.
“No one?” I eventually asked. “No one here likes poetry?”

A half-muttered comment about The Giving Tree slithered from somewhere to my left, but the speaker retreated as soon as I turned to him. At the back of the room, the students’ usual English teacher urged me onward with a nod. She appeared far more relaxed than I, or more likely relieved that I had agreed to come along and pose these questions instead of her. My spirit deflated, arms slacked, the dry-erase marker felt suddenly quite heavy in my hand.

Poetry—the lyrical languish inflicted upon every student in some form or another since the inception of language. For most, our exposure to poetry is meted out in simple steps: first in nursery rhymes and horribly repetitive songs, then Sam and I am and his curiously jade foodstuffs. A little older, and Mr. Silverstein tells us of that place where the sidewalk ends. In our teenage years we’re faced with a diverging autumn road, a mistress whose eyes are nothing like the sun, Beowulf, Angelou, and then at some point in the passing of one class and the enrollment of another, poetry falls into some mental crevice, collecting mold until those inevitable (and ubiquitous) recitations at weddings, acceptance speeches, funerals. It seemed like a natural evolution, even to someone who has spent years with the genre—a rise, decline, and fall, like the course of empire recurring endlessly in English classes across America.

“But what if I told you,” I said, straightening before my students. “That you all like poetry? What if I told you it’s innate?”

The student threw up their walls with grunts, squints, and a collage of creative grimaces.

“Let me explain…”

Innate Interpretations: Poetry and the Brain

by James Cole

Poetry is one of humanity’s oldest and most complex art forms, a medium that combines the sonic splendor of music, the semantic pleasures of language, and all the visual, psychological, and aesthetic pleasures in between. Despite the long history of poetry, a 2018 study from the National Endowment for the Arts found that only 11.7% of American adults had read it in the last year (Iyengar, 2018), and while this is a record number for lyrical engagement it pales against the consumption of other popular art forms such as fiction, film, music, and television. Simply put, poetry has largely been relegated to the cultural margins.

Poet Ben Lerner grappled with this issue in his aptly named The Hatred of Poetry, acknowledging that, for most readers, poetry extends a sort of intrinsic responsibility, a membership in a broader artistic society. “You’re a poet, however, whether or not you know it,” Lerner writes, “because to be part of a linguistic community — to be hailed as a “you” at all — is to be endowed with poetic capacity” (Lerner, 2016). And just as Adam famously folded all creation into words, poetry insists its inclusivity by literally or implicitly addressing audiences. Literary critic Sigurd Burckhardt acknowledged this in his 1960 essay, stating “Poetry, like dialogue, engages its audience/addressee directly. Rather than an entity to merely be witnessed, poetry demands an active empathy by teasing the same linguistic instincts activated in verbal communication.” (Burckhardt, 1960). Both statements point to a larger concern shared among those squeamish readers: poetry is an invitation to get something, and often something supremely specific. When speaking with students that day about why they disliked poetry or, more commonly, why they didn’t have an opinion on it, most alluded to some passive fear that poetry could not be understood perfectly, that they could not read a poem and come away knowing for sure that they knew what it was about.

This, I offered to my students, is precisely what grants poetry its potency. Recent work in neuroscience tells us that poetry can and very often does affect us regardless our literal interpretations. A 2016 study by Vaughan-Evans et al. demonstrated that even novice readers could detect sonic harmonies in poems and that this detection/appreciation was largely uncoupled from semantic interpretation (Vaughan-Evans et al. 2016). Similarly, researchers under Philip Davis performed an fMRI study that assessed mental flexibility when engaging with a complex poetic text. Like the Vaughan-Evans study, the results suggested that an effective poem, with its precise rendering of thematic, sonic, and aesthetic details, can elicit what Davis calls a “literary awareness” (O’Sullivan et al. 2015). This awareness engages the brain in a unique aesthetic experience, one unburdened by the rigors of a more literal, fact-based reading strategy.

The burgeoning field of neuroaesthetics has offered a number of explanations for these innate effects. Johnson-Laird and Oately recently published a paper outlining their “simulation theory” for how poetry may evoke emotion. In it, they contend that poems engage readers through three routes: through semantic content, through prosodic cues (intonation, meter, etc.), and finally a more reactive, aesthetic experience like those attested in the previously mentioned studies (Johnson-Laird and Oatley, 2022). Once again, these reactions occur in readers irrespective of familiarity with poetic elements or so-called “understanding” of a poem’s contents. In essence, Johnson-Laird and Oately argue that emotional and aesthetic perception of a poetic piece arises naturally, and that our brains are hard-wired to react to effective collages of sound, images, and ideas in ways beyond our conscious control (Johnson-Laird and Oatley, 2022).

Even poets themselves have acknowledged that acquiescing to poetry’s natural ambiguity is necessary. John Keats famously identified this as a “negative capability,” which he defined as: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason… This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration” (Keats & Scudder, 1958).
The world, by a poet’s reckoning, is fraught with instabilities of fact and passion—why should poetry, that “place for the genuine” as Marianne Moore called it, be any different, especially when the very vagaries of its composition, the useful doubts and subtle mysteries of its form, so strangely embolden readers to think and feel differently?

I explained this to the class, albeit in not-so painstaking terms. After all, performing for an audience of willing poetry-fans is a far cry from circumventing the obstinance of preteens. A silence lingered for a moment while they processed my lecture. Eventually, one hand rose.

“So how do you tell a good poem from a bad poem?” the student asked.

“Well, that can be tricky, can’t it?” I replied. “What’s good for one person may not always be good for others. The best we can do as individual’s is trust our own brains on the matter, even though the brain itself can be quite untrustworthy. The key, in my experience, is openness. The more rigid our barriers, the more we bar ourselves from something at the onset, the worse our reaction will be. Which is not to say we will love every poem, feel for every word. Reading poetry is not about finding the perfect poem but the perfect poems.”

Even I struggled to grasp those final lines. My students wavered but, after a few seconds, seemed to settle in some brief satisfaction. I would’ve belabored the point, tried to link our basest animal characteristics with our need for rhythm, but the bell rang, the students rose, and class ended.

“Did it work?” I asked their usual teacher once the last of my audience had left.

“You’d be surprised,” she said. “How much they absorb, that is.”

“And what about you?” I continued. My very visit was predicated on the fact that my English teacher friend didn’t care for poetry herself. “Have I changed your mind?”

She smiled.

“It sounds liked you never needed to.”

I’ve never been in the business of changing minds, if only because I’ve found few minds in need of changing. Poetry, like music and art, exists in the cognitive spectrum as a resonating force for emotional and intellectual growth, its understanding innate, even if unconscious, and its appreciation barred only by the expectations we place on ourselves.

“Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric,” Yeats once wrote. “Out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” With this in mind, I think it is easy to see how poetry belongs to everyone, not just the connoisseurs, the academics, and the slam artists. After all, have we not all struggled with ourselves? And so long as we can shake the bitter barriers between the literal and the aesthetic, sit down, and take our time, we need not burden ourselves with perfect perceptions. We need only to read—our brains will take care of the rest.

~~~

Written by James Cole
Edited by Lauren Wagner and Rebeka Popovic

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References:

Burckhardt S. Poetry, Language, and the Condition of Modern Man. The Centennial Review of Arts & Science, Vol. 4 No. 1. 1960. 1–31. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23737605.

Iyengar S. Taking note: Poetry reading is up-federal survey results. Taking Note: Poetry Reading Is Up-Federal Survey Results. https://www.arts.gov/stories/blog/2018/taking-note-poetry-reading-federal-survey-results. Published June 7, 2018. Accessed May 11, 2022.

Johnson-Laird PN, Oatley K. How poetry evokes emotions. Acta Psychologica. 2022;224:103506. doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2022.103506

Keats, J., & Scudder, H. E. (1958). The Complete Poetical Works and Letters. Houghton Mifflin.

Lerner B. The Hatred of Poetry. Fitzcarraldo Editions; 2016.

O’Sullivan, N., Davis, P., Billington, J., Gonzalez-Diaz, V., & Corcoran, R. (2015). “shall I compare thee”: The neural basis of literary awareness, and its benefits to cognition. Cortex, 73, 144–157. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2015.08.014

Vaughan-Evans, A., Trefor, R., Jones, L., Lynch, P., Jones, M. W., & Thierry, G. (2016). Implicit detection of poetic harmony by the Naïve Brain. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01859

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