The stage was the fourth floor of Marquette University's new engineering building. The audience was a mix of students, teachers, administrators, and non-academics—some sitting on chairs or steps, more standing against walls and railings. Among the players were the city’s mayor, the county executive, college deans, local sportscasters, and CEOs.
No, this was not a press conference. In fact, even with the presence of local dignitaries, not a news camera was in sight. We had all gathered for a Sonnet Slam and Birthday Party, the sole purpose of which was to recite and listen to the words and poetry of William Shakespeare. (If you have any doubt about the psychological wisdom inheret in his plays, take a look at 10 of Psychology’s Best Quotes and Their Surprising Sources,)
Not only is this month when we celebrate the 450th birthday of the bard, it is also National Poetry Month, both of which are reminders that poetry is not just for English majors. Kay Ryan, U. S. Poet Laureate from 2008-2010, wrote, “Poems are transmissions from the depths of whoever wrote them to the depths of the reader. To a greater extent than with any other kind of reading, the reader of a poem is making that poem, is inhabiting those words in the most personal sort of way. That doesn’t mean that you read a poem and make it whatever you want it to be, but that it’s operating so deeply in you, that it is the most special kind of reading.”
Ryan's observations on the differences between the effects of poetry and other forms of writing may be confirmed by neuroscience. A University of Exeter study suggests that poetry is more like music than it is like prose in terms of our brain's activation and emotional reponses (Zeman, Milton & Smith, 2013).
But is—to borrow a phrase from Rodney Dangerfield's character in the 1986 film Back to School—Shakespeare really for everyone?
“Well! I didn’t see that coming!” Those were the words whispered in the row behind me at a recent college production of Hamlet, right after Hamlet stabbed Polonius.
At the time I was surprised that anyone attending the play could not have already been spoiled as to that aspect of the plot, and I had a good if silent chuckle. Later, though, I realized with newfound wonder that, after all these centuries, fresh audiences who are not English majors and who are seeing the story for the first time continue to be so fully engaged, both intellectually and emotionally.
Why stop at reading poetry when we can write it? Jane Hirschfield, interviewed by Psychology Today blogger Jennifer Haupt, reminds us, "One reason to write a poem is to flush from the deep thickets of the self some thought, feeling, comprehension, question, music, you didn’t know was in you, or in the world."
We don't need to be as skilled a wordsmith as Hirschfield or as tortured as Hamlet to use poetry to gain insight into our own questions of to be or not to be. The authors of a "Ambivalence: The Tension Between 'Yes' and 'No'" asked graduate students to write poetry as a creative way to explore ambivalence:
"For this exercise, students were simply instructed to write a poem about the tension between yes and no, with no further instructions regarding length, style, perspective, or subject matter. Other counselor educators wishing to implement a creative writing exercise such as this might wish to be similarly brief in their instructions so as to avoid unduly restricting their students’ creativity. Creative writing exercises such as this could also be helpful in clinical settings as a way for counselors to help their clients gain a deeper understanding of their tendencies to resist or self-sabotage in therapy. This could be particularly beneﬁcial to clients who verbalize frustration with the paradox between their desires to improve their lives and their inability or unwillingness to do what they know needs to be done to accomplish their goals." (Stehn & Wilson, 2012).
The informal applications for our own self-understanding are obvious and varied. If the poetry of Shakespeare seems too remote, try listening to and watching some modern spoken word poetry such as "To This Day" by Shane Koyczan, "If I should have a daughter" by Sarah Kay, and "Dinosaurs in the Hood" by Danez Smith.
By writing and performing our own poetry, even informally, we practice emotional risk-taking, as Hansen and Duellberg (2013) argue in "From Poetry Slams to Lulu: Increasing Student Inner Commitment in a Digital Age." They write that students who participate in poetry slams "make an emotional investment when they can connect the learned form to their lives and their own expression."
Poetry matters now more than ever, whether we read it or write it, because it forces us to pay attention: to a word, a phrase, a line, an idea, or an object. If only for a few moments, we are one with the poem, removed from the million thoughts racing around in our heads, the insistent pinging of our cell phones, the weight of our to-do lists. It doesn’t matter if we completely understand the poem; in fact, it’s probably better if we don’t, for then we linger on the words even longer and perhaps even return to them again and again and again.
Hansen, C., & Duellberg, D. (2013). From Poetry Slams to Lulu: Increasing Student Inner Commitment in a Digital Age. International Journal Of The Book, 10(3), 11-18.
Stehn, M., & Wilson, F. (2012). Ambivalence: The Tension Between "Yes" and "No". Journal Of Creativity In Mental Health, 7(1), 83-94.
Zeman, A., Milton, F., Smith, A., & Rylance, R. (2013). By heart: An fMRI study of brain activation by poetry and prose. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 20, 132-158.