Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How Does Poetry Work

How Does Poetry Work?

Any attempt at answering that question is doomed to be inadequate for the simple fact that what we call poetry varies greatly and works in an incomprehensible range of ways. Nevertheless, as Robert Frost said, “There are roughly zones,” and there is a great deal to be learned as a poet or a reader from attempting to answer the question, and besides, it can be a lot of fun to joust at windmills from time to time. So why not?

How does poetry work? Perhaps not surprisingly, most poetry tends to work (my composition students will notice the carefully-worded avoidance of absolutes) just like every other art form. Well, mostly anyway. Art tends to be sensuous, that is, it works through and appeals to the senses. We see color and lines and form in a painting. We see or feel texture in a sculpture. We vicariously feel movement in dance. We hear rhythm and tone in music.

In poetry, as well as in other written communication, on the other hand, we literally see only symbols, letters that are combined to represent sounds that we recognize as words with particular meanings (that’s the difference from other arts). On the surface it seems an entirely cognitive process. Those words, however, in most “artistic” writing don’t relay only cognitive concepts. They also call up images that appeal to the reader’s senses. Thus, a reader not only translates words into meanings but also “imagines,” meaning to craft into an image, or sees what the writer describes.

Sensory input is processed in the limbic system of the human brain. This is the same system that regulates heart and respiratory rate, blood pressure, and hormone production and release, all of which are physiologically involved in what we call emotion. It should come as no surprise, then, that the sensory input of art elicits emotional responses from its audience. Piano music can make us melancholy; we cry or laugh at plays and movies; violins increase tension; and Edvard Munch’s The Scream creates a sense of imminent and omnipresent terror.

The limbic system also facilitates long-term memory, and predictably we usually respond most deeply to that art which reminds us of our own experiences, the art which seems most relevant to us. We can respond emotionally, however, even to art that seems at first unrelated to our specific pasts because we may recognize a similar situation, image, or theme to something we have experienced.

In essence, then, a poem works by using words and sounds to cause the reader to imagine sensory input which, in a good poem at least, is associated through the limbic system with particular emotions and memories. And all this happens simultaneously with a conscious consideration of the cognitive meaning of the words being used. Thus, a good poem (re)creates a complex perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and mnemonic experience.

Recently I told one of my students who was attempting to write descriptive poetry that the problem was he was choosing words that only described the object or experience, and that instead he needed images that “dripped” with meaning, feeling, associations, and memories. The ability to find those words that create this sort of resonant imagery in the reader’s limbic system is ultimately what makes one a poet. Perhaps the best short example of the sort of imagery I mean comes from Ezra Pound, an early 20th century poet often considered the Father of Imagism. The poem’s comparison, with no elaboration, of ghostly faces in a station of the Metro to limp, washed-out flower petals suggests the lifeless, spent potential that Pound feared characterized much of the urbanized, industrialized, and heavily impersonalized world he lived in. Here is the poem:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.


  1. I have IN THE STATION OF THE METRO framed. It is a perfect example.

    I love what you say here, "In essence, then, a poem works by using words and sounds to cause the reader to imagine sensory input which, in a good poem at least, is associated through the limbic system with particular emotions and memories."

    A good poem, for me, is one that brings in compassion and I think that is accomplished by triggering those memories. Excellent post!

  2. I never payed attention to poetry class because it never made sense to me. This post has succeeded to teach me what a semester of poetry failed to do! Beautiful, engaging and simple all at the same time! Thank you sir.