Why humans like to read poetry

July 28, 2009 at 6:59 am | Posted in poetry, writing | 21 Comments
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This post by Stu Hatton, asking why humans like to read poetry set me to to thinking. The quote from Philip Mead that Stu uses in his post suggests that we are attracted to complexity and I agree that whenever a human sees a question, they will attempt to answer it. Curiosity has evolutionary benefits. But I think there is more to it than that.

I started thinking about why humans like to listen to music, I’m sure if you could answer that you would find part of the answer to the poem question. There is the pleasure of extinguishing the self through meditation in music and our first memory being the rhythmic sound of our mother’s heartbeat, the drive to organise the chaos of unfiltered perception and our strange obsession with beauty. All of these can be found in both music and poetry.

And then there is our childish joy in being astonished. Surprised. Delighted. If you could explain why humans like to watch stage magic, you will have gone a long way to explaining why we like to read poetry.

Here is Penn and Teller explaining the seven techniques of poetry in motion.

Palm. Ditch. Steal. Load. Simulation. Misdirection. Switch.
Now, Squires. Explain why the techniques of stage magic are identical to the techniques of poetry. One at a time. (coming soon, unless someone else wants to have a bash at it (insert link))


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  1. I love Penn & Teller and if there is poetry composed about them I would enjoy reading that too.

    Breaking News just to hand:
    The Melb Film Festival has dropped a film from their program on 9th Aug and replaced it with a second-screening of Dogs In Space NOT Sold Out yet. follow link at Ann O’Dyne blog.

    to Ballarat! .. nah. that’s where I am now.

  2. I’ve always thought it was just our instinctive love of patterns – rather than puzzles – though finding the patterns can be puzzling – but a love of puzzles is a more individual trait.

  3. You’re onto something, Paul. I love certain poems for the same reason I love certain songs – and the reason is completely self-centered – but usually it’s because the song/poem associates or correlates with something/someone I’ve experienced – so (and I’ve written this before on my blog) the song/poem becomes almost a photograph of that something or someone. It can be a puzzle to arrive at that space where I find that connection, but ultimately, as simple as it sounds, that’s what I’m after. Not that I can’t ever enjoy a song/poem with which I find no identification at all – but those that become a photograph of my own existence – those songs/poems are my nirvana.

  4. I like to read poetry for the same reason I like music – it comforts me. Poetry that lets me in, that resonates, is somehow recognising me. And in that mutual recognition is reprieve from isolation, loneliness.

    I’m a simple soul. I do not want a poem to sit like an alien beside me and we have no means of meeting. I do not want complexity or puzzles. I want to curl up with the poem and whisper it to myself and say thank you or stand on the hill and roar it to the sky. But most importantly I want to meet with it, I want to be with it – I want it to reach out and touch me and speak to me, as if there was only me it wanted to talk to.

    When poetry and I coalesce, I want to fall in love and copy and paste him, print him out large and stick him near my desk. Too abide a couple of months with him, sharing this rapport, glance at him while the computer boots or something downloads. Say yup we’ve still got it.

    I want poetry as my lover and if he’s quixotic and mercurial I’ll understand and slowly make my way to him but if he turns away from me and plays games and is too clever or impenetrable – I’ll walk away.

    And there’s beauty Paul – that sublime dawning of tingles at the wonder of words that become song, at their capture. The awe that someone magicked this into an eclipsing creation.

  5. Excellent comments all. I would add that, as far as the arts go, poetry is a special case. Mankind uses language as a utility-to communicate. Language also seems, at least to me, to have a deeper, temporal, syntactical dimension. The tension between these two levels of meaning can be very astonishing.

  6. Hmmm. I don’t know, Paul. I hate magic tricks. Really. Can’t stand it. Won’t watch it. I don’t like tricks or practical jokes, always hated Candid Camera, but I enjoy humor. A poem has to be more than just a puzzle. If it’s all puzzle, I’ll walk away, probably sooner rather than later. How many puzzle magazines do you solve and then keep around to re-read? None. Why would you? Solved is solved. A good poem offers more, I think. It’s something you want to read over and over. Mystery wrapped in colorful simplicity, this appeals to me. I like layers. I like patterns. I like to stare at Willie Nelson. He doesn’t even have to sing.

  7. What a hard question paul, kind of scary, here goes a part of my reply at least?
    I belive that most of the things that we like are because they help us survive, like eating, having sex, ….
    Then there are other things we like that do not seem to be useful
    Well, first of all there is a mechanism in the brain that is a reward system, this reward system is generally programmed in each person in a different way, but once it is installed it is pretty hard to take it away. Well I believe that music and poetry activate our reward systems because they were programmed to do that long time ago. Because indeed those art activities where useful survival things, and still are, look for example how helpful they can be for reproducing yourself (artists attract people)
    Particulary in music, since I believe we first communicated through it until language replaced its usage, we feel good to hear it because our brain is inherently social, and by hearing we are exercising our need of being social.

  8. Paul, on the one hand I’m chuffed that the ‘all forms of complexity’ post got you thinking, to the point that you’ve devoted a post to those thoughts.

    But I can’t take the credit for the content of that post on my blog – as you know, it’s a direct quotation from Philip Mead.

    I’m a little put out when you say that ‘Stu suggests that we like … to solve poems like puzzles’. I didn’t suggest any such thing, I just posted a quote for the purpose of contemplation and discussion. I certainly don’t think that enjoyment of poems is all about puzzle-solving (although perhaps that can be part of the enjoyment for some readers). The Mead quote doesn’t say anything specific about puzzle-solving, and I think to read it that way is to oversimplify the ideas expressed.

    You make good points in this post about some of the other possiblities re: why humans enjoy poetry… especially in terms of music and astonishment.
    Oh sorry, Stu. You’re absolutely right. I should change that bit. The puzzle-solving was just me re-phrasing. I will re-phrase myself re-phrasing Mr Mead.

  9. That was a quick fix! Thanks Paul! 🙂
    No problem, Stu, thanks for the discussion starter, it’s going well.

  10. I like poetry because I love language and listening to it used in different ways, I also love the music of poetry. I love music itself too of course. There are a lot of similarities between music and poetry, I think historically both have been used to help people remember what is being said, rhythm and rhyme helping memory.

  11. I think that technique can be observed in the first verse of the Beatles’ “All my Loving”, Paul. Looking forward to seeing your explication.

  12. A lot of people object to the idea that a poem is something that can be solved. I think part of what people look for is to resolve a poem. We are faced with this wall of words and we look for a way to organise them so that they harmonise. I’ve been thinking about a W.S. Merwin poem which goes:


    Who would I show it to

    and what I find is that I project my own situation onto the poem. It is not a solution as much as a resolution of the elements. The difference is one I think of choice. When I resolve I decide. When I solve I answer.

    I show every poem I write to my wife. So, if she died who would I show her elegy to? No one else makes sense. Merwin wasn’t writing about my wife and me but the poem fits perfectly because of its imprecision.

    You are right about curiosity. As soon as we see even a couple of words together we want to make sense out of them. If we see a few dots on a page we want to find a shape to resolve the chaos. The same goes for clouds and inkblots. And for the seven words above. Our brain demands meaning. That does not mean that meaning the end of a poem, no, but it is an end. We need the words to mean something before we can decide what we feel about them, before we can impose our own life experience on them.

  13. Poets are like magicians because they lead readers or listeners to accept the foolish notion that the poet knows what she/he is talking about. They don’t, and it appears to be because each individual reader has (as many here have mentioned) their own personal interpretation. For me, this is the mysticism inherent in both poetry and music. Something is going on with the words and sounds beyond the devices or techniques used. Maybe it’s a ‘trick’ of the gods…whoever they are…to provide poets with enough combinations to keep the process fresh and alive. Or addictive and confusing.

  14. Confession time. Sometimes I don’t like to read poetry because it seems hard to me. (I’m hanging my head in shame.) But then, of course, some poems just call to you in a friendly way, and you start reading before you realize that you’re doing it. John Donne’s poem about the flea is like that, except that instead of calling, it jumps on you and makes you itch.

    But when you describe poetry in this way, how can one not love poetry? I certainly relate to the puzzle aspect (though usually I don’t like puzzles either — what a wimp I am!) Did I mention that I flunked math?

    I digress. In art, it bugs me that myriad books exist (all saying the same thing) purporting to make art “easy.” Drawing made easy. Painting made simple. Arg!

    Drawing should be very hard. Seeing should seduce a person, and being pulled in, one should desperately wish to understand, to follow a line, to watch its shape swell into a heart-breaking path whose living grace makes your heart catch. I want it to be very hard, very difficult, a task of dedication. We should feel moved to be so called by the earth, by life, by beauty. Like children we should squeal with delight.

    Okay, maybe ratchet that down a tad. But easy in three steps. (Those people should be hauled out and shot who would make beauty into a “happy meal.”)

  15. the first poem is boom-bup
    of a / young mother’s heartbeat
    nine months of drafts / before
    the real thing / amniotically
    defined / by how we hold or blot
    the memory / it’s like poet (boom-bup
    boom-bup per-rum pah-pum) tree…

  16. everyone is talking about mead’s book at the moment… well, one or two people… i’d probably have a copy right now if that damn australian scholarly publishing website wasn’t stuck in the dark ages.

    mead was at my talk in canberra, & he was quite enthusiastic about blogging when asked his opinion. apparently his keynote address was quite the poets’ ‘call to arms’, if that makes any sense. i slept in & missed it.

    the complexities wash over us & are basically just more real than something graspable. possessing answers never seems like a base condition of operation for me. but then i’m not out to mime reality. am i? best get mead’s book. see what he thinks…

  17. ooo brilliant!! loved it :D!! but misdirection switch palm slick is a lot of instinct to replicate with a rulebook … so tempting though 🙂

  18. I read a lot of poetry and I have to say for me that it is a form of scripture. It helps me makes sense of things. There is a melodiousness about it that soothes me. It gets me at a metaphysical level first.

    TS Eliot sums it up best :
    “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

  19. i love poetry because it gives me a chance to connect with compassion and empathy, people from a variety of worlds. i actually want more transparency in poetry so i avoid trickery but i think this is a very compelling topic and i look forward to reading more posts about it 🙂

  20. unfiltered life… i hear, i see …indeed even the sound of a river flowing adds weight to a vision related in symbols of a silent language…

  21. […] explain the distinctions and similarities between that technical approach to poetry in motion, and this approach […]

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