30 Apr How poetry evokes emotions
Poetry has the power to evoke strong emotions in both readers and writers alike. Understanding how poetry can elicit emotions is an important area of focus in mental health research. This article explores how poetry evokes emotions and some of the potential benefits of this emotional response.
How poetry evokes emotions
by Chinyere Nwosu
Poetry elicits emotions
Poetry, as we know it depends on sound and sense to make it memorable. We achieve this by applying different poetic devices and techniques in our writing. Rhyme, lyric, and meter help us achieve this aim. From early poetry – including epic poetry, and faith worship, poetry has been used and often accompanied by musical instruments to make a deeper impression. This to date still holds in many religious meetings, and music and advertising continue to showcase this tradition. Poetry evokes emotions.
The tools used in poetry are designed, at least in one way, to attach meaning to emotion and bring and elicit feeling with insight and reason. Poetry has the power to evoke emotions. This power of poetry derives from the excellent craft of words from sound, repetitions, rhyme, rhythm, imagery, similes, and metaphors. Poetry is designed to be short and crisp. Unlike prose which informs with facts and characteristics to appeal to reason, poetry engages emotion and calls up experiences and imagination (with pictures, sounds, touches, and the other senses). It takes you on a journey and leaves you to draw conclusions based on your thoughts and reason.
How poetry evokes emotions
Researchers continue to look into the connection between poetry and emotions. According to Johnson-Laird and Oatley (2022), poetry evokes emotions in three (3) ways –
1 – Models of a poem’s semantic contents – this refers to the choice of words. It works just like the depictions from narratives to perception.
2 – Mimetic simulation of prosodic cues – this looks at the use of poetic devices to add effect, colour, and deeper meaning. Poetic devices like meters and rhymes yield particular emotional states (like basic emotions of happiness, anger, and anxiety).
3 – People’s simulations of themselves – this is how your response (physical, emotional) enables you to know that you are engaged with a poem.
Some other research works support this claim – Obermeier et al. (2013) found that meter and rhyme significantly contribute to the aesthetic and emotional perception of poetry.
Poetic tools that hook emotions and lend depth to poetry.
Imagery is the use of descriptive language that appeals to the senses, such as sight, sound, smell, and touch to create a set of mental images. When a reader encounters vivid imagery in a poem, it can evoke a strong emotional response. For example, a poem that describes a beautiful sunset can evoke feelings of awe and wonder. See the verse from – Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!
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Metaphor is a powerful tool that poets use to compare two things that are not literally alike but share a common characteristic. When a reader encounters a metaphor in a poem, it can evoke a complex set of emotions. For example, a poem that compares the human heart to a fragile bird can evoke feelings of vulnerability, fragility, and tenderness. See an extract from “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Rhythm and sound
The rhythm and sound of poetry also play a role in evoking emotions. When a poem has a strong rhythm, it can create a sense of movement and energy that can evoke feelings of excitement or tension. Additionally, the use of repetition and alliteration can create a sense of musicality that can elicit an emotional response. For example, a poem that repeats a phrase or uses alliteration can create a sense of comfort and familiarity. Here is a good example –
There was an Old man with a Beard
By Edward Lear 1812-1888
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—
Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.
Benefits of emotional response to Poetry
A range of benefits is associated with the emotional response to poetry.
1 – Reading and writing poetry can be cathartic.
It allows individuals to release and process their emotions in a safe and supportive way. Studies show that participants who engaged in expressive writing, including poetry, reported significantly lower levels of depressive symptoms compared to a control group. Pennebaker et al. (1997) reported that people who engaged in expressive writing, including poetry, about a traumatic event experienced significant reductions in physical symptoms and reportedly felt less distressed.
2 – Increased self-awareness and insight
Emotional response to poetry can help individuals gain a deeper understanding of their emotions. In turn, this creates a sense of validation and connection. Hayes (2012) reported that poetry therapy is effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Other research works echo the same in different ways that can be summarized as – engaging in expressive writing, including poetry increases self-awareness and greater clarity in thoughts and feelings.
3 – Creates a sense of validation and connection.
Emotional response to poetry can lead to increased empathy and compassion towards others. Others can connect with the emotions of the poet and other readers/listeners. Research results on the use of poetry in therapy suggest that poetry can facilitate empathy and social connection in therapeutic contexts.
In conclusion, poetry has the power to evoke strong emotions through words and sound in a well-crafted application of poetic devices such as imagery, metaphor, rhythm, and sound. The emotional response to poetry can have a range of potential benefits – catharsis, increased self-awareness, and increased empathy and compassion toward others. Overall, understanding how poetry evokes emotions is an important area of research in the mental health field and can have important implications for therapeutic interventions.