Poetry has made a comeback in popular culture, thanks to American Amanda Gorman, who read her performance poems during a presidential inauguration and this year’s Super Bowl. Gorman has been described as bring poetry to the masses.
However, when it comes to the general public, poetry has long been hidden from view. Gorman’s oral performances, which were compared to hip hop, drew attention to the poetry in the lyrics of the music. But poetry is also visible in cinema and on television.
These media representations are interesting because they show how poetry is popularly understood in relation to feelings. And this popular wisdom goes hand in hand with the discoveries of cognitive neuroscience about the workings of language and, by extension, of poetry.
Read more: Ode to the poem: Why memorizing poetry is always important for human connection
Apart from films or television series about poets, like Dickinson Where Paterson, poetry makes an appearance in some of our most iconic films, where it is said to represent or intensify a range of emotions. These include love (Before sunrise), mad ambition (Citizen Kane), nostalgic patriotism (Fall from the sky), Pride (Invictus), nihilism (Apocalypse now) and trauma (The piano).
Poetry, representative of emotion, is also frequently used to symbolize humanity. This is especially evident in the clone movies.
In Tom Cruise’s blockbuster Oblivion, when clone Jack Harper recites a poem by The Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas Babington Macaulay this reinforces its legitimacy. In Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty misquotes William Blake:
Fiery the angels have fallen; a deep thunder fell on their shores; burning with Orc’s fires.
What emerges from the on-screen appearances of poetry, therefore, is a popular understanding of it as an expression of human sentiment and evidence of true humanity.
This intuitive understanding of poetry resonates with the findings of cognitive neuroscience. Give up brain theories that suggest it works like a computer and language theories which focus on “mental grammar”, Many scientists now recognize the body and emotion as the foundations of cognition and speech.
The role of mirror neurons. These brain cells are triggered when an action is observed or performed, and they tell us a lot about how we understand the actions of others. They suggest that understanding comes from a mirror or imitation that takes place in the brain but is played or felt in the body.
One example is the contagious effect of a smile. When we observe someone who smiles, we reflect that action to understand it.
Something similar happens when understanding language. Words touch us contagiously. As neuroscientist Christian Keysers explains in The empathetic brain, if you hear or read the word “lick,” the part of your brain that moves your mouth is activated to make it easier to understand. The same thing happens if you hear or read the word “kick”. As a result, we feel the meaning of these words in our body.
What if we produced words? Speech is fundamentally a motor activity, resulting from the gesture. We are pressured to speak and we literally move – our lips, our tongue, our lungs, our abdominal muscles and often even our hands – to express ourselves.
As infants, we begin to learn language by interacting with a caregiver, mimicking the shapes of their mouths and wiggling our arms and legs in excitement and frustration at the repetitive noises they make, until we are finally able to imitate their sounds. These sounds are accompanied by feelings, most strongly related to a desire to communicate beyond the limits of ourselves.
Of course, the language develops into a more abstract communication system. However, it can often remain a struggle to express feelings that are powerfully felt in the body, such as loneliness, grief, or trauma. As John Hannah’s character says in Four weddings and a funeral, trying to express her feelings about her late partner, “Unfortunately I’m at a loss for words.”
Read more: Of poetry and pain
Nursery rhymes and rhythms
This is where poetry comes in, using the rhymes and rhythms that have helped us find speech since childhood, drawing attention to the auditory qualities of language to convey meaning through feeling.
If we can’t do it on our own, we quote someone else’s words, instinctively and ritually associating poetry with the expression of emotion.
This link to emotion, as well as to childish discourse, undoubtedly partly explains another popular idea of poetry: that it signals “madness”. Poet biopics fuel this stereotype by overwhelmingly choosing mentally ill poets as subjects – for example, Sylvie and Pandaemonium, portraits of Sylvia Plath and Samuel Taylor Coleridge respectively.
However, cognitive neuroscience – and popular wisdom – suggests that poetry actually illustrates an important truth about language and human nature.
While poetry is regularly denounced for “not having meaning”, our cognition and our language do not arise according to purely rational principles.
We are bodies shaped by feeling. Robin Williams’ character simplifies this truth by Circle of Missing Poets:
We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is full of passion.