Example poetry

Using poetry to solve problems

Poetry has many benefits. Of develop empathy and provide support for mental health needsat reconsider our relationship to nature and even potentially improve the immune system and lung function. Poetry has also been shown to help give voice to marginalized communities and to provide an effective channel for communicate research to diverse audiences.

It can also be used to solve problems. It is a tool that can be used by both academics and students.

Poetry? Solve problems? How?

By actively targeting the creative incubation period.

Imagine that you are working on a specific task or problem and you reach a point where you become completely stuck. One of the ways to overcome this is to distance yourself from the problem, allowing your subconscious mind to process the problem and eventually find a solution. This is called the incubation period. This incubation period has been shown to help facilitate creativitywhich in turn can lead to unique solutions for tasks at hand or problems to be solved.

However, this is a very passive approach to targeting the incubation period, because by doing this you’re hoping your brain will eventually come up with a solution and then tell you about it when you’re cooking dinner, watching Netflix or wait for a train.

An alternative approach is to actively target this incubation period, thinking about the problem in a completely different way; for example, by writing a poem.

Write a poem? Me? How?

Using basic poetic forms to help structure your creativity.

Asking people to “write a poem” is quite a daunting task, perhaps akin to “making an invention” or “doing science.” However, we can break this process down into more manageable steps to help us actively target the creative incubation period.

Step 1: List

Start by writing a poem-list. List poems are poems in which you list everything that you associate with a particular topic. These can be physical objects, but also sounds, smells, emotions, or anything else you can think of. Set yourself a time limit of 60 seconds and list all the things that come to mind when you think about your problem.

As an example, here is a poem-list that I wrote on the albedo feedback effect – a process where changes in the amount of ice and water alter the reflectivity of a surface and therefore the extent to which it warms – in the Arctic:

White, climate change, snow, ice, progress, surge, waves, runaway steam trains, distance, edges, reflection, relentless, process.

Step 2: Write

The poetry does not stick to a specific shape. However, these forms can really make the writing process easier, providing the scaffolding on which to build your confidence and skills. There are many different forms of poetry you can use to help structure your creativity, and the website Shadow poetry provides a great resource for many of them, including real-life examples. After choosing a shape, you can then use the poem-list you just created to help you with your writing.

To give an example of what this might look like in practice, let me introduce you to one of my favorite poetic forms: the nonet.

The nonet is a nine-line poem, where each line contains a specific, decreasing number of syllables. The first line contains nine syllables, the second contains eight, the third contains seven, and so on, until the last line of the poem, which contains only one syllable. As an example, here’s a nonet I wrote following the list poem in Step 1:

Two-step sunbeams on white blankets
sliding painlessly between worlds,
then stray too close to the edge
where arctic waves loom
trap their latent heat.
Finishing the dance,
and leave

Step 3: Reflect

After writing your poem, now is the time to come back to your problem. Did writing this poem reveal any new potential solutions or potentially expose an error in your previous thinking?

Even if your poem didn’t lead to a direct solution to your original problem, by actively targeting the creative incubation period, you’ve likely opened up several additional learning opportunities to reflect on. For example, you may have discovered a gap in your understanding, corrected a past misconception, or even identified an area for future research.

By writing your poem, you’ve also potentially created a means by which to engage new audiences with your work, which means you could even use that poem as a starting point for collaborative problem solving.

So the next time you – or your students – come across a problem that you just can’t seem to solve, put it aside and grab your pen, keyboard or mobile device and follow these three simple steps: list, write , reflect. At the very least, it’s better to wait for an idea to arrive at 9:11 from Crewe.

Sam Illingworth is Associate Professor of Academic Practice at Edinburgh Napier University and author of Science communication through poetry. Her work focuses on the use of poetry to develop dialogue between scientists and non-scientists.

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