LSE - Small Logo
LSE - Small Logo

Joseph Owen

Nicky Marsh

June 25th, 2024

Putting words to work – does poetry have a purpose?

0 comments | 9 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Joseph Owen

Nicky Marsh

June 25th, 2024

Putting words to work – does poetry have a purpose?

0 comments | 9 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Poetry likely appears in relatively few impact case studies. However, outlining a new project focused on the intersection of evidence, place and policymaking, Joseph Owen and Nicky Marsh argue that poetry provides a unique rejoinder to narrative expertise.


The claims are well-rehearsed: literature transforms lives, offers radical critique and models alternative worlds. Defenders of the novel, for instance, from Peter Boxall to Rita Felski, have repeatedly outlined its significance for parsing the human condition.

But what exactly does poetry do? This question lies at the heart of the Poetry, Policy and Place project, led by the Southampton Institute for Arts and Humanities (SIAH). The aim of which is to better understand how poetry can orchestrate a conversation between policymaking and place-based research. This interest stems from the fact that poetry often appears at the intersection of academic and public worlds: requests for poetry come from many, various places.

Storytelling

This functional deployment of literature—weighing it with purpose outside of its intrinsic purpose—is not new. It is most recognised in narrative and story. Storytelling is used by policymakers, clinical practitioners and psychologists, corporations, and, increasingly, as an interdisciplinary method within the academy itself.

Sometimes these utilitarian modes seem far away from the practices of literary studies and can deploy narrative without the theoretical interventions of literary critics. Robert Schiller’s Narrative Economics, for example, is interested in reach and influence rather than narrative and form.

Sometimes these modes are very close to the practices of literary studies. The medical humanities uses narrative as part of an established interdisciplinary pedagogy.

Sometimes these modes are very close to the practices of literary studies. The medical humanities uses narrative as part of an established interdisciplinary pedagogy. These literary theorists and practitioners engage with how narrative provides agency, teleology, causality, characterisation and identification.

Sarah Dillon and Claire Craig’s book Storylistening is an important intervention: it argues for narrative as a cognitive and collective public reasoning tool. They assign clear functions to story: it provides multiple points of view; it shapes collective identities; it models scenarios and futures worlds; it helps to anticipate social change. They call for ‘narrative literacy’ and ‘narrative experts’ that can ‘avoid false certainty’ about the role of stories and what they do. It is a key work that develops a pluralistic evidence base for storytelling.

UKRI has also invested in this research. The AHRC Story Arcs project is developing a Story Skill Set to solve the real-world problems of our time. The result will be ‘something like a periodic table of Story Skills […] or an encyclopaedia of ways to craft and dissect tales’. Storytelling, understood as such, is an instrumental exercise: a training programme, a checklist, an applied science.

Poetic distinction

In contrast, poetry is often assumed to be a precise method for distilling, rather than narrating, complex ideas and emotions. In these ways, poetry assists with communicating educational science, facilitating emotional identification with place, climate and the environment, and eliciting feelings about communities.

We are interested in unpacking specific assumptions that underpin the use of poetry. If narrative is associated with rationality, cognition, action (modelling, anticipating, building), poetry has been frequently associated with affect, identification, connection.

poetry is often assumed to be a precise method for distilling, rather than narrating, complex ideas and emotions

This thread runs through disciplines outside of literary studies. The most-cited article published in the Journal of Poetry Therapy describes ‘poetic inquiry’ as a mode of qualitative research. Across disciplines, poetry is sought to not only reflect the data, but to in some way transcend it.

One assertive guide for supporting people’s health and wellbeing suggests that writing poetry can ‘diminish psychological distress and enhance relationships’, and that it has been long used ‘to aid different mental health needs and develop empathy’. In this therapeutic context, the cognitive value of poetry is less apparent.

Yet poetic practice is wide-ranging: from positivism that assumes poetry can reach the essence of people to feminist postmodernism that uses poetry to foreground the materiality of qualitative research. The latter approach seeks to make the stone stony, and it indicates methods beyond traditional social science approaches.

Purposelessness

For many poets, these supposed benefits are far from clear or desirable, and the purpose of poetry is often in its purposelessness, specifically in its critical relationship to rationality and utility.

We can trace this resistant sensibility across poetic traditions. For instance, Thomas Love Peacock’s savage satirical attack in The Four Ages of Poetry (1820) argues that:

“The march of [the poet’s] intellect is like that of a crab, backward. The brighter the light diffused around him by the progress of reason, the thicker is the darkness of antiquated barbarism, in which he buries himself like a mole.”

The crab and the mole may not be rational images, but they are far from useless. They exceed conventional ideas about poetry’s value by highlighting the potency of its purposelessness. Both images challenge M. H. Abrams’ critical conception of poetry: they constitute neither the mirror, held up to reflect the world, nor the lamp, illuminated to reimagine people’s experience of it.

Poetry, Policy and Place

Poetry, then, has many diverse qualities, sensibilities, principles and functions. How do we bring the negative energy of poetry—that defines itself and its value against rational deployment—into conversation with policy agendas that seem impossible and indeed pointless, without purpose?

There are several examples of what poetry in this form might look like: they might be new styles of workshop that produce different types of engagement and affect; they might be novel modes of critical inquiry that produce different types of data and evidence.

Alexandra Juhasz illustrates the first example in the 2022 collection, My Phone Lies to Me, which describes a series of place-based workshops that used poetry to critically engage with social media and fake news. Here, poetic practice provides an armoury for resisting media disinformation by generating fresh opportunities for critical reflection and imaginative strategies for truth-telling.

While it’s established that prose narratives can summarise and clarify social phenomena, poetry, as a comparative mode of inquiry, is relatively unexplored.

Jena Osman’s collection, Motion Studies, illustrates the second example by making claims about poetic inquiry and the nature of rational data. One poem takes the very formation of quantitative data—early heart trackers and surveillance technologies—and makes it qualitative. By interrogating how data is produced and understood, poetry finds meaning in the gaps.

These two recent examples of poetic practice suggest possibilities for developing new understandings of place-based community engagement and policy-led data analysis. While it’s established that prose narratives can summarise and clarify social phenomena, poetry, as a comparative mode of inquiry, is relatively unexplored. Its crab- and mole-like qualities require more interrogation. In this spirit, we leave you with the key question of this project:

How can we think of critical poets as akin to narrative experts, and in doing so, activate poetry’s resistant purposelessness?

 


The content generated on this blog is for information purposes only. This Article gives the views and opinions of the authors and does not reflect the views and opinions of the Impact of Social Science blog (the blog), nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Image Credit: Leonardo Baldissara via Unsplash.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the author

Joseph Owen

Dr Joseph Owen is a research fellow at the University of Southampton, working in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

Nicky Marsh

Professor Nicky Marsh is Associate Dean for Research and Enterprise for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. She is also the Director of the Southampton Institute of Arts and Humanities (SIAH).

Posted In: Academic communication | Evidence for Policy | Featured | Impact

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *