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What Makes a Poem Really Pop?

New research suggests vivid imagery is key to poetry's aesthetic appeal.
Raphael's Parnassus depicts famous poets reciting alongside the nine Muses atop Mount Parnassus.

Raphael's Parnassus depicts famous poets reciting alongside the nine Muses atop Mount Parnassus.

If you're crunched for time, but don't want to give up the pleasure of reading literature, there's an obvious answer: poetry. But what is it that gives a piece of verse its verve?

New research reports a key factor is its ability to induce internal imagery. A poet's proficiency at using words to conjure images was the strongest predictor of a work's aesthetic appeal.

"People disagree on what they like, of course," said lead author Amy Belfi, a psychologist at Missouri University of Science and Technology. "[But] it seems there are certain factors that consistently influence how much a poem will be enjoyed."

The research, published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, was conducted at New York University. The 400 participants, who were recruited online, read a series of either sonnets or haikus. The poems varied in style and subject matter, and were a mix of classic and contemporary works.

After reading each poem, participants rated it on four dimensions: the vividness of its imagery; the degree to which they found it stimulating or relaxing; how positive or negative they considered its content; and, finally, "How enjoyable or aesthetically appealing did you find this poem?" Each judgment was rendered using a zero-to-100 scale.

"Across both poem types, of our three predictors of interest, vividness was the best predictor of aesthetic appeal," the researchers report. Participants disagreed strongly on which poems evoked strong imagery—which is, after all, a highly subjective process—but those that did were judged more favorably than those that did not.

Belfi and her colleagues, Edward Vessel of the Max Planck Institute and Pomona College president G. Gabrielle Starr, were surprised to find that perceived vividness played a stronger role in judgment than a work's emotional content.

They speculate that evoking strong imagery may make the content of a poem easier to mentally process, and thus make the experience of reading it more enjoyable. Alternately, "readers might pay closer attention to poems that are vivid," the researchers write.

"We do not suggest that imagery is the only factor contributing to the subjective aesthetic appeal of a poem," they caution. Indeed, they deliberately stayed away from factors that have been studied in the past, including vocabulary, rhyme, and meter.

But they note that imagery—which can include not just shapes and colors, but also touch, taste, and smell—"may be an especially potent contributor to the aesthetic appeal of a written work."

"The degree of vivid mental imagery," they write, "may provide a measure of the richness of the internal representation of a poem for that individual."

In other words, poetry isn't passive. When Percy Shelley writes of the autumn wind blowing dead leaves "like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red," we see the colors, and feel the cold gust of air. And that experience, however fleeting, can be enormously satisfying.