It calms your brain chemistry, develops your cognitive flexibility and deepens your ability to focus. Here’s why a poetry habit should be central to your creative life
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Poetry existed way before novels, before newspapers, and before written language evolved. In fact, MRI scanning tells us that our brains react to it in a profoundly emotional way.
Yet so many of us are unaware of the benefits of making poetry part of our daily habits. Here’s why it’s something that all of us – and especially serious creatives – should bring into our lives.
1. Poetry teaches us to be present
When you focus on a poem, you learn to read for the present moment. You’re not reading to learn something that might be useful, or to find answers to today’s problem. Instead, you’re reading for the experience of doing it, and of being in that moment.
That ability to be present with yourself, and with only the words and pictures in front of you, is at the heart of an ability to focus on your own creative work, rather than be consumed by anxiety or distraction.
It’s the same reason that meditation and mindfulness are so powerful: it trains your brain to alter its state from fearful or anticipatory to present and calm. Use poetry as a powerful way to start your morning, or to calm your brain mid-way through the day.
2. Poetry teaches us great writing
There is no more precise, concise form of words than poetry. When we immerse ourselves in writing by the greatest poets, whether the few syllabus of haiku or the tomes of Milton’s Paradise Lost, we absorb how to use a few words for powerful impact.
Just as the people we surround ourselves with influence what we achieve, the words we surround ourselves with shape how we communicate. When we read words that inspire and move, our own writing and speaking will start to reflect it.
Whether or not your own creative medium is words, you’ll find a regularly poetry habit means you’ll communicate more clearly and powerfully with everyone else.
3. Poetry teaches surprise
Poetry shows that the tightest boundaries can allow the greatest freedom of thought, of combining ideas and images, and disrupting the way we thought we experienced the world.
Whether it’s Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky or Hollie Macneish, poetry celebrates opposing ideas. It thrills and surprises our minds, and jolts us out of our own ruts of thinking into new ideas and possibilities.
4. Poetry teaches us to think in a new way
When you read poetry, your mind unconsciously knows that it has to work differently to reading prose or fiction. It has to search for and evaluate the multiple meanings, observe the links between lines or words, and the ideas hidden within the text, and to bring them out.
This flexibility is the same skill that we need every time we create our own work. We also use it every time we find ourselves in an ambiguous situation, when we navigate a conversation which is more than just functional, or have to to make a choice in a complex, multi-faceted world.
Reading poetry teaches us to hold lightly many different possibilities, and to be comfortable with with tensions between them.
5. Poetry teaches patience
The challenge of reading beyond the surface is the reason that many novice poetry readers give up. We want immediate gratification and for meaning to be revealed to us instantly. If we don’t understand it straight away, it’s so much less challenging to tell ourselves that ‘poetry isn’t for me’.
But that’s where the value begins: in the admission that we need to sit with it, to look deeper, to start to focus on details, words, lines, to articulate an emotion or a picture, and see where it takes us.
The greatest poems continue to reveal layer after layer, but only when we choose to spend time with them.
Poetry teaches us the message of patience that we need in our work, in our relationships, in how we listen, and how we build a connection with our own inner world.
6. Poetry unlocks our emotions
In the same way that we choose sad songs when going through grief, poetry that expresses difficult emotions helps us to process our experiences.
Poetry allows us to discover the emotions that we bury and ignore: the loss or anger, love or longing, excitement or questioning, whether in Maya Angelou or Tennyson.
This isn’t just a therapeutic nice-to-have. Connecting with our emotions in this way starts to activate the parts of our brain that help us to deal with them. Over time we become more self-aware, more engaged with our inner worlds and emotions, and that in turn takes away their power to derail us. Regularly reading poetry can be a powerful way of regaining control of our fears, anxieties and old memories, and using them as a creative force.
7. Poetry wakes up our brains
Our brains seem to be hard-wired to appreciate poetry. Maybe that’s part of our heritage of the millennia when stories were passed down verbally in songs and rhymes, by bards, singers and storytellers. Or maybe we turned to the structure of poetry because we understood that patterns and rhythms had a more profound effect on us than pure prose.
Even when we don’t consciously understand the rules or the structures used in poetry, our brains can identify texts that use them correctly. When we read poetry, our brains are alert to multiple levels of nuance and meaning, to structures, patterns, rhymes and rhythms.
8. Poetry teaches the value of beauty
It’s too easy to race through our day without pausing to appreciate beauty for no reason other than itself. A poetry habit gives us the chance to do that: to get pleasure from immaculately constructed lines, from words we’ve never thought to combine in that way, or from images or emotions that give give us pleasure.
For years I used a quote from Louis Macniece’s Snow as a moving screensaver: its image of roses against a dark window still brings me joy.
9. Re-reading poetry is even more powerful
Revisiting poems we already know and love can give our brains a profound, goosebump thrill. When we do it under an MRI scanner, we see our brains light up in the areas normally associated with music and the tingle of powerful emotions, rather than the parts that normally go with language. It’s yet more evidence that poetry isn’t just ‘good writing’, but a form of words that we connect to in a profound, perhaps primal way. Re-reading favourite poems is one of the best, and perhaps fastest, way of giving ourselves jolt of joy in the rush of daily life.
10. Poetry takes us into new worlds
Trapped in a commuter train, a supermarket queue or waiting for a meeting? Three minutes with a new poem can take you anywhere you like: seventeenth-century Italy; the Californian coast; the experience of motherhood, or waking up with a lover. Poems are a Tardis: tiny on the outside, opening up to a vast world of emotions and images you’d never imagined.
11. Poetry is, simply, fun
As Blake tells us, ‘The world in a grain of sand’ is perhaps our most powerful antidote to the narrow algorithms of Facebook, the routines of life and family and the distraction of daily life. Why wouldn’t we choose, instead, something that enriches and empowers our lives in just a few minutes?
Ready to immerse yourself?
I’ve created 15 Days of Creative Inspiration, a daily email of poetry, music or art with prompts to inspire your thinking. Follow it to deepen your creative focus and create joy in just a few minutes each day.