08 December 2016 by Roy Preece
In her introduction to Dear Su Yen, Su Yen writes “I wanted to show how poetry, like music, can be healing”. She also found that thinking about poetry helped improve her everyday English too. Now the latest scientific techniques of brain scanning lend strong support to these ideas.
An article by Julie Henry in The Daily Telegraph shows how the brain “lights up” much more when reading classical poetry than when reading the same information in modern English (see Dear Su Yen, pages 23-4). A sympathetic little poem by William Shakespeare, from his play The Tempest, begins with the line “Full fathom five thy father lies”. [A fathom is an old measure of depth, equivalent to about two metres.] So that is the poetic way of saying that “Your dad is drowned under ten metres of water.” But the poetry is much more arresting and beautiful. Why? Because of the rhythm or metre; the economic use of words; and the 'choice of soft ‘f ‘sounds. You can discover much more in Dear Su Yen.
Professor Philip Davis of Liverpool University says that serious literature “acts like a rocket-booster to the brain with power to shift mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections”. Unusual words or phrases stimulate the brain to unusual electrical activity which persists into following phrases and so “prime the brain for more attention”. Although we don’t write most things in poetic form, reading poetry helps to increase fluency and appreciation of language. It is also, with some explanation, a more accessible way into English culture than is a large history book.
Reading poetry and classical authors, however, not only stimulates the parts of the brain concerned with language; it also stimulates parts of the brain concerned with “autobiographical memory and emotion”. The poetry seems to stimulate “reappraisal mechanisms” causing readers to “reflect on and reappraise their own experiences”. Although the poems for Su Yen were at first chosen for their range of introduction to English history and culture, her responses also included these reflections on her own experience which up to that point had largely been difficult and unhappy. This prompted reappraisals which helped her to come to terms with her life and become, as she liked to express it, “revived” like a plant that is given water.
Professor Davis concludes that “Poetry is not just a matter of style. It is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive”, unlike “self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self- images”.
If you feel that reading poetry may be difficult, take heart. English people have told us that they never understood poetry at school, but after reading Dear Su Yen they see that they can. Let Dear Su Yen show you how to begin, or buy and read one of Su Yen’s Poetry Notebooks. To get the full meaning, poetry is best read aloud to yourself, several times over, if you can find a little private time. Don’t be surprised if the power of the poetry overwhelms you sometimes.