Academic journal article Style

Adaptive and Maladaptive Poetry: In Plath, Roethke, Kunitz, and Moraga

Academic journal article Style

Adaptive and Maladaptive Poetry: In Plath, Roethke, Kunitz, and Moraga

Article excerpt

"I started writing poems as a response to that great loss, much the way that people responded, for example, after 9/11 ... People who never had written poems or turned much to poetry turned to it at that moment because it seems like the only thing that can speak the unspeakable."

--Natasha Trethewey, 2012 U. S. Poet Laureate

In 1986 James Pennebaker and Sandra Beall published a study that should have attracted more attention than it did among teachers and students in the writing community. This was the first in a long line of studies that showed that college students who spent as little as twenty minutes a day, over the course of three days, writing about a negative event in their lives missed fewer classes, maintained higher GPAs, made fewer trips to the college clinic, had measurably improved auto-immune systems, and even made more money after graduation than control groups (see also Pennebaker & Seagal). Subsequent research found that Pennebaker's writing paradigm also offers health benefits to non-student populations, though the benefits are not always as large, and some specialized populations do not benefit at all. (1) Among college students, however, it is reasonably clear that writing particular narratives can improve the health, wealth, and social status of many individuals. The results are striking, and consistent enough that it is hard not to think of these writing endeavors as "adaptive" in every sense suggested by the customary use of the term in evolutionary theory.

Of course the claim that writing can be adaptive under certain circumstances is not the same as the claim that this faculty is a mechanism that has evolved over our species' prehistory, and contributes foundationally to the unique human ability to adapt to changes in the environment. Writing, by itself, is much too recent an invention to have altered the human genome in such a fundamental way. Nevertheless, the development of writing may have encouraged and enhanced the early storytelling ability of humans, and enabled them to expand and refine their abilities at recalling and communicating a set of events to each other in a narrative-like framework (Ong). Moreover, as noted by many evolutionary critics, these events need not always be real but can represent fictional events--stories--many of which may have evolved and been retained by human cultures over time because they offer proscriptive circumstantial fables, thus serving an adaptive function that helps people to survive and reproduce. (2)

As chance would have it, our interest in Pennebaker's ideas about the health benefits of writing started at the same time we were preparing for a class on Literary Darwinism. What became clear to us as we collected material for the class is that most readings in evolutionary criticism tend to focus on the adaptive functions of consuming narratives--on reading, watching, or listening--rather than on the possible benefits of producing narratives--writing or telling stories. We were interested in both, and Pennebaker, along with many others in his area, provided us the scientific justification for what we had started to suspect about storytelling, and what teachers and researchers in many other fields were already overtly or covertly exploring in their classrooms and clinics. Storytelling or writing can serve certain, testable adaptive functions.

Our first class on adaptive criticism spanned every form of narrative from Beowulf to modem hip-hop music, and in class discussions we asked our students to turn a new, Pennebaker-like eye towards each form of narrative and toward literature more generally. Between bringing the new critical lens into the classroom and generating new critical approaches to traditional college literatures, we (and our students) soon realized that a very large proportion of the narratives covered in the class, including poems, short fiction, music, and the occasional novel or play, resembled the sorts of narratives that Pennebaker and subsequent researchers were describing in their work. …

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