Academic journal article English Journal

Poetry and Emotional Intelligence: A Radical Call

Academic journal article English Journal

Poetry and Emotional Intelligence: A Radical Call

Article excerpt

No one stands in the midst of a great cathedral and asks what it means. Rather, we implicitly understand that the architecture of a place carries the feeling of its greater purpose rather than its technical function. The great chapels of the world are not likely to be built as holes in the ground, but with vaulted ceilings, ornate carvings, and stained glass windows because they are to be holy, beautiful places. No one asks what the space between floor and ceiling means, but we can feel its power and openness. We feel the resonation of God in the echo that rings out in that space. Likewise, Jackson Pollock was purported to have once said, "no one stares at a rose bush and tears out their hair trying to figure out what it means."

If poetry is the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," as William Wordsworth says, then a poem should be deeply felt when read (8). Notice that Wordsworth did not say a poem is "an overflow of cleverness" or a "tightly controlled flow of algebraic equations" or that it consists of "powerful synonyms recollected in thesaurus-flipping." And though he certainly wrote sonnets, he definitely did not say that poetry is "14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter so you better know it for the mid-term." Wordsworth's statement reveals the heart of poetry: emotion.

The fact that a poem can be equated with such powerful feelings suggests where its meaning lies. One of the most important things a reader can learn about poetry is not to ask what the poem means. As teachers, we must dispense with that language. A poem certainly has meaning, but that meaning might be located in a place completely different from what a student might expect when we use the word means. The word means suggests to a student that the poem will translate to something logical. The poem means what it means and it says what it needs to in the way that it needs to. In "Ars Poetica," Archibald MacLeish says, "A poem should not mean / But be" (23-24). What is more appropriate to ask in relation to meaning is where the meaning of the poem might be located. Ask what part of us the poem might be speaking to or what emotions the poem might be trying to evoke. Is the poem speaking to our dream life? If so, it will use dreamlanguage and dream-images, which are quite different from waking language and waking images. Is the poem speaking to our philosophical wanderings/wonderings? Is it speaking to our vulnerability, to our rawness, to our spiritual pain, or to our shadow self? Whatever that place or state may be, the language, imagery, method, and experience of the poem may differ greatly. A poem might need to be simple and concrete or complex and full of psychological leaps depending on what it must speak to. In "Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird: The Psychic Origins of Poetic Form," poet Donald Hall says a poem is "human inside talking to human inside" (142). And just as we all understand a child's capacity with imagination and poetry, Hall, too, notes that when it comes to insides communicating, our insides are often more in touch with each other, more in tune with the "universal," as he puts it, at 5 rather than 25 (142). Think of how little technique a child needs to enter into that kind of communication and expression. Though it may lack skill, it maintains the universality, the emotional and spiritual power that we later lose.

In terms of locating the meaning of a poem in this way, we should expand our sense of location to include emotion, memory, the conscious, the subconscious, the unconscious, the spiritual, philosophical, psychological, and so on. A poem might hit us parallel to a philosophical question we have been asking. It might remind us of a childhood experience. It might stir a latent or a conscious emotion. It might touch on a subconscious anxiety. A poem's meaning can be located along the mundane, conscious plane of daily existence, but isn't likely to be.

In his book Poetry as Survival, poet Gregory Orr says that "human culture 'invented' or evolved the personal lyric as a means of helping individuals survive the existential crises represented by extremities of subjectivity and also by such outer circumstances as poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one" (4). …

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