The uses of poetry: measuring the value of engaging with poetry in lifelong learning and development

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: English Drama American and Canadian Stu


What are the perceived benefits of poetry to people's learning and development at all stages of their lives? How do researchers and practitioners in literature, education and psychology currently express the value of poetry in their separate spheres? How can we best combine those insights into a rigorous interdisciplinary approach that will more effectively measure and evaluate the value of engaging with poetry?

A pilot forum of literary and psychology researchers and practitioners at the Shakespeare Institute in October 2011 suggested that poetry could:
-- bring a sense of identity and comfort
-- connect people to one another
-- enhance emotional literacy
-- fulfill a civic function and bring together communities

To test these impressions, our project will unite a larger team of researchers and practitioners from literature, education and psychology in a series of interdisciplinary seminars to evaluate collectively the strengths of their respective disciplinary approaches, and to develop new collaborative research methods to measure and articulate the value of engaging with poetry.

Seminars will facilitate productive exchange between participants with expertise in:
1) The history of educational uses of poetry, including how poetry accrued ethical values in eighteenth and nineteenth-century anthologies; and current emphasis on cognitive skills
2) Practice-based insights into the affective value of poetry in therapeutic settings, including evidence from work with people from displaced communities to head injury patients that poetry enhances emotional literacy, and can help individuals to process emotional and psychological trauma, often drawing on poems remembered from childhood
3) Scientific evidence from cognitive and developmental psychology, including the role of poetry in autobiographical memory formation, and of rote-learning in promoting neuronal plasticity in the ageing brain
4) Discourses of cultural value as they pertain to poetry, and the institutional challenges of measuring and extrapolating from individuals' 'experiences' of culture

To promote genuine reflection and collaboration, participants will address the following questions:
-- What research exists across our disciplines about the value of engaging with poetry?
-- What constitutes 'evidence' in our respective fields?
-- What is the assumed value of poetry in our fields, and how can we test that assumption? How is 'value' defined?
-- Which of our approaches, from e.g. subjective well-being analysis to reader response, comes closest to being able to measure, evaluate and articulate people's actual experiences of engaging with poetry? Can existing research techniques transcend individual experiences without simply aggregating them?
-- On what forms of measurement do we currently rely, quantitative or qualitative? How could these be combined?
-- Does our disciplinary approach tend towards understanding the affective, cognitive or aesthetic role of poetry? How could we better understand these from an interdisciplinary perspective?
-- How can we optimise the strengths of our approaches to pilot a new, truly interdisciplinary valuation of the benefits of engaging with poetry?

In the second half of the project, the team will test their emerging collaborative research techniques and methodologies at two practical workshops. Working with three different age groups (primary school pupils, university students, older people), the workshops will also use performance practice, in combination with other research techniques, to explore, in particular, the experience of memorising poetry as a mode of engagement. The second workshop will be cross-generational, enabling the project team to draw comparisons between older and younger people's experiences of poetry, and to facilitate research that goes beyond stated benefits to the individual and explores the possibilities of community learning.

Planned Impact

The poetry project will generate:

- Well-researched and robust interdisciplinary tools that will challenge existing assumptions about the value of poetry, produce more rigorous forms of evidence, and create better understanding of its value in the lives of individuals and twenty-first-century communities;

- Stronger research connections between mainstream education and lifelong learning and development, enabling the more effective sharing of best practice;

- Better integration of the perceived cognitive, affective and aesthetic benefits of engaging with poetry for learning and development, with implications for the delivery of poetry in mainstream education and therapeutic settings which currently tend to focus on only one of these aspects.

- Better understanding of the value of cross-generational engagement with poetry in the community, which will drive up quality and innovation in the community delivery of poetry for lifelong development;

- Best practice techniques for public-focussed interdisciplinary research in the arts and humanities which will continue to be used.


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Rathbone C 'Poetry and Autobiographical Memory: the reminiscence bump and self-relevance' in Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education (special issue ed. by Kate Rumbold, Karen Simecek and Abigail Williams)

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Riddell P (2016) Metaphor, Simile, Analogy and the Brain in Changing English

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Simecek K (2016) The Uses of Poetry in Changing English

Description Our chief observations from our initial, six-month exploration are that:
--poetry has particular value in terms of developing and sustaining people's self-identity;
--it can help people to inhabit other points of view; to grapple more effectively with indeterminacy; and to hold in mind multiple possibilities;
--the teaching poetry would ideally acknowledge and incorporate the physical dimensions of learning
--memorisation can be a pre-condition to a deeper engagement with poetry;
--engaging students' emotions can deepen and nuance their intellectual engagement with poetry;
--poetry has a special capacity to connect parts of human experience that have hitherto been separated in its use in lifelong learning: intellect and emotion (cognition and affect); mind and body; immediate experience and long-term memory and identity;
--engaging fully with the humanities can enhance our rational thinking and help us to make better decisions
Exploitation Route Our findings could be taken forward and put to use by teachers of poetry in mainstream education and at all stages of lifelong learning.

Our work points to the importance of a mode of teaching poetry that acknowledges and incorporates the physical dimensions of learning, and that draws on the insights of theories of 'embodied cognition'. In the study of poetry, such embodiment enables learners not only to engage meaningfully with the voices of others, but also to put them in their own voice, or re-embody them. Learning poetry by heart should not necessarily be an end in itself (as in the rote learning of 'great' literature), but could rather be a pre-condition to a deeper engagement with poetry, as memorisation is in acting.

Our research also points to the importance of teaching poetry in such a way that, by engaging students' emotions, deepens and nuances their intellectual engagement, and opens up the complexity of a poem.

Enhancements in the teaching or delivery of poetry could lead to an increase in the potential value of an encounter with poetry as described elsewhere in our project, in terms of enhancing people's ability to engage with its indeterminacy, and giving people a resource to build into their self-identity.
Sectors Education,Healthcare

Description The chief impact of the research findings lies in the potential enhancements identified for the delivery of poetry in all stages of lifelong learning, and a resulting increase in the intellectual, emotional, physical and creative benefits of engaging with poetry. These findings have subsequently been put into practice. For example, a workshop at the Guildford School of Acting explored the benefit of incorporating memorisation, movement, and a combination of intellectual and emotional engagement with poetry, into formal actor training, thus enhancing the creative output of a new generation of actors. In 2017-18, I used the findings of the project to develop a new series of Shakespeare workshops for adult literacy learners, through a collaboration that I initiated with the Library of Birmingham and the Birmingham Adult Education Service. This impact project explores the value of incorporating literary and imaginative texts into more typically information-focused functional skills literacy training, building on the principle observed in the 'uses of poetry' project emotional or affective engagement with literature can deepen learners' cognitive understanding of texts, and enhance their motivation and engagement with their learning. In 2018-19 I built on the success of this project by establishing a team of English Literature undergraduates to volunteer in weekly BAES adult English skills classes in Birmingham, and providing them and the adult education service with Shakespeare-related discussion materials for each week of the courses they supported, thus introducing imaginative and affective materials into the primarily skills- and work-focussed adult literacy classroom with a view to improving adult learners' engagement with their studies.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description Think Corner 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Four members of the team led poetry-based experiments at the University of Birmingham's 'pop-up research shop' in a major Birmingham city centre shopping centre. They observed that, after hearing poetry, participants incorporated the subjunctivised language of the poetry into their own speech; and that, as at the World War One poetry day, movement enhanced people's ability to memorise poetry.

Participants reported heightened understanding and engagement with the poetry of WWI; and were pleasantly surprised by the beneficial effects of movement on their memories. One participant (in 50s/60s) reported at the beginning of the experiment how he was labelled a 'dunce' at school for his inability to learn poetry, or any other material, by heart; he was particularly surprised at his 100% recall of a previously unseen war poem.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description World War One Poetry Day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Four members of the project team led two poetry-based 'experiments' within a day of talks and poetry-readings hosted by the team. We observed that movement had a significant impact on participants' ability to memorise poetry; and that being encouraged to engage emotionally with poetry enhanced participants intellectual understanding of a poem's meaning.

After taking part in the experiments, participants of all ages reported a heightened intellectual and emotional engagement with the poetry of World War I, including with work by poets -- and from perspectives on the war, e.g. female poets -- that they had not previously encountered. They were also surprised by the beneficial effects of movement on their ability to memorise poetry.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014