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Researchers Investigate What Makes a Poem Popular

A recent study found that vividness of imagery best predicted a poem’s aesthetic appeal

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smithsonian.com

Some poems just click in a way that other’s don’t. (For instance, why is Yeat’s “The Second Coming” so compelling while my three-volume epic on stoic philosophy, “StoneFace Agonistes,” can’t find a publisher?) According to a new study, it may have something to do with imagery.

Researchers from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics decided to investigate just what makes a poem aesthetically pleasing to readers. According to a press release, investigators had 400 participants read 111 haikus and 16 sonnets then rate the poems on vividness (“How vivid is the imagery evoked from this poem?”), emotional arousal (“How relaxing or stimulating is this poem?”), emotional valence (“How positive or negative is the content of this poem?”) and aesthetic appeal (“How enjoyable or aesthetically appealing did you find this poem?”). It turns out that there were some common factors that led people to rate one poem higher than another.

“While it may seem obvious that individual taste matters in judgments of poetry, we found that despite individual disagreement, it seems that certain factors consistently influence how much a poem will be enjoyed,” says Amy Belfi, lead author of the study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

In fact, the researchers found that one factor in particular determined higher ratings. “Across both poem genres, we found that vividness was the best predictor of aesthetic appeal, followed by valence and arousal,” the researchers write in the paper. That is different from other studies in which a positive emotional valence—poems with a happy feel or tone—led to higher aesthetic ratings.

Vividness, Belfi tells Phoebe Weston at The Daily Mail describes how strongly a reader experiences images while reading. “The haiku with the highest average rating of aesthetic appeal (the most 'popular' or 'well-liked' you could say) was about flowers blooming and spreading like a fire,” Belfi says. “The haiku with the lowest aesthetic appeal rating was about a drunken girl vomiting.”

The poems that fared the worst were ones with a negative emotional valence—think sad or scary poems—that did not contain particularly vivid imagery.

So why are vivid poems so appealing? The researchers aren’t sure, but Belfi tells Weston she has a theory why poems light on images aren’t beloved. “It may be that people found the less vivid poems to be boring or uninteresting, although we didn't necessarily test that interpretation in the present study.”

According to the press release, this study was only limited to poetry, but it may also apply to other things like songs, stories and scripts. The researchers hope to investigate that with future studies.

In the meantime, we took a crack at a haiku that should rocket to the top of the list if the rules hold true and if the internet still loves cats

Fat fluffernutter

White kitty at frost window

Belly rubs; pure bliss

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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