Are We Hard-wired for Poetry?

Still Life with Mackerels, Lemons and Tomatoes (1886) by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) for poetry and neuroscience blog post

How is neuroscience research affirming that the pleasure of sound and rhythm in poetry is linked to the internal rhythms of our heartbeat, our breathing, our pulse?

When I first began to do public readings of my poetry, I reached out for advice to my friend, Jody, an actor and improv teacher. Her first suggestion was mastery of voice. “Let’s work on expanding your lung capacity and opening your throat.” As homework I was instructed to hum from the belly up and to practice certain tongue twisters. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Susie sells seashells at the seashore. I was told to repeat these while washing dishes, showering, or walking the dog, saying the phrases faster and faster but keeping the enunciation perfect.

Soon enough, my lips, tongue, and brain were working in unison, and each word became a clear bell sound. As my practice continued, I grew more attuned to the language itself, its sounds, its rhythms, and the pure delight that comes with expressing something close to song. Most of us know this joy—of belting out a familiar tune—the enchantment of chanting prayers or mantras or singing hymns. We clap our hands, stamp our feet, and discover the deeply satisfying enrichment of reading a meaningful poem whose lines resonate within our bodies.

The British/Irish poet/philosopher David Whyte recounts that when a person is tasked with informing another of unfortunate news, they will often lean in and speak in iambic pentameter. Whyte relates that this rhythm is how humans speak English when they want to be intimate with another person. (An iamb is a unit of two syllables where the first is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable as in the word delight, de-LIGHT.)

April is National Poetry Month and while I’m not making a case for tongue twisters as poetry, I am suggesting poetry is an inherently sensual, meaningful, spiritually enlightening companion, especially during times of upheaval. Poetry asks us to befriend it, to sit with it patiently, as with a friend who is speaking from their depths. It invites us to dive deep into a still space where we can be intimate with ourselves without a barrage of ads, slogans, opinions, criticism, and general rantings from the digital world. Poetry reflects the complexity of our experience, naming the agony and devastation, but without condemning us to catastrophic thinking; poetry offers a place of refuge from the apocalyptic edge.

Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke Nation and 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States, calls out the harm that arises when we insist on our “stardust parts” and interconnectedness with the universe yet turn from our stewardship of the planet. Good poetry holds the tension between the terrible and the beautiful, oscillates between them, and insists on being honest. It is a conversation with ourselves, others, and the world. It does not categorically reject any experience.

Harjo writes:

“I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars, and know anything of meaning, of the fierce magic emerging here. I am witness to flexible eternity, the evolving past, and I know we will live forever, as dust or breath in the face of stars, in the shifting pattern of winds.”—Secrets from the Center of the World (Sun Tracks Book 17)

She sees the mishandling and misjudgments we make. In “A Poem to Get Rid of Fear,” she writes, “I was born / with eyes that will never close.” Bearing witness and speaking out are, for the poet, acts of courage.

In a similar vein, Zen Buddhist Roshi John Tarrant has written that attention is the most basic form of love. This is the difference between someone listening to you and someone pretending to listen to you. Or the difference between glancing at a flower and contemplating that flower with intention and curiosity. Such contemplation often leads to a sense of awe and to existential questions about how the flower, its shape, its color, its fragrance came to be? And how did I come to be myself?

Poetry heightens our awareness of the extraordinary in the ordinary. It gently induces us to see. Take Mark Doty’s poem, “A Display of Mackerel,” written after a visit to a fish market.

“They lie in parallel rows,

on ice, head to tail,

each a foot of luminosity . . .”

More than description, Doty’s poem is an honoring of reality in all its spectacular luminosity. Conflating dead fish on ice with human mortality, the poem considers what it might be to lose oneself “entirely in a universe of shimmer.” If “beauty is truth,” as the Romantic poet John Keats said, and “truth beauty,” a thing is beautiful if it is true to itself.[i]

The pleasure of sound and rhythm is hard-wired in humans and linked to the internal rhythms of our heartbeat, our breathing, our pulse. Neuroscience researchers at Bangor University in the UK found in a 2016 study that readers with no particular knowledge of a traditional form of Welsh poetry unconsciously distinguished phrases conforming to its complex poetic construction rules from those that violated them.[ii] In another neuroscience study, researchers at the UK’s University of Exeter had participants read different types of prose – installation manuals, passages from novels, poems – while they lay inside an fMRI scanner. Poems with high emotional content activated areas on the right side of the brain often activated by music.[iii]

Matthew Stillman, a poetry educator in NYC who teaches students the art of poetry recitation, writes to me: “Taking up poetry into the heart and memory and spoken aloud is a chance to practice the old and enchanting skill of beauty-making through eloquence. Having well-crafted beauty bumping around in the head and on the tongue might change the ecology of the heart and mind by adding something into the field of the more brittle and caustic thoughts that usually reside there.”

What did you pay attention to this morning? What was the first sound you heard when you woke? What scent was in the air? What drift of memory or association is floating through your mind right now? What beckons to be renewed, reframed, restored in your life? How is the world trying to speak to you?

Poetry doesn’t aim to be therapy; it doesn’t try to cajole or convince. It isn’t trying to sell you anything; it’s not a scam. David Whyte, again: “Poetry is language against which you have no defense.”[iv] It reveals us to ourselves and reveals the world to us. It is the language of the heart’s unspoken truths.

Sitting Bull, the renowned Lakota leader of the Standing Rock rebellion is credited with this teaching story: “Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins, I answer, the one I feed the most.”

Which dog are you feeding?

[i] Keats, John, “Ode on a Grecian Urn

[ii] Vaughan-Evans, A., Trefor, R., Jones, L., Lynch, P., Jones, M., Thierry, G. “Implicit Detection of Poetic Harmony by the Naïve Brain,” Frontiers of Psychology, Volume 7, November 24, 2016.

[iii] Zeman, A., Milton, F., Smith, A., Rylance, R. “By Heart: An fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 20, 9-10, January 1, 2013.

[iv]Seeking Language Large Enough,” David Whyte on On Being with Krista Tippett, April 7, 2016.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “The Healing Power of Poetry: Appreciating a Primal Pleasure,” “Published! M, celebrating the heroic dimensions of women’s lives, my first poetry collection,” “Daughters Discovering Mothers: the Yearning for Identity.”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.

Poetry and the Unspoken with Dale Kushner, Kate O’Neill, and Tina Carlson

Dale Kushner and Kate O'Neill poetry reading at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market Pavilion on March 30, 2024

Join poets KATE O’NEILL and DALE KUSHNER with TINA CARLSON on March 30 at 4:00 PM MDT as they explore universal questions of the mind and heart.

O’Neill and Kushner will read, followed by a Q&A, moderated by Carlson.

A Free In-Person Event at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Pavilion

DALE KUSHNER, poet, essayist, novelist, will read from her new book, M, which is a collection of poems in the voices of women who never appear in history books. The poems explore those twin spectaculars, love and loss. Kushner’s essays can be found at Transcending the Past, her monthly online column for

KATE O’NEILL’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She will handprint a limited edition of her new poetry title, “EMULSIFYING FIRES: Ansel Adams in New Mexico,” on a 1909 wrought-iron letterpress.​.

O’Neill is currently working on a poetry collection “Boats of Glass” centering on​ Irish family, in culture, place, politics and myth.

TINA CARLSON’​S third collection of poetry, A Guide to Tongue Tie Surgery was published in 2023.

The Healing Power of Poetry: Appreciating a Primal Pleasure

Girl Reading Under an Oak Tree (1879) by Winslow Homer (1836–1910) for poetry blog post


Uncertainty is a word that pops up frequently in conversations. The pandemic, gun violence, international conflagrations, and the escalating number of climate disasters have increased our concerns about safety and heightened our awareness of our inability to prevent or control many current challenges. Global and societal changes that affect us personally are occurring at an accelerating pace, often without warning. No wonder we’re invaded by pervasive anxiety and feelings of vulnerability and isolation.

We know that stress reduction techniques like meditation, yoga, exercise, and walks in nature mediate the sympathetic nervous system’s stress response of fight, flight, or freeze. Another time-honored but much-overlooked modality that can restore a general sense of well-being is the reading and writing of poetry.

Poetry reconnects us with the beauty and goodness of the world, while also naming its difficulties. Rather than dismissing hardships, poetry calls them out and reminds us that others have also lost a loved one, experienced disappointments, endured sleeplessness, lived with depression—have suffered as we now suffer. Poetry allows us to identify our personal turbulences, breaks our feeling of isolation, and affirms our sense of belonging. Poetry steers us toward wisdom and acceptance.

Science agrees. The International Arts & Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University offers convincing evidence from a number of studies that poetry is good for our health.[i] A 2021 study at a Rhode Island hospital found that hospitalized children who read or wrote poetry experienced decreased negative emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, worry, and fatigue.[ii] Another study from 2013 in the Philippines showed that guided poetry writing sessions significantly lessened depression in a group of traumatized and abused adolescents.[iii] Reading a poem that speaks to us, we realize we are not alone.

Rumi (2017) by Chyah for poetry blog postConsider “The Guest House” by Jalal al-Din Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and one of the most cherished poets today. Written over eight hundred years ago, the poem invites us to view all of life’s experiences and the feelings that arise from them as temporary visitors in the “guest house” of self. With patience and compassion, Rumi counsels us to recognize that even negative moods are precious teachers for our growth.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk describes the effects of traumatic stress on mind and body. I suggest that the body keeps the score on pleasure, too. One of our earliest and most fundamental pleasures as humans is the sensory delight of language. The lullabies, rhymes, and nightly prayers of our youth linger in the recesses of our brains. Some of us wished upon stars. Wish I may, wish I might, make this wish come true tonight. Some of us played clapping games. Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack/all dressed in black, black, black. Some of us made up silly limericks. A flea and a fly in a flue/Were imprisoned so what could they do/Said the flea, let us fly/Said the fly, let us flee/So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

A 2019 study in Finland measured the surface brain activity of 21 newborn babies listening to regular speech, music, and nursery rhymes. Only the nursery rhymes produced a significant brain response when the rhymes were altered, suggesting that the infants’ brains were trying to predict what rhyme should have occurred.[iv]

Our innocent delight at nonsensical rhymes and metrical rhythms brings a smirk now, but as children those sounds provided sensorial pleasure to our tongues, lips, and ears. In a 1978 essay called “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird: Infantile Origins of Poetic Form,” the poet Donald Hall identified the origins of poetic form in the preverbal babbling of infants, in the mouth-pleasure of sounds and sucking, and muscle-pleasure of clapping, tapping, repetition.[v] (When faced with a cranky baby, try a round of peek-a-boo, repeating the word itself, or cradling the baby while swaying and singing a rhythmic tune.)

“Hey Diddle Diddle” (from Nursery Rhymes (1885) by Edward Cogger) for poetry blog postWe have forgotten how intimately we are connected to poetic meter. Iambic pentameter, the ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM of one unstressed and one stressed syllable in a five-beat line, mimics the percussive beat of our hearts. In his ground-breaking book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist cites numerous instances of how across cultures people display a general appreciation for art, including poetry, which suggests that the brain has a non-socially constructed intuitive capacity to apprehend “beauty and the understanding of its expression through art.”[vi]

Are we somehow aware that there is something beyond its grasp? The great Swiss depth psychologist Carl Jung believed we have an inherent desire to connect with the deeper mysteries of existence, what he called “the religious attitude,” that creates a bridge between our inner world and the vast boundless outer one.

Especially during times of need, poetry acts as a bridge and invites us to participate in a greater understanding of our travails, and awakens our perceptions to beauty and joy, right here, right now. In “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver calls out praise for the natural world and urges us to find our place in the natural order. Like Rumi, she asks the reader to recognize life’s preciousness and encourages us to consider how we might make the most of that precious gift. Mary Oliver once said, “I got saved by the beauty of the world.” This is the advice her poems offer us, to approach all experiences with gratitude and wonder.

Think of poetry as a portal to a timeless place where we find solace, companionship, enlightenment, enchantment, mystery, connection, wisdom, humor, healing. Poetry, especially contemporary poetry, names the disconnects as well, where we have gone blind to existential threats and personal sorrows that threaten to overwhelm us. With its adherence to precision of language, its concision of thought and meaning, its naming and interrogation of experience, poetry, in a small space, usually one page, packs a wallop.

To enter a poem is to escape the clamor of the ordinary world. Poems can be reminders of things we know but have forgotten. Painful experiences are reframed and given a new understanding by a poem. That’s because poetry reflects a rich brew of the sweetness and bitterness that is life. It refreshes our temporal minds and offers invented landscapes of imagery.

Rumi and Mary Oliver lived centuries apart and yet they speak to each over, and to us, across time. It’s a long way from Hickory Dickory Dock to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, but a direct line exists between the formal poem and our wiring for pleasure in pattern, rhythm, and form. Poetry is not an escape from but an escape to: a place to land, a refuge.

For your own health and peace of mind, I encourage you to take up a friendship with poetry.

[i] Sima, Richard, “More Than Words: Why Poetry is Good for Our Health,” International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab), Johns Hopkins Medicine, March 11, 2021

[ii] Chung, Erica et al., “Effects of a Poetry Intervention on Emotional Wellbeing in Hospitalized Pediatric Patients,” Hospital Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics, March 1, 2021

[iii] Brillantes-Evangelista, Grace, “An evaluation of visual arts and poetry as therapeutic interventions with abused adolescents,” The Arts in Psychotherapy, February, 2013.

[iv] Suppanen, Emma, et al., “Rhythmic structure facilitates learning from auditory input in newborn infants,” Infant Behavior and Development, November, 2019.

[v] Hall, Donald, “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird: Infantile Origins of Poetic Form,” in Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry, 1970-76 (Poets On Poetry), University of Michigan Press, 1978.

[vi] McGilchrist, Iain, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press, 2019.

Poetry resources: Poetry Foundation  Academy of American Poets   International Poetry

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy Dale’s recently published collection of poems, M, or these other blog posts about poetry: “Daughters Discovering Mothers: the Yearning for Identity,” “How I write; love and forgiveness,“ and “Recovering from Trauma: Finding the Words that Heal.”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter.

Exchanging devotion

mindfulnessThe subject line of an email caught my attention last month: Devotional Exchange. The purveyor of the message hoped to start an interfaith/no-faith exchange and requested I send a number of friends my favorite motivational/devotional poem or meditation. When I looked at the names already on the list, I saw some were dear writer friends. This made me curious. I reread the request and decided to participate. Unlike the chain letter I blogged about in February, good luck was not being offered this time. What I did receive was much richer than mere luck. Participants shared devotional passages they treasured. I’ve copied some of them below. I’ve always felt that when emotional turbulence strikes, or when seeking advice on the human condition—go to the poets! Don’t many of us have a Rumi or Hafiz poem we pull out in emergencies? When I was fifteen and besotted by teenage love, I devoured Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poet Mary Oliver is regularly read at weddings and funerals, and Bob Dylan’s a prophet to some. So, here are some of the devotional pieces that came my way, the first, unfortunately, without a credit.

Always expect something wonderful is going to happen. Your mind is a powerful thing. When you fill it with good thoughts, your life will start to change.


samuel_beckett1Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

—Samuel Beckett, Worstword Ho (1983)

When the shell of my heart breaks open, tears shall pour forth and they shall be called the pearls of god.

—Rumi (13th century)

Try to praise the mutilated world

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June’s long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,

you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

—Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh (2001) [Even though written before 9/11, this poem became affixed to the event when The New Yorker published it for the first time on its back cover on September 24, 2001]


RumiThe Guest House


This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.


A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.


Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.


The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.


Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

—Rumi (c. 13th century) Translated from the Persian by Coleman Barks

davidfw2Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lambsquarter, cutgrass, saw brier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butterprint, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads nodding in a soft morning breeze like a mother’s hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

—David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (2011)

C.G Jung Portrait“To live oneself means: to be one’s own task. Never say that it is a pleasure to live oneself. It will be no joy but a long suffering, since you must become your own creator. If you want to create yourself, then you do not begin with the best and the highest, but with the worst and the deepest. Therefore say that you are reluctant to live yourself. The flowing together of the stream of life is not joy but pain, since it is power against power, guilt, and shatters the sanctified.”

—C.G. Jung, The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition (2009)

whitman_log“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

—Walt Whitman, from the Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)

Who do you go to for succor and inspiration? I’d love to hear what texts you turn to for uplift during challenging times.