Rhyme and reason: why poetry is winning over new audiences

Mindfulness and cognitive therapy have given new avenues to explore an age-old genre

Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck performs a selection of her works at Desert Stanzas.
Courtesy: Emirates Airline Festival of Literature *** Local Caption ***  al12mr-p4-beck.jpg

“Everywhere I go,” wrote Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychotherapy, “I find a poet has been there before me.” Freud was, of course, alluding to the insight and intuition poets are capable of expressing in just a few choice, pithy words. Were he alive today, he would no doubt have something to say about the recent resurgence of poetry. The genre had been waning in popularity in the West but the last few years have seen a sudden rise in sales of poetry books, with some sitting in the bestseller charts for weeks.

In North America, poetry book sales have soared by 21 per cent since 2015, making poetry one of the fastest-growing categories within publishing. In the UK, figures from Nielsen BookScan show sales went up by 12 per cent last year, for the second year in a row. According to the US National Endowment for the Arts, women are the biggest consumers and it is young people who are doing the bulk of the buying. The number of American 18 to 24-year-olds reading poetry doubled between 2012 and 2017.

What has prompted this surge has been the cause of much speculation. Some have attributed poetry's rise to social media and the emergence of the so-called Instapoets. Certainly, platforms like Twitter and Instagram give instant access to a broad audience. However, the proliferation of supposedly inspirational quotes peppering such mediums, and the popularity of Instapoets such as Rupi Kaur, who spent months on the New York Times's bestsellers' list, has led to some sniffily complaining about the dumbing-down of poetry.

A handout photo of Rupi Kaur (Courtesy: Rupi Kaur) *** Local Caption ***  al02no-sibf-kaur.jpg

The pre-eminence and popularity of poetry in the UAE and the broader Arab world, however, has been unwavering for hundreds of years. Poetry is in the DNA of the Arabic language, with a rich tradition stretching back to the pre-Islamic period. Arabic's flexible sentence construction render it an elegant medium for some of humanity's most exquisite and lyrical poetry.

However, even this region has seen new audiences grow. Reality TV programmes like Million's Poet and Prince of Poets have even overtaken figures for televised football screenings in some parts of the region. One of the most popular events at the annual Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is Desert Stanzas, where poetry of the world is celebrated under a moonlit sky.

Whatever the reason for its recent take-up, Freud seems to have hit on something significant decades earlier. For poetry – long the domain of the tortured, the emotional and those in turmoil (think Sylvia Plath, William Blake and Emily Dickinson) – has found a new audience in the field of psychotherapy. Mindfulness-based or so-called third-wave therapies, such as acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, often include poetry as an essential part of the treatment. Poems are used to illustrate key themes such as acceptance, gratitude and changing perspectives. In a mindfulness session, a poem might be read out loud to underline and emphasise key lessons.

The poems of Rumi and the late Pulitzer prize-winning poet Mary Oliver are among those most frequently used in such sessions. Oliver's Wild Geese and Rumi's The Guest House have become classics in psychotherapeutic circles. The Guest House, for example, depicts emotions like joy and depression arriving like unexpected visitors and urges readers to "welcome and entertain them all".

In the book Affect, Cognition and Change: Remodelling Depressive Thought, cognitive scientists John Teasdale and Phil Barnard argue that poetry can be a highly effective means of communicating holistic meaning - a way to see the bigger picture. They say that can radically alter the way we feel and behave, with important implications for conditions such as depression.

It is possible that the rise in popularity of poetry is partly connected to growing awareness about mental health issues, as well as a general unease about an uncertain future. Perhaps we intuitively know that it is poets, rather than politicians, who have the best answers to our existential woes. It is poets whose soundbites soothe our souls.

People gather and listen to poems by the "Poeticians" - a group of Dubai poets who get together monthly for poetry/spoken word/slam readings - at their January gathering on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Charles Crowell for The National

There is, however, a poetic paradox here, because those who boast an artistic temperament can also be more inclined to experience mental health issues. The fictional image of the tortured genius is to some extent born out by empirical data.

Using a sample of more than four million people, a Swedish study published last year in the British Journal of Psychiatry looked at the relationship between tertiary education in an artistic field and subsequent hospital admission for psychiatric conditions. Those involved in artistic fields had a higher risk than non-artists of being hospitalised for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression.

One common theory is that creativity and mental illness are both associated with deviations from normative thought. As the poet Charlotte Smith once wrote: “Those paint sorrow best who feel it most”.

Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National