On the curative properties of poetry – a case study based on Poetas do Cancioneiro.
The aim of this paper is to explore the curative potential of poetry, that is, examining the extent to which poetry can prove therapeutically beneficial and act as a rocket booster to the brain, helping the individual to cope with strenuous situations and improve their general well-being.
This is conducted by means of a case study where the brain activity of the subject when reading poetry is monitored using scanners. The aim is to examine whether poetry sets off sufficient electric activity in the brain so as to reconnect the individual with their own humanity.
2. The case study and literature review
The therapeutic effects of poetry have been studied for centuries with overwhelming positive results (for more detailed descriptions, see B. Ribeiro (1552), S. de Miranda (1558), L.V. de Camões (1580), W. Shakespeare (1616), J. Milton (1674), W. Wordsworth (1850), C. Rossetti (1864), F. Pessoa (1935), F.G. Lorca (1936), S. Plath (1963), T. Hughes (1998), among many others). These studies have consistently shown that the use of poetry plays a significant role in reducing depression, anxiety and ailments in general. The aim of this paper is to confirm whether this previous research can still apply to the 21stcentury and hopefully reinforce the viability of poetry as a therapeutic method in alleviating troublesome lives (suffice to say, in alleviating all lives as many other studies have shown that all lives are troublesome. For more details, please see swathes of literature available from the Ancient Greeks to the present day).
To this effect, we have conducted a study on a carefully selected subject chosen from a pool of rigorously screened volunteers. To maintain anonymity, we shall call our subject “Rita”. Rita is a Southern-European female in her forties who lives and works in Portugal. She is actively engaged in reading and thus receptive to our project. Furthermore, she fits the indoorsy introvert type we deemed essential to the study, with a wandering mind and exhibiting difficulties in concentrating, although this information was not volunteered to subject so as not to put subject off. At the outset of the project, Rita was a pessimist who was unable to believe life had any more meaning than what material conditions and particular individuals were willing to grant it, that is, not a lot. She adamantly refused to believe in the good of humanity, preferring to obsessively focus on Kierkegaard’s notion that when presented with good and evil, men can and will choose evil. She used consistent reading of the news, the election of the 45thPresident of the United States of America, rampant xenophobia, Brexit and sustained harm to the environment to prove her point which, we must admit, would present a series of hindrances had we tried to prove her wrong. It is very hard to prove any of these points wrong. Luckily, that was not our aim. Our aim was to examine whether poetry could open a redeeming window in the life of an individual oppressed by dark thoughts and a grim outlook on life.
The study consisted of exposing Rita to one poem a day and monitoring her brain activity. The corpus was selected on the basis of Rita´s preferences, which fell on a group of 15th- 16thcentury Portuguese Poets who are quite well known in their country of origin but obscure to the rest of the world. We felt that respecting the subject’s preferences and affiliations would be conducive to a positive attitude on part of said subject. We thus settled on a selection of poems from Cancioneiro Geral, compiled by Garcia de Resende, a courtier, in 1516. The results are as follows.
3. The poems. Results.
3.1. Day 0 – Preliminary study
Before exposing Rita to the poems selected, we introduced her to the procedure we would follow on a regular basis, that is, the reading and discussion of a poem so as to hopefully provide a boost to her brain. As an introduction, we actually selected a piece of prose we thought Rita might enjoy so as to get her in the right mood for the project: excerpts from Leal Conselheiro, a compilation of notes written by the Portuguese king D. Duarte in 1438 which the king wrote when he was struggling with depression (undiagnosed, it goes without saying). In the book, the king reflects on his “melancholic” condition, and is in fact one of the very first persons to have ever verbalised this beautiful feeling. He elaborates on his melancholy, to the point that he claims to long for something that has not come to pass. The awareness of his own consciousness, of the labour involved in living and making decision every day, is astounding.
Rita reacted well. She said it somehow made her feel less lonely. In our view, this reaction stems from the fact that the subject is also rubbish at making decisions and lives tormented by the necessity to do so.
3.2. Day 1 – Bernardim Ribeiro, Antre mim mesmo e mim / Between I, myself and me
The first poem was a resounding success. The brain activity registered whilst reading and discussing this poem went off the charts. The subject said the following: that she identified with the feeling of being a stranger to herself, mainly due to the pressures with which society unnecessarily burdens its citizens; that she found it exhausting to have to wear a mask all the time, and that the poet seemed to be inclined to think the same way; that it is very difficult to deal with the consequences of past mistakes, and to cope with what these past mistakes tell us about who we are and our identity; and she wondered how it was possible that a poet from the 16thcentury knew what she was going through so well.
All in all, an extraordinary eye-opener which seems to have helped the subject understand that her problems in life are really nothing special in the sense that many others with more talent have gone through them. The poem was effective in conveying to the subject that navel-gazing should be avoided at all costs as it causes back problems and is quite unproductive in general.
3.3. Day 2 – Sá de Miranda, Ó meus castelos de vento / Oh my castles in the wind
Another resounding success. Electric activity in the right hemisphere of the brain was so high it pushed the brain into another gear. This was because the subject interpreted the poem as a lament about being trapped. We are trapped between our idealisations and reality. The latter is sometimes extremely difficult to accept. There are some situations in life when the subject thinks she has done something very intelligently and then realises this was merely a castle in the wind. In fact, she has gone about her task in a stupid manner. The castle falls and she needs to accept the harsh cruelty of facts. Because the subject has a past history of not being very good at doing so, preferring instead to build castles in the wind, this poem raised her awareness of the idealisation process she insists on doing. This awareness is an important step in anyone’s adulthood, yet so many of our studies have shown that human beings struggle with this.
The subject also mentioned how beautiful she found the language of the poem to be.
3.4. Day 3 – Francisco de Sousa, Ó montes erguidos / Oh mountains so tall
Another success insofar as brain activity was high. The subject seemed very moved by this poem and showed emotion and accelerated heart rate. This was because the subject interpreted the poem as a song of love for her country. We are not entirely sure that is the case, but never mind.
The subject said she thoroughly enjoyed the poem due to the short, musical rhythm of the five-syllable verse (most composition from Cancioneiroare seven); and because the poem was about Portugal. You don’t like it when you’re actually there, but when forced to be away from it, like the poet, you long for it and miss it greatly, even though you know it is a country on “non-inscription” ridden with flaws, where nothing sticks and nothing goes forward. Or is it?
The subject seemed to be more open to accept the contradictions of human affections and to the idea that constantly blaming the parents (mum, dad or country) leads you nowhere and makes one act like a child after the age of 17. It surprisingly took this poem to raise her awareness to that.
All in all, another success.
3.5. Day 4 – João Roiz de Castelo-Branco, Cantiga, partindo-se / Cantiga, upon departing
The subject’s general level of happiness increased after reading this poem. The subject said that reading such beautiful lines partially restored her faith in humanity, insofar as the poem showed the artistry and creativity that the human spirit can achieve, quite a unique skill on the planet.
Despite the sadness of its subject-matter, the poem acted as a lead-in to optimism, something from which the subject could greatly benefit.
Our study found that reading poetry is conducive to a reframing of life experiences commonly described as “getting some perspective” on life, leading to the much needed task of “getting a grip” on life. After exposure to the poems, the subject found it impossible to look at the world in her customary pessimistic manner, having learned that so many overwhelmingly beautiful poems encapsulate life’s joys and sorrows in a few lines to let one know that nobody is alone. Our emotions, our bitter consciousness which seems to always bite, our feeling of polarised extremes, from isolation to tiresome conviviality, are part of our human nature. The fact that others have already lived through it and verbalised it turns the poems they have written into a torch of knowledge passed on to the reader, for the sole purpose of alleviating the reader and their loneliness in the world. Or it might just be that poetry reconnects you with knowledge you already had but didn’t know you had. There is merit to both hypotheses.
Given the boost to the subject’s brain activity and the electric sparks caused by exposure to poetry, the conclusion of our study is that the therapeutic effects of poetry are real, effective and should be used freely, at will and abundantly.
Rita Faria is a professor at the Catholic University of Portugal. She doesn’t know how to do anything else apart from reading and writing and wants to do nothing else apart from reading and writing. Besides this, she enjoys horror films, vampires, ghosts and zombies in general and thinks the Portuguese language is the most fun in the whole world.