(CN) – Why do we find certain poems aesthetically pleasing?
While poetry often elicits a range of reactions – making it difficult to form a consensus verdict on the value of a given poem – certain artistic components may transcend individual taste.
To determine which aspects of poetry resonate most with readers, and whether these factors are more subjective than objective, a team of researchers had more than 400 participants read and rate a series of haikus and sonnets. Their findings were published Thursday in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.
The haikus came from “The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa,” translated by Robert Haas, and “Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon,” by Richard Wright. The sonnets included works by English and American poets, such as “The hardness of her heart and truth of mine” by John Davis, “The Tides” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and “Dawn in New York” by Claude McKay.
“People disagree on what they like, of course,” said lead author Amy Belfi, an assistant professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology. “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.”
Aesthetic appeal plays a major role in our everyday lives, from the clothes we wear to the music we listen to. Despite their impact on personal tastes, little is known about how aesthetics inform our judgments.
To investigate which factors best predict our appreciation of poetry, the team had the participants read the haikus and sonnets and rate them based on vividness, emotional arousal, emotional valence – whether a specific work elicits positive or negative feelings – and aesthetic appeal.
Based on the participants’ responses, the team found vividness of mental imagery is the greatest predictor of aesthetic appeal. Emotional valence is also tied to aesthetic appeal, though to a lesser degree. Poems seen as more positive were largely found to be more appealing.
Emotional arousal is not clearly associated with aesthetic appeal.
“The vividness of a poem consistently predicted its aesthetic appeal,” said co-author G. Gabrielle Starr, president of Pomona College in Southern California. “Therefore, it seems that vividness of mental imagery may be a key component influencing what we like more broadly.
“While limited to poetry, our work sheds light into which components most influence our aesthetic judgments and paves the way for future research investigating how we make such judgments in other domains.”
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.