Empathy and Emotion in Poetry

by Michael Prihoda

Life is often painful. Among the many positive palliatives available for replacing this pain with joy and happiness are words. And while the novel form can generate incredible catharsis, the economy and condensation of poetry lend its form to an instant package of happy. If novels are the 365 days of the year, including Christmas, then poems are the presents opened Christmas morning.

Writing is all about communication and poetry is the fastest way to connect a reader with the idea supposed to be communicated because of its brevity and punchiness (no matter how elegant or flowing, perhaps comparable in some circumstances to a soothing lozenge).

Poems can turn bad days into decent days. This in part explains why the Bible is so often read nearly as an antidote against life’s afflictions for Christians. Poetry transforms sadness into joy, often through a poet’s empathic delineation of subject matter or an emotional outpouring. Poems can be incredible places to be understood, and it requires very little temporal effort from the reader’s perspective. Few things can compare to the feeling of being known in an emotional difficulty and poems often treat emotional dissonance and struggle quite heavily.

Poets show time and again that the human experience can be captured with a minimum of carefully chosen words. The following example hails from one of my favorite poems (Typewriter Series #71) by Tyler Knott Gregson:

Find my hand

in the darkness

and if we

cannot find

the light,


will always

make our


Words control our thoughts, and poems will often plant more positive thoughts in our minds than otherwise might have lived there.

Poetry is meant for reading aloud, which is perhaps why the pairing between instruments and quality lyrics can be influential on our psyches. Almost inexplicably, mere sounds are sometimes enough to lighten a mood. One of my favorite bands is the Mountain Goats, whose front man John Darnielle started by writing poetry and then attached his poems to instrumentals. His almost off-the-cuff ability to make mundane language seem beautiful can make a day. For example, in his song “Psalm 40:2” there is a line that reads “Lord send me a mechanic, if I’m not beyond repair.” In helpless moments, these entreaties can inflate little balloons of hope behind human abdomens.

The point of poetry does not always need to be quick catharsis and positive emotional takeaway, but because of its size and fluid movement, it can be an effective way to turn a bad day upside down by connecting emotionally with a reader and siphoning away the sorrow.

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