NEW YORK — What makes a good poem? You might not think that science and English literature mix, but scientists at New York University proved that perhaps it can. In a recent study, researchers sought to figure out what makes poetry most appealing to readers, and discovered a few common denominators.

Antique poetry book
In a recent study, researchers sought to figure out what makes poetry most appealing to readers, and discovered a few common denominators.

For the study, the authors recruited 400 participants to read and rate two types of poems: haikus and sonnets. The poems were rated on a number of factors, including the vividness of its imagery, emotional arousal, emotional valence (e.g. pleasant poems about pretty flowers or darker poems about death), and overall aesthetic appeal. The poems ranged from 16th century works to contemporary content.

The results showed that vivid imagery was the best predictor of whether someone would like a poem. The emotional “lightness” or “darkness” of a poem was also a predictive factor in a poem’s aesthetic appeal. By contrast, emotional arousal didn’t seem to play a role for participants.

“People disagree on what they like, of course,” says Amy Belfi, a former postdoctoral fellow in New York University’s Department of Psychology and lead author, in a release. “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.”

Not everyone agreed on which were their favorite poems of the group, of course, but when a reader could clearly envision the content or felt an emotional connection, the odds of a poem being collectively favored were higher. Poets, take note.

“While limited to poetry,” notes G. Gabrielle Starr, president of Pomona College and dean of NYU’s College of Arts and Science at the time of the research, “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.”

The full study was published Nov. 30, 2017 in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

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