Kate Rumbold: The uses of poetry: measuring the value of engaging with poetry in lifelong learning and development

What are the benefits of engaging with poetry?

When people read or hear poetry, how can we express the value of their experience?

What is the role of poetry at different stages of lifelong learning?

Our project takes an exciting, interdisciplinary approach to answering these important questions.  ‘The Uses of Poetry’ brings together researchers and practitioners from literature, psychology, education, philosophy, drama and creative writing to start to develop new research methods for understanding, articulating and measuring the benefits of poetry at all stages of lifelong learning.

When it comes to questions of cultural value, poetry can often be overlooked in favour of other kinds of art and culture – and even other kinds of literature.  Much has been written, for example, about the value of creative writing as an emotional outlet and as a mode of expression for people in challenging situations (from post-traumatic shock to prisons), but much less about what happens when individuals encounter an existing piece of poetry, whether for the first or the hundredth time.

Throughout the project, we have been particularly interested in the ways in which poetry is taught.  In mainstream education, from schools to university, an analytical or cognitive approach to poetry is dominant.  By contrast, outside mainstream education, therapeutic and community based projects tend to emphasise the emotional or affective dimensions of poetry.  There is, at present, little connection between these approaches.  We as a team are keen to discover, through our interdisciplinary discussions and practical experiments, if these cognitive and affective dimensions of poetry might beneficially be connected.  Our emerging results suggest that we will be able to offer some initial recommendations for the future teaching of poetry.

Our project is, by nature, exploratory, testing out new ways of talking about poetry in a planned series of interdisciplinary conversations, meetings and seminars.  After our initial areas of disciplinary insight and expertise emerged in early meetings, our core team of eight participants worked in cross-disciplinary pairs to explore key issues relating to ‘the uses of poetry’.  These have included: the role of poetry in autobiographical memory (led by a pair of researchers from Psychology and Creative Writing); the relationship between poetry and ‘embodied learning’ (Drama and Psychology); the benefits of poetry as distinct from other kinds of writing (Literature and Education) and the applications of poetry (Philosophy and Literature).  The interdisciplinary pairs have proposed ways of testing the benefits of poetry in each of these situations; and, as a team, we have discussed and developed their ideas, informed by an extensive literature review by Research Fellow Dr Karen Simecek (University of Birmingham).

This approach has led to the piloting of some innovative research techniques.  For example, to test the benefits of incorporating a more ‘affect’-oriented approach from ‘applied poetry’ into mainstream education, we have combined literary seminar discussion (designed by Literature colleagues) with emotion-focussed questions (proposed by our team member who uses poetry in her work with post-traumatic patients); and enlisted a combination of psychology questionnaires and discourse analysis to evaluate the cognitive and affective orientation of the participants before, during and afterwards.  Likewise, we have combined historical perspectives on the value of poetry with a practical experiment that gauges the relative effects of poetry and prose on readers and hearers; and we have combined rehearsal techniques from drama with new insights in psychology into the effectiveness of ‘embodied learning’ to understand the effects of movement on memory and learning.  Along the way, we have considered the effects of encountering poetry in groups and social settings rather than alone, with fascinating results.

In developing new research methods for measuring the value of engaging with poetry, we have greatly benefited from conversations with other participants in the AHRC Cultural Value Project – in particular Philip Davis’s work on the value and benefits of The Reader Organisation’s Volunteer Reader Scheme; and the exploration of Shakespeare’s sonnets in Peter Lamarque and Gregory Currie’s ‘Cognitive and Aesthetic Values in Cultural Artefacts’ project.  Our own ‘Uses of Poetry’ blog – usesofpoetry.wordpress.com – draws connections with relevant poetry projects and discussions around the world.

This week, we tested out some of our new measures of the value of poetry at an exciting World War One poetry event for members of the public in Stratford-upon-Avon.  We are looking forward to reporting back on the results!

Dr Kate Rumbold (University of Birmingham) is Principal Investigator on the ‘Uses of Poetry’ project.  She is working on a six-month project with co-investigators Prof. Patricia Riddell (Head of Psychology, University of Reading), Prof. Viv Ellis (Head of Education, Brunel University), Research Fellow Dr Karen Simecek (University of Birmingham) and team members Dr Abigail Williams (University of Oxford), Dr Jaq Bessell (Guildford School of Acting, University of Surrey), Dr Clare Rathbone (Oxford Brookes University) and Emma Howell (Ark Project).



Helen Rees Leahy: Learning from the Past

“Art is not only a useful thing… but is, certainly for all dwellers in large towns, a necessary for health. Neither the community nor the individual, who is not affected by the influence of Art, can possibly live a full healthy life in a modern town.”

Thomas Coglan Horsfall, The Need for Art in Manchester, 1910

From the perspective of 2013, Thomas Coglan Horsfall’s 1910 prescription of a regular dose of art for the inhabitants of Manchester sounds remarkably prescient. Today, the idea that access to the visual arts can deliver diverse benefits, beyond aesthetic enjoyment alone, to both the individual and their community is established orthodoxy among cultural practitioners and policy-makers. Indeed, the quest to produce evidence of the social, developmental and therapeutic value of cultural participation drives much of the current academic and institutional research into the production of cultural value.

A century ago, Horsfall needed no such research outcomes to make his case. Instead he relied on the ‘evidence’ of his own remarkable experiment of putting into practice the ideas of his mentor, John Ruskin, on the capacity of art to promote both social reform and spiritual well being: namely, the creation of Manchester Art Museum. Horsfall’s Museum opened in Ancoats, one of the poorest areas of the city, in 1886 and contained rooms dedicated to painting, sculpture, architecture and domestic arts. The educational purpose of the enterprise was manifest in the detailed notes, labels, pamphlets and guided tours that explained the artworks to visitors, especially children.Innovations included free concerts, lectures and other entertainments on weekday evenings and Sunday afternoons, all of which became extremely popular in the neighbourhood.

Reflecting on the success of the Museum, Horsfall argued that it clearly demonstrated that exposure to artworks was essential to ‘maintaining the mental and moral health of the inhabitants of large towns’(Horsfall, The Need for Art in Manchester, 1910. p.35). For Ruskin and Horsfall, it was self-evident that paintings could inspire religious faith and understanding through the depiction of the beauty of nature as well as biblical scenes. And this, of course, reveals a critical difference between Horsfall’s justification for investment in museums and galleries and our contemporary debate about cultural value.

Horsfall’s work – and its rhetorical and institutional legacies – frames many of the questions that we are researching in our cultural value project ‘Learning from the Past: Cultural Value, then and now, in principle and in practice.’ The project aim is to introduce historical breadth to contemporary questions of cultural value, by bringing historical sources into dialogue with contemporary practice and research. Specifically, we are investigating histories of museum and gallery practice in Horsfall’s ‘ugly town’ of Manchester (ibid. p.17).

So how do museums and galleries today understand and draw on the resources of their own histories in their practice today? One answer to that question is provided by the current exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, entitled ‘Art for All: Thomas Horsfall’s Gift to Manchester’. It’s a rare outing for some of the artworks from the Manchester Art Museum, now in the collection of Manchester Art Gallery, most of which are regarded as embarrassingly kitsch and/or lacking in artistic quality by today’s professional curators. Horsfall’s emphasis on personal development, education and inclusivity resonate with present practice, but his overtly religious agenda and aesthetic taste are less compatible with present notions of cultural value.