Packing punches with poetry - RSA

Packing punches with poetry

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  • Mental health
  • Social brain
  • Health & wellbeing

My social science research training was great in terms of giving me the tools to understand more about how we get to know what there is to know. Philosophy of science can be tricky to get your head round at first, but once you get practical examples to illustrate principles, it’s pretty much logical and consistent.

My first degree, which was in English, was much harder, in that, to do well, one had to learn how to get a ‘feel’ for what writers were trying to express, as well as understanding the mechanics of it all. I had excellent tuition, and was both pushed and supported in learning how to get the most valuable all-round education from critical reading of literature.

Unthinking politicians might easily cast aside the close reading of poetry, regarding it as an unvocational and unnecessary discipline. In fact, such practices can bring far greater appreciation to the details of important aspects of life that the language of policy makes impenetrable.

Photo by Joseph Lindley

Here’s a little example. The Social Brain team has been involved in the development of a proposal about ‘Green Prescribing’. The idea of green prescribing is to bring people into contact with nature in order that their mental and physical health is enhanced. Our proposal builds a rationale for this by referencing evidence from a range of sources, but obviously none of them are literary (that would be weird, right?).

Well, it might be unconventional, but sometimes poetry hits the nail on the head in a way that lengthy strings of referenced prose just can’t. Here’s a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, written in 1927.

To a Tree

Oh, tree outside my window, we are kin,

For you ask nothing of a friend but this:

To lean against the window and peer in

And watch me move about! Sufficient bliss


For me, who stand behind its framework stout,

Full of my tiny tragedies and grotesque grieves,

To lean against the window and peer out,

Admiring infinites’mal leaves.

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