Poetry and Empathy (Issue 83)

The epigraph on the cover of this magazine is “poetry on the page… speaking in your mind’s ear.” Some people are quite clear that they hear internally what they are reading, while others (usually those who read for functional purposes only) don’t recognise this experience (it is thought, because they don’t pay attention to it). Of course, to read poetry with pleasure and understanding, you have to ‘hear’ it in your mind’s ear. Otherwise, how could you experience tone, rhythm, meter and rhyme, etc.? 

As adults, we do not read by using synthetic phonic strategies; but we still read by translating print into internalised sounds. We have learnt to read in spelling-to-sound chunks – rimes, syllables, larger structural features like –ation, and whole words. We use spelling analogies to work out, from their chunks, the sound of new words. Our reading strategies are so well practised that they have largely become unconscious and automatic. We give our deliberate conscious attention to meaning. But this is mediated to us through the rhythms of internalised pronunciation, articulation and intonation, interpreting the text to make sense. If it doesn’t make sense, we re-read to check the text and it’s only our misreadings that alert us to the nuts-and-bolts of the reading process. We may even find that we have inwardly mispronounced a word or that we have applied a wrong rhythmic phrasing to construe the grammar! 

The techniques of writing poetry, whether metrical or free verse, are all ways of imitating the speaking voice, representing the intonation patterns of thought and feeling. When reading poetry, we have to be more than usually alert to rhythm and intonation, the voice of the poem. While reading the poem, in our heads we hear it with the intonations of our own voice. Thus it becomes our own. 

Historically, one of the effects of literacy, especially through the rise of fiction and the emphasis in poetry on the sensibility of the poet, has been to widen and deepen human empathy. As we internalise the voices of others through the reading process, we make their feelings our own: we recognise ourselves in thPe other and the other in ourselves. Reading is thus a much more intimate experience than listening because it is our own voice we are hearing, mediating widening circles of sympathy. 

– Editorial, Pennine Platform No. 83

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