Poetry is a brain hack

Chris Noessel
14 min readNov 4, 2020

Or, what I wish teachers had explained to me before asking me to write any of it

I recall sitting in high school English class. Quatrain? Villanelle? Haiku? Why would anyone bother with this schtick? Sure, some of these poems talk about lofty things and have some pretty turns of phrases, but why wouldn’t these authors just say what they mean?

I was a dutiful student, so despite not understanding why, I would take whatever topic the teacher offered and push it through the meatgrinder of rhyme scheme and meter. The poems were, of course, terrible, contractual-obligation poetry. It took me quite some time afterward to realize that poetic forms are not some mode of torture invented by creative writing teachers. It’s a brain hack. A profound tool for breaking you and your reader’s perceptions open. To overcoming our mind’s resistance. To mechanizing your muse.

Modified open-source clipart, showing a young woman in 19 CE dress reading a book. https://openclipart.org/detail/270441/read

Hacking the reader

Of course these authors could have written about their subjects in straightforward language. Well-known poets generally have a great mastery of words. So why did they not write their thoughts in prose? There are probably as many answers as there are poets, but I’m drawn to the answers that touch on human psychology. The first of which is the mood.

Prime them to really listen

Poetry is a kind of register. Not like a cash register, but a way of speaking that follows slightly different rules for different purposes. You wouldn’t talk to a judge the same way you talk to a toddler, and you wouldn’t talk to a toddler the same way you joke with your circle of friends. This switch of style is called register in sociolinguistics. Poetry is a kind of register, too. When we feel especially intense about something or want to drape our attentions on, say, the object of our romantic feelings, or on an event we want to really reflect on, we want the form to convey some of how we’re feeling as well as the content.

Prose is the register of the day-to-day. Poetry is the register of reflection. Readers know this and bring those expectations when they come to your writing. It helps them shift into a reflective state themselves. There might be some comedic value in writing a sonnet about a soapdish, (or to a louse — the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote a whole poem to one once) but usually, poetry is reserved for more heartfelt things.

Poetry assignments may feel empty because they’re assigned. Or maybe because you don’t want to pour your heart out to classmates. But try it on your own sometime and start with the intense feelings first. The words may come more naturally and you’ll find this register fits the ideas better than prose. Should you choose to share it, your readers will note the register and be more primed to listen.

Trip their attention

Taking a thought and squeezing it into poetic form is tough, and the language doesn’t always want to cooperate. Take something as heavy as a car crash on a wintry road and try to evoke it in the 17 syllables of a haiku, and you’ll see what I mean. As the ideas get sculpted to fit, they often take surprising forms that cause the reader to perk up and take notice more than they would in prose, as they bump into the unfamiliar language and connections and ideas.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

— Excerpt from “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, 1978

Oil wells in the living room? Wouldn’t that be a damned nuisance? Loud? Messy? But no, in the context of the rest of the poem, we know she’s writing about living life out loud, defiantly against those who would hold her down, so we know she’s writing about the sense of power and wealth of resources associated with owning oil wells, not actual ones. Talking about them as if they were literal is just a poetic way to convey that.

And it’s not just word choices that will catch a reader’s attentions. You can even mess with grammar to draw attention. Galway Kinnel did this often enough in his work to be known for it.

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

— “Prayer” by Galway Kinnell, from “Good Poems for Hard Times” in 2005 (Yeah, those three lines are the poem in its entirety!)

You can parse it if you work at it (whatever “what is” is, is what I want), but the invitation to suss it out gets the reader engaged. Thinking. Paying attention — which is quite dear when so many things are nagging at our peripheries, demanding it. (Hang on, my phone just buzzed.)

Hlane13, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Think of it like cake. An ordinary cake might be wolfed down quickly, even if the eaters are genuinely enjoying it. Making the baker feel a little sad that they put in all that work for 10 seconds of chomping. But a Mardi Gras King Cake has a little porcelain or plastic trinket baked inside of it (or sometimes a sour bean), called a fève, and to avoid choking on it, you have to eat the cake slowly. As a result, you experience it differently. You give it your attention. Savor it. Similarly, the unusualness that results of poetic form is part of its power, asking the reader to stop wolfing, slow down, pay attention. Chew the red velvet and rummage with your porcelain teeth.

Lodge your thoughts in their memory

I presume that as a writer you would like people to remember what you write, and even to share it with others if they find it valuable. These two things — remembering and sharing things — are key parts of a branch of study called memetics. Sharing is a topic for another essay, but what language tools do we have to help the reader remember?

Much of the oldest poetry we have is about live entertainment. The ancient Greeks couldn’t binge Game of Thrones to while away the hours. But entertainers in 400 B.C. could stand up and recount favorite epic poems. And these things were huge. The Samuel Butler translation of The Odyssey has over 10,000 lines and 117,000 words. Can you imagine having to memorize and recite something like this in front of a crowd of people? And yet people did it. (Not all in one go, of course. Ain’t nobody got time for that. But, you might spend 3 hours a day over the course of a festival.) Memorizing epics of this size would be difficult to do in prose. But human brains have some features that make such a task easier. A powerful one of these is rhyme.

If a reader only half-remembered the first two lines of “Life is Fine” by Langston Hughes, “I went down to the river, / I set down on the bank.” It helps that the following lines rhyme. “I tried to think but couldn’t, / So I jumped in and sank.” In 1998 cognitive scientist David Rubin conducted some simple tests and sure enough, found that students could remember rhyming lines much better than non-rhyming ones. (If you want to read more about this, see the list of related reading at the end.) Rhyme helps lodge thoughts in memory.

While I am not as well-read as I could be, it seems to me that rhyme at the end of lines has largely fallen out of favor amongst the literati. Free verse is much more fashionable and serious, with rhymes occurring — if they do — anywhere but the end. But end-rhyme is everywhere in popular culture in the form of music. Hip hop, for one, has a lot of mastery of end-rhyme.

Listeners listen cause this here is wisdom
Wisdom of a speaker, a Dove and a Plug
Set aside a legal substance to feed ‘em
For now get ’em high off this dialect drug

— Excerpt of lyrics from “The Magic Number,” from the album 3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul, 1989

But more importantly, there are other poetic tools available to you than rhyme. Alliteration is one. This is the use of words that begin with the same letter. (See “dialect drug” from De La Soul, above, for a first example.) Here’s another example from around 400 years before De La Soul.

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

— Excerpt from “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell c1655

There are so many other little poetic connections to play with: consonance, assonance, sibilance. So-called “feminine rhyme,” off-rhyme, half-rhyme, eye rhyme. Now I doubt the mnemonic effect is as strong as end-rhyme, but it’s not zero, and can be of great use in the other half of the poet’s power, and that’s hacking yourself as a writer.

Modified open-source clip art showing a hand emerging from clouds to write in a book.

Hacking the writer

Even more interesting than hacking readers, working in poetic forms opens up your writer’s brain. The human mind is really good at habituating to things. It stops seeing what it has been around. It gets good at not seeing the thing, or rather seeing it as an abstraction. It likes to see what it expects to see and not what’s actually there. How do we free it from these ruts to discover new perspectives? Poetic forms force you as a writer to slow down and examine things closely. Even strangely. To consider alternate truths about the subject and see what sticks. See where the poetry takes you, and that’s often to new insights about the thing.

It’s easier to show with an example, so meet my cat. There are far more important topics of course but it’s simpler to work with a toy subject.

Buddy is a year-old warm-gray tabby. He has black and white whiskers and a handsome, squarish snoot. He’s athletic, able to leap on very high surfaces with confidence. He’s proven incapable of understanding the consequences of his actions, having once got himself stuck up a telephone pole and mistaken by a neighbor for a raccoon. That earned him one of his more persistent nicknames, “Rocky.” He tries to get out of the house at every opportunity to smell things and eat grass, which he invariably pukes up. He is currently asleep on the couch next to me, lounging on his side with his face buried under a paw, what we call the “snoot cone.” He was an unbearable bully to our other, deceased cat while she was alive. We had to keep a sharp eye on him. But now that she’s passed and he no longer has to vie for status, he’s become a ball of fuzzy affection.

So now you know a little bit about Buddy via prose. Words that came to me as I needed them. With the exception of the telephone pole story, this passage could describe almost any tabby. And even though he’s a charming cat, I doubt I or you would be able to recall this description with any fidelity after a week.

But now let’s turn that description into poetry and see where it takes us. Let’s start with the simplest structure; rhymed couplets. That means that lines appear in pairs that rhyme at the end. (Oh no! End rhyme! Woe is us!) Instead of presenting finished couplets I’ll walk through my thought process as I do them. Note that I’m not aiming at high literature here, just showing how this constraint works to take us new places.

I did a little web searching to learn what kind of tabby he is, and turns out he’s a “mackerel” tabby, right down to the M-shaped eyebrows. Plus cats like fish, so I’m going to try to work with it. “Mackerel” has zero rhyme potential, but maybe I can work with “mack.” Oh yes. This rhyming dictionary gives me a lot of options to consider…OK. BRB…I considered those rhymed words one by one. Trying “prozac” would be funny, but instead I’m going to go with something that illustrates his athleticism.

Back up, he’s attack. This cat’s a mack.
Fuzzy M and jacked like he’s got a six pack.

It didn’t bring in the “fish” aspect of “mackerel” but there’s time yet. I’ll keep that in the air and see if lands. Meanwhile let me add another couplet. I love the raccoon story, so let me try “pole.” It’s a funny punchline to that anecdote, so I’ll set it as the last part of the second line of the couplet.

That’s no racoon, ma’m, that’s my cat up a pole.

Now to backfill the preceding line. The story starts with his escaping the house, so I’ll start with…

Leave the door cracked…

Which adds additional internal rhymes with the couplet above. Looking at the rhyming dictionary, for “pole,” now, I find there’s a hilarious way to illustrate his escape and include his name. …Buddy bolts from parole.

Which gives the following four lines.

Back up, he’s attack. This cat’s a mack.
Fuzzy M and jacked, like he’s got a 6-pack.
Leave the door cracked, Buddy bolts from parole.
That’s no racoon, ma’m, that’s my cat up a pole.

Again, not high literature. But fun and germane to him. And hopefully sharing the line-by-line thinking with you illustrates how it’s the constraints of poetic form that got me here in a way that made me really think about him, and language, and encapsulate the thoughts in a way that are engaging and memetic. I doubt I could have gotten to anything like this without using the constraints of poetic form.

Meaning tokens, randomized by evolution

What really fascinates me is that these connections between words are accidents of living language. Using words all the time, we tend to forget that they have three distinct parts — A written form, a spoken form, and an idea — and that the written and spoken forms mutate all the time for reasons other than meaning, even if the underlying idea does not. Cattus. Katze. Katte. Cat. That leaves us with languages full of accidental, randomized connections that you reconnect with poetics.

For example, no one deliberately set things up such that “mack,” which comes from Old French, and “pack,” which comes from Old Dutch, should rhyme because they have related meaning. It’s just how language happened. But now they do rhyme in modern English, and we get to see if we can use them to make new or more memetic meanings.

This makes poetics a kind of generative randomness by which we scramble potential truths until we find a new one that we like or find useful. But it’s not important to understand all that to use poetry, any more than you need to understand Dijkstra algorithms to browse the internet. It’ll still work.

Back to the mack

Now let me try another poetic form on the same topic of my cat to illustrate another point. This form is called senryu. It’s like haiku, with its 5–7–5 structure, but strictly speaking, haiku are more serious, most often about nature, and should mention the season. Senryu are less serious, don’t need to mention a season, and more often about human foibles. But in this case we’re going to extend it to my adorable, dumb cat. Rather than take you through line-by-line again, I’ll just share the results.

High up on a pole
Scrambling the edge of regret?
Yes, that’s my cat, m’am.

Note that while the subject is the same, the poetic form pulled new aspects to focus on, new ways to consider the same thing. The raccoon bit couldn’t even make it in. But that’s OK. If I wanted to go back and focus on it, I could. Poetry is a funhouse mirror. Or an unpredictable lens for opening up your mind to the things around you. A badass brain hack.

Not just poetry

And here’s the trick. These brain hacks don’t just apply to poetic techniques, but to any constraints to writing other than the meaning. Try and write without the letter “e.” Pick a remarkable place and write a short story set there that uses its WhatThreeWords.com address. Force the text to fit into a particular shape on the page.

Where can you go to discover some constraints? One of my favorite literary movements of all time invented some of the most amazing ones. It was a French group who called themselves Oulipo and fortunately for us, they published dozens of their experiments.

One of the most canonical is called N+7, invented by Jean Lescure. It works like this: Write something, and then grab a dictionary. Replace every noun with the noun seven entries below it. The smaller the dictionary, the farther afield the results will be. Here I used the small dictionary setting on the spoonbill.org engine, and pushed through the children’s rhyme “Roses are red.” (With one additional tweak.)

Rugbies are red,
violets are bombing.
Summer is sweet,
and so are youngberries.

It doesn’t rhyme anymore, but it’s new. It’s novel. Something that may catch your attention because it’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. What could it mean?

Another Oulipan method is to deliberately misinterpret a name, and generate a story from it. I will try to pique your interest by sharing that my cat’s full name, “Buddy Cuddlepaw McNugget,” when pushed through this technique, seeds a story about a depressed French guy who tries to self-harm in the rain, but instead of cutting and seeing blood, instead finds himself full of delicious nougat, like a candy bar.

Constrained writing, folks.

The hack exploits our incessant meaning-makers

Both the nougat-guy story seed and the “Rugbies are red” poem may seem nonsensical outputs at first, but the human mind is incessantly meaning-making.

For example, linguist Noam Chomsky tried in his 1957 book Syntatic Structures to try and construct a grammatically-complete sentence with no meaning. He came up with “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” But then Stanford held a contest in 1985 to bring meaning to the phrase, and C.M. Street won with this.

It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are laboring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring-flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

So don’t worry too much about the strange outputs of these constraints. You will make meaning. Readers will make meaning. Meaning will be made.

You don’t even have to simply accept the results of any of these constraints, like you’re some kind of computer running an algorithm. You’re a writer and thinker and user of this language. You’re a traveler through this world and through ideas. You can use constraints as a springboard to bounce yourself to new meaning, and leave the constraint behind; a Campbellian hero returned from the otherworld of constrained writing, to give new voice to your thoughts about the thing that inspired you in the first place.

Poetry in your hackpack

Poetry — and by now you know I also mean constrained writing, too — is a magical tool. It can help pop you out of the ruts in which your mind likes to sit, and expand your perception of the world around you. It can let you connect with other people in engaging and memorable ways. You don’t need any physical or even digital tools to do it. Just a few rules and the language you use every day.

You think you are here, reading the end of this essay. But you are there, on a worn path, letting the moony dust settle slow behind you. A heavy-hanging and shadowy bough of a less-tread forest rustles your ear. It can wait, it says. You have the means and the mien to enter, traveler. It can wait.

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Further reading

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Chris Noessel

Chris is a 20+ year UX veteran, author, and public speaker. He delights in finding truffles in oubliettes. Tip me in coffee at ko-fi.com/chris_noessel.