What makes a poem appealing? People prefer poetry that paints a vivid picture, according to a new study from a trio of researchers including Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr, a scholar of English literature and neuroscience.

The research, which appears in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, seeks to answer an age-old question— “Why do we like what we like?”—by gauging what we find aesthetically pleasing in poetry.

The researchers had more than 400 participants read and rate poems of two genres, haiku and sonnet. After reading each poem, participants answered questions about:

  • Vividness – How vivid is the imagery evoked from this poem?
  • Emotional arousal – How relaxing or stimulating is this poem?
  • Emotional valence – How positive or negative is the content of this poem?”— (e.g, a poem about death might be negative, while a poem about beautiful flowers might be positive.)
  • Aesthetic appeal – How enjoyable or aesthetically appealing did you find this poem?

Their results showed poems that evoked greater imagery were more aesthetically pleasing. Emotional valence also predicted aesthetic appeal, though to a lesser extent; specifically, poems that were found to be more positive were generally found to be more appealing. By contrast, emotional arousal did not have a clear relationship to aesthetic appeal. 

Amy Belfi, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University (NYU) at the time of the research, is lead author. Her co-authors are President Starr, previously dean of NYU’s College of Arts and Science, and Edward Vessel, a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Germany. Belfi is now an assistant professor of psychological science at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Notably, readers did not at all agree on what poems they found appealing. Nonetheless, there is common ground—vividness of imagery and emotional valence—in what explains these tastes, even if they vary.

“The vividness of a poem consistently predicted its aesthetic appeal,” notes Starr, author of Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience (MIT Press). “Therefore, it seems that vividness of mental imagery may be a key component influencing what we like more broadly.”

“While limited to poetry,” she adds, “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.”

Starr’s research frequently reaches across disciplines, from the humanities into neuroscience. A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, she looks closely at the brain, through the use of fMRI, to get to the heart of how people respond to paintings, music and other forms of art. She became president of Pomona College in July after 15 years at NYU, where she conducted research with Belfi.