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Why poetry is good for the rational mind (newhumanist.org.uk)
155 points by kawera on July 27, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 42 comments

As a software engineer who occasionally writes poetry, I strongly agree with this. Going back and forth (between the "logical" and "creative" sides) feels healthy - kind of like switching between standing and sitting at a desk - once you've done one for a while, the other feels good.

Here's one of my poems:

    What's my great fear?
    I'll tell you; come near.
    To lay down in death
    with so much left.

    Passion not spent -
    Oh cowardly regret!
    For fear of others?
    The thousand deaths.

    I'm afraid to die
    With no twinkle in my eye
    To pass meagerly by
    Yet hidden inside.

    To walk through life
    Not truly alive
    And to pass in the night
    With an unfelt "goodbye".
Here's some more of my poetry: http://calebmadrigal.com/topics/poetry/

Reminds me of Thoreau.

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

Wow you're pretty good with these. Simple yet refined.

> Allowing ambiguity to exist means accepting, for example, that I'm not always right, that there are limits to what I can know, that more than one thing may be going on simultaneously, and that there can be kinds of meaning that are local or individual rather than universalisable.

Two weekends ago I did a wine and painting class. They basically blow up a picture of your pet, greyscale it, and put it on a canvas. Using some guidance and some help from the instructor you paint your pet (while enjoying delicious wine of your choosing).

I've been heads-down in a full-stack project for months and haven't had a creative outlet and it was very difficult for me to get started with this. I approached it like I did with my programs looking for exact inputs and parameters as to how to go about painting. It was very frustrating because I was falling behind the rest of the class and it looked terrible.

At some point I figured out I just needed to "let go" and start painting and trying out different things. I experimented and ended up with something that wasn't perfect but I was very happy with. It's on my wall in my office in fact.

I realize that I need these types of exercises to make my mind more plastic. Being so rigid for so long I feel really stresses me out and that releases like this are needed to let the pressure blow out. It takes things like this to get remind me that life really is ambiguous and not nearly perfect like my programs and dev ops processes.

One of my favorite little hobbies is to draw portraits without looking down at the paper. Sometimes I do it with care, really making an effort to make my hand trace the shapes I see... but often I do it about as quickly as I can, which induces a different kind of enjoyable flow.

It's a well-known kind of drawing exercise, probably popularized by the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and the idea is to cut off the rationally interpreting part of the mind and encourage you to see directly and just kind of directly connect your hand to your visual perception.

Yeah, it does feel like a way to let go. It's very fun, and often turns out weirdly brilliant absurd portraits. Try it at parties! I've found that kids find it very fun too.

The whole idea of "right vs left brained" has been extremely harmful. There's probably a lot of "technical" people who never think about doing what you did because they say "that's not my kind of activity".

I dislike "right vs. left brained" as a term to define people. We are all right and left-brained (duh). We can also train our brain; we may be predisposed one way, but we are not predestined to be "right-brained" or "left-brained".

I like the distinction when used to denote different modes of one brain. Barbara Oakley talks about them as "focused" vs. "diffused" modes[1]. There are moments of high-presure analysis and low-pressure creativity.

The distinction helps to leverage these modes in solving problems.

[1]: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=O96fE1E-rf8

> Two weekends ago I did a wine and painting class. They basically blow up a picture of your pet, greyscale it, and put it on a canvas. Using some guidance and some help from the instructor you paint your pet (while enjoying delicious wine of your choosing).

I can't (i.e. generally don't like to) paint, and generally don't like wine, and I still think that's an awesome idea. Just enough structure that those without skill won't be put off, and lubricant to get people to open up a bit.

"Let it Go...."

To expand a bit on my comment: One of the main problems I hit, with anything not 'rational' is the fact that I endeavour to do things 'correctly'. If I don't get it 'right', then I'm obviously not trying hard enough or doing it properly - it's hard to settle down with something subjective and not worry.

Having said that, poetry is one thing I can do. Or at least, something I enjoy writing and for some reason don't worry about whether it's 'right'.

First the wine and paint party sounds fun and a bit stressful. But that is what the wine is for.

My kids (they are adults) drag me to Shakespeare plays which I usually dread the thought of it in advance. I usually have a great time because of the twists and turns.

I don't draw often because I could get consumed with it. I an analytic, program, do system integration and lead a moderately high performing team. A few years ago I took an art class and realized that drawing is easier than you think if you see it as a journey from bad to better. I can't wait till I retire to get really practiced at it. Then painting is next. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

> and not nearly perfect like my programs and dev ops processes.

Sarcasm noted.

Glad someone picked up on that :-)


Before I discovered that math and programming were actually a whole lot of creative fun, I got my kick writing poetry. Conversely, if you've never tried, you might discover you'll get the same rational / problem-solving kick writing poetry as you do writing programs.

Writing metered poetry that does not sound "stiff" is particularly challenging. I like how this one came out:


    I would not mind floating downstream; 
    End up among the fish and whales.

    Of the ocean waters, dark and deep, 
    I’m not afraid, for I do know 
    That, once you’ve lived among the corals, 
    The muddy currents, pebbles and rocks, 
    And parlous contours of the stream 
    Against whose tide you’d rather swim 
    Are banes you’ll gladly leave behind;

    For deep at sea you’re not confined 
    By rocks and edges that grind and rasp– 
    The river’s water may be sweet, 
    But just as sweet, the river’s shallow; 
    I’d rather down its torrent follow, 
    Follow to the salted sea.”

    (At this you quickly sipped your tea)

    “Yes, in the sea I’ll freely trace 
    The peaceful ebbs of open space, 
    More free than any shallow stream; 
    As free as logic in a dream.”

    Again you sipped, and leaned, and laughed, 
    Then played a moment with your scarf; 
    And I suspect you did agree.

I have a few more writings of different types at https://noamswebsite.wordpress.com/category/poems-and-fictio... :)

I miss writing! I think after this startup thing, if it's successful, I'll take some time to write again. I'm probably very rusty!

And it's incredibly challenging. Writing something meaningful and lyrical can be as much of a brain workout as designing a complex recursive algorithm. I've no qualms about placing Shakespeare under the same category of genius as Newton or Gauss.

It's kind of a shame that today the two worlds seem so separate... both sides are poorer for it.

As a writer and a software engineer, I agree. I think the link between linguistic ability and the kind of analytic work done in software development is strongly underestimated. The enormous amounts of complexity and subtlety required to create beautiful language mirrors the complexity and subtlety required to build beautiful software. It might not be a perfect comparison, but I think at the very least it's an extremely apt one.

I also know, anecdotally, that I am somebody who struggled with "traditional" upper math, yet found the logical thinking required for programming courses appealing. Sometimes, I wonder whether there aren't a large group of "not computer people" or "not math people" (not all, but a subset) who just haven't been exposed to it in a way that lets them realize its similarities to things they ARE good at.

    “Yes, in the sea I’ll freely trace 
    The peaceful ebbs of open space, 
    More free than any shallow stream; 
    As free as logic in a dream.”
Really love this stanza!

Thanks! :)

> The poem from which those familiar phrases come, William Blake’s “The Tyger”, has a lovely cockney rhyme at the end of its first verse:

A lot has been written about the rhyme of “What immortal hand or eye / could frame thy fearful symmetry?”.

Long story short, these words were probably pronounced with the same final diphthong [əi] in Blake’s time, or they had been pronounced that way recently enough (the past century or so) that it was still accepted as a rhyme. Poetry often relies on somewhat old-fashioned language to fit the meter and sense of a piece.

[Disclaimer: Just woke up, non coherent ] [Disclaimer: Artist behind: https://theblackbox.ca/hn.html ]

>“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” the American poet Emily Dickinson instructed herself

Do you look at the universe in Engineering / CompSci terms and frameworks? That's not a normal method of interpreting reality, but due to our context we extend it via our jargon and experience. Can you consider future life choices framed by a meat-algo tempered by back-propagation? What does that mean (to you?).

Half of the issue with the sciences/engineering is that a sense of absolute correctness and process is drilled into the student over a few years. The code you write may be pretty, understandable and modular but look at this benchmark. Scrap it, you're wrong according to this measure (excluding any others such as future maintenance, interop requirements, etc). There is freedom to solve a problem in a unique way, but the path there is fairly railroaded, although this is where programming gets creative. Save for end results, creative/flexible/nonlogical/associative thought has little place here.

I worked on a project a few weeks ago called BlackBox that explores this Engineering/Art space (an arbitrary divide or synthesis, lines are handy alright?). I'm a fine arts painter and while the meat has been loosening up slowly, the conceptual "baggage" of my Engineering context follows me. Analysis, Analysis, Preplan, Observe, Direct relation, Justification, Analysis, Blank Canvas, Paralysis. When I'm with fellow Artists what amazes them is my ability to systematically break a problem into smaller manageable bits, yet still keeping them non-modular. This baggage cannot simply be shed, it's part of the identity and story of SuperPaintMan/BlackBox so I use it as an arbitrary line in the sand. Fine Art / Engineering (What that means is a exploratory process).

Associative thinking is a strange creature, trusting the non-justifiable conclusions and straws we grasp allows our works to breathe in new and innovative ways. My line for having gone to far is opening a bakery whose principal ingredient is engine oil. [ https://xkcd.com/452/ ]

Ostentatious appreciation of poetry is also great for social signaling.

Fuzziness and ambiguity is good for the rational mind. We can't evolve our thinking without mutations.

Anything that pushes you out of your comfort area is good for you, brain can be conceptualized as a muscle... and if you don't use it you loose it.

I met a guy who had a stroke and as a result of it he loosed a lot of his brain capacity.

He was learning spanish, learning about computers, learning french, writing a book, doing kayak, running, hiking... everyday.

He told me... every second of kayak I do; I'm kayaking running away from death.

He was conscious on how this helped his brain, to gain plasticity and allow other parts of his brain to supply for the loosed capabilities.

I'm someone who doesn't "get" poetry at all. I don't like reading it, writing it, or listening to it (unless it's set to music i.e. lyrics).

Yeah, I appreciate when a point is succinctly and aesthetically encoded, but not poetry for the sake of poetry. Seems like the vast majority of it is just ambiguity masquerading as depth.

One of my favorite poems is Invictus by William Earnest Henley, so I tried reading a lot more of his poems, but they all seemed like a chore.

I'm the same.

Can't stand musicals either.

What many tech/math/science oriented people fail to acknowledge is that rational, while much of the time is a good thing, can also mean rigid, cold, arrogant, absolutist, and reductionist. These are the reasons many people criticize and sometimes despise Silicon Valley and the tech industry.


Please comment civilly and substantively or not at all.

I'm much happier for being in possession of the technologies of human experience that the humanities gave me.

I think for people with good rational abilities it's tempting to think that we can logic our way through all of our internal (meaning, emotion, relationships) problems the way we can with external (business, financial, engineering) problems. It doesn't work, and the tools provided by both the humanities and spiritual traditions[1] do work, marvelously.

[1] When approached pragmatically, rather than dogmatically. Dogmatically religious people seem to suffer from as much or more angst than anyone.

I am a burnt out and long-term unemployed engineer who has had no luck on the job market.

I've taken to writing a lot of poetry lately as a way to process my feelings and it has been very helpful.

I actually recently read the book How Music Works by David Byrne and I enjoyed reading his account of one of his creative processes. He said that he often begins by coming up with a vocalization, grunts or hums or breaths, that fits into a certain rhythmic pattern, even though it has no linguistic meaning at that point.

He'll work to sharpen it, refine it, all without even trying to add words. Then, after getting that basic guttural rhythm down, he will begin to search for words that fit into it.

This kind of syllabic constraint also reminded me of Oulipo, of which I've been a long-time admirer.

Anyway, I started doing the same thing, and what I've been amazed with is the way the syllabic constraints cause you to sculpt and shape words and sentences that you sort of didn't even consciously realize were inside yourself.

Just a quick example, I came up with the idea to have stanzas with a syllable structure (for each line) of 3, 3, 4, 4, 3, 3, 8. I was actually sitting in my computer chair moving my shoulders to the 3-3-4-4 part and even drew a sort of bastardized Morse code thing on a post-it note to make sure I didn't forget it. I also felt like I wanted a longer line at the end of the stanza, because I couldn't see how continuing the 3-3-4-4 pattern could reach anything that verbally felt "conclusive" -- if that makes any sense (it probably doesn't).

At any rate, here [0] is the poem I came up with out of that experiment (warning: I'm not a poet, and this is totally amateur, but it was still enjoyable to write):


In my hand

made of sand

electric pulse,

wavefront growing.


mass and weight

and the broken fragments of slate.

Now tell me why do I ache for

that which I don't know?

Now tell me why do I ache for

that which I don't know?

In my mind

fruit and rind

fall away from

trees on fire.


time by land

by the darkened lines of my hand.

Now tell me why do I ache for

one who I don't know?

Now tell me why do I ache for

one who I don't know?

But do I really ache for

one who I don't know?

But do I really ache for

one who I don't know?

What do I really ache for

can my kind ever know?

Is it the chance to know her

or the chance to know me?

----- [0] < http://suitdummy.blogspot.com/2016/07/ache4.html >

Many of the phrases from the poem were not ideas that I rationally or consciously accessed. The two stanzas are about the way that I feel this sort of electric reverberation of loss over some relationship experiences, and that it sometimes feels like a devastated landscape inside of myself. But I think if I had sat down to write that directly, instead of letting it just kind of fall into the framework of the syllable constraints, I would have sounded more like the emo kids from South Park (err, maybe I do anyway).

This is great, thanks for sharing. I've had How Music Works on my bedside drawer for the past month or so, keep meaning to dive in. I think it's time!

I like how you used repetition.

I love, love, love repetition.

Yeah, good stuff!

I like this:

electric pulse,

wavefront growing.


mass and weight

The first lines of poetry that really stuck with came, from all places, a book on computability and complexity:

Tempt me no more for

I Have known the lightning's hour,

The poet's inward pride,

The certainty of power.

I know I shouldn't quote it all, it's too long, I should just mention the title. But I so want to quote at least some of it, and it's all in one piece. So against my better judgement, but in a spirit of sadness and concern about "the world" as it seems to be going for "since like forever" and a sense of melancholia about not being a child anymore, rather than, say, snark about SV etc. -- one of my all time favourites:

    by Ralph Waldo Emerson
    Give me truths;
    For I am weary of the surfaces,
    And die of inanition. If I knew
    Only the herbs and simples of the wood,
    Rue, cinquefoil, gill, vervain and agrimony,
    Blue-vetch and trillium, hawkweed, sassafras,
    Milkweeds and murky brakes, quaint pipes and sun-dew,
    And rare and virtuous roots, which in these woods
    Draw untold juices from the common earth,
    Untold, unknown, and I could surely spell
    Their fragrance, and their chemistry apply
    By sweet affinities to human flesh,
    Driving the foe and stablishing the friend,--
    O, that were much, and I could be a part
    Of the round day, related to the sun
    And planted world, and full executor
    Of their imperfect functions.
    But these young scholars, who invade our hills,
    Bold as the engineer who fells the wood,
    And traveling often in the cut he makes,
    Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,
    And all their botany is Latin names.
    The old men studied magic in the flowers,
    And human fortunes in astronomy,
    And an omnipotence in chemistry,
    Preferring things to names, for these were men,
    Were unitarians of the united world,
    And, wheresoever their clear eye-beams fell,
    They caught the footsteps of the SAME. Our eyes
    And strangers to the mystic beast and bird,
    And strangers to the plant and to the mine.
    The injured elements say, 'Not in us;'
    And haughtily return us stare for stare.
    For we invade them impiously for gain;
    We devastate them unreligiously,
    And coldly ask their pottage, not their love.
    Therefore they shove us from them, yield to us
    Only what to our griping toil is due;
    But the sweet affluence of love and song,
    The rich results of the divine consents
    Of man and earth, of world beloved and lover,
    The nectar and ambrosia, are withheld;
    And in the midst of spoils and slaves, we thieves
    And pirates of the universe, shut out
    Daily to a more thin and outward rind,
    Turn pale and starve. Therefore, to our sick eyes,
    The stunted trees look sick, the summer short,
    Clouds shade the sun, which will not tan our hay,
    And nothing thrives to reach its natural term;
    And life, shorn of its venerable length,
    Even at its greatest space is a defeat,
    And dies in anger that it was a dupe;
    And, in its highest noon and wantonness,
    Is early frugal, like a beggar's child;
    Even in the hot pursuit of the best aims
    And prizes of ambition, checks its hand,
    Like Alpine cataracts frozen as they leaped,
    Chilled with a miserly comparison
    Of the toy's purchase with the length of life.

Rational is used wrong about 99% of times. People will say something is irrational because for instance they will have some math equation that they will say about that they will say things are irrational. The problem is that their equation is wrong and even worse the equation is usually the least wrong thing they are wrong about about everything.

Yeah, I find that people use "Logical" wrong as well, or, more specifically, "Not Logical" or "Illogical". When asked to explain why something is or isn't logical...blank stares.


Once, a couple of years ago, I had a chat with a woman online, and I used "rational" in describing a given choice (we both disapproved) - something like: "Well, this is not something I consider rational".

She was a bit surprised at my choice of words (we were basically in agreement on the main topic, but the moment I said "Rational" she reacted badly) because in her experience "rational" is almost a bad word, because (according to her) it is banded around (by men) to belittle their counterpart in a discussion.

I told her that I had just finished an online course on IA, and therefore I meant "rational" strictly in the sense of "rational agent" as per Wikipedia: a rational agent is an agent that has clear preferences ... and always chooses to perform the action with the optimal expected outcome for itself from among all feasible actions.

IA? Inflammatory Arthritis?

AI - typo, sorry

I think "in various different ways" could be substituted for "wrong" in your first sentence. Language is fluid and fuzzy.

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