Shining a ‘scientific’ light on emotion and poiesis

Poetry has a long history of being associated with irrationality and mental illness, especially in the sciences. This paper begins by engaging with Max Nordau’s fin-de-siècle physiognomic study of ‘degenerate’ artists, in which the poetic utterances of the Symbolists are theorised in terms of atavistic emotionalism. This paper concurs that emotion is indeed central to poiesis, though it contests the pathologisation of both emotion and creativity still present in many scientific studies of the arts, mobilising contemporary theories of embodied cognition to redeem emotion as a central if neglected dimension of healthy cognition. In fact, further contesting the enduring myth of the mad poet, this paper ultimately argues that the emotions that inform poetry are often ‘professionally’ affected for their generative potential.


Keywords: poetry—theorising creativity—science—embodied cognition—emotion.



Max Nordau’s physiognomic study of criminality, Degeneration (1895), notably dedicated to the Italian pioneer of criminal anthropology Cesare Lombroso, labels poets and other artists—alongside criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, and lunatics—as ‘degenerates’. The Symbolist poets come under particular scrutiny in Nordau’s pseudo-scientific study. Paul Verlaine is described as ‘a repulsive degenerate subject with asymmetric skull and Mongolian face’ (1920 [1895]:128), while Stéphane Mallarmé is said to have ‘long, pointed, faun-like ears’ (131). The emotional and metaphorical intensity of their poetry, for Nordau, is another reflection of their alleged degeneracy. These poets write ‘twaddle’ (116), engaging in a ‘babbling and stammering’ (119) resonant of children and animals, which only ‘imbeciles and idiots’ profess to understand. While the Symbolists are viewed as avant-garde, Nordau is at pains to demonstrate that their irrational use of language actually exposes them as atavistic. Nordau proclaims: ‘clear speech serves the purpose of communication of the actual’ (118). By contrast, the Symbolists, ‘so far as they are honestly degenerate and imbecile, can think only in a mystical, that is, in a confused way… their emotions override their ideas.’

Identified by Nordau as one of the fin de siècle’s degenerates, Oscar Wilde evoked Nordau’s book in a petition for clemency when he was imprisoned in 1896, arguing that Nordau’s findings proved he required medical rather than punitive intervention. His plea was not successful, with Wilde later quipping: ‘I quite agree with Dr Nordau’s assertion that all men of genius are insane, but Dr Nordau forgets that all sane people are idiots’ (cited in Hitchens 2000: 18).

Nordau’s study—and, indeed, Wilde’s response—provides a hyperbolic demonstration of the pathologisation of creativity common to theories of the arts. An understanding of the artist as irrational or perverse has informed theories of creativity from the ancient world—with Aristotle declaring that ‘poetry demands a man with a special gift... or a touch of madness’ (cited in Burwick 1996: 1)—through to the contemporary, where Sigmund Freud’s understanding of art in terms of ‘dreams, children’s play, hysterical fantasies, neurotic symptoms, daydreaming, and masturbation’ (Abella 2013: 58) is echoed in clinical studies of creativity that reference the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders. While the majority of contemporary clinical studies link manic depressive disorders and creativity, others are almost as idiosyncratic as Nordau’s in placing creativity on a spectrum of the diabolical. In Anger, madness, and the daimonic: the psychological genesis of violence, evil, and creativity, Stephen Diamond argues that ‘great creativity is most often an amalgamation of many elements, including mental disorder, disease, and evil’ (1996: 261), and cites examples of ‘creative’ individuals as diverse as Adolf Hitler, Darth Vader, and William Blake. Mark Runco’s study provides lists of poets and other creative practitioners who have committed suicide, been institutionalised or incarcerated, concluding that ‘creativity is related to depression and the affective disorders, schizophrenia, criminality, suicide, stress and short life-span’ (2014: 143).

While poets and artists have themselves promulgated a pseudo-Dionysian self-image—often in strategic and provocative ways, as the example of Wilde suggests—writers and artists would be largely unsurprised to know that the clinical evidence linking creativity and mental illness is tenuous. Contemporary clinical studies invoke ad nauseam the tragic biographies of poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton—whose unusual fame reveals the cultural power of the stereotype of the mad artist much more than the prevalence of mental illness amongst artists. Clinical studies are also typically compromised by methodological limitations, which include, as Albert Rothenberg outlines, small samples, confirmation bias, self-reporting by subjects regarding mental illness, lack of differential diagnosis, lack of control subjects, and retrospective and contentious biographical and artefactual analysis (2015: 23). In fact, Rothenberg’s own methodologically rigorous study of writers, which involved controlled interviews with successful authors as they worked on a piece of writing from inception to publication, revealed only the healthy personality trait of ‘motivation’ as a common psychological denominator (1990: 8). As Jock Abra suggests, the incentives of creativity—which involve not only personal satisfaction but also recognition in the public sphere through publication, reviews, prizes, etcetera—‘may as often be carrots as sticks’ (1988: 498).

Nevertheless, this paper would like to consider Nordau’s provocative description of poetry—as a ‘babbling and stammering,’ produced as ‘emotions override… ideas’—as a productive description of the creative praxis of the poet. However, contesting Nordau’s idealisation of the rational—and those studies that interpret artists’ experiences of intense affect during the creative process in terms of the ‘manic-depressive spectrum’ (Redfield Jamison 1993: 14)—this paper will seek to redeem emotion not only as an integral component of poiesis but also as a healthy part of our cognition. I argue that accessing an emotional state of being in the world—a primordial experience of wordless receptivity (quite appropriately portrayed by Nordau as animal-like or child-like)—is essential to the super-charging or disruption of everyday language that poetry often enacts. However, as Jenefer Robinson cautions, a poem ‘is not an expression of emotion in exactly the same way as is a spontaneous change in facial expression’ (2005: 256). That is to say, poetry need not be ‘honestly degenerate’ (my italics) in the way that Nordau imagines. Indeed, this paper ultimately argues that, just as a smile or frown can be manufactured in a particular context or inspired by contagious contact between fellow feeling beings, emotional states can be ‘professionally’ induced or contracted by poets in order to facilitate the compositional process.

The Romantic poet William Wordsworth famously emphasised the importance of emotion to poiesis in his preface to the 1801 edition of Lyrical Ballads. However, the regularly cited passage allegedly defining poetry as the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ is worth examining in full, because what Wordsworth actually describes is a process of affecting a mood conducive to writing poems.

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind: In this mood successful composition generally begins. (1991 [1801]: 246)

Wordsworth, much like Hamlet, essentially describes putting on an ‘antic disposition’, though the outcome is less a flirtation with madness and self-destruction—as per the plotline of Shakespeare’s play and the myth of the furor poeticus—than access to an emotional experience of being, which exists beyond language but which, for the poet (if not for the dancer or visual artist) paradoxically calls for articulation through language. Let us begin to shed light on the ‘dark/Inscrutable workmanship’ (1965 [1801]: 200), as Wordsworth describes it, of our emotional embodiment in the world and of the moodful language of poetry—exemplified by the work of the Symbolists and Romantics—to which it can give rise.


Thinking emotionally

Cognitive science has moved away from a computational view of human cognition to acknowledge that emotion profoundly underlies how we think. Key to this shift has been understanding the brain not as an isolated apparatus but as an embodied organ among other bodily organs, keeping alive a sensorimotor subject that is emotionally invested in its self-preservation, owing to its function as an autopoietic system. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write in Philosophy in the flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought, ‘there is no Cartesian dualistic person, with a mind separate and independent of the body’ (1999: 5). Instead, ‘we use a reason shaped by the body, a cognitive unconscious to which we have no direct access’ (7).

According to Michele Maiese in Embodiment, emotion, and cognition, the ‘cognitive unconscious’ is intrinsically emotional, with emotions ‘instantiated in all the vital neurobiological systems and organs of our bodies’ (2011: 12). Indeed, emotion is a ‘bodily activity’ (14); it is a cognitive response that autonomically brings about action. As Maiese points out, one cannot have an emotion ‘without also and thereby designing to spontaneously and impulsively move… self-expressively’ (62)—even if that bodily urge might be ultimately overridden by the inhibitory forces of the cerebral cortex. The perception of a beloved child, for instance, might stimulate an adult to rumple that child’s hair. The observation of a spider might compel one to cry out and jump away. Even if the more obvious physical manifestation of the emotion is supressed, the emotions are nevertheless enacted through the body. Maiese describes emotion’s dynamic embodiment thus:

our emotions are closely bound up with various feelings of bodily changes, including racing hearts, quickened breathing, grimacing faces, contracting lungs, tensing muscles, tingling skin, and sweating palms. These bodily sensations, in turn, correspond to various changes in the respiratory, circulatory, digestive, musculoskeletal, and endocrine systems... our emotions are lived in and through our bodies. (51)

Consequently, ‘the subject perceives and evaluates her world through a corporeity that is always already affectively nuanced’ (85). Indeed, Maiese ultimately suggests that embodied emotion is not only at the heart (surely an apposite metaphor) of our unconscious knowledge but also our conscious experience. Our emotions make us ‘occurrently conscious’, as we attend to the things that move us towards them, and this also provides the inherent capacity for ‘being maximally conscious’ (23). Our continual emotional investment and assessment, as an autopoietic system concerned with self-preservation, also means that the environment is always implicitly a place of emotional significance, further contributing to what Maiese calls our ‘existential feelings’ (53). She argues:

The constant regenerative activity of metabolism endows life with a minimum ‘concern’ to preserve itself and stay in existence, so that the environment becomes a place of attraction or repulsion. As organisms continuously regenerate the conditions of their own survival, they establish a concerned point of view that generates meaning. This perspective changes the world from a neutral place to one that always means something in relation to the organism (39).

However, such embodied knowledge of the self and of the world takes on an aura of charged ‘ineffability’ because of the pre-linguistic nature of the body’s emotional knowledge or because ‘perceptual experiences are active manifestations of skillful knowledge that is difficult to describe or put into words’ (45).

Nevertheless, it is only from an understanding of ourselves as sensorimotor subjects, moved to respond to our world, motivated to enact those powerful if also indescribable feelings, that we can understand the development of language. Neuroscientists have used fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology, which measures brain activity associated with blood flow, to trace the ‘neural exploitation by language of action, perception, and emotional systems’ (Glenberg 2008: 47). In addition, numerous cognitive scientists have associated language development with the limbic system—the complex of brain structures located above the brain stem (or the ‘primitive brain’) and beneath the cerebral cortex—which is central to our emotional life. According to Michael Trimble, for example, language develops from the limbic system and its ‘three cardinal mammalian behaviours… nursing and maternal care, maternal-infant audiovisual communication, and play’ (2007: 190). In other words, language is not ‘hard wired’ into the brains of children as an abstract system of communication, as Noam Chomsky and his followers would have it; neither is it fundamentally about the ‘communication of the actual’, as Nordau puts it. Language is something that we, in the first instance, autopoietically and dynamically generate from our embodiment—as the caring rapport of ‘baby-talk’ between caregivers and infants suggests—through emotion and motion, expressive noise and gesture, in an imitative and empathetic performance to which grammatical correctness or logic is incidental. It is also the case that the language we use, even in its most complex and abstract forms, as Lakoff and Johnson (1999), and Lakoff and Mark Turner have shown (1980), is based in metaphors of embodiment.

Trimble describes the ‘transfer of such a limbic-based language... to cortical control’ as ‘the great evolutionary step’ (190)—in a manner of which Nordau might approve. However, Trimble also stresses that words never lose their emotional depth. He refers to studies regarding the dynamic between the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex, which contains visual word-form areas usually seen as ‘dominant’ when it comes to language use (83), and the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex, which is linked (evolutionarily speaking) more closely with the limbic system. For Trimble, ‘the long-lasting lingering limbic links’ evident in the right hemisphere of the brain ‘dominate our cognition to an extent that has been completely underestimated’ (197). In fact, evoking studies of split-brain operations used to treat epilepsy, he demonstrates that the valence provided by the right brain, which is ‘preverbal, emotive, evocative, personal, primitive, and private’ (205), crucially complements the ‘arid language of the syntactical left’ (179). Maiese similarly points out how various affective disorders, such as autism and psychopathy, clearly show how emotional function is necessary to healthy cognition. Rebutting a Western philosophical tradition of valuing reason above emotion, such as that reflected in Nordau’s work, Maiese writes:

What is striking is that when affect and desiderative bodily feelings are left out of cognition, as many cognitivist accounts seem to recommend, what we get is not a stable sense of self, enlightened decision-making, wise moral judgments, or effective social interaction. Instead, there is psychopathology (186).

Such insight has wide-ranging effects, including on how we think about social institutions, such as the law, which privileges ‘objective’ knowledge over an emotional response. Indeed, the Romantics—providing a counter voice to the prevailing rationalism of the Enlightenment—argued precisely that feeling was necessary to practices such as philosophy and social policy. For Wordsworth, as Stuart Allen points out in Wordsworth and the passions of critical poetics, feeling had ‘a critical and or cognitive component’ which had a necessary place in helping with ‘judgements, particularly on social, political and philosophical matters’ (2010: xi-xii).

Recognising emotion as healthy, of course, is also important to how we understand poiesis—as the Romantic poets also understood. While Maiese is not concerned with the implication of emotional theories of cognition for theories of creativity, Trimble explicitly identifies the ‘ineffable’ texture of the ‘rhythmic, prosodic, but preverbal abilities’ (199) of the limbic-dominant left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex as central to creative expression (205). This paper concurs that it is precisely that indefinable way of knowing, encapsulated by the silent and emotional experience of embodiment, as described by both Maiese and Trimble, that poets often paradoxically seek to articulate in their associative, moodful, fragmented, metaphorical forms of speech—so memorably described by Nordau as ‘babbling and stammering’.

Of course, poets have long conceptualised the ‘ineffable’—or the ‘dark’ and ‘inscrutable,’ as per Wordsworth’s poem—as essential to poiesis, though it is only in recent years that even poets themselves have begun to theorise that sense of the mysterious or unspeakable in scientific rather than philosophical or mystical terms. In ‘The poet and the criminal: dreams, neuroscience and a peculiar way of thinking’, Kevin Brophy puts forward a similar argument to Trimble, contesting the dominance attributed to the left hemisphere of the brain when it comes to linguistic expression. He writes: ‘If the right brain is, mostly, lost for words, then what it knows about all that is beyond words must in the end give our speech its actual shape, weight, value and feel’ (2014). For Brophy, the poet might be considered someone who attends to the ‘muteness’ of the right brain and the embodied knowledge it encapsulates, precisely in order to find the ‘shape, weight, value and feel’ that it gives meaning.

The Scottish poet Don Paterson articulates a similar position in his TS Eliot Lecture, ‘The dark art of poetry’, in which he also evokes left-brain and right-brain neuroscience, emphasising the silent profundity of embodied knowledge. He recommends:

The first thing the poet in the act of composition should always observe is silence. Observe, almost in the religious sense: it’s a matter of honouring the silence—of which the white page is both a symbol and a means of practical invocation—in which the poem can ultimately reverberate to its deepest reach (2004).

According to Paterson, it is only ‘when we allow silence to reclaim those objects and things of the world’ that they reveal their ‘unsuspected valencies.’

However, both Brophy and Paterson also recognise the importance of the moderating dynamic between logic and emotion, or what Brophy describes as the ‘constant negotiation between two distinctly different forms of thinking’ (2014) represented by the left brain and the right brain. That acknowledgement of a necessary modulation between reason and emotion is also present in Paterson’s description of his poetic practice:

the poet is switching between a red, wild, creative eye and blue, cold, editorial one – or amongst the more practised, enjoying a kind of weird stereoscopic view of the poem, which they are both simultaneously inside, living – and also wholly detached from.

As Maiese points out, there is no form of cognition that is not ‘infused with affect’ (2014: 3)—a truth implicit in Paterson’s paradoxically emotional description of logic as ‘blue’ and ‘cold’. However, the ways in which Paterson depicts poiesis as strategically moodful and professionally negotiated are highly significant for this paper because they work to redeem poetry from pathology, largely by contesting the idea of the furor poeticus, an autonomic theory of poetic creativity often associated with ‘inspired’ or ‘mad’ poets. Putting aside the divisive polemic of Paterson’s lecture—in which he laments the ‘democratisation’ of poetry that has led to ‘people feeling that armed with a beer-mat, a pencil, and a recent mildly traumatic experience they are entitled to send 100pp of handwritten drivel into Faber or Cape’ (2004)—this paper shares Paterson’s desire to conceptualise poetry as a professional practice, especially when it comes to the expression of what Paterson names the ‘wild’ knowledge of our bodies.


Thinking emotionally as professional practice

As Rothenberg puts it, ‘nothing is ever created without the intention to create’ (2015: 38). In fact, creativity begins not only with an intention but also with significant priming, as suggested by Paterson’s pseudo-ritualistic tuning into the mute but teeming knowledge of the body. This idea of emotional priming, of attuning oneself to the ‘affective framing’ (Maiese 2014: 3) of one’s being in the world, is a topic to which this paper will now turn.

In Creativity and the poetic mind, Jean Tobin reports on an interview-based study of 38 US poets, amongst whom she discovered not only mental health and even happiness (2004: 21), but also a controlled and professional ‘skill in “being creative”’ (7). She writes:

Just as the poets I interviewed did not seem to fit the... stereotype of the poet—as impoverished, in poor health, over-sensitive, alcohol and drug abusing, prone to early death, mentally and emotionally unstable, unfortunate in love, sexually licentious, often scandalous, and living outside of society both physically and psychically—so they did not fit the stereotype of the poet composing only through inspiration... The poets I interviewed, in contrast, most often pursue greater reliability and control than that provided by inspiration (267).

Tobin’s key finding is that ‘poets learn to recognize, create, and recreate creative states of mind’; they have professional strategies for ‘getting the mind to the place where one can write poetry’ (2). Invoking older cognitive science paradigms hypothesising the existence of neuronal networks or ‘modules’ in the brain, Tobin proposes the possibility of a ‘poet module’ (204), which works alongside a ‘self module’ but which ‘uses language differently than the self module’ (205). Tobin’s description of the ‘poet module’ and the ‘self module’ resonates with both Brophy’s and Paterson’s accounts of creative practice in terms of the limbic dominated right brain and the logical left—though it fails to capture the ways in which the ‘self’ is inseparable from an affective orientation, as Maiese makes clear. Tobin also observes how the poets she interviewed in her study ‘talked about their minds spatially. They tended to go down in their minds for poetry, and they spoke about bringing something hidden up to the light’ (289). It is a metaphor that embodies—in a way that Turner, Lakoff and Johnson would appreciate—the ways in which poets intentionally channel the obscure sensations of their cognition during composition.

For Tobin, the main point is that professional writers are not victims of their emotions but, rather, creative agents who purposefully generate moods: ‘the poets I interviewed remark that reaching the place in the mind from which they can create is a learned, willed activity’ (290). They also engender different states of mind, depending on the subject or on the particular phrase of writing (243)—something that Paterson similarly suggests in reporting on the ‘red-eyed’ and ‘blue-eyed’ stages characteristic of his poiesis.

In Literary reading, cognition and emotion: an exploration of the oceanic mind, Michael Burke presents neuroscientific research documenting how readers likewise emotionally prepare for the reading experience. Burke argues: ‘the starting point of affective literary reading’ occurs well before ‘light strikes the retina after being reflected off the semiotic symbols on the page’ (2011: 91). As the reader prepares for immersion in a chosen book on a particular subject or in a particular genre, making herself comfortable on a favourite chair or in bed, ‘affective cognition is flooding through the embodied mind long before hands are brought into contact with the book and eyes with words on the page’ (91). That stream of affective cognition is informed in part by ‘intertextual echoes of fragmentary themes and styles... activated and channelled into the buffer-zones of short-term memory’ (147), but also by unconscious somatic and affective associations vis-à-vis those literary memories, which can go all the way back to childhood.

Burke’s emphasis on the reader reminds us of how the poet is also always a reader—not only of the work of other poets but also of her own work during composition. Thus to speak of the emotional orientation of the poet is to speak not only of an animal-like sensorimotor subjectivity, as per Maiese’s focus, but also of an embodied textual and cultural history, which forms an unconscious and conscious force of emotional power that informs the poetic process. In other words, poiesis arises not just from the emotions of a ‘degenerate’ body, as Nordau puts it, but from what Burke describes as a complex and multidimensional biological and cultural ‘confluence of emotive… appraisal’ (2011: 252). Indeed, an acknowledgement of how the poet is always located in a cultural network—entailing affective cognitive responses to other poems, which range from rebelliousness to homage—is another front through which we can challenge the spurious portrait of the poet as simply ‘mad’.



In ‘Literary theories and the concept of madness’, Robert de Beaugrande questions the stereotypical connection between poetry and madness. ‘After all,’ he writes, ‘a good deal of what is considered “madness” is not judged artistic or literary; and being “mad” is certainly not a sufficient or necessary criterion to make a person an artist’ (1994: 18-19). He also suggests that if we redefine neurosis not as an emotional disorder but ‘as a refusal of awareness, a denial of occasions for learning, knowing and evolving’ (1994: 24), it is not the affective language of creativity but the repudiation of that language in scientific studies of creativity that begins to look neurotic. Nordau’s study is, of course, an obvious example. It is also the case that if emotional ways of understanding the world and of using language constitute a mental illness, it is one endemic to us all. Indeed, even Nordau inadvertently confesses his susceptibility to the emotional language of poetry—epitomised for him by the intensely lush and lyrical poetry of the Symbolists—when he reluctantly admits: ‘It cannot be denied that this poetical method in the hands of Verlaine often yields extraordinarily beautiful results’ (1920 [1895]: 127). 


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