Moved by words: how poetry helps us express our feelings

Patrick Semansky/AAP

Maria Takolander, Deakin University

Poetry has made something of a comeback in popular culture, thanks to America’s Amanda Gorman, who read her performance poems at a presidential inauguration and this year’s Super Bowl. Gorman has been described as bringing poetry to the masses.

However, when it comes to the mainstream, poetry has long been hiding in plain sight. Gorman’s spoken-word performances, which have been compared to hip hop, drew attention to poetry in music lyrics. But poetry is also visible in movies and on TV.

These media representations are interesting because they show how poetry is popularly understood in connection with feelings. And that popular wisdom chimes with findings in cognitive neuroscience about how language and, by extension, poetry work.

Read more:
Ode to the poem: why memorising poetry still matters for human connection

Aside from films or TV series about poets, such as Dickinson or Paterson, poetry makes a cameo in some of our most iconic films, where it is said to represent or intensify a range of emotions. These include love (Before Sunrise), mad ambition (Citizen Kane), nostalgic patriotism (Skyfall), pride (Invictus), nihilism (Apocalypse Now) and trauma (The Piano).

Poetry, representative of emotion, is also frequently used to symbolise humanity. This is particularly apparent in films about clones.

In the Tom Cruise blockbuster Oblivion, when the clone Jack Harper recites a poem from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome this reinforces his legitimacy. In Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty misquotes William Blake:

Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc.

What emerges from poetry’s onscreen appearances, then, is a popular understanding of it as an expression of human feeling and evidence of genuine humanity.

Cognitive neuroscience

This intuitive understanding of poetry resonates with findings in cognitive neuroscience. Leaving behind theories of the brain that suggest it operates like a computer and theories of language that focus on “mental grammar”, many scientists now acknowledge the body and emotion as the foundations of both cognition and speech.

Of particular interest is the role of mirror neurons. These brain cells fire when an action is observed or performed, and they tell us a lot about how we understand the actions of others. They suggest understanding comes from a mirroring or imitation that takes place in the brain but is acted out or felt in the body.

An example is the contagious effect of a smile. When we observe someone smiling, we mirror that action to understand it.

Something similar happens when understanding language. Words contagiously move us. As neuroscientist Christian Keysers explains in The Empathic Brain, if you hear or read the word “lick”, the part of your brain that moves your mouth is activated to aid understanding. The same happens if you hear or read the word “kick”. As a result, we feel the meaning of these words in our bodies.

What about producing words? Speech is fundamentally a motor activity, which evolved from gesture. We are moved to speak, and we literally move — our lips, our tongue, our lungs, our stomach muscles, and often even our hands — to express ourselves.

As infants, we begin learning language in interaction with a caregiver, imitating the shapes of their mouth, and waving our arms and legs in excitement and frustration at the repetitive noises they make, until eventually we are able to imitate their sounds. Those sounds are accompanied by feelings, related most strongly to a desire to communicate beyond the boundaries of ourselves.

Of course, language develops into a more abstract system for communication. It can often remain a struggle, however, to give expression to feelings that are powerfully felt in the body, such as loneliness or grief or trauma. As John Hannah’s character says in Four Weddings and a Funeral, when trying to articulate his feelings about his dead partner, “Unfortunately there I run out of words”.

Read more:
On poetry and pain

Rhymes and rhythms

This is where poetry comes in, making use of the rhymes and rhythms that have helped us find speech from infancy, calling attention to the auditory qualities of language to convey meaning through feeling.

If we can’t do it ourselves, we quote someone else’s words, instinctively and ritualistically associating poetry with the expression of emotion.

This link to emotion, as well as child-like speech, undoubtedly goes some way to explaining another popular idea about poetry: that it signals “madness”. Biopics of poets feed this stereotype by overwhelmingly choosing poets with mental illnesses as their subjects — for instance, Sylvia and Pandaemonium, portraits of Sylvia Plath and Samuel Taylor Coleridge respectively.

However, cognitive neuroscience — and popular wisdom — suggest poetry actually exemplifies an important truth about language and human nature.

While poetry is regularly denounced for “not making sense”, our cognition and our language do not arise according to purely rational principles.

We are bodies wrought by feeling. Robin Williams’ character simplifies this truth in Dead Poets Society:

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.The Conversation

Maria Takolander, Associate Professor in Creative Writing and Literary Studies, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a tragicomedy for our times

Mark Byron, University of Sydney

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

[They do not move.]

Samuel Beckett originally subtitled his 1953 play Waiting for Godot “a tragicomedy in two acts”. Vivian Mercier, the critic for the Irish Times, dubbed it “a play in which nothing happens, twice.”

Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, wait on the side of a country road. Each act begins with the pair reunited after spending the night apart. As they await their enigmatic patron, Godot, Estragon laments being beaten by nameless figures during the night, and Vladimir seeks to pass the time by stirring his companion into repartee.

These two are ill-starred but well-suited: Estragon’s feet are in constant pain, and Vladimir’s unspecified affliction induces frequent and painful urination. Estragon’s shoes stink, while Vladimir adheres to a diet of garlic to ease the symptoms of his condition. Vladimir remembers, and Estragon forgets.

Memory stretches into the deep past. The present sits on the cusp of a hopeful future. Time’s recurrence is marked by the moon and the sun. The endless wait for a rendezvous … for what, exactly?

To receive instructions? To be delivered from this tormented life? To relieve the tramps of their little canters, their bombastic declarations, their pleas? To relieve the steadfast audience?

From its first performances in the 1950s, Waiting for Godot enjoyed a positive critical reception. Yet its earliest audiences thought otherwise, ensuring the interval was the most popular part of the play by voting with their feet. Over time, though, Godot would become a celebrated avant-garde play, and a popular cultural reference for fruitless waiting.

This waiting is eerily prescient in a time of pandemic.

From Dublin to Paris

Samuel Beckett photographed in 1977.
Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin in 1906. As a child he boarded at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (Oscar Wilde’s alma mater), before a degree in Modern Languages and Literature at Trinity College Dublin.

His enduring relation with Paris began soon after. During his two-year position as lecteur d’anglais at the Ecole Normale Superiéure (1928-29) Beckett met and became close with James Joyce, who introduced him to the Parisian literary and artistic avant-garde.

Beckett spent two years in London (1933-35) undergoing a course of psychoanalysis under Walter Bion at the Tavistock Clinic, during which he wrote his first published novel, Murphy (1938). Following travels in Germany and Italy, Beckett settled in Paris in 1938, as war looked increasingly likely.

Beckett joined the French Resistance but his cell was infiltrated and he was forced to flee to Roussillon for the duration of the war, where he composed the novel Watt (published in 1953) in English. Back in Paris, Beckett embraced French and embarked upon one of modern literature’s most eccentric and fruitful monastic episodes: the “siege in the room” which yielded the trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1953) and The Unnamable (1953).

A sign.
The script opens with the stage directions ‘A country road. A tree. Evening.’, as in this New Orleans street art.
Derek Bridges/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Beckett’s trilogy contributed to the new wave of French postwar novels renowned for their spare style and forensic treatment of plot, a movement that came to be known as the nouveau roman (“New Novel”).

Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot between October 1948 and January 1949. It was his first play to reach the stage — his first full playscript, Eleuthéria, was written in 1947 but only published posthumously.

Nothing, twice

Despite appearances, Godot is a surprising blend of suspense and dramatic action. Themes repeat over both acts: the same waiting, the same fights. A messenger boy appears in each act — or, perhaps, two different boys in each act, brothers. The horizon of time is scanned twice, once in each act.

The symmetry of Vladimir and Estragon, endlessly waiting for the unseen Godot, is echoed by another pair, Pozzo and Lucky, who pass by in each act. In Act 1, Pozzo is the grand landlord — a revenant of the Irish Big House literary tradition — whipping his servant Lucky into service.

Pozzo’s pomposity is matched by Lucky’s silence, and when Pozzo compels Lucky to speak, finally, Lucky’s cascade of logorrhea stands in contrast to Pozzo’s grandiloquence.

In Act 2 Pozzo returns, blinded, his authority diminished to the merely rhetorical. His final speech echoes Macbeth on time and the brevity of life. In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth pronounces:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more

Pozzo’s final passionate outburst reduces life to:

the same day, the same second […] They give birth astride the grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

Estragon’s complete indifference to Pozzo’s swansong has Vladimir wonder at his own dilemma, inducing an irrevocable moment of clear vision:

At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.

This burden of recognition places Valdimir within a tragic mode, out of step with the farcical tragicomedy around him. He is no longer immersed in the condition of waiting, but breaks through to understand the act of waiting as a condition of life.

Audible yawns – from those who stayed

Godot premièred at the Théâtre du Babylone in Paris in January 1953. The play drew positive attention from reviewers and from some of the biggest names in French theatre and literature. Its fame rose slowly — then abruptly, when a fistfight broke out in the interval of one performance, between the play’s defenders and those offended or shocked by its (in)action and the cruel plight of the character Lucky.

Its English-language premiere in London in August 1955 was met with “waves of hostility” and audible yawning from audience members who remained after interval.

The play’s fate in the United States was little short of catastrophic: billed as “the laugh sensation of two continents”, its opening night in January 1956 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami was farcical.

Even Alan Schneider’s expert direction couldn’t salvage the play from a disruptive rehearsal atmosphere, complicated sets and an ill-suited venue. The interval, again, turned out to be the most popular part of the performance.

Bert Lahr (who played the Lion in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz) played Estragon in Miami and would be instrumental in the play’s success later that year on Broadway, an event that remained one of his career highlights.

Record cover
Waiting for Godot played on Broadway for only 10 weeks, but Bert Lahr’s performance was immortalised by Columbia Records.
Internet Archive

During those early years, Godot was also performed in prisons, including a landmark production by the San Francisco Actors Workshop at San Quentin State Prison in 1957. Inmates were astounded a playwright could capture limbo with such insight and sensitivity.

All of us are waiting

Over time its fame has grown to the point where Godot is a definitive meeting point of the avant-garde and popular culture. The play has inspired numerous parodies and spin-offs, perhaps most notably the 1996 mockumentary Waiting for Guffman, in which the cast of a small-town musical production in Missouri awaits the arrival of a legendary Broadway producer.

The claustrophobia of Beckett’s next play, Endgame (1957), might capture the experience of lockdown in the current pandemic (“Beyond [the wall] is the other hell”), but Godot captures the distortions of time combined with the uncertainty of respite.

Populations across the globe have endured various kinds of waiting: waiting for published infection numbers, for hospital beds, for oxygen supplies, for borders to reopen, for opportunities to see loved ones. Running through our individual narratives, waiting has proved to be a truly global, shared experience.

How do we remember pre-pandemic times – that past “a million years ago,” as Vladimir pronounces in the play – and what do we forget?

Estragon exclaims: “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” But dilatory time and static place also offer opportunities for new perception: a long moment to consider our circumstances and ourselves anew.The Conversation

Mark Byron, Senior Lecturer, Department of English, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Growing up with trees: new books use story and science to connect kids with nature

Unsplash/Pat Whelan, CC BY

Kathryn Williams, The University of Melbourne

When I tell people I’m an environmental psychologist, they often assume that means I am a “tree hugger” and they are not entirely wrong. But it really means I spend a lot of time thinking and finding out about people’s relationships with the natural world, trees included.

So when I dropped in at my local book store and saw a whole collection of new books for children about trees, I found myself wondering: What kinds of books help kids connect with trees?

The question was prompted by a recent publication, The Book of Australian Trees by Inga Simpson and Alicia Rogerson. Its not the only tree book published this year, but it’s notable for its focus on Australian trees.

The last few years have seen the publication of some remarkable books about trees for children, for example Peter Wohlleben’s Can you hear the trees talking (a 2019 young reader’s edition of his book The Hidden Life of Trees) and Piotr Socha and Wojciech Grajkowski’s The Book of Trees (2018).

I love both these books, but they also illustrate why books about Australian trees and plants are needed. When Socha and Grajkowski declare: “In winter, the only green trees are coniferous trees”, or when Wohlleben suggests young readers go outside and find a birch log (likely in in their family’s store of firewood) kids in the southern hemisphere might feel lost.

Read more:
People are ‘blind’ to plants, and that’s bad news for conservation

A researcher measures a Mountain Ash in a forest in Victoria.
Australian National University

Learning to love plants and trees

Having books that help children learn to love trees really matters to me. There is increasing concern that people are less connected with the natural world than in the past. Plants are of particular concern, as there is evidence of lower appreciation, knowledge and concern for plants compared with animals. Various writers have noted the negative implications of these trends for human health and well-being, environmental action, and conservation.

Direct experience of nature is often seen as essential to building connections, but it’s not always possible and might not be enough. Books can help children connect with trees, for example by:

So how are recent children’s book authors going about this important task?

Read more:
Where the old things are: Australia’s most ancient trees

The Book of Australian Trees

The introduction to Simpson and Rogerson’s book echoes some of these pathways for connection. “Trees tell stories about places,” Simpson writes and while trees may all seem the same, “if you look more closely, they are each a little different, like people”.


The book introduces just 16 different trees, most from the eastern mainland states of Australia. Each species is introduced with a single painting by Rogerson, often showing the trunk and lower canopy but sometimes just a part of the trees such as a Bunya Pine nut or a flower.

Simpson’s text is brief. It includes visual characteristics of the tree, the kinds of soils or climate in which it grows, and usually a an insight to cultural associations with the tree. Some entries refer to “famous trees”, for example Centurion, the tallest mountain ash tree found in Tasmania. Others refer to Australian literary references to trees, like the “Old Man Banksias” of May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie stories.

I enjoyed Simpson’s evocative description of trees, particularly of bark and the ways it differs across trees and seasons. These often emphasise the links between visual attributes of trees and familiar human characteristics. Brush box branches “grow out like arms, with crooked elbows, then wrists and long fingers”. But while Simpson describes the kind of environments in which the trees typically grow, there is little sense of story or sense of place in these descriptions.

Books on trees and plants often focus purely on ecological qualities. Simpson incorporates cultural aspects of trees as they offer an important means of connection. But these are not always well considered. Linking magnificent Flame Trees to Cold Chisel’s 1984 song about “lost loves or old flames” seems unlikely to resonate with younger readers. Only a single entry (Bunya Pine) references relationships with First Nations peoples that have been maintained over many thousands of years.

The book is beautifully illustrated and celebrates the beauty of trees of this land — the flyleaf paintings of leaves, bark, cones, seeds, and blossoms lend themselves to a plant-rich conversation with younger readers.

The cone from a Bunya Pine.
Australian Botanic Gardens

4 more to choose from

Other recent books about trees make great use of stories, emotion, science and tree-related activities to help children connect with trees.


The Forest in the Tree (by Australian team Ailsa Wild, Aviva Reed, Briony Barr and Gregory Crocetti) skilfully weaves story and science to explore symbiotic relationships between trees and fungi. Characters include Broma the Cacao tree and We, Gloma the fungal network that connects the forest system. It is sure to fascinate and inform older children.


Little Sap (by Jan Hughes and Ruth Hengeveld) is written for a much younger audience. It tells a moving tale of a mother tree and a young sapling who eventually takes her place in the canopy. The authors note they found inspiration in the science of Suzanne Simard and Monica Gagliano among others.

Peter Wohlleben has also published a book for younger children. His book Peter and the Tree Children is a tale about Peter the forester and Piet the squirrel, and all they learn while walking in the forest.


I found it less engaging than his earlier book Can you hear the trees talking which is structured around curious questions like “How do trees make babies?” or “Is there a forest internet?”.

Finally, Plantastic! A new A-Z to 26 of Australia’s most unique and incredible native plants by Catherine Clowes and Rachel Gyan deserves a mention. Its not only about trees, but suggests some great activities that will encourage Australian kids to get out into nature and explore the wonder of plants.The Conversation

Kathryn Williams, Professor in environmental psychology, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shakespeare’s rulers and generals are all flawed, but the books on his leadership lessons keep coming

John Bell, pictured here in 2006, is the latest to write a book on Shakespeare and leadership.
Paul Millar/AAP

Robert White, The University of Western Australia

Review: John Bell, Some Achieve Greatness: Lessons on leadership from Shakespeare and one of his greatest admirers. With illustrations by Cathy Wilcox. Pantera Press, 2021.

John Bell’s new book Some Achieve Greatness is but the latest to use Shakespeare’s works to inspire and teach would-be leaders in the modern world.

In 2000 alone, two books appeared aimed at business management students: Power Plays and Shakespeare on Management. In perhaps the best of the genre, Shakespeare the Coach (2004), Australian Olympian, medical graduate, politician and hockey coach Ric Charlesworth applies the dramatist’s words to the sporting arena and people management. Naturally he devotes a chapter to motivational leadership, headed “Purpose and Persuasion”.

The new book from Bell, the actor and renowned theatre director, is both more, and less, than these. More, because it is as much a pithy “business autobiography” as instructional manual, from a man who has devoted his career to bringing Shakespeare to Australian audiences.

Read more:
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Bell in 2013.

Bell has not only performed most of the major characters, learning their words by heart and internalising the subtleties and plural meanings, he has also directed the plays. He has shown business acumen in administering two successful theatre companies, co-founding Nimrod in 1970 (dedicated to producing Australian plays as well as Shakespeare’s), and of course, the Bell Shakespeare Company.

His name has become almost synonymous with the bard’s in our cultural life through this company and a series of scholarly editions of plays named after him. He also authored a substantial book titled On Shakespeare (2011), full of insights: the fruit of a practised actor-director’s rich and detailed experience.

And, as one of Australia’s Living Treasures, Bell has cemented his reputation by “dying” hundreds of times onstage in Shakespearean roles — like Cleopatra, he “hath such a celerity in dying”.

Reflecting on his multifaceted career, Bell applies his accumulated knowledge to recount his own leadership style as it evolved through experience. Sage advice is offered, enlivened and illustrated with pertinent quotations from speeches, which no doubt Bell can enviably recite from memory.

Bell, centre, as Falstaff during a dress rehearsal of Henry 4 in Canberra in 2013.
Alan Porritt/AAP

The book offers lessons gleaned from a Shakespeare who is seen as a natural “collaborator never a one-man band”. We find chapters on “Courage, or how to be a leader in times of crisis”, “Decisiveness, timing and tough decisions”, “Charisma, confidence and humility”, and other virtues such as integrity and humanity. These are set against dangerous managerial vices like ambition, arrogance and entitlement.

Along the way are sprinkled inspirational quotations about leadership from the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy and Michelle Obama, alongside cautionary reminders of a less savoury, more recent American president .

Read more:
Friday essay: How Shakespeare helped shape Germaine Greer’s feminist masterpiece

No ideal leaders

However, Bell offers less than Charlesworth (my benchmark), in that the latter dwells more on applicable quotations than characters and dramatic context. This allows him to skirt the problem Bell faces: there are, in fact, no unflawed or ideal leaders in Shakespeare.

Although Bell ranges across the complete works, his major examples of good or bad leadership are surprisingly few in number. All are, to some extent flawed. Bell readily concedes this, since their failures are instructive. The figure who recurs in most detail is Henry V. For all his faults as a ruthless, likely war criminal, he seems to come closest to Bell’s ideal leader, at least in his rousing speeches.

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V in the 1989 film: ruthless but with rousing speeches?

Julius Caesar and Brutus emerge as ambiguous and lacking in strategical competence. Antony for all his brilliant oratory is too much the playboy who believes in his own “celebrity”, while King Lear is easy prey for sycophants and flatterers.

Naturally enough, Richard III and Macbeth as leaders are definitely not to be emulated, though there is somehow a touch of unintended humour in the homily-like way Bell warns us against using murder as a career move:

Watching the downfall of the Macbeths we have to ask ourselves: What am I prepared to pay to make it to the top of the pile? Is the reward worth my sanity, my self-respect, my relationship, my reputation, my friendships?

Who would answer yes to such a piously phrased question?

Michael Fassbinder as Macbeth in the 2015 film: not a great role model.
See-Saw Films, DMC Film, Anton

What about the women?

We have to wait for the final chapter before some women make an appearance, exemplifying such admirable qualities as adaptability and negotiating skills (Portia), integrity and plain-speaking honesty (Cordelia), and playfulness (Rosalind), although Bell sees their agency as qualified in a man’s world:

In the Comedies, women find a voice and authority by adopting a false male persona and using their wit, charm and female tenderness to lead the menfolk to an awareness of their follies and a better understanding of successful male/female coexistence and interdependence.

This book is very readable and can probably be devoured in a single sitting, though Bell might prefer us to take our time and savour at leisure the lessons taught. It also features witty and pertinent cartoons by Cathy Wilcox.The Conversation

Robert White, Winthrop Professor of English, The University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.