Unlocking Empathy Through the Power of Poetry

Hugh Schulze
15 min read

Poetry is often seen as a niche interest, reserved for intellectuals or academics. However, the power of poetry extends far beyond the classroom or literary circles. In fact, poetry can be a powerful tool for connecting with others and communicating complex ideas in a way that resonates deeply. In this post, we'll explore the power of poetry and how it can be used to build relationships and inspire action.

Much has been written about content strategy in the past few years. The Content Marketing Institute reports that “90% of top performing B2B content marketers put their audience’s informational needs ahead of their company’s sales/promotional message.”

While I acknowledge the need for target audiences to receive relevant information (“a difference that makes a difference”), I should warn you upfront that that this blog post is a plea for more: more emotional intelligence, more empathy, more sizzle to the steak, that is, a deeper human connection to the human beings with whom we hope to begin a conversation, perhaps even build a relationship.

The following is a shameless celebration of the power of poetry – which, I realize, before we even get rolling, might be dismissed as “high brow”, “hoity toity” or “elitist”. But why is it we would expect any self-respecting graphic designer in this business to have a working knowledge of painters, sculptors and performance artists, why, if we would expect a video director or cinematographer to have plumbed the depths of Martin Scorsese, the Coppolas, or Agnes Varda, might invoking poets and poetry seem an overreach?

A few answers can be found in the poet, Ben Lerner’s delicious book, The Hatred of Poetry. “Many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree what poetry is,” he writes.

Credit where credit (and zero blame) is due

Full disclosure: much of these thoughts came after a moving series of talks by the poet, Pádraig Ó Tuama. And if the only outcome of this blog is to get more people to learn about his groundbreaking work on reconciliation, featured in the popular On Being podcast, or to read one of his extraordinary books of poetry, then I’ll consider this a success.

That said, Pádraig is not responsible for any lapses in logic or fuzzy thinking here. His brilliant insights and close readings of poems simply opened up further reflection about the kind of work B2B marketers are engaged in – engaging others.

What follows are four approaches to deepening experience – leaning on a different form of communication, poetry, to provide some insights.

Invitations and Hospitality

A poem is an invitation – an invitation into a space carved out of time, where we listen to the poet’s voice for the duration of the poem and for as long as it resonates in the memory and heart of the listener. No one is forcing us to engage it (unless it’s a pedantic high school English teacher inexpertly presenting a poem like an algebra equation to be solved). Sometimes the invitation is explicit like T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.

Or perhaps the poem opens in the voice of a consoling friend, like Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

Using poetry to inform or inspire marketing communications may strikes you as odd, perhaps even, heretical. But I recall one of the first bits of advice I received about writing direct mail from the owner of the agency: “Write as if you’re writing to a friend.”

Rumination: What is the tone of the opening of your message? Is it a hectoring sales person pounding on the front door? Or is it an invitation to learn about something your audience might find interesting, even fascinating. (This only works, of course, if you authentically think it is interesting, fascinating.)

Unadorned and Unexpected

Estimates vary as to the number of ads and brand exposures we encounter every day. One variable is that we each have different patterns of media consumption. But most accounts put that number at more than 4,000 impressions a day.

Although recent evidence has shown that longer blogs are gaining greater readership – clarity and brevity are essential for breaking through the competing calls for attention. The tired and formulaic is bound to fail. In the battle for engaging your reader or viewer, a cliché can kill. How can we startle, unsettle or enchant the audience?

One poet who has not (I would argue) received his due (though Camille Paglia features three of his poems in her anthology, more than any other poet) is Theodore Roethke. Watch how much he packs into the final lines of “I Knew a Woman”, especially its closing couplet:

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay.
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she casts a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

Skimming her biography, some might think the Belle of Amhurst, Emily Dickinson, a meek, demurring recluse. But if poems can be measured by the power of a line, or even the turn of a word like “revery,” Dickinson’s poetry is pure dynamite:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

Shakespeare is credited with coining anywhere from 422 to 1,700 words to more precisely capture ideas and concepts that pushed the boundaries of the English language. “Sea change” is from his last play, The Tempest and was inspiration for our own company name when we wanted a term to capture the state of extraordinary change.

Rumination: Are there places where we can elevate our language, pair up descriptions in new and unexpected ways, or bring old words and phrases into new light (like sea change) – and in so doing, reveal more about our product or service and engage our audience?

The Volta or Turn

In one of the hour-long sessions Pádraig led, he introduced the concept of the “volta,” an Italian word for a turn of thought or argument in a poem (often, but not always, in a sonnet). The example he used was Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 which begins: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;/ Coral is far more red than her lips’ red.” The next ten lines continue in this less-than-flattering way: “And in some perfumes is there more delight/ Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.”

But the turn happens in the final couplet and after all that has come before, both brings her down to Earth and exalts her:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

As I say, the volta, the turn, occurs in many other types of poetry. One of my favorite haikus by the poet, Issa, has a final line that offers a kind of glorious validation for a simple snail:

O, snail!
     Climb Mount Fuji.
           But slowly, slowly.

A simple, seemingly impossible challenge becomes something to be slowly savored.

Rumination: Is there a way to introduce a surprise, a turn, to engage the reader on a deeper level? That turn can be a moment of delight, it might coax a smile of recognition.

Three Little Words

As cliché’s go, “For more information…” may be close to the top for B2B communication. It’s serviceable enough if you’re looking to deliver a URL or phone number – but after all the excitement that’s come before, it seems a meagre “call to action”. What if you pressed that CTA to be the cherry on the ice cream sundae, the deal closer?

We already touched upon a few closing couplets and turns but few that compare to the closing line to Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torse of Apollo.” The poem opens with a description of an ancient sculpture without a head (some believe it was the Belvedere Torso now in the Vatican museum).

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low
gleams in all its power.

That “gaze” is a hint of something to come as the poet describes the breast, the “placid hips and thighs,” even the stone itself. Rilke makes his turn, his volta, in the last line, when he speaks to the power of art, and that gaze that is looking at us, sizing us up:

for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

This surprising last line is even more powerful in the original German. Rilke uses “Du,” the familiar form of “you,” not the more formal “Sie.” You, friend. Du mußt dein Leben ändern. You must change your life.

This is not a command nor is it a proclamation to a broader audience of humanity. It is to the personal “you”, the reader. It is the voice of a friend urging you on.

Rumination: What if you were to surprise your audience by asking for the unexpected? How can the “call to action” stand out, cause the reader or viewer to do something they haven’t done before?

Sometimes the subtlety of the ask can provoke a more powerful reaction.

Nikki Giovanni is a poet whose subjects range from the personal to the political. One of my favorite poems of hers is called “Mothers” – and I would note the plural nature of that title. The poem opens with a description of visiting her mother and exchanging “pleasantries and unpleasantries” and how both settle in to “read separate books.”

Then the poem turns, goes back in time and remembers “living in a three room/apartment on burns avenue.” I’m not sure how many of you remember distinctly getting up at night and finding your mother sitting alone in the darkness – but that image is what caught me: the room bathed in moonlight, “she may have been smoking” (mine definitely was and you saw the ember move from the ashtray to her lips).

I’ll quote the complete closing verse because it offers up possibilities and then a kind of tender mercy:

she was very deliberately waiting
perhaps for my father to come home
from his night job or maybe for a dream
that had promised to come by
“come here” she said “i’ll teach you
a poem: i see the moon
    the moon sees me
    God bless the moon
    and God bless me.”
i taught it to my son
who recited it for her
just to say we must learn
to bear the pleasures
as we have borne the pains

“[L]earn to bear the pleasures” – is an invitation to a different way of looking at the past and a different way of experiencing the present. While this is a profoundly different “call to action” than anything you might see in marketing communication, the point here is that by reading poetry and following these movements in a poem, we may be inspired to find new language, metaphors, experiences, and ways of engaging others.

A Checklist

At the very least, I hope this discussion of poetry will inspire you to seek out the work of Pádraig Ó Tuama, or a host of other, amazing poets and books of poetry. Poets are the innovators of language, the better acquainted we are with the new language and old language (see: Shakespeare) made new, the better able we will be able to create fresh, dazzling experiences.

More practically, I would suggest four categories of questions to ask yourself when you’re putting together your next marketing communication:

  1. Where’s the hospitality? Is your ad, video or social tile an invitation or an injunction?
  2. Have you eliminated every cliché and pushed the language to sing or startle?
  3. Does it have some surprise or turn, some unexpected moment that keeps your audience engaged?
  4. How strong is your call to action? Is it something more than “For more information…”?

I would like to hear your thoughts – or your favorite poem or poet: hschulze@cchangeinc.com

In a world that often seems chaotic and overwhelming, poetry can be a beacon of hope and connection. The power of poetry lies in its ability to touch us on a deeper level, to express the inexpressible, and to connect us to something greater than ourselves. Whether you're a marketer looking to connect with your audience, or simply someone looking for inspiration, the power of poetry is undeniable. So take a moment to explore the vast and varied world of poetry, and see for yourself the transformative power it can hold.