This article explains briefly what empathy is, some general ways people cultivate it, and why poetry fosters the art of empathy.  

What is empathy? 

Empathy is our ability to connect to one another by understanding the similarities of our emotions. Empathy is the result of having high emotional intelligence, and is a radical force for social transformation.  

Empathy, says Roman Krznaric in an article for Greater Good Magazine (Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life) is an attitude and practice we can cultivate throughout our lives. No matter where we are on the empathy spectrum, we can become more empathetic.  

Empathy is one of several factors In the complex equation of moral action, which involves taking the necessary steps to move from wanting to do the right thing into actually doing the good deed. It’s not the only factor, and perhaps not the most important, but having empathy is often the vital first step that motivates us to work for the well-being of others.

If we believe that altruism is a good force in the world, then it is our duty to cultivate and strengthen our empathy, and to educate and offer opportunities for our community members to cultivate and strengthen their empathy. We need to foster the art of empathy. 

How to Cultivate Empathy

Highly empathetic people (HEP’s), Roman Krznaric explains, share some common traits:

  • HEP’s are curious about strangers. 
  • They listen deeply.
  • They are willing to make themselves vulnerable
  • They seek out experiences that let them view the world through the eyes of other people who are different from them.
  • They challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share in common with others rather than focusing on what divides them.

Those are some general habits researchers have discovered about HEP’s. If you’re interested in fostering empathy in your communities and organizations, consider how you can:

  • seek out and welcome opportunities for encounters with strangers;
  • practice listening skills;
  • create safe spaces where people can be vulnerable;
  • set up ways for yourself and others to see the world through someone else’s eyes;
  • and become okay with feeling the discomfort involved in challenging your own preconceptions and prejudices.

Now let’s talk specifically about why poetry works so well to cultivate empathy, and why we at Lyricality have made it our mission to “foster the art of empathy through poetry and story.” 

Why Poetry Fosters the Art of Empathy

Research has shown a link between the reading of literary writing and the development of higher empathy. 

Literary writing is unlike popular fiction, which follows a formula to give readers an other-worldly emotional ride through exciting experiences. Popular fiction exists to offer us an escape from life. 

Literary writing focuses on the psychology of characters and their relationships in a way that is realistic, reflective of the real world. Literary writing undermines our prejudices and stereotypes, by NOT giving us formulas that reinforce our expectations, and instead by surprising us with the unexpected, revealing how people in real life actually think, feel, and behave instead of confirming our assumptions about what people ought to think, feel, and do. 

In the way that real-life individuals are uniquely complex and sometimes make us uncomfortable by doing the unexpected, reading literature makes us use our minds and hearts to understand the intentions and motivations of the narrators and characters created by poets and writers of literary fiction and memoir. By allowing us to see things from a new perspective, by breaking apart our assumptions, literary writers help us develop our ability to empathize. We at Lyricality have believe that reading literature has worked in our lives to make us more open to empathy. 

Now, comparing the traits of HEP’s to the traits of those who read and write poetry, I would like to show you why poetry in particular works to cultivate empathy. 

  • Poetry fosters curiosity about the strange/stranger. Poems are curiosities, usually written by strangers. Poetry by its nature, as Alice B. Fogel, one of New Hampshire’s recent Poet Laureates explains, is Strange Terrain. To enter a poem is to bring your curiosity to an encounter with strangeness. Practiced readers of poetry will approach a new poem from many angles, noticing what the words cause them to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, remember, and feel. 
  • Practicing this multifaceted approach to poetry turns readers of poetry into deep listeners. At Lyricality we read poetry for the pleasure of making connections with our inner selves, with others, with nature, and with the creative human spirit. Making these connections requires deep listening, a habit of highly empathetic people.
  • Writers of poetry become better poets by working in writing groups where they share and receive feedback on their writing. To share our heartfelt work and receive feedback about it makes us vulnerable. Generally, writers’ groups are circles where trust is built over time with repeated meetings, people feel safe being vulnerable, and whenever we can safely make ourselves vulnerable, empathy flourishes.  
  • Poetry allows us to view the world through the eyes of other people who are different from us. Making poems is a human activity. Like laughter, dance, and song, poetry emerges in all cultures across time as a way to put the inexpressible experiences of being human—birth, love, loss, and death—into words. At the same time, readers of poetry seek the unique expression of a unique poet-writer who is unlike them in many ways, whose insights into the experience of living with nevertheless resonate with them. 
  • Reading poetry teaches us to question and challenge our thinking. Highly Empathetic People will challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share in common with others rather than focusing on what divides them. Readers of poetry approach a strange (new and perhaps difficult) poem with the assumption that they and the poet, despite the preferences, beliefs, culture, and age/time that could potentially divide them, share a love for the art and craft of poetry — and that’s enough to facilitate, within the borders of the poem, a reader’s respectful, empathetic encounter with the writer’s words.

To read a poem with curiosity is to experience empathy

In the end, a work of literature and especially a poem is so much more than the sum of its parts. And analysis—the taking apart of the work or the process, as I just did, in order to rationally explain what is happening in it—takes the life breath out of the process and the song out of a poem. 

So, perhaps the most important and interesting reason poetry works to develop empathy is because in its sound and form, regardless of its topic, poetry is beautiful.

Beauty touches us in ways and on levels that go deeper than intellectual discourse and cognitive processing. To be moved by beauty is an experience of present moment awareness.

And when we experience the beauty of a poem, it touches not only our minds, but also our emotions and bodies. When we are actively reading a poem, we integrate the cognitive processing of words and meaning with our heart/emotions, into the rhythms of our continually vibrating bodies.

A poem, by it’s beautiful, surprising strangenesses, bypasses our rational-cognitive defenses–our preconceptions and prejudices. And like the aroma of coffee seeping under the closed door of our sleeping hearts, a poem awakens us by the power of its beauty. We experience the pleasurable perception that we are in the presence of something tantalizing, and something within us knows, and responds with pleasure and wonder.  

If you really want to know how poetry turns readers into highly empathetic people, then you should read the poem “You Turn the Page” by Jean L. Kreiling, published August 19, 2021 on Autumn Sky Poetry Daily (ASPD). 

The poem is introduced by a quote from Matt Haig’s novel How to Stop Time: 

Whenever I see someone reading a book . . ., I feel civilization has become a little safer.”  

Kreiling’s poem in sonnet form, as ASPD editor Christine Klocek-Lim wrote, “lays bare the truth that every bookworm knows.” 

The truth bookworms know is this: we read literature because we want to know what happens next. We read the next line or turn the page, trusting ourselves to a narrator/poet. This allows us to “see things from a new perspective.” And we know this is good. So we begin another poem or story hoping that the “stranger”—the unpredictable story or the strange poem— to which we give our attention will rivet us in a way that increases our empathy and turns us toward humanity. We read, then, to honor and appreciate life and the artful stories we weave to make sense of it all. We read to foster the art of empathy, because we desire to turn toward, not away from, humanity. 

But what I just said is a mere summary, not the life breath, not the song that stirs hearts. So 

I hope you’ll take 60 seconds and follow this link to experience Jean L. Kreiling’s stirring 14-line poem, “You Turn The Page.”