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  • Writer's pictureDr Joseph Owen

Poetry, Policy and Place: The Crab and the Mole

Credit: Paul Klee, Fire at Full Moon, 1933, Museum Folkwang, Essen.

What does it mean to say that literature and literary studies have purpose?

The claims are well-rehearsed: literature transforms lives, offers radical critique and models alternative worlds. Defenders of the novel, for instance, from Peter Boxall to Rita Felski, have repeatedly outlined the medium’s significance for parsing the human condition.

This new project—Poetry, Policy and Place—is interested in the purpose of poetry, in understanding how it can orchestrate a conversation between policymaking and place-based research. This interest stems from the fact that poetry often appears at the intersection of academic and public worlds: requests for poetry come from many, various places.


In our institution and practice at the University of Southampton, we see community groups use poets as facilitators; animators engage poets as scriptwriters; public engagement teams pair poets and scientists; environmental engineers deploy poets for educational initiatives; and environmental scientists wield poetry for thinking about sustainability and climate change. Poems even herald Research Excellence Framework (REF) submissions.

Poetry is prevalent because it isn’t a single essential thing: the boundaries between poetry and other cultural forms, especially narrative and story, are undelineated and undelineatable. Poetry is culturally and historically specific; it means different things to different communities. Much has been written about the construction of reading publics for diverse kinds of literary forms. Poetry can imitate realities and imagine new ones. 



This functional deployment of literature—weighing it with purpose outside of its intrinsic purpose—is not new; it is most well-recognised in narrative and story. Storytelling has been used for some time by policymakers, clinical practitioners and psychologists, corporations, and, increasingly, as an interdisciplinary method within the academy itself.

Sometimes these utilitarian modes seem far away from the practices of literary studies and can deploy narrative without the theoretical interventions of literary critics. Robert Schiller’s Narrative Economics, for example, is interested in reach and influence rather than narrative and form.

Sometimes these modes are very close to the practices of literary studies. The medical humanities uses narrative as part of an established interdisciplinary pedagogy. These literary theorists and practitioners engage with how narrative provides agency, teleology, causality, characterisation and identification.

Sarah Dillon and Claire Craig’s book Storylistening is an important intervention: it argues for narrative as a cognitive and collective public evidence base. They assign clear functions to story: it provides multiple points of view; it shapes collective identities; it models scenarios and futures worlds; it helps to anticipate social change.

To realise these multiple possibilities, the authors call for ‘narrative literacy’ and ‘narrative experts’ that can ‘avoid false certainty’ about the role of stories and what they do (Dillon and Craig, 2022). This work is key for developing a pluralistic evidence base for storytelling.

The UKRI has also invested in this research. The AHRC Story Arcs project is developing a Story Skill Set to solve the real-world problems of our time. The result will be ‘something like a periodic table of Story Skills […] or an encyclopaedia of ways to craft and dissect tales’. Storytelling, understood as such, is an instrumental exercise: a training programme, a checklist, an applied science. 


Poetic distinction 

Yet the practical deployment of poetry seems distinct: poetry is often assumed to be a method for distilling—rather than narrating—complex ideas and emotions. In these ways, poetry assists with communicating educational science (Calderón Moya-Méndez and Zwart, 2022), facilitating emotional identification with place, climate and the environment (McDermott, 2023), and eliciting feelings about communities (And Towns, 2023).  

We’re interested in unpacking specific assumptions that underpin the use of poetry. If narrative is associated with rationality, cognition, action—see modelling, anticipating, building—poetry has been frequently associated with affect, identification, connection.

This thread runs through disciplines outside of literary studies. The most-cited article published in the Journal of Poetry Therapy describes ‘poetic inquiry’ as a mode of qualitative research that is used in anthropology, ethnography, organisational research, management, second language acquisition, medicine and therapy, nursing, counselling, sociology and social work (McCulliss, 2013).

Across these disciplines, poetry is purported to ‘give a voice back to scientific research that can easily get lost through the application of traditional scientific analysis, as the richness and experience of the people being studied is reduced to numerical data’ (McCulliss, 2013: 83–84). Poetry is sought to not only reflect the data but to in some way transcend it.

Poetic practice is wide-ranging: from positivism that assumes poetry can reach the essence of people to feminist postmodernism that uses poetry to foreground the materiality of qualitative research. The latter approach seeks, in the words of Viktor Shklovsky, 'to make the stone stony', but it also offers ‘a way out of the numbing and deadening, disaffective, disembodied, schizoid sensibilities characteristic of phallocentristic social science’ (Richardson, 1993, as cited in McCulliss, 2013: 92).

This implicit emphasis on poetry as alive, affective, embodied and more-than numerical determines the types of communication as well as the modes of inquiry. One assertive guide for addressing people’s health and wellbeing suggests that writing poetry can ‘diminish psychological distress and enhance relationships’, and that it has been long used ‘to aid different mental health needs and develop empathy’ (Lepore and Smyth, 2002). 



For many poets, of course, these supposed benefits are far from clear or desirable, and poetry’s purpose is often found in its purposelessness, specifically in its critical relationship to rationality and utility.

We can trace this resistant sensibility across poetic traditions. Thomas Love Peacock’s savage satirical attack in The Four Ages of Poetry (1820) argues that: 

While the historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish of departed ignorance.

The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward. The brighter the light diffused around him by the progress of reason, the thicker is the darkness of antiquated barbarism, in which he buries himself like a mole.

The mental tranquillity which looks round with an equal eye on all external things, collects a store of ideas, discriminates their relative value, assigns to all their proper place, […] and forms new combinations that impress the stamp of their power and utility on the real business of life, is diametrically the reverse of that frame of mind which poetry inspires, or from which poetry can emanate. 

There is something clearly ironic in Peacock’s language: the powerful ‘stamp of [...] utility’ is much less engaging than the crab or the mole. These may not be rational images, but they are far from useless: their charm throws an implicit critique on the ‘real business of life’ against which these animals are ‘diametrically’ opposed.

The crab and the mole exceed traditional ideas about poetry’s value by highlighting the potency of its purposelessness. Both images challenge M. H. Abrams’ critical conception of poetry: they constitute neither the mirror, held up to reflect the world, nor the lamp, illuminated to reimagine people’s experience of it.

This negative energy of purposelessness defines another poetic denunciation. W. H. Auden’s In Memory of W. B. Yeats (1939) contains the famous line—‘for poetry makes nothing happen’—demonstrating its counterclaim by so clearly evoking Yeats’ legacy. 


For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives 

In the valley of its making where executives 

Would never want to tamper, flows on south 

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, 

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, 

A way of happening, a mouth.

Poetry, as Auden understands it, lives ‘where executives would never want to tamper’. When Auden considers what Yeats’ poetry will mean as time passes, he articulates the thought as: ‘words of a dead man [that] are modified in the guts of the living’.  

Auden then contrasts this physical permanence—’a happiness in another kind of wood’—against the empty ‘importance and noise of to-morrow | When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the bourse’. Here, the economic reality against which poetry is counterposed emerges as a force that quickly reveals its animalistic and violent energies.

There is also, evidently, a politics to the survival of poetry. That poetry survives makes it political—it captures those feelings and possibilities—and this sentiment is central to Audre Lorde’s 1977 essay, Poetry Is Not a Luxury. The text defends poetry but also defines it—like Auden and Peacock—against a violent economic rationality.

For within the living structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanisation, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around, as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were expected to kneel to thought as women were expected to kneel to men. But women have survived. As poets. And there are no new pains. We have felt them all already. We have hidden that fact in the same place where we have hidden our power (Lorde, 1984: 39).

Lorde’s poems, like the terrifying Power (1978), accentuate this message:  

The difference between poetry and rhetoric

is being ready to kill


instead of your children.

For Lorde, language of any kind is violence. The act of writing poetry is violence aimed towards the self: it risks inward destruction. Yet the power wrought from poetic self-analysis and self-expression is necessarily perilous: it challenges and resists the malignancy of rhetorical power, which instructs and cajoles others to commit real violence. Poetry, as the antithesis of persuasion, is the least-worst option.


Poetry, Policy and Place 

Poetry, then, has many diverse qualities, sensibilities, principles and functions. Where does this discussion leave us? More to the point:  

How do we bring the negative energy of poetry—that defines itself and its value against rational deployment—into conversation with policy agendas that seem impossible and indeed pointless, as without purpose? 

This is and isn’t a rhetorical question: it’s important that we’re alive to how we use poetry and that we also remain sensitive to keeping its radical possibilities present.

There are several examples of what poetry in this form might look like: new styles of workshop that produce different types of engagement and affect; and novel modes of critical inquiry that produce different types of data and evidence.

Alexandra Juhasz illustrates the first example in the 2022 collection, My Phone Lies to Me, which describes a series of place-based workshops that used poetry to critically engage with social media, brought into focus by Donald Trump’s 2016 US election win.

These workshops, during which people wrote poetry in response to ‘fake news’, sought to produce a new kind of digital literacy, informed by several principles, including:

fake news r us: We are implicated by, produce, and circulate this digital media crisis whenever we study, teach, or try to fix it.

art answers to phony questions: Trying to determine truth using digital media leads to the he-said/he-said rabbit hole in which we find ourselves. Departing from evidence- based, indexically linked practices into realms of truth-telling verifiable by different logics might get us out.

heed the poet’s call: Poetry, a time-honored literary form of truth-telling outside the logics of indexical mediation, is a literacy practice well-suited to this crisis (Juhasz, 2022: 28).

Poetic practice, in this case, provides an armoury for resisting media disinformation by generating fresh opportunities for critical reflection and imaginative strategies for ‘truth-telling'. As one review puts it: ‘Watch out, there’s a new watchdog—its name is poetry’.


Jena Osman’s collection, Motion Studies, illustrates the second example by making claims about poetic inquiry and the nature of rational data. Osman offers a poetic investigation into nineteenth-century technologies of surveillance. The book, states one reviewer, examines ‘the stopless conversion of internal life (pulse, breath, heat, neural activity) to external data legible to processors’.

One of Osman’s poems takes the formation of quantitative data—early heart trackers—and makes it qualitative. Importantly, it refuses to accept the distinction between these two forms of evidence. By interrogating how data is produced and understood, poetry is sought to find meaning in the gaps.

These two recent examples of poetic practice suggest possibilities for developing new understandings of place-based community engagement and policy-led data analysis. While it's established that prose narratives can summarise and clarify social phenomena, poetry, as an analogue mode of inquiry, is relatively unexplored. Its crab- and mole-like qualities require more interrogation. In this spirit, our project asks:


How can we think of critical poets as akin to narrative experts, and in doing so, activate poetry’s resistant purposelessness? 




Abrams, M. H. 1971. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Oxford University Press)

Auden, W. H. 2024. ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, <> [accessed 20 March 2024]

And Towns. 2023. ‘SIAH at CKC 2023: New Futures for Creative Economies’, And Towns, 3 May <> [accessed 20 March 2024]

Boxall, Peter. 2015. The Value of the Novel (Cambridge University Press)

Calderón Moya-Méndez, Natalia, and Zwart, Hub. 2022. ‘Science and poetry: poems as an educational tool for biology teaching’, Cultural Studies of Science Education, 17, pp. 727–743

Dillon, Sarah, and Craig, Claire. 2022. Storylistening: Narrative Evidence and Public Reasoning (Routledge)

Felski, Rita. 2008. The Uses of Literature (Wiley-Blackwell)

Frears, Ella. 2021. ‘I Am the Mother Cat!’, ArtfulScribe, 2 April <> [accessed 20 March 2024]

Hey, Tom. 2022. ‘Challenging Narrative in the Critical Medical Humanities’, The Polyphony, 8 September <> [accessed 20 March 2024]

Juhasz, Alexandra (ed). 2022. My Phone Lies to Me: Fake News Poetry Workshops As Radical Digital Media Literacy Given the Fact of Fake News (Punctum Books)

Lorde, Audre. 2024. ‘Power’, Poetry Foundation <> [accessed 20 March 2024]

—— 1984. Sister Outsider (Triangle Classics)

Lepore, Stephen J., and Smyth, Joshua M. (eds). 2002. The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being (American Psychological Association)


McCulliss, Debbie. 2013. ‘Poetic inquiry and multidisciplinary qualitative research’, Journal of Poetry Therapy, 26.2, pp. 83–114

McDermott, Amy. 2023. ‘Poetry and language offer a balm for climate angst’, PNAS, 6 December <> [accessed 20 March 2024]

Osman, Jena. 2019. Motion Studies (Ugly Duckling Press)

Peacock, Thomas Love. 2024. ‘The Four Ages of Poetry’, Poetry Foundation <> [accessed 20 March 2024]

Schiller, Robert J. 2019. Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events (Princeton University Press)

Story Arcs. 2024. ‘The Ultimate Mission’, Story Arcs <> [accessed 20 March 2024]

Sudlow, Allan. 2022. ‘Stories: the power of narrative across research and engagement’, UKRI, 16 March <> [accessed 20 March 2024]


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