What makes good poetry good? It is a question for the ages, one that literature nerds have been turning over in their minds for the last thousand years or so. Researchers at New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics have discovered that the poems you can "see" in your imagination are the ones you love the most. I know that sounds like a big, fat "Duh," but it's actually a pretty significant discovery. Here's why.
Quantifying the aesthetic appeal of a piece of writing is tricky, because it cannot be measured in the same way as meter and rhyme, qualities that most close examinations of poetry have focused on before now. These factors have little to do with what makes a particular text popular, however.
Recognizing this, NYU and the Max Planck Institute conducted a survey of poetry readers, asking them to rate haiku and sonnets based on a variety of factors, including "vividness of the imagery (e.g. 'like a spreading fire'), valence (positivity or negativity of the theme), emotional arousal and aesthetic appeal (i.e., how much a person likes the poem)." Based on their findings, researchers report that the more highly a reader ranked the "vividness of the imagery" in a poem, the more likely they were to also give it a high "aesthetic appeal" rating.
Of course, this study tells us nothing about what makes a poem universally good. Every one of us has set a different bar for what constitutes a vivid image, and we each have a particular set of images that we would enjoy "seeing" in poetry. (No one liked a haiku about a drunk person throwing up, for example.) This makes it impossible for any researcher to find even one poem that all of humanity can agree is a good piece of verse, but that does not mean that NYU and the Max Planck Institute's findings are not useful to future research.
G. Gabrielle Starr, one of the authors on the study and the NYU College of Arts and Sciences Dean says in the press release: "While limited to poetry . . . our work sheds light into which components most influence our aesthetic judgments and paves the way for future research investigating how we make such judgments in other domains." Starr is the author of Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience.
The study is available to read in full in the academic journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.