Ellen Storm

Writing the White and Purple Coats

Poetry, Powerpoint, and Visual Learners


Yesterday the Poetry Society posted a link on Twitter to an essay by Linda Besner for Random House of Canada suggesting that poetry should be displayed in museums, as a means of increasing its accessibility to the public (1). As someone who has played quite a lot with the idea of displaying poetry visually, and frequently thought about how great it would be to have an exhibition of poems (as well as, or perhaps even instead of, the much sought after small volume), this seems like a good idea to me.  Art galleries though, rather than museums, please: poetry is an art form, not a relic.

This idea is most likely to appeal to people who are primarily visual learners. Visual learners take in information mainly through their visual sensory pathways: by seeing it they are able to process and remember it. Visual learners tend to be good at arranging things spatially. They make good graphic designers, but if they happen to stumble on writing poetry as a vocation then they are likely to be the ones concerned with arranging words on a page – with the way poems look. Most poets however are probably auditory learners, taking in and processing information mainly by listening. The highly auditory person is the one who, after a read around in a poetry workshop , is able to say things like “ I so absolutely loved that image you used in line two of the third stanza [quotes verbatim] – it just so perfectly captured the concept you are trying to convey”. Meanwhile the visual learner in the corner is wondering how on earth they managed to remember that because he or she can’t recall a single word of what was read out, and is craning his or her neck to try and read the poem over the writer’s shoulder while simultaneously wishing that they had brought copies to distribute to the group. Visual learners compose poems by moving words and phrases around on the page, and are very grateful for word processing packages.

They are less enamoured of Powerpoint however, which purports to enable speakers to provide their information via both auditory and visual channels. Used correctly, this can of course be achieved, but it is rarely used to its best advantage. The correct way to use Powerpoint (doctors – take note) is to provide visual aids (images, graphs, tables, videos) to complement the speaker, which the speaker refers to directly and frequently. It is not to put up a large body of text that the audience is expected to read while simultaneously listening to the speaker talking about something completely different. This is like trying to watch TV and listen to the radio at the same time. Visual learners prefer silence (and hot frothy beverages) to help them digest the words placed in front of them.

There is a third type of learner, according to Neil Fleming’s VAK model (2), and they are not well served by most poetry workshops, readings or Powerpoint presentations. They are the kinaesthetic learners: people who take in information by touch, feel, 3D spatial connection and the integration of the five senses. They are probably more likely to be sculptors or mechanics than poets, but if they do find their way to poetry, they are likely to become the performers of the poetry world – the ones who prefer to be on their feet, using props and explaining their poems with gesture as they go along – seeing and feeling their images in front of them as imaginary objects.

Of course, we all learn in all these ways to differing degrees, and any good learning event in any discipline should seek to convey information via all three channels, but most of us do have a preference. It is useful to remember that someone else’s preference may not be our own, and it may not be rudeness or laziness that leads someone to not be able to remember any of what has just been said. They may well have tried very hard to listen. Equally others may need to hear a poem to be able to understand it, and reading in silence will not work for them.

Visual learners are probably over-represented amongst doctors and scientists (a hypothesis, not a proven fact) as compared to the general population. This may go some way to explaining why the paediatrician and poet William Carlos Williams was drawn towards imagism. More about him later, but for now, we shall simply let him have the final word(s):




the unused tent



bare beams

beyond which


directly wait

the night


and day –



from the street










ringed with

running lights


the darkened




down the center





1. http://www.randomhouse.ca/hazlitt/feature/why-we-should-treat-poetry-painting Accessed on 3rd November 2012.

2. http://identityandtype.wordpress.com/tag/vak/ Accessed on 3rd November 2012.

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