What Use Is Poetry?

Dylan Thomas, e.e. cummings, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, English teachers, Frank O’Hara, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, TS Eliot, Uncategorized, William Carlos Williams
There are a surprising number of people who are still interested in poetry of one kind or another. Many people remember poems they studied in school. Robert Frost, TS Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Frank O’Hara, Langston Hughes, Edgar Allan Poe, Maya Angelou, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, and Dylan Thomas are some of the poets generally studied in high school, and many, if they had a good English teacher, will remember the impact that their poems had on them.
But what role can poetry play in life? That’s a tricky question. Can we survive without ever hearing another word of poetry? Certainly. Does poetry have anything like a practical use? Well, not really. But couldn’t you say the same about music, art and literature? Yet, most people would protest if they were told they had to give them up completely. Why? Because they recognize that, despite their apparent uselessness, they are life-enhancing. They help us to make sense of the world we live in, they provide an escape from stress and pressure, and they give us pleasure on an esthetic level. It is a fact that our emotional and psychological state can, and often does, affect our actions, and to that extent the arts do have a practical application.
Good poetry can move the heart, raise the mind to a higher level, comfort the bereaved, console the dejected, strengthen the weak-willed, lighten the spirit, and even galvanize the body into action. Although it does not necessarily have a direct utilitarian purpose, poetry can still have a sizable impact indirectly.
So why don’t more people read poetry? One probable reason is that good poetry often requires work. To understand what a poem is trying to say may involve the reader in cerebral activity and perhaps some people are put off by that. In some cases, it is a legitimate criticism of poetry that it is too opaque for the man in the street to derive much benefit from reading it. There is nothing wrong with poetry needing to be worked at, but if no amount of work yields a payload of comprehension then is it worth it? Is it good poetry to begin with, if nobody but an inner circle of cognoscenti are in the know?
The appreciation of poetry also seems to be a seasonal thing. We turn to poetry at certain points in life, certain times of the year, or when hit by some emotion. Some of us even feel the need to writepoetry during those times. There is something that poetry can give that other forms of art or literature cannot. We feel, when we read good poetry, an affinity with the poet’s sentiments, pleasure at a deft turn of phrase, a sense of satisfaction at a brilliant simile or metaphor. And there is the same pleasure in writing poetry, regardless of whether it turns out to be any good or not.





So in answer to the question, what use is poetry? we can say that it’s uses are subtle, multifaceted, sometimes elliptical and usually indirect. If we did away with poetry, humanity would be all the weaker for it. If there were no more poetry, something irreplaceable would have been lost and the common mind of mankind would suffer as a result. Poetry does have a use, but in a sense we could only detect it by its absence.

Poetry is Just for Sissies

decline of western civilization, Emily Dickinson, John Ashbery, nature poets, poetry, Psalms, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, Uncategorized, war poets, writing poetry
Have you ever been sitting with a group of people whom you don’t know very well – perhaps coworkers or friends of friends – and the subject of poetry comes up. You know that you yourself have dabbled in that black art but you hang fire, you’re not about to blow the gaff and “out” yourself as an aspiring poet. Instead you wait. Where is the conversation headed? Will it rush headlong towards wholesale scorn, or is the company more sympathetic? You know you’ve written a few verses in moments of intense emotion; in fact you even composed a poem for your godfather’s fiftieth birthday but which you were too afraid to read, have read, or even have discovered. The conversation turns to which poets everyone can remember from high school. Shakespeare? Emily Dickinson? Robert Frost? T.S. Eliot? Or even some more recent deities like Sylvia Plath or John Ashbery? The names swim in your head like a thick steaming soup of unattainable brilliance. But most of all they conjure up the canons of English and American Literature, which make your paltry poetical offerings seem weak, thin and decidedly juvenile. Should you suddenly blurt out, “But I’ve written poetry too!!!” or simply sit there with a vague enigmatic smile and let the moment pass, like a badly digested plate of meatballs?
If you are a woman, it’s not so bad. Women like poetry, don’t they? Well, okay, not all women; but a lot of women seem to be more attuned to the finer sentiments, such as you might find expressed in lines of verse. But if you happen to be a guy and you take the unalterable step of admitting to a penchant for poetry then you may as well smoke your last cigarette and put on the blindfold, because, my friend, your life is over.
Exaggeration? Probably – a little. But saying the dreaded phrase, “I write poetry,” can be a bit like saying, “I am infected with the SARS virus.” It has consequences. And for the poet those consequences might involve reactions like, “Would you mind (snicker) reading us some of it to us (chortle)?” – unless, of course, you stumble across a group of people who have actually read some poetry since they were eighteen and are open to the possibility that they might enjoy writing some too.
Before the twentieth century, poetry was seen as a necessary part of the refined life that civilized people strove for. It was, in fact, possible to make a moderately good living from writing poetry, provided you actually had some talent. But like so many other elements of the refined lifestyle, poetry too has become devalued. The misunderstanding about poetry nowadays is that its arguments or themes or topics are largely ephemeral, emotional or effeminate. Yet poetry has addressed and still does address the key moments of life, the depth of human experience, and the transcendence of the human spirit, and gives the lie to the assertion that humankind cannot rise above itself. In fact, like music, the best poetry has a quality about it that circumnavigates rational thought and hits home to the heart in a way that takes the breath away. It can draw us up to a spiritual level in a way that ordinary prose cannot hope to match.
Poetry is not just for fops and dandies. And if you read any of the war poets from the various different conflicts of the last two centuries, or the poets who observe the struggle for survival of animals in the natural world, or the poets who commentate on the decline of western civilization, or even the poet who composed the Book of Psalms, you realize that not only is their poetry robust and visceral but it is also true.
Poetry is not for sissies, it’s for real men and women in a crazy world who desperately need some guiding light in the darkness.