What Use Is Poetry?



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 write poetry 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.

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