Every high school student has wondered why he or she has to study at least one subject, and many college students wonder the same. Some subjects are easier to justify than others. Math has real-world implications for most (even those who do not play fantasy football), and the logical approach to algebra, geometry, and even calculus has value that can be described without too much difficulty. Science classes, likewise, have obvious real-world value, since, well, they describe the real world.
English courses, though, are a little trickier. The importance of learning written communication is obvious enough, and the importance of reading great literature, while not as easy to explain as math and science, can at least be argued in terms of understanding cultural references and learning how great writers and thinkers have expressed their ideas. But poetry? Many find it confusing, a waste of time, or both. No one makes a living as a poet, and writing a report in poetry is probably a great way to get fired from most jobs one might have.
Here, though, I will make a case for not only the value, but in fact the importance of learning to read and write poetry. There is both a practical and a spiritual value to poetry, and students can be taught to appreciate both. First, though, I must dispense with a common misconception about poetry, a myth that causes me actual, physical pain every time I hear or read it.
Poetry Does Not Come from the Heart
The language of the heart is not poetry. The closest one can say is that the heart “speaks” in iambs, i.e., in a lub-DUB, lub-DUB pattern. Poetry is not a raw expression of feeling. It is a crafted linguistic exercise, one that may begin with a feeling, but which then converts feeling to words, and words to carefully organized phrases and lines. A great poem may well induce strong feelings in its readers or listeners, but it does so by using precise language to convey what the poet chooses to convey. A good poet makes choices of what to say/show, what not to say/show, and how to go about it all. Each word, each syllable, each punctuation mark has weight, much more than they would were they the result of random blood spilling in word form from heart to paper.
Practical Value of Poetry
With this said, the practical value of poetry becomes a little clearer. When reading the work of great poets, one can learn to appreciate how powerful a word, or a phrase, or even a comma can be. When writing anything, one must be conscious of how a reader might interpret what one writes. An important exclusion or an unfortunate misstatement can have significant consequences for the writer, as well as for anyone who depends on what the writer writes. Reading poetry, more than reading any other kind of writing, brings each word into focus.
Writing poetry takes this focus even further. If a student writes a Shakespearean sonnet, for example, word placement, word economy, and word rhythm all matter. If a student writes a free-form poem, the student quickly discovers that language’s rhythm and word choices still matter, at least as much as they do in formal poetry. Carry the ideas over to prose poems, and the lessons become even clearer. The student who learns to write poetry well will appreciate the importance of focusing on language in anything else that student writes. Unless one is in a position to filibuster in Congress, understanding how to allow each word to matter, and how to exclude the ones that do not, will serve that person well.
Spiritual Value of Poetry
I am tempted here to write glowing discussions of the perspectives of Billy Collins, the depth of John Keats, the genius of T.S. Eliot. Trying to keep the focus more utilitarian, though, I will take a different approach. Learning to read and write poetry well also serve a person well from a more inward sense. By “spiritual,” I do not necessarily refer to anything religious in nature, but rather to an inner individual weight. Excess words, present in even the most terse prose, help remove a person further from what is being expressed or described. Language is already removed by a degree from feeling; we learn to describe sensations in language, but we do not feel them in words. Adding more words only adds to this barrier – and the best poetry does not do this. It instead seeks to, in the most succinct way, describe, often from an unexpected point of view. It makes a person think, and it makes a person look at the poem’s subject matter in a new, surprising way.
Writing poetry, too, helps a person work back to the senses. Before a poem is finished, it requires a person to examine an object, or a feeling, or an experience, in order to express it in poetic form. Examining perspectives, playing with metaphors, and tinkering with the language all move toward discovering the most accurate or interesting way to express something, and this examination process can be a powerful experience indeed.
A Dose of Reality
It would be overstating the case to argue that any student of poetry will take these benefits from the experience. Reading Keats may do nothing for a student, and writing sonnets may become a creative way to describe the deaths of various sea creatures. The same could be said, though, of any subject. Many who take math classes will never balance a checkbook, and many in science classes will never understand the harm of ultraviolet radiation. Learning to express how poetry is valuable, though, can only help students try to appreciate it, and learn from it. There is more to say than that it is simply beautiful, that it is artistic expression at its most powerful. These things are true, and for some, they will be enough. In a world moving quickly in a “What’s in it for me?” direction, though, it becomes increasingly important to have an answer. This, I hope, begins to provide that.