Why We Study Poetry
Everyone, at some point in their life, has probably questioned the value of poetry (including this writer). Among the many accusations leveled against poetry are that it is frivolous in comparison to the sciences, that it lacks a widespread readership, that it is less accessible or engaging than prose. Criticisms of poetry go all the way back through Plato, who discussed the “quarrel” between poets and philosophers in the Republic. And yet, despite over two millennia of assaults against its worth, poetry has remained an inextricable part of our literary culture. Why?
One of the great literary pieces of the Romantic era is Percy Shelley’s monumental essay “A Defence of Poetry.” Defenses of poetry themselves are not rare, but what distinguishes Shelley’s is that it doesn’t argue for any particular form or aesthetic—many older examples were more limited in scope, and would try to prescribe a specific kind of poetry that was worthwhile. What Shelley argues is that while the sciences uncover the properties of the physical world, the arts—poetry especially—situate them in a way that is relevant to human life, or makes them beautiful. Heidegger would describe this as the difference between Earth, which is physical, and the World, which is made up of the values and associations we have with the Earth.
Although scholars would justifiably burn me at the stake for implying that Percy Shelley and Jacques Derrida have too much in common, there is a similarity in their basic arguments. One of the underlying theories of modern literary and linguistic scholarship is that language doesn’t arise from nature, but is a product of communal agreement about what words should mean and about their relationship to other words. The corollary is that the language we use then creates the dominant culture and establishes values. Poetry is a particularly potent example with the ways that it is deliberately formed and crafted to produce effects on the language—although it’s in much more abstract terms, one can hear the echoes of Shelley’s claim that poetry creates culture and beauty.
Plain and Simple
Let me reveal the man behind the curtain a bit. To turn away from the academic and philosophical answers, I think there’s one more basic defense of poetry that preempts any other one. The best reason to study poetry is that poetry can just be fun. The different forms and styles offer such unique ways to explore complex ideas, and well-crafted poetry can sound pleasant in the same way good music can. If you’re someone who suffered through “The Classics” in school, take the opportunity this month to scout around. I can guarantee you that there’s a poet out there whose work is meant for you, and once you find them I promise you’ll be glad you gave poetry a second chance.