Is Studying Poetry Useless? 

Robert Harris
Version Date: March 26, 2013

Whether as a student in a literature class or as the teacher, you’ve likely heard someone say at some point, “Studying poetry is useless. We’re never going to use it for anything. Why learn it?”

Here are a few of my responses to this charge.

The Philosophical Answer
Reading a book changes what you know; reading poetry changes who you are. Books tell about feeling; poetry recreates feeling in you. Fiction conveys the greatest truths, because they are crafted into stories that we can remember. And poetry is perhaps the greatest of the fictional modes because it adds music and rhythm to the artful conveyance. The densely packed imagery of the best poetry allows the reader to feel a thought, to change your perceptual abilities.

To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.  --Shakespeare

The Pragmatic Answer
So, like entertainment, do you? Ever listen to popular music or go to the movies? Like music videos, by any chance? Studying poetry will help you understand what’s going on in all these entertainment modes.
    Did you ever wonder why in movies it’s almost always raining at funerals? If you’ve studied poetry, you understand that rain is a metonymy for sorrow. And that music video where that pop star is sitting next to a pile of ice by the curb? Yes, that pile of ice is a metonymy for her heart after her boyfriend broke up with her. And that music video where workers on a sound stage are taking down the walls of the living room while the singer laments her break up? Yep, another metonymy for her world coming apart.
    And what’s another name for song lyrics? That’s right. Poetry. Hmm. Might it be useful to know how to understand some of these songs you like so much? How poetic imagery, puns, metaphors, tropes, and figures work? Those who know about poetic techniques find that knowledge enhances enjoyment.

The Hermeneutical Answer
When you study poetry, you learn how figurative language works. Then, when you read the poetry of the Bible, you can understand what you’re reading. You read, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36:7, ESV), or “Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?” (Job 40:9, ESV), you will be able to understand that God doesn’t really have arms or wings but that these metaphors help our limited minds to grasp something about him that we would not otherwise have access to.

The Creativity Answer
Tell me something. What do you think is the key to a successful life?
My answer is that the key a successful life is the ability to solve problems. Problem solving is really what we do all day long. It is said that we make 5,000 decisions a day, most of them small—should I walk over to see John or should I text Sarah? But they get bigger as life goes on—should I buy this house now, or rent and wait? The basis of decision making is problem solving, since every decision is in some respects a problem that needs to be solved.

And what is the foundation of effective problem solving? It’s creative thinking. The ability to identify exactly what the real problem is, what are some possible solutions, and which solution is most likely to work best with the fewest tradeoffs.

And how do you learn creativity? By studying art and poetry and literature and books in general. The creative associations we find in literature are precisely those useful for developing a creative mind. And that’s how the brain works. When you have a thought, and then another thought, the brain allows the two to overlap in a combination, a creative association, that helps solve problems.

The Brain Train Answer
The brain is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. Older people who want to avoid Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia are encouraged to keep using their brains—doing puzzles, reading, and even explaining the figurative language of poetry.

But while you are young, poetry and literature are helpful because they open up new ideas. New ideas are valuable because in order for the brain to learn something, it needs to associate it with something it already knows. Briefly, the new idea enters your working memory, and your brain takes a look in its long term memory storehouse to find something similar it can compare the new idea to. This is called schema retrieval. You can see how useful it is to know about similes, analogies, and metaphors because they are all about comparing unlike things to each other—the same way schemas work. If you have only a few schemas in your mental treasury, learning something new is more difficult. In one sentence, then, The more you know, the more you can learn. Another way to express this is, The more you learn, the better you can see.

The Analytic Thinking Answer
Understanding poetry is sometimes challenging, not only because of the imagery and rhetorical devices used (catachretic metaphors, as in Shakespeare's "I will speak daggers to her," but also because of obscure allusions, inverted syntax, plays on words (puns), unusual diction, and even intentional ambiguity. In order to come to the richest and fullest understanding, you need to analyze the poem thoroughly. And in this process, you develop your ability to think analytically. This ability is part of critical thinking, which is one of the most important products of education. It has been said that many college and university students will get jobs in areas that did not exist when they enrolled as freshmen. An example is the data scientist, someone who can apply creative analysis to big data (an emergent field in business) and develop ideas for finding commercial applications of the huge amounts of data now being generated.

The subject matter of your education will grow stale. You will change careers at least four times if averages hold true. So it's not what you learn in college so much as it is how you learn to think. The ability to think analytically will go with you through job change after change. And studying poetry is among the best methods to develop your thinking ability.

The Sarcastic Answer
Congratulations and condolences. Congratulations for being able to see into the future for the rest of your life—what’s that, 40, 50, 70 more years—and to know that you will never make use of what we are learning here. That’s really amazing, considering that people—whole civilizations—have valued this because it’s so useful not only in itself, with its beauty, art, and philosophy, but in allowing it to build character, artistic sensitivity, wisdom, and—in many cases—humility. And yet you know that you will never need the benefits of this knowledge, or at least you feel confident enough to resist its influence in your life.

And because your opinion runs counter to the experience of many years of many thoughtful people, I must also congratulate you for your depth of analysis. You’re right that history and millions of people are sometimes, maybe even often wrong, and you seem to have thought this through carefully and determined that this is another instance of popular folly. We certainly need more careful thinkers who can divide the truly valuable from the merely popular.

And I must also offer my condolences to you for knowing in advance that you will live such a limited, circumscribed life that you will never have a use for art or truth or wisdom or beauty expressed in language. Yes, you know all this because you know you’ll never use what we are studying and yet you are not distraught. I know I’d be distraught if I had known at your age that I’d never need to develop my sense of artistic beauty, esthetics, compassion, kindness, or even wit and irony.

What’s the Use? A Fable
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, the king had a son who would one day rule. The king didn’t care for all this artsy talk about poetry and beauty and such. “Kings must be practical,” he would frequently tell his son. “Don’t waste your money on anything that doesn’t have a specific use.”
    One day, years later, the king passed on and his son ascended the throne. “I’m going to follow my father’s advice,” he declared, “and be a practical king.” Immediately he set out on a trip through his palace to search out anything that wasn’t useful.
    The first thing he encountered was a repairman working on one of the palace fountains. “What’s that you’re holding?” the king asked.
    “These are pliers,” said the repairman. “I’m using them to clear the debris from the drain in the fountain.”
    “So they are useful,” said the king.
    “Oh, yes, very,” the repairman replied, not quite sure what the king was getting at.
    “But what about this fountain?” asked the king. “What use does it have?”
    “Well,” said the repairman, slowly, as he considered his answer. “It’s beautiful. And the sound of water is pleasant.”
    “But it has no practical use,” the king said. Then, turning to his chief of staff, he said, “Take it out. And take out all the useless fountains.”
    As they continued on their tour, the entourage began to pass a flower shop. “Wait a minute,” the king said, with a trace of indignation. “This is preposterous. Here is an entire store given to no purpose. To sell flowers. Flowers have no practical use. Close this shop down.”
    “May it please the king,” one of his advisors said. “But flowers are very beautiful and the women love them. They bring joy to the heart.”
    “Nonsense,” retorted the king. “They have no use. No one actually uses them. Convert this flower shop into a store that sells rakes and hoes.”
    And so it happened that day, that all the flowers were removed, the fish ponds drained, the oil paintings and wall hangings and statuary were all taken down. Nothing that couldn’t be demonstrated to have an immediate, practical use was allowed to remain.
At length, the king entered his library. He picked up a book, How to Build a Prison. “Now, this is very useful,” he thought to himself. Then he picked up a book of poetry and looked at it with contempt. “Why does anyone read poetry?” he thought. “I’ll never use it.” And with that, he flung the book into the blazing fireplace.
   For awhile, life seemed to go on as before in the kingdom, except that many people reported being unhappy and depressed for no apparent reason. “What’s wrong with us?” someone asked. “I feel like a robot, without that richness in life I once had.”
   Finally, a wise old man who had just been released from prison for reading a “useless book” of poetry, spoke up. “It is because you are missing that which only art can grant. Without art, you have facts but not truth, desires but not love, use but not beauty. I am old and ready to depart this realm, so I can say this. Life is not merely about the practical. In fact, the practical exists to support the real value of life. By abolishing whatever is not immediately useful, the king has left us with glass to put in windows but no beautiful gardens to look at through the windows. In his obsession with usefulness, the king has stolen half your soul.”
   The man was quickly arrested and sent to the torturers. Yes, the king still had a dungeon, because, while his ban on useless things had eliminated beauty from his kingdom, it had not eliminated ugliness.

The Utility of Art Argument
Humankind was created in God’s image, and part of God’s nature is a powerful esthetic sense. Take a look at an orchid or a rose or a green landscape or any of the millions of created things that are simply beautiful for their own sake. And we share that esthetic sense with God. Why else would we think flowers are beautiful and attractive? We have the desire to extend our feeling for beauty, harmony, order, design, and artfulness by creating things that embody these characteristics—paintings, poems, sculptures, music, song—the list is lengthy.

What use are these things? Much in many ways. They satisfy and improve our esthetic sense, our appreciation of the beautiful and elegant, our love of design and artistry. By developing our appreciation for the beautiful through the study of human creations like poems and paintings, we develop our ability to appreciate the beautiful in the natural world. And in developing that ability, we strengthen, we amplify that part of God’s image connected to the esthetic. In that sense, by learning to enjoy the beautiful, we become a tiny bit more like God himself. That’s deeply useful, for getting to know our creator and his nature is a principal goal of life on earth. What could be more useful than knowing God?

Never going to use what you learn from studying poetry? Of course you are. You won’t learn whether to use a two by four or a two by six to support the floor of your new house. But poetry is not a how-to field of knowledge. Studying poetry does add knowledge, but it’s greatest use is that it changes who you are—into a better, wiser, more circumspect you, someone more capable of discernment, sympathy, and understanding. And you’ll be using who you are for the rest of your life.

If  you're interested in learning to write poetry, check out How to Write Better Poetry and The Traditional Theory of Poetry.


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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com