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Is Studying Poetry Useless?

Robert Harris
Version Date: March 26, 2013

Whether as a student in a literature class or as the teacher, youve likely heard

someone say at some point, Studying poetry is useless. Were 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 loves 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
whats going on in all these entertainment modes.
Did you ever wonder why in movies its almost always raining at funerals? If
youve 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 whats another name for song lyrics? Thats 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 youre 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 doesnt 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 smallshould I walk over to see John or should I text Sarah?
But they get bigger as life goes onshould 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? Its 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 thats 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 Alzheimers or other forms of dementia are encouraged
to keep using their brainsdoing 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 otherthe 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 lifewhats that, 40, 50, 70 more yearsand to know
that you will never make use of what we are learning here. Thats really amazing,
considering that peoplewhole civilizationshave valued this because its so
useful not only in itself, with its beauty, art, and philosophy, but in allowing it to
build character, artistic sensitivity, wisdom, andin many caseshumility. 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. Youre
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 youll never use what we are studying and yet you are not distraught. I know

Id be distraught if I had known at your age that Id never need to develop my

sense of artistic beauty, esthetics, compassion, kindness, or even wit and irony.

Whats 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 didnt care for all this artsy talk about poetry and beauty and such.
Kings must be practical, he would frequently tell his son. Dont waste your
money on anything that doesnt have a specific use.
One day, years later, the king passed on and his son ascended the throne. Im
going to follow my fathers advice, he declared, and be a practical king.
Immediately he set out on a trip through his palace to search out anything that
wasnt useful.
The first thing he encountered was a repairman working on one of the palace
fountains. Whats that youre holding? the king asked.
These are pliers, said the repairman. Im 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
But what about this fountain? asked the king. What use does it have?
Well, said the repairman, slowly, as he considered his answer. Its 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 couldnt 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. Ill never use it. And with that, he flung the book into the blazing
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. Whats
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 Gods image, and part of Gods 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, songthe 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 Gods image connected to the esthetic. In that sense, by
learning to enjoy the beautiful, we become a tiny bit more like God himself. Thats
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
wont 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 its greatest use is that it changes who you areinto a
better, wiser, more circumspect you, someone more capable of discernment,
sympathy, and understanding. And youll be using who you are for the rest of your