Is Studying Poetry Useless?
Version Date: March 26, 2013
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 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.