Vexatious Versification: Why Reading Poetry is Worth the Effort

Recently, I participated in a discussion of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Amid our close reading, hesitant commentary, and prolonged silences, one of my peers interjected, “This is ridiculous. I don’t see any point to studying this!” Although such a statement struck the soul of this student of literature, it is nevertheless understandable. Despite the difficulty, however, poetry edifies our lives without our knowing such minutia as the difference between metaphor and metonymy. Even for the amateur reader, poetry bestows at least three palpable benefits.

First, poetry breaks us out of our linguistic ruts. This last term I had the chance to assist in a Shakespeare seminar. I was fascinated by the ways in which the students’ writing and speech changed over the course of the semester. It did not necessarily become better or worse, but there was a palpable difference. This is important because in a world wherein functionality and efficiency often dictate our actions, it helps to encounter new ways of thinking and speaking about ideas. For example, instead of asking the pressing question, “why do emo kids wear black?” ask, “wherefore this nighted color?” The latter is clearly an exaggeration; nevertheless, yet enhancing the expression expands our perspective.

In addition, poetry can make us speak more precisely. The ability to express complex ideas with elegance and exactitude is a mark of good poetry. In doing so, we become more intentional. For example, there is Eliot’s commentary on the Christian life, “a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.” Good poetry like this is possessed of inevitability, wherein every element seems to fit exactly the way it should. In reading it, we can learn be intentional with our words as well. Language is a gift, words have real meaning and power, and we who speak should learn to use them well. By reading poetry’s novel expressions, its nuance and concern for precision, we cultivate the habit of carefully considering our words. The benefits of such a habit seem obvious if we consider the outcome of being able to more perfectly communicate in areas of life like prayer, relationships, and work environments.

 Finally, poetry shows us that we can create beauty in our speech. With something as regular as speaking, we have an opportunity to frequently experience something lovely if we but learn the skill. We should learn from Vaughan, who saw eternity “like a great ring of pure and endless light,” stand with Frost in woods “lovely, dark, and deep,” or contemplate with Dante “the love that moves the sun and the furthest stars.” Reading and hearing poetry teaches us how different sequences of words produce an effect, and how to wield the unique gift of language to create beauty.

Poetry provides us proximity with something sublime, a loveliness of language that cannot help but make us lovelier, if only we have the temerity to be transformed.

Published by

Hayden Butler

Hayden Butler is an ardent student of Literature. He is passionate about the role of narrative as a cultural device, and believes that the careful study and enjoyment of story can make us deeper and more virtuous as Christians and as human beings. He recieved his B.A. in English Literature at Biola University, graduating summa cum laude and receiving the Inez McGahey Award for Literary Scholarship. He graduated from the Torrey Honors Institute, attaining to the Order of Peter and Paul. Hayden’s academic interests include critical theory, metaphysical poetry, and philosophy of education. Outside of the classroom, he is a student of martial arts and oil painting, loves a good cup of tea, and owns an embarrassing number of Star Wars novels. He seeks to live an examined life in peace and beauty. He currently teaches AP Literature and Geometry at Capistrano Valley Christian High School and works as a waiter at a Victorian Tea House.

  • Mary Kate R.

    very interesting and inspiring post.

  • Gabriel C.

    Also, it seems like Poetry is also a powerful means of expression in it’s own right. Sometimes it’s not always completely dependent on what you say – a lot of getting one’s message across effectively is in how one says things. And Poetry does that. =]

  • KirbyJ

    Rock on!
    Thenceforth will I strive.

  • Dustin R. Steeve

    Can you recommend some good “poems for dummies”? When it comes to reading and appreciating poetry, I am a dull instrument.

  • Rob Stevenson

    A good poem for beginners:

    “If” by Rudyard Kipling

    Remember, poetry need not rhyme. Likewise, some of the most poetic works in the history of the world were not necessarily written as “poems.”

    Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence have a quality of rhythm and tone that borders with music.

    Even modern speech-writing hints of this. (See John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, promising to “bear any burden, pay any price,” or Peggy Noonan’s words spoken by Ronald Reagan paying tribute to those “who slipped the surly bonds of earth, and touched the face of God.”)

  • Hayden Butler

    Some poems for “dummies” may include the following:

    1) “The Temple” collection by George Herbert

    2) “Eating Alone,” “Eating Together,” and “Mnemonic” by Li Young Lee

    3) “God’s Grandeur” by G.M. Hopkins

    4) “He Wishes for the Clothes of Heaven” by W.B. Yeats

  • L.L. Barkat

    And poetry is just plain fun.

    And it can become an expression of community.

    And as poets we can be “minor pastors.”

    And so on.

    And I like your thoughts.

  • Lauren M.

    Dustin, I recommend Billy Collins. He is accessible, humorous, and profound.