Vexatious Versification: Why Reading Poetry is Worth the EffortArt & Literature, Culture, Media, Pop Semiotics — By Hayden Butler on July 5, 2009 at 6:48 pm
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.