In 2018, a survey from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) showed that 28 million American adults read poetry in 2017. That’s the highest on record in the 15 years since NEA initiated the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) and doubled from 2012 when NEA conducted the last SPPA. When you consider the importance of poetry, it’s not hard to see why those numbers are the way they are.
Poetry is important because it helps you understand others better. It gives you new perspectives on the world, allows you to connect with people similar to and different from you, and expresses things you’d otherwise find challenging to explain in everyday language.
In this article, I’ll expand on the importance of poetry. I’ll explain the purpose of poetry, its role in the average person’s life and society at large, why poetry has a place in the education system, the benefits of poetry for readers, and how a hypothetical world without poems looks.
If you ask different people why poetry is essential, you’ll get various answers. The fact that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question regarding the value of poetry is, in my opinion, a testament to how valuable it is.
The value of poetry has artistic and practical aspects. Poets use their work to showcase the range of expression, lyrical beauty, and emotion in their native language. On the other hand, the average person turns to poetry to experience, heighten, or soothe their feelings.
I’ve touched on the importance of poetry from an artistic and practical perspective. But why did people start writing poetry in the first place? Let’s tackle that question next.
Throughout human history, poets used their work for different purposes. For instance, court officials in ancient Japan considered poetry essential to the “proper” functioning of the government. But what was the original intent of poetry?
The main purpose of poetry is conveying stories through language. Ancient peoples passed down their tales from generation to generation using oral recitation, a form of poetry. Today, the best poetry can capture the ups and downs of human knowledge and emotions within a handful of words or lines.
Given the purpose of poetry, what role does it play in society? Does it matter to the community at all? Absolutely, and I’ll explain why in the following paragraphs.
If you’re someone who has no artistic or literary sensibility whatsoever, you probably scoff at the idea that poetry matters at all. After all, aren’t poets people who have nothing better to do than shut themselves away in their ivory towers and navel-gaze about the way an acorn falls from a tree?
Poetry is important to society. Political poems may praise or critique the powers-that-be or appear to praise them while offering covert criticism through coded language. The latter is especially true for poets who live in places with little to no freedom of expression.
Whether directly or indirectly, poetry has shaped societies for better or worse. Google “political poets” for historical examples that are too numerous to cover in one article.
People from marginalized groups aren’t the only ones who benefit from poetry. Regardless of where you’re from, poetry plays a crucial role in your daily life.
Poetry influences human life through expression of the human condition. For instance, poets can make powerful statements on how governments treat their average citizens. Poems can also zoom in on subjects at the individual level, like the complicated feelings of falling in love.
So far, I’ve covered poetry’s historical, systemic and emotional value. Let’s discuss its intellectual importance in the next section.
If you’ve read anything by Lang Leav, you’ve had a taste of the emotional impact of poems. If your left brain is stronger than your right brain, poetry can also give you something to chew.
Poetry helps you think and reflect through its language usage. Good poems usually have several layers of meaning, and it’s quite an intellectual exercise to peel back each of those layers and uncover the things the poet wants to say. The beauty of poetry is everyone interprets a poem differently.
You don’t have to be a particularly cerebral person to appreciate a poem, though. As I’ll explain in the following section, poetry has a vital role in children’s education.
If you’re indifferent to or hate poetry with a passion, I don’t blame you. Most schools focus more on the technical and literary aspects of poetry (e.g., iambic pentameter, soliloquy) than on individual enjoyment and how students can relate poems to their daily lives. That said, I believe poems should continue to be part of school curriculums.
Poetry is important to education because:
- Poetry builds essential language skills.
- Poetry improves critical thinking ability.
- Poetry enhances creativity.
- Poetry grants a deeper appreciation of pop culture.
- Poetry encourages empathy.
While going through the above list, you might’ve thought: “Okay, but how exactly does poetry do all that?” Let me elaborate below.
Poetry is arguably the height of language expression. Poets often follow and break the rules of language for maximum impact.
Therefore, to understand and appreciate poetry, a student must have complete mastery over a poem’s language. For example, poets regularly use words that don’t appear in everyday conversation or use them in ways that may seem strange to someone who isn’t a native speaker of the language the poet used.
Language learners also pick up similes, metaphors, paradoxes, irony, alliteration, etc. These aren’t only words to tick off an English exam: They also allow students to see patterns in their target language and further enhance their fluency.
Of course, poets aren’t gods (though their language mastery can seem godlike). They’re human like their readers and can make mistakes in the form and content of their poems.
A good poetry teacher can pose questions like “Given what you know about English grammar and conventions, which rules did the poet break in this work?” or “Do you think the poet is justified in using a hateful and derogatory term here? Why or why not?”
Also, students shouldn’t analyze poems in a vacuum. Teachers should also encourage the exploration of a poem’s context — whether historical, political, socioeconomic, or individual. The context points to vital clues about a poem (e.g., what the poem is about, why the author used a particular style, why the author feels a certain way about a subject, etc.)
Like most types of literature, poetry encourages readers to look at the world from a different perspective.
To illustrate, is a falling leaf simply demonstrating how gravity works? Or can you use it as a metaphor for the cycle of life and death? How do you express that cycle in a way that hundreds of poets haven’t done before?
As I mentioned before, wordplay is a vital aspect of poetry. You can call a person every one-word variation of “unintelligent,” or you can say someone is “like a dog who thinks his tail is a piece of bone.”
If you’re a poetry teacher, you shouldn’t neglect to tell your students that their favorite chart-toppers are poems set to music.
Students can further appreciate the songs that get stuck in their heads by deconstructing poetry and its components. They can marvel at the skill it takes to create a rhythm, tell a story and make a song memorable.
A good example is Fort Minor’s “Kenji,” which talks about the Japanese-American internment during World War II. You can listen to the song via YouTube below:
It’s one thing to read facts and figures about wars in other countries. It’s another to read a poem about a survivor’s trauma and empathize with that experience on some level.
I doubt there’s a single school in the country that teaches a class along the lines of “Empathy 101.” But I think you’ll agree empathy is a valuable skill to have beyond the four walls of the classroom. That’s what allows humans to coexist with each other despite their differences, after all, and most poetry has empathy in spades.
I’ve explained the importance of keeping poetry in school curriculums. How about the benefits of poetry for adults who are no longer in school? Fortunately, there are plenty of those, as you’ll see below.
Students aren’t the only individuals who can benefit from poetry. If, at this point, you’re still not convinced of the practical value of reading poems beyond an academic setting, let me change your mind.
Poetry benefits the reader as follows:
- Poetry boosts your brainpower.
- Poetry trains you to simplify complex ideas.
- Poetry is good for your mental health.
Let’s break down the benefits of reading poetry below.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive effects of poetry on your brain.
For example, in one 2013 study, reading poetry stimulates the areas of your brain associated with memory more than reading prose material like novels and heating installation manuals (seriously). That’s because poetry evokes strong emotions, and if these have links to specific memories, those memories are more likely to stick to your brain.
Most poems are only a few lines long. As a result, poets try to make every word count without sacrificing the poem’s emotional resonance with the reader.
In the corporate world, you have to deal with and make sense of complex data and information. You can take a leaf out of an excellent poet’s book (figuratively and literally), read poetry as carefully as you can, and observe how poets say so much with so little. In the same way, a PowerPoint presentation shows how your company’s finances are doing without overcrowding each slide.
You know when you have a thought or feeling you can’t put into words? Poets are skilled at conveying the things most people have trouble expressing.
When you read something that articulates the things on the tip of your tongue, you’re more likely to process those things in a meaningful way. The ability to process thoughts and emotions constructively has links to improved mental health. Indeed, studies suggest that reading poetry can alleviate the following symptoms:
Considering the benefits of poetry, you’ll find it hard to imagine why anyone would not want to read even a single poem. So let’s suppose the world doesn’t have poetry at all. How can an entire world function without poems?
Suppose poetry never existed at all. In that case, no one can enjoy the benefits of poetry as outlined above.
Without poetry, the world would become a dull, cold place. People can lose touch with their past since early histories came as oral poetry. Wars can become more prevalent because there’s significantly less empathy in the world. Those who have mental illnesses will suffer in silence.
If you don’t already realize the importance of poetry at this point, you can stop reading. Otherwise, I’ll wrap up everything I’ve said so far in the article.
A poem isn’t just a piece you read to pass your English or literature class. When you carefully read poetry, you can make sense of the world, other people, and yourself. You can reconcile science with art, hear music where there’s none, and see beauty in the ugliest places.
If nothing else, you can try to deconstruct the most difficult poems in the world, enhance your thinking capabilities along the way and brag to your friends about your achievement. But first, I suggest you start with anything by Dr. Seuss, Lang Leav, or your friends’ Instagram posts.