Poetry is both useful and useless. As Chesterton once remarked, one of the first practical needs of man is for something beyond what is merely practical. To put it in Horace’s Latin, poetry is both dulce et utile. To put in Boccaccio’s Italian, by reading good literature we may derive both diletto and utile consiglio. To put it in our English, poetry is both good in itself and useful for a life of virtue.
Perhaps the best way to capture the double nature of poetry in a single word is to say that reading—and especially memorizing—poetry is a fruitful exercise. Just as fruit, being sweet, is enjoyable in itself and, being full of nutrients, is also useful for an active life, so too poetry.
At The Heights, poetry occupies a privileged place. From memorizing and reciting lyric poetry in the Valley’s outdoor theater to analyzing epic verse in an upper level english seminar, poetry pervades the whole of a Heights education. Elsewhere on the Forum, our teachers have written in praise of poetry and spoken about why our politics needs poetry.
In this article, I would like to consider some fruits of reading poetry. There are probably more fruits than I have picked; or perhaps there are fewer, as the ones chosen are not mutually exclusive. In any event, we can consider our fruits as falling into two baskets: the practical and the contemplative.
Two Practical Fruits
Students often want to know “when they are going to use” the subject matter they learn in a given class; so it is perhaps best to start with some practical benefits of studying poetry. Two practical fruits of studying poetry are:
Studying poetry helps one to grow in prudence: practical wisdom.
I once asked a leading Dante scholar, who teaches at a liberal arts university in Princeton, New Jersey, what use there is in studying Dante. Like a typical professor of poetry, he answered my query with an enigmatic question of his own: have you ever played polo? I had not; but his point was this: just as the sport of polo, where men on horseback swing mallets, was a way to train men for cavalry raids, where men on horseback swing weapons, so too poetry is a preparation for life. The same intellectual muscles, which are involved in prudential discernment, are activated when reading poetry, which because of its often ambiguous nature, requires the reader to make interpretive decisions. Indeed, in the prologue to his magnum opus, the Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio says that his work is useful precisely for this reason: that it helps train one to discern which paths to follow and which paths to avoid. To borrow a phrase that the same Dante scholar has used, poetry is an ethical gym.
Studying poetry makes a ready wit.
In his famous work, A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, which C.S. Lewis called the best dialogue ever written in the English language, Thomas More says, that without a “good mother wit” all learning is “half lame.” Reading poetry—and memorizing it—forms a quick wit, the habit of perceiving clearly and expressing eloquently. At least in part, you speak how you think, and you think how you read. Thus, by steeping our students’ minds in beautiful (and true) verse, we are preparing them to think well and communicate gracefully. Moreover, by memorizing verse, a fitting phrase will never be further away than their own mind. When the moment comes for them to give a toast at their best friend’s wedding, speak to a friend in need, or write a letter to the girl with whom they are in love, their poetic education will have prepared them for the moment.
Three Contemplative Fruits
There is a reason why the most frequently used noun in Dante’s Commedia is “occhio” (“eye”) and the second most frequently used noun is “mondo” (“world”). Poetry is all about vision, about how one sees the world around him. The poet is one who brings others to see what he himself has come to see. Reading poetry is a contemplative activity.
Here are three contemplative fruits of a poetic education:
Poetry adorns one’s interior life.
A poet is like an interior designer for the soul. Just as the right decorations and furniture, placed perfectly in a space and accentuated by fitting paintings and family photos, are needed to turn a simple space into a living room, so too are the right words, thoughtfully chosen and artfully connected, necessary to make you at home in your own mind. The images that a good poem places in our student’s memory are as important as the ideas that we hope to impart to them. To memorize a poem is quite literally to own a work of art; it is like hanging a painting on some interior wall, which (at best) would have remained empty and (at worst) would have been filled with some hideous image that causes more pain than profit.
Reading poetry forms the moral imagination.
How we view the world is influenced by our imagination. The more we strengthen and shape our students’ imaginations, the better prepared they will be to view the world as charged with beauty. It is one thing to offer a theodicy, another to help one see God even in the midst of great evil. Beyond mere theoretical musing, it is the poet who concretely helps one face life’s challenges with an optimistic attitude. Good poetry will help them put into practice Chesterton’s pithy aphorism: “an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.”
Learning how to interpret a poem teaches one how to see others in a charitable light.
Interpreting poetry is not always easy, but neither is charity which, to paraphrase St. Josemaria Escriva, consists more in seeking to understand than in giving. Indeed, it is a poet, Virgil, who teaches Dante how to relate to—understand—the panoply of characters he encounters on his pilgrimage; and poets like him help us to do the same. By teaching our students to interpret poetry charitably—to find what gold lies in Egypt, to put it as St. Augustine would—we are preparing them to interpret real persons in the same way, for one and the same mind interprets both poetry and the world.
If these five fruits were not enough, perhaps this bonus fruit—which again, may not be really different from the others—will show you why you should place some of your apples in the basket of poetry. Ultimately, reading poetry instills in one a poetic outlook, the habit of seeing the world as charged with meaning. By reading the right poems, one may little by little come to see that it is possible to live contemplatively even while pursuing a very active life, that practical concerns can be occasions for wonder, that our two baskets of fruit may be more closely united than first thought; which may not be so bad, since it isn’t fruit, but eggs that you ought not put in one basket.