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lifeflame's avatar

What's the point of poetry?

Asked by lifeflame (5912points) June 15th, 2010

I teach a literature class to secondary school students. The other day a 14 year old boy (new to the class) asked, “This may seem like a really dumb question, but what’s the point of poetry?”

I thought this was an excellent question. How would you have answered? What is the point of poetry?

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42 Answers

YARNLADY's avatar

Some people enjoy playing around with words and poetry is one way to do that. It is similar to painting. You could ask the same question about the various styles of painting, or even music.

PattyAtHome's avatar

Poetry is a method of communication that’s intended to elicit an emotional response rather than just convey information.

gemiwing's avatar

What’s the point of a book? A movie? A video game- it’s all the same thing. Humans love telling/showing other humans things that they feel, have seen or think about.

Plus, chicks dig poetry. tongue firmly in cheek

ipso's avatar

I would lock onto something that the kid is good at – say skateboarding. Then equate it to that which he knows, and say that some people like to tinker with words and create stories – and it makes them feel like you do when you ride your skateboard. (Almost exactly as @YARNLADY just pointed out.)

Ideally you would identify something “cool”, like Lord of the Rings, or something the kid appreciates, and link poetry to story.

Above all – show your love for poetry in your eyes. If he sees weakness, he will not respect it. He will try to destroy it. If he knows there is love, and it is valid, he will seek to understand it.

anartist's avatar

To communicate, precisely, abstractly, and beautifully, the poet’s insights on the human condition or anything else.

CMaz's avatar

It calms the savage breast.

Oh, wait, that’s music…

mattbrowne's avatar

A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.—Robert Frost

To me the point of poetry is threefold

1) It slows us down
2) It evokes emotions
3) It makes us think

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

It’s another way for Neurotypicals to communicate in a code incomprehensible to us Aspies. I can sometimes decypher my fellow New Englander, Robert Frost; common experiences.

I never could see a point to poetry other than pure art. Sometimes a bit of rhyming doggerel is helpful as a memnonic device. The only poem I actually liked memorizing was Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”.

Trillian's avatar

What a shame for that kid. The ability to appreciate beauty is a gift. Hopefully he’ll develop it at some point. Otherwise, think of all he’ll miss.

CMaz's avatar

@Trillian – Nothing an XBox or PlayStation can’t provide. :-)

ucme's avatar

There’s beauty in poetry, behold it’s as flawless & serene as Venus
Alas such joys are lost on these boys for they think only of their penis

vamtire's avatar

Poetry is the brilliant art that portrays emotions,wisdom and expression in little amount of words that is is impossible without skill.

CMaz's avatar

Ah, the days when you had to read a book to get information and be inspired.

prescottman2008's avatar

Has your school district eliminated art and music? If so then your literature class is the only “art appreciation” class these kids will ever get.

stardust's avatar

Poetry makes the ordinary sublime. It evokes emotion, thought, wisdom..It gives life where some may see none.

bob_'s avatar

Roses are red
Violets are blue
Poetry gets you laid
If at it you’re good

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

It’s yet another descriptive language tool. It’s no different than Math.

Math can tell me when and how the sun will rise. But it cannot tell anyone how I feel about it. Only poetry will suffice for that.

Coloma's avatar

To even ask why beauty is needed
speaks volumes of those who’s wit has receded ;-)

nebule's avatar

I think it focuses our energy and emotion into poignant passages
It’s beautiful, It has rhythm and depth and meaning and… oh god…ooooh so much
I certainly can’t give a good answer without thinking about this for a long time….

gailcalled's avatar

Tell the kid that rhyming verse was invented before handwriting and the printing press. It made remembering the great sagas easier. Iliad, Odyssey, Beowulf, etc.were recited by bards; the audience drank mead and listened.

Rhyming verse also simulated the human heart beat; earliest instruments were drums and simple flutes..

Gradually,different languages encouraged different form and meter. Celtic poetry used alliteration, for example.

Similar to the cave drawings. They were done to memorialize events, but gradually visual artists got more interested in the artistic issues.

Similar to early sculpture, done in order to worship a deity or deities and then refined.

This is a very simplified version of the History of Art 101.

Trillian's avatar

@ChazMaz I confess that since the decline of Spyro the Dragon, MYST and Resident Evil I haven’t played much. Guitar Hero is about the extent of it for me.
Or were you trying to get under my skin?
We’ll see who laughs last, funny man. ;-)

josie's avatar

The question is not so excellent as it is a little discouraging. The point of poetry is that it says something about the nature of man. Human beings, by their nature, take things in reality and then stylize them to their liking, thus mildly transcending their original purpose. That is why human beings prepare food to look and taste a certain way, rather than simply eat it raw or off the brance. That is why we live in homes of a design, rather than in caves. It is why we wear clothing of a particular style, rather than simply covering our bodies against the cold. Thus is is with language. The species has the ability to make language transcend its mere functional purpose, and become fun to write or listen to. That is the whole point. It is why we read Shakespeare after we read Dick and Jane. Your student is getting close that stage in life where he should at least understand that, whether or not he totally appreciates it.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

The point of poetry is to celebrate the beauty of crafting language.

Trillian's avatar

Damnit @josie, you have the soul of a poet. I never suspected for a moment, though in retrospect, perhaps I should have. You’ve certainly given a few hints. You rock!

Jeruba's avatar

To transcend the utilitarian and enter the realm of art.
To become godlike through the act of creation.
To express experience, to begin to comprehend that experience through the process of expression, and to evoke the experience in another, thus connecting in some elemental way with other beings of our kind.

lifeflame's avatar

@josie – I thought it was a good question because it brought me up short, and I’m glad the student had the guts enough to challenge the basis of what we were doing. In this case it lead to a good discussion, much as we are having now.

I basically fielded the question in a similar way to @gailcalled, by returning to ask, “well, what is poetry?” It was good because we’ve been studying poems for months now, and I realise that we’ve never really looked at something so basic as to “why write/study poetry”. I’m thinking of integrating this now into the summer courses I will be teaching.

Since then I’ve been asking around; and one of my favourite responses has been from another student, “To make feelings more specific”... I also like mattbrowne’s response, “To slow down time.”

@prescottman2008 – my class is a weekend tutorial class of 3 students. No, our school district (in Hong Kong) has not eliminated art and music, and in fact, because a lot of schools have switched to the International Baccalaureate syllabus (which has a mandatory literature in mother tongue component) many students find that they have to cover literature extensively for examination purposes. It works out really well for me because I get to teach/share literature I like. =)

ipso's avatar

Holy bang-on @Jeruba! – roar of applause with jelly vibration

ratboy's avatar

It amuses those of ambiguous gender.

Plone3000's avatar

You could say the same for music or writeing.
They are all emotional outlets.

jeanmay's avatar

Some believe an author acts under some kind of heavenly compulsion, or another kind of intangible external force when they write.

I think poetry helps express things that words alone cannot. This is also true of other art forms. Why do we want to express these things? Because we need to somehow understand and feel connected to ourselves and others: our individual and collective spiritual well-being depend on it.

It’s also just great fun.

I would give that student an A+

Jeruba's avatar

But @jeanmay, what is poetry if not words?

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@Jeruba : “Burnt Norton” stanza V by TS Eliot

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.

jeanmay's avatar

@Jeruba T.S. Eliot said it brilliantly, via @hawaii_jake!

lifeflame's avatar

I collated some of the answers here + others that I had been getting from my friends and wrote it up in my blog. @mattbrowne, @gailcalled, @josie were featured; and I linked it back to this discussion page in case people wanted to get the full spectrum of your thoughts (and introduce them to fluther!)

Many thanks for all who contributed…


By the way, @Jeruba, I do want to answer your question (“what is poetry if not words?”) but i need to organise my thoughts a bit. It has to do, I think, with the ability of the right image/moment to transcend the sum of its parts. A sort of recognition/intuitive leap…

gailcalled's avatar

@lifeflame: Thanks. Here is a list of poets who talk about “What is poetry.” The range goes from the gushy to the necessity for metrical discipline, the quotes from Shelley to JFK.

Here are two that I particularly like;

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep. Salman Rushdie

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you’ve lost the whole thing.
W.S. Merwin

lifeflame's avatar

@gailcalled – fascinating. Maybe I’ll post that up in the references at the end…

Jeruba's avatar

Words are still the way.

I responded rhetorically to @jeanmay‘s comment: “I think poetry helps express things that words alone cannot.” Ordinary words, maybe, cannot. Everyday speech cannot. But poetry, for all its extraordinariness, is still words.

Unless you use “poetry” metaphorically to refer to something like a visual image or an emotional experience, the medium of poetry is language. So indeed words alone are expressing those things. That is the magic of it.

This does not contradict my earlier answer to the question of what the point of poetry is.

zenele's avatar

I don’t know the answer to that, however, a friend of mine once said to me, in reply to my asking why he was buying some colourful knick knack which had absolutely no practical use: “It’s just for nice.”

Here’s one of mine – don’t read too much into it.

It’s a song, actually, set to music – so please don’t read it as some kind of real poetry:

Second wife, in Second Life.

We met by chance
On the coast of cyber space
There was romance
I gave the proper chase

We fell in love
I think I did, anyway
We sailed to a romantic cove
It was a beautiful day


It seemed so real
It had such a genuine feel
That I asked you to be my
Second wife, in Second Life

You had the cutest little avatar
With a very realistic style
I played my virtual guitar
It made you smile

We moved in together that day
It seemed the natural thing to do
We were so compatible that way
Just me and you, me and you


It seemed so real
It had such a genuine feel
That I asked you to be my
Second wife, in Second Life


Then we came upon a bridge
We said we would never burn
But you know that time lost
Is never returned

So we went to the online store
And bought a baby or two
I had done all this before
It was like déjà vu

But my computer crashed later that day
And I had – nowhere to go
Had you changed your nick, or really gone away
I guess I’ll never know

It all seemed so real
It had such a genuine feel
That I asked you to be my
Second wife, in Second Life

Well I woke up the very next day
And it all seemed a little wrong
Now it’s starting to fade away
And all that’s left is this little song

But it seemed so very real
It had such a genuine feel
When I asked you to be my
Second wife, in Second Life

Second wife, in Second Life

* * *

dpworkin's avatar

Sometimes poetry is a rigorous intellectual exercise. Formalism is much honored since Joyce, and content is sneered at.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

Poems elicit the commonalities of the human condition across time, culture and social norms.

how long
can i lament
with this depressed
heart and soul

how long
can i remain
a sad autumn
ever since my grief
has shed my leaves

the entire space
of my soul
is burning in agony

how long can i
hide the flames
wanting to rise
out of this fire

how long can one suffer
the pain of hatred
of another human
a friend behaving like an enemy

with a broken heart
how much more
can i take the message
from body to soul

i believe in love
i swear by love
believe me my love

how long
like a prisoner of grief
can i beg for mercy

you know i’m not
a piece of rock or steel
but hearing my story
even water will become
as tense as a stone

if i can only recount
the story of my life
right out of my body
flames will grow

Rumi, 13th century, Persia

rooeytoo's avatar

I don’t seek out poetry especially, but when some poignant bit finds me, I embrace it. One of my favorite poets was James Kavanaugh, a defrocked Jesuit who truly composed from his essence. (

I had a nephew who was only 10 years younger than I, when he was born I felt like a mother to him but as he grew up we became very good friends and he was a peer. When he died at age 27 I discovered a poem of Jim’s called “Some Few Walk Softly.” It was perfect.

augustlan's avatar

It’s for love and beauty, anger and despair, tragedy and joy.

What’s a poem for
but to fill my heart with joy
like your hand on my face

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