Notes on the Purpose of Poetry

Two weks ago we and Socrates met with Ion, a rhapsode and Homer’s greatest interpreter (in his own opinion). One question we touched on was whether poetry and rhapsody are arts, to which Socrates answered “No.” Rather, it’s a form of divine inspiration, which definition Ion was happy to roll with. However, that doesn’t seem to be true, for there certainly is an element of craftsmanship and skill involved with writing and reciting poetry, despite the occasional one-hit-wonder. Furthermore, even individual works, especially long ones like epics, are of mixed quality or at least mixed goodness. The Iliad, for instance, is a work of immense skill throughout, but at times portrays the gods in an impious manner, which seems very odd if it’s the work of inspiration by the gods. (As an aside, I am aware that all this isn’t Socrates final opinion on the subject, and that at least some of what he had to say was essentially said for Ion’s sake).

If poetry and rhapsody are arts, though, then what sort of art are they, and what is their end or purpose? We need to begin by defining some terms.

First, note that when Plato says “art” he’s using it in a broad sense. I won’t get into the Greek because I’m not familiar with that language, but since I’m writing for anglophones anyway we’ll proceed in my native tongue. In English we use “art” both to refer to any application of a learned skill, even in industry, as well as to production of a work of imagination or for aesthetic purposes. So, poetry is an art in that it’s an application of a learned skill (metrical writing) in a work of imagination or for aesthetic purposes. Yes, I’m keeping it simple by defining poetry as “metrical writing.” Writers of free verse may be artists and authors of literature, but at least for our purposes they’re in a separate, though related, category. What is the purpose of poetry? I would answer that it is the creation of a work of beauty. So, what is beauty? Again, let’s keep it simple and follow this short article on St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of the subject. Beauty is something that “elevate[s] man to the infinite,” in other words, toward God (don’t worry, we’ll flesh this out more shortly). We can see that it’s closely related, then, to goodness and truth, and for a work to be truly beautiful it must be good and true, as well. “Goodness” in this context, of course, does not mean merely inoffensive, but uplifting in some way, which often does involve a portrayal of evil in some manner. “Truth” will not usually be literal truth, but can also be allegorical.

So, we now have an idea of what poetry is, and what its purpose is. Rhapsody is the art of reciting poetry in an effective manner. Both have as their purpose focusing man’s mind on the transcendent, the good, true, and beautiful.

Socrates, no doubt, wouldn’t let me go that easily. Since this is a one-man show, though, I’ll have to raise my own objections, and the obvious one is this: does poetry actually do these things? If so, how? There have been many claims that it does; I’ve discussed Confucius’ previously, and also touched on Ben Jonson’s in that same article. We might also point to Scripture’s inclusion of many poems, most notably the Psalms but also throughout many of its other books. As far as appeals to authority go, then, we’re looking good, but that’s not quite enough. Confucius and Jonson are fallible, and Scripture’s poems aren’t just poems, but also prayers.

Regarding that last point, the Bible’s form and content aren’t arbitrary, and given the value of plain speech, it seems to me significant that the sacred authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, thought it most appropriate to set the Psalms, hymns, and so on in verse. Most of Scripture follows a simple style, often too simple for modern tastes, so when it uses poetry we may safely assume that this is because there’s something about poetic form that’s especially appropriate or effective on the reader that suits the author’s purpose. If poetry is the creation of a work of beauty, and beauty raises one’s mind to the transcendent, then this is as expected. The Psalms, etc., are written to do precisely that, and so they use a form that amplifies the effect of what they attempt to do.

If that’s the case, though, then shouldn’t all of Scripture, and for that matter pretty much everything else, also be written in verse? Not necessarily. The primary purpose of the historical and didactic books is to convey information. For example, the authors of the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles tell us the narrative of the kingdom of Israel, while St. Paul in his Epistles tells us how we ought to live (primarily, of course - obviously, the same book can have multiple purposes and work on more than one level). This can be done in verse, but this type of information is best related in as straightforward and easy to follow a manner as possible. Additional ornament, though it may beautify the work, may also distract from the main points. Of course, this also applies to non-Scriptural works of history, philosophy, and so on, which typically are best presented in prose.

Regarding fiction, if the goal is to present something beautiful, then given all I’ve said about poetry does this mean that the novel is an inferior form to the epic? Why yes, yes it does. There may be exceptions for certain types of stories, where the beauty isn’t always obvious. I find it a little difficult to imagine, say, Wise Blood or The Things They Carried in verse. Then again, Homer offers some impressive poetic treatments of warriors dying horribly, so I may just not be imaginative enough. The popular dominance of prose is a relatively recent development, and our seeming inability or unwillingness to read and write more poetry speaks poorly of our generation.

Before going too far down that rabbit trail, though, we should ask why poetry is more beautiful than prose, and why it’s more suited to some topics. One clue lies in Ezra Pound’s comment that poetry decays when it strays too far from music, and music decays when it strays too far from dance. Music is extraordinarily powerful, and moves us as no other art does. The rhythm of poetry, and the musicality of a good recital of it, is like a simplified form of music, and can move us in a similar way. Added to the rhythm is the meaning of the words, which appeals not only to our emotion as music does alone, but also to our reason and imagination.

This isn’t necessarily obvious to those who only read poetry silently, or have only heard it recited in classrooms by bored students. Also unhelpful are those English teachers who, absurdly, tell students not to place too much emphasis on a poem’s metre or rhymes. W. B. Yeats, at a reading of his own poetry, addressed this topic and shared a story of a poet who complained that it took him a great deal of effort to put his words into verse, and was exasperated to hear it recited as if it were prose. As for Yeats himself, you can listen to how he recited poetry. Many other poets I’ve listened to, like Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Carl Sandburg, and so on, do similarly. Vachel Lindsay is an extreme example.

So again, poetry, when recited well, can appeal to our reason and imagination by its words, and also to our emotion by its rhythm as music can. If, then, music is an art, so are poetry and rhapsody. In fact, this ability to appeal to our reason, emotion, and imagination all at once is a great strength of poetry, and is partly why I consider poetry the greatest of the arts.

In any case, let’s get back to the original question and try to sum this up. Yes, poetry and rhapsody are arts, having elements both of inspiration, as Socrates says, and craftsmanship. Their special purpose is to move the audience in a way that uplifts them in some way, which a skilled poet does by appealing to our reason, emotion, and imagination.