Many things, of course; building vocabulary is one.

When I was in high school, I encountered Lorca’s poetry via two books, two exposures in different classrooms. A translation of one of his poems appeared in my literature anthology for English class, and my Spanish teacher had a volume of Lorca’s collected poems on a shelf from which we got to choose a book, one day when we were allowed some free reading time (looking back, I suspect my teacher hadn’t prepared the day’s lesson, but at the time, I found it a delightful change to the usual routine). I loved his poetry; I bought my own copy of the facing-page collected poems; they led me on to Lorca’s other work, and to other Spanish-language poets, notably Neruda and a few of the members of the Generation of ’98.

And so, many years later, when I listen to call-in shows on Spanish radio, I can follow the ones about relationships without difficulty. I soon lose the thread of the shows about politics, mortgages, and health problems, but it’s remarkable how well poetry prepares a person for conversations about emotion. Corazón, lácrimas, amargura, cariño, amor: these words stuck with me. They stuck because I loved the poetry; even if I had read about mortgages, at that age, I doubt I would have carried the lines and words in my head.

Why am I listening to these shows? Because I like languages; because I want to hang onto the ones I have; because I haven’t given up on learning one or two more before I die. I have no purpose in mind. I just enjoy the process, the feeling of growing mastery over another language. In at least one way, this activity is counter-productive: it distances me ever further from the mass of my students, makes it even harder to understand what it is that they don’t understand. I think I am a better teacher of the things I struggled to learn than I am of the topics that came easily to me. Studying languages could perhaps lead to a second career or interesting volunteer work as a translator, interpreter, or guide. I have no such ambitions. Nonetheless, since the possibility is there, I would say, Poetry does too make things happen.

Has it ever made something happen for you?



One thought on “What is poetry good for?

  1. I teach fiction writing, as you might know, and I *frequently* quote the “poetry makes nothing happen!” line from Auden at my poor writing students (many of whom are poets). I don’t mean it, of course (Dr. Skull, my husband, is a poet).

    I’ve loved poetry since I first started reading — my earliest books were books of poetry, anthologies, mostly. So yes, I think poetry does help with reading and vocabulary. And I have always memorized poetry, just because I love how it sounds. I like the language and the rhythm of the language.

    But mostly poetry is art. I don’t think art has to be useful. We love art because it is art, not because it has a function. I love a Hopper painting because of its beauty, right? Not because it teaches me something about (I don’t know) the Hudson River (though it might do that too!).

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