What Can Poetry Do?


We may think of poetry as a frivolous nicety. Something for unemployed graduate students and English teachers. We may have repeated to ourselves the old mantra from Auden’s poem about Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen.” It’s only an assortment of words, with tired rhymes or childish puns. What can it do besides give me a feeling? How can poetry do anything?

In the poem, Auden notes that “Ireland has her madness and her weather still.” The external world may not be changed by poetry, but there is still the inner world. In his autobiography, Frederick Buechner proposes that words have the power to “transform the human heart”:

Through the sound, rhythm, passion of his words, [the poet] is bringing to life in us, as might never have been brought to life at all, a sense of the uniqueness and mystery and holiness…of the reality itself, including the reality of ourselves.

The transformative nature of words is on full display when the speaker, and by extension the reader, is slowly changed over the course of the poem. But how does this formative dimension work?

To find out, continue reading at Epikeia

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