Poetry, says Plato, has no good place in a well-ordered society. The power it exercises over people can be dangerous, he believes, and the crowd it attracts is often undesirable. It could corrupt the young.
Modern Americans may sympathize with this position if they fail to examine their assumptions about poetry. They may dismiss poetry as a “soft” art form with no real standards, or as a feeble escapism useless to a good society. Of course, contemporary poets do exist who write flat, self-referential verse and blame their audience for not understanding its meaning. The inadequacy of an artist, however, does not discredit the art itself. A handful of egotistical poets should not ruin the reputation of poetry itself, or of those few living poets who do credit to the art of verse.
Poets – from contemporary hipster-poets to sandaled, pre-Homeric bards – are engaged in pursuing a deeply, essentially human impulse. The desire to create beautiful things and take pleasure in them is so fundamentally human that primitive European men chose to craft voluptuous female sculptures and paint bison on their walls before they ever bothered to cultivate annual crops or build any shelter apart from a cave. And was primitive man’s artistic impulse misguided? Absolutely not. Unlike some “educated” moderns, primitive man knew he only had a little while to live, and he chose to spend what little he could creating beauty. This choice was echoed by the Victorian poet Robert Browning: “If you get simple beauty, and naught else, / You get about the best thing God invents.” Poets work to create (and share with readers) the best thing in the world; they have their priorities straight.
Others may criticize these makers of beauty – the word “poet” in Greek simply means “creator” or “someone who makes things” – for being escapists who are isolated from the so-called “real world”. Art, they may say, is not practical, and an art form that you cannot see or touch is the least practical of all. However, A.E. Housman – an English poet who lived through the First World War – understood that nothing is more useful in real life than poetry. In his famous poem beginning “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” a young man in his cups reproves his poet friend for lowering morale with his sad verses. “Come,” he says, “pipe a tune to dance to, lad!”
The poet responds that his verses are sad for a reason. Though life may seem rosy when one is drunk and sanguine, “the world has still / Much good, but much less good than ill.” This poem always brings to mind my favorite quotation from The Princess Bride, spoken by the hero Wesley after he emerges from the depths of unspeakable torture: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.” Drink to forget all you like, he says, but one day you will wake up, and you will be miserable.
So what is the poet’s solution? He says:
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
‘Tis true, the stuff [poetry] I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it – if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour.
It will do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul’s stead,
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.
He then goes on to tell the story of Mithridates, a mythical king who slowly immunized himself to poison. In another stunning parallel to The Princess Bride which I refuse to believe is a coincidence, the king takes arsenic and strychnine, “first a little, thence to more”. Then, when his enemies actually feed him poison, he swallows it easily and remains unhurt.
The point? Poetry is the world in miniature: a brief glimpse of divine misery, a cameo of true love, a tiny dose of misery (the drops of poison we must taste) – poetry prepares us to face realities that might otherwise overwhelm us. “The thoughts of others,” Housman writes, “were light and fleeting, / Of lovers meeting / Or luck, or fame. / Mine were of trouble, / And mine were steady, / So I was ready / When trouble came.”
A good society needs poets more than anything. It needs a citizenry armed against the miseries of life. It needs a citizenry that respects beauty, because with a respect for beauty comes a respect for human life – the greatest beauty on earth – and for all that is right and good.
Cara Valle teaches middle school English and high school poetry at Glendale Preparatory Academy near Phoenix, Arizona. She grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and graduated from Hillsdale College in 2010.