This semester, I’m teaching an introduction to poetry survey course. This course helps me more than my students, probably, because while drafting the curriculum and teaching the classes, I find myself forced (in a good way) to confront my own aims and purposes regarding the art. In addition, I discuss poetry more frequently with colleagues and friends when I’m teaching a class like this one.
A question I’ve been asking is: what can a poem do for a person? In particular, what do great poems do for people? The phrase “transform us” has been suggested, but I think that word in itself is too unspecific. Transform us in what ways? How?
Here are some of the answers I’ve received, and I think they are all worth considering. I’m always looking for more feedback on this question, so feel free to add comments…
• Poems help us to imagine or understand perspectives we do not ordinarily assume: “I never thought about it that way before.”
• Poems help us to feel understood and less isolated: “I thought I was the only one who felt like that!”
• Poems help us define our experiences: “I would never have described it that way, but it seems exactly right!”
• Poems help us to see what we take for granted: “I never realized how valuable that was before.”
• Poems help us to feel compassion: “I feel as though I went through this experience because I read this poem.”
• Poems help us to reflect and to think about what is beautiful and terrible; they offer solace and extend our grasp of the human situation.
These things–and others–may, in fact, transform our lives. Not every transformation is a bolt from the blue; most transformations occur gradually, through a series of small movements and almost imperceptible changes the way a zygote grows into an adult being.
What else do poems do for people?