What do poems do?

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?

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