The Value of Poetry

Most people today believe that poetry has little or no value. Along with other literature, the arts, and everything that academics call “the humanities,” poetry has been dethroned in the 21st-century league tables by science, mathematics, engineering, economics, business administration, finance, and technology. These practical subjects have value, so we are told, because they produce results that can be quantified and monetized. In the 21st century, money-value is the only value we recognize. We even say that something is important only if it “counts.” Music, novels, and films are important only as entertainment, and they are admired only if they make their producers a lot of money.

Practical subjects like science also have value because they ask questions that produce answers.

Poetry (which will stand here for all literature, music, dance, visual art, etc.) raises questions that have no answers—and what could be more useless, worthless, and pointless than that? We shall see.

In Small Is Beautiful (1973), the statistician and economist E. F. Schumacher writes, “The true problems of living . . . have no solution in the ordinary sense of the word. They demand of man not merely the employment of his reasoning powers but the commitment of his whole personality. . . . They demand . . . forces from a higher level, thus bringing love, beauty, goodness, and truth into our lives.” He goes on:

Science and engineering produce ‘know-how’; but ‘know-how’ is nothing by itself; it is a means without an end, a mere potentiality, an unfinished sentence. . . . At present . . . the whole of mankind is in mortal danger, not because we are short of scientific and technological know-how, but because we tend to use it destructively, without wisdom. More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom. 

In other words, poetry inspires us to think about the unanswerable questions that lead us toward wisdom, not just “know-how.” Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing, and what should we be doing? Schumacher notes that wrestling with such questions “tends to be exhausting, worrying, and wearisome. Hence people try to avoid it and to run away from it.” 

You may recognize that impulse in your own response to questions without answers like, “Who are we?” Perhaps it is reassuring to know that this is a normal response. Searching for wisdom isn’t easy. It’s a lifetime project. There is no guarantee of success. But without the wisdom that poetry, etc., may bring us, we will have no idea how to live; why to live; what to do with all our science and technology.

And that is the value of poetry.


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