What’s the point of poetry?


What’s the point of poetry? When we pose the question to ourselves, we often come to the conclusion that poetry will only serve to beautify language, and that this has no utilitarian purpose. Worse, yet poetry might even complicate language and make things difficult to understand.

However, studies by Professor Philip Davis of the University of Liverpool have shown what actually happens to our brain while we read poetry by one of the English Language’s greatest luminaries, William Shakespeare. We may ascribe Shakespeare’s greatness to the philosophical ideas underlying his plays. These big ideas on existence and the human condition are useful because they give us food for thought and insight into our own lives. But the studies by Davis show that the poetry and language itself engages our brains as well, and become a sort of mental exercise.

During tests, Professor Davis and his collegeauges, hook up MRIs and other brain imaging devices to people as they read Shakespeare. The researchers observed that unlike normal prose, poetry, especially Shakespeare’s poetry, causes a “P600” response in our brain. This is described as a “wow effect” by Professor Davis. What happens is that when Shakespeare misuses words for poetic purposes, it causes our minds to engage the actual words written on the page. For example Shakespeare may use an adjective as a verb, such as “thick  my blood” or use a pronoun in place of a noun, “the cruelest  she  alive.” When we read this, our minds know that the words must fit together, but since the words are used in a non-traditional way, our brain must engage the text even more in order to understand it.

But so what if Shakespeare and poetry engages our brains, there is still no point in reading it right?

But, if we think about it, engaging our brains is probably the most important exercise we do. It may even be a little more important than physical exercise. We live a sedentary lifestyle, where most of our work is done in our minds rather than with our backs. Granted we should still should exercise, but after a certain point, further exercise would give us no utilitarian advantage because there is no additional health benefits. While on the other hand, additional mental exercise, like reading poetry, might help us sharpen our minds for any job that requires abstract thought. To exercise our minds is probably central to our lives if we want to move forward in the world, and poetry is one way to do that exercise.