After Mandela, here’s one of the uses of poetry: So we don’t die of history

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 12, 2013

01_poetry_butcher_colour_newAfter the passing of one of the “giants of history”, Nelson Mandela, it might be appropriate to muse on the uses of poetry. For poet Meena Alexander, there is a very important answer to the question:  What Use Is Poetry? She explains in a poem, which ends as follows:

Standing apart I looked at her and said –
We have poetry
So we do not die of history.
I had no idea what I meant.

Writing in The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky offers another reason: “Poetry is useful because of its useless essence, not because of its individual meaning.”

Or, as Ian McEwan wrote in in this lovely little story in The New Yorker, poetry has certain very specific uses. In the case of Michael Beard, physics student at Oxford, a deliberately cultivated interest in Milton – with a one-week crash course – helps win over Maisie Farmer. “His own special study would be the physics of light, and he was naturally drawn to the poem of that name, and learned its last dozen lines by heart. Over the second bottle of wine, he talked to her of its pathos, a blind man lamenting what he would never see, then celebrating the redeeming power of the imagination… he recited it to her, ending, ‘thou Celestial light / Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers / Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence / Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight.’ At these lines he saw the tears well in Maisie’s eyes…”

As McEwan tells it, “Many years later, Beard told this story and his conclusions to an English professor in Hong Kong, who said, ‘But, Michael, you’ve missed the point. If you had seduced ninety girls with ninety poets, one a week in a course of three academic years, and remembered them all at the end—the poets, I mean—and synthesized your reading into some kind of aesthetic overview, then you would have earned yourself a degree in English literature. But don’t pretend that it’s easy.’

Not easy. Just stirring. Poetry’s useless essence.