Practical Poetry

By Steven Reynolds

Poetry captures the imagination. Its use of imagery, rhythmic language, vivid detail, and symbolism evokes meaningful reflection—and often joy—among its readers. But poetry is not just for English majors or pleasure-seeking literati. Poetry is a great resource for personal and professional growth. From doctors and lawyers to writers of prose, those who read poetry routinely discover how it can greatly benefit their work.

For students, there is no better source material for improving writing and speaking than poetry. From reading poetry, a writer of prose learns the “dependence of a word’s specific gravity in context, focused thinking, [and] the omission of the self evident,” according to Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky. By using concise language to express complex ideas, poetry teaches the writer of prose brevity and laconism. “The discarding of the superfluous is in itself the first cry of poetry,” asserts Brodsky. The precise language of poetry cultivates an improved sensitivity to language, a skill that can translate into the reader’s own writing and speaking. 

Poetry has its place in the professional world. Laura Tartakoff, professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University, and James Madigan, a prominent attorney in Chicago, claim that reading poetry can improve lawyers’ advocacy skills. “Poetry is source material from which lawyers can borrow techniques,” according to Tartakoff and Madigan. The concrete imagery of poetry can help lawyers relate complex legal issues, whether to a jury or a judge, in a way that is clear and ascertainable. Furthermore, poetry’s intensity teaches lawyers not to dilute their language, resulting in arguments that are more persuasive. For Tartakoff and Madigan, “poetry’s language, intensity, and form, [are] features that make poems sharp tools for better lawyering.”

Former Supreme Court Justices Felix Frankfurter and John Paul Stevens agree that poetry is of great benefit to lawyers. “The study of… lyric poetry is the best preparation for law school,” opines Stevens. Frankfurter expressed a similar sentiment when responding to a young boy who had asked for his advice on law school preparation. “The best way to prepare for law is to be a well read person… by reading poetry,” he replied. Poetry and the law go hand in hand.

A more unconventional benefactor of poetry is the medical profession. Poetry and medicine initially appear to have divergent audiences. Yet, doctors have much to learn from reading poetry. Danielle Ofri, associate professor of medicine at NYU, believes that poetry can help doctors learn parts of the medical experience that schools do not teach. Reading poetry advances a doctor’s ability to interpret metaphors, “a critical clinical skill in diagnosis [as] patients’ symptoms often present in metaphorical manners and doctors need to know how to interpret [a] patient’s metaphor,” contends Ofri.  

From poetry, doctors also learn to exercise greater empathy, a vital skill for working with patients who are suffering or family members coping with the death of a loved one. Rafeal Campo, associate professor of medicine at Harvard, sums it up perfectly: “When we read or hear a poem that’s truly effective, we feel what the speaker is feeling. We experience an entire immersion of ourselves in another’s consciousness.” A recent study from the University at Buffalo supports Campo’s claim, finding that readers of poetry put themselves in the position of the protagonist, making them more sympathetic towards others.

Empathy and sympathy are not, however, beneficial only to doctors. Tartakoff and Madigan point out that the ability of lawyers to think outside of themselves is crucial in successful advocacy. But the importance of stepping outside oneself, seeing things from another’s perspective, cannot be limited to any one profession; it is a desirable trait for all of humankind. “To read lyric poetry is to exercise one’s capacity to treat a third party’s thought process (the poet’s) as ones own,” maintain Tartakoff and Madigan.

It appears the world could benefit from everyone reading a poem a day.

Steven Reynolds is a junior at Case Western Reserve University majoring in political science and sociology. Case Western Reserve University is home to the Alpha of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.