Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Better People

Aaron Belz


By Aaron Belz

December 13, 2013

Does reading poetry make us better people? Reading fiction does, or so The Guardian reported in October, tending to confirm a long-standing core assumption of the humanities. By creating empathy and providing models of human interaction, literary fiction helps its consumers care about each other’s lives and so, the reasoning goes, become better neighbors. If this is true, it has obvious implications for democracy.

But what about poetry? Poetry might make its readers more eloquent, clever, interested; it socializes us into patterns established by our distant ancestors. Reading Frost we feel the organization of fields and homesteads in turn-of-the-century Vermont. Reading Dickinson we’re tuned to the clockwork of the mind and psyche. In Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty,” words like “stipple,” “dappled,” and “brinded” embody the variety of God’s creation, leading us to praise. But can poetry make us more empathetic, the way fiction apparently does?

In search of an answer, I polled fellow writers. One of the first to respond, St. Louis poet Travis Scholl provided a helpful ontological platform: “If poetry is indeed the art of language (I believe it is), and language is at the heart of existence in community (this too is true), then poetry has much to teach us about what it means to live well in human community, or at least how to speak with and to each other in said community.” Poetry is, in other words, structural—strengthening citizens to their tasks within the citizenry.

Los Angeles comedian Josh Opitz continued this theme but on a more personal note. Working with poetry, he says, helps him think: “I don't know about reading poetry, but writing it keeps my mind agile. I particularly like haikus because they’re such puzzles of vocabulary, fitting in all the meaning you want within such strict limitations.” Much like Sudoku. Poetry is a workout for the brain’s Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. 

Chicago poet and literature professor Robert Archambeau expanded the discussion to art in a larger sense. He writes:

One argument for the benefits of the study of any kind of aesthetic form that has appealed to me comes from the philosophy of [Friedrich] Schiller. He claimed that the study of poetry, or any art form, involves the whole person—the senses as well as the intellect— and that attention to poetry prevents us from wallowing in the senses alone, while at the same time preventing us from becoming the kind of person who loses touch with the particularities of individual cases and reduces everything to statistics. The former danger seems more present in our own times, which tend toward the utilitarian and to a kind of fundamentalism of the quantifiable. The attention to ambiguity, nuance, and to the unparaphrasable elements of poetry can be an antidote to this vice of our age.

Isn’t this what we hope our citizens to be, what we hope civilization itself to accomplish? We want ourselves and our children to be marked by subtlety, thoughtfulness, the ability and desire to make fine distinctions. We want, ultimately, to be not only good neighbors but competent voters.

But the counterpoint, too, is worth considering. Literary critic Marjorie Perloff responded by taking issue with the original thesis: “Since I don't think fiction necessarily makes people more empathetic, I can't make the case for poetry either. Of course reading fiction (and poetry) makes one's experience more complex, nuanced, richer—but does it make us better people? Just remember how Hitler loved Wagner!”

I also recall that Pol Pot—perpetrator of one of history’s most perverse atrocities—attended university in Paris from 1949-1953. His grades were poor, but he did go to school in the golden capital of Western culture; did it help him cultivate empathy? And I remember that Charles Taylor earned a bachelor’s degree from an American liberal arts college before returning to Liberia to commit crimes against humanity.

Perhaps we can conclude that being a reader of fiction and poetry, being familiar with art’s subtleties, while not a guarantee against extreme evil, does prepare a person to be a good citizen. And as much as immersing oneself in great novels and poems tends to strengthen one’s humanity, it is also beneficial to democracy.

-  Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His third collection of poems, Glitter Bomb, is due out from Persea in February. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronbelz.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”