Reading poetry offers many benefits to both experienced and inexperienced readers. Some may find poetry intimidating at first because of its differences from prose. For instance, poems tend to be compact, with much meaning in every word, so they must be read carefully. Also, poems often deal with abstract concepts such as feelings or ideas, rather than more straightforward action or dialogue. However, despite these challenges, the advantages of reading poetry are immense.
Many English teachers require their students to read poetry because of its academic benefits to students. Speaking at the 2012 U.S. Department of Education's Student Art Exhibit, Martha Kanter, undersecretary of education, praised arts education, claiming it teaches critical thinking and innovation, helping students see the big picture. All of these skills, she argues, lead students to be more creative problem-solvers. Just like visual arts or music, reading and writing poetry require concentration, patience and attention to details, skills that can be carried into other areas of study. Further, poetry has been shown to increase reading fluency among young students by teaching them that the placement of words, as well as the words themselves, affects meaning.
Poetry provides many intellectual benefits to readers. One way that poets pack meaning into their poems is through figurative language such as metaphors, which encourage readers’ creativity and imagination. Interesting comparisons challenge readers to see familiar things in a new way. Additionally, poetry increases verbal intelligence by introducing readers not just to new words, but to different meanings for words they already know. The precision of poetry teaches greater sensitivity to language, which frequent readers of poetry carry into their own writing and speaking.
Poetry enhances readers’ emotional lives. As reported by the UK's Telegraph Media Group, researchers from the University of Liverpool used brain scans to measure volunteers’ responses to reading. Scans revealed that the part of the brain engaged while reading poetry is the area linked to “autobiographical memory,” indicating that readers naturally relate poetry to personal experiences, reevaluating their experiences based on what they read. Professor Philip Davis argues that for some, such reevaluation could be as beneficial as reading self-help books.
Poetry increases readers’ empathy. In 2011, The Guardian News reported on its website that studies from the University at Buffalo indicate readers put themselves in the place of protagonists while reading, making them more sympathetic toward characters. These results echoed conclusions reached in a similar study from 2008 conducted by Keith Oatley, professor at the University of Toronto. By stepping into another’s life, readers shared experiences they could not have otherwise and demonstrated greater empathy for characters. These are changes Oatley believes readers carry into everyday life, which could have a profound positive effect on society.
Brittany Howard holds an M.A. in English from Valdosta State University and is a college instructor. She has experience teaching English, humanities and developmental courses.