How Poetry Changes Us

Two weeks ago I started posting some of my favorite poems on Fridays.  If you haven’t read them yet, check them out here and here.  I’m doing this because poetry has a lot to offer us.  And as one reader pointed out, it’s really sad that we’ve lost the ability to read poetry, because poetry really is “the first and purest form of human expression.”

When we read poetry, it can change us on a fundamental level.  This topic is so important that one of C. S. Lewis’s closest friends, Owen Barfield, wrote a book-length study of it, called Poetic Diction.  While not an easy book, Poetic Diction is profoundly true. And Barfield’s explanation of how poetry transforms the reader is the clearest I’ve read.

Poetry and Consciousness

Barfield asserts that poetry gives us pleasure when it causes in us a “change of consciousness,” or a change in how we perceive the world.  As we read good poetry, we are struck by the new images certain phrases offer.  By giving us a new way of seeing the world around us, these phrases “change our consciousness” by expanding it.  Now, instead of relying solely on our own experiences, a new, powerful metaphor helps give shape and meaning to our lives.

This new, expanded consciousness gives us a lasting vision of the world, but our pleasure from the poem comes only in the moment of expansion.  In order to experience the pleasure again, we must recreate the change of consciousness, by remembering how we once viewed the world and how the poem’s words gave us new eyes.

Barfield provides a theoretical explanation of why poetry communicates truth so effectively.  It tells why poetry brings pleasure, and why a poem may delight one reader but turn off another reader.

Barfield’s comments are also helpful as an analogy for the life of faith:  poetry doesn’t just help us expand our knowledge, it also can deepen our faith.  I think this is true regardless of your religion or confession, but since I’m a Christian, I’ll explain it in those terms.

Poetry Made Flesh

Christians study the Bible to learn about God’s character and promises, so that when hard times come (temptation, trials, tragedies) those promises come to mind.  When they do, they suddenly take on a much deeper, truer meaning–the general promises become particular.  We experience not just the words, but the One behind the words.  We experience God’s grace and presence in a tangible way.  The result is usually joy, as Barfield explained, because we are moving from one mode of consciousness to another.  We have experienced the Word Made Flesh, who expands our consciousness and causes us to see the world in a way we could not see it before.

As with poetry, the pleasure wanes when the expansion ends, but the encounter with the poetic Word has given us a new tool to understand the world.  Instead of relying solely on our own senses and faculties, the Incarnate Word has stood beside us in our difficulty.  He himself has become a metaphor by which we can observe what we could not previously observe.  Our knowledge and wisdom have been greatly expanded because an Infinite Word has been spoken to them.

Question:  How else does poetry change us for the better?