The long relationship of poetry to society has been a tumultuous one. While poetry and its close kinsman in the arts have been prominent features of nearly all human cultures, its place of importance and even its right to exist have frequently been questioned. In Book X of his Republic, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato expels the poets from the ideal state, claiming that they are potential sources of corruption in society. Nearly 2000 years later and as many miles away, the English poet Sir Philip Sidney found it necessary to write his Defence of Poetry against its puritanical detractors, revivers of Plato’s theory that poetry and drama are morally corrupting influences. Now, 2400 years after Plato and more than 400 year after Sidney, poetry is under attack from quite different and perhaps more pernicious forces, namely, incomprehension and indifference.
A 2012 survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts found that only 6.7% of Americans had read poetry within the previous 12 month period, a significant decline from the already abysmally low 12.1% of Americans who read poetry in 2002. If this rate of decline continues, it is possible that as few as 3-4% of Americans will be reading poetry in just ten years. This is, of course, little more than the death of poetry as an artform. If such a very small fraction of the population is reading poetry, and, it can be deduced, an even smaller fraction is writing poetry, it is clear that poetry’s influence on society generally is negligible at best and that poetry will continue this descent into obscurity unless there a significant change in public attitudes toward it. It is necessary, then, to launch another defense of poetry 400 years after Sidney’s original defense. Few better defenses of the necessity of poetry can be found than those provided by T. S. Eliot, one of the most influential and arguably the greatest poet of the modern age. In his poetry as well as his work of criticism, Eliot provides a theory of the usefulness of poetry as a means by which to better understand oneself and others, thereby overcoming the isolation otherwise inherent in the human condition. According to Eliot, the poet presents a vision of the world which allows both the reader and the poet to make sense of the varied phenomena of existence. The reader of poetry is able to derive from his reading a shared experience with the poet, enabling him to better understanding himself and the world through the glimpse into the internal world of another which poetry has provided him.