Poetry is for everyone: Professor says literature is useful in a liberal arts education

Dr. Amy Nolan is a associate professor in the department of English and modern languages.
Dr. Amy Nolan is a associate professor in the department of English and modern languages.


On a recent walk, I was lost in thought—planning lessons, worrying about my ailing brother, thinking about dinner and noticing the first tendrils of a poem playing at the periphery, staring at the street below, paying no attention to the world around me.

Then, as if some gentle, invisible hand lifted my chin, I looked up and saw the pale underside of a hawk, illuminated by the sun, gracefully circling the clear sky, tracing a slow loop.

I took a deep breath and remembered that I am at my best when I maintain my perspective…and this takes solitude, awareness and sensitivity to the “useless” act of wandering, contemplating and simply being.

Poet W.H. Auden writes, “Poetry makes nothing happen…/It survives/In the valley of its making where executives/Would never want to tamper;…/…it survives/A way of happening, a mouth.”

I participate in recruitment at Wartburg because I enjoy meeting prospective students and their parents. It is a wonderful opportunity and perhaps the most direct way to see what students and their parents care about, what they want and what their fears and misconceptions are.

When a parent asks me what his/her child can “do” with an English or writing major, I share what former students are currently doing with their degrees.

Sometimes, however, I also hear myself somehow anxiously trying to convince them that their child will emerge from his/her expensive education with a job that is of value to the “real world.”

This almost always leaves me feeling a strange exhaustion and sadness, as if I’ve betrayed something deeper about the value of a liberal arts education—something I understand but cannot express without fear of sounding “elitist.”

I find myself arguing for the “usefulness” of something that may not have “use” in the economic or practical sense.

When I graduated from college in 1992, I was told that I would never find a job with an English major.

A generation later, I am honored that my primary work is to encourage those who are on the journey toward deepening their understanding of experience through storytelling, expressing themselves clearly and authentically, no matter what their profession, and seeking the deeper patterns and connections where literature and other disciplines intersect.

How can one argue for the study of literature, creative writing and other subjects that do not come with an automatic price tag or guarantee of a career?

When I teach poetry, I am less concerned with whether or not my students will “use” it, than I am with their willingness to open their hearts and minds and guts to the world around them.

I want students to see themselves as creative, vital people, and to do that, one must risk loving what is not always considered “useful” in a culture that encourages conformity: to dare, as poet Samuel Coleridge has written, to “keep the heart awake to love and beauty.”

Dr. Amy Nolan is an associate  professor in the department of English and modern languages.

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