Jay Parini plays some variations on the classic themes: poetry helps us understand life, it appeals to the spirit and the imagination, it opens the emotions:
[Robert] Frost argued that an understanding of how poetry works is essential to the developing intellect. He went so far as to suggest that unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values, “you don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you.” Those are very large claims.
Poets do make large claims, and they are usually a bit exaggerated. In his “Defense of Poetry,” Shelley famously wrote: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I prefer the twist on that offered by a later poet, George Oppen, who wrote: “Poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world.”
Either way, something major could happen, if you can figure out exactly what Shelley and/or Oppen means. Parini also notes that modern poetry has earned a reputation for being “difficult” because of all its classical allusions.
Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins contemplates the poetic inspiration of Looney Tunes—something most readers should have no trouble connecting with immediately. How is Bugs Bunny poetic?
. . . characters could jump dimensions, leaping around in time and space, their sudden exits marked by a rifle-shot sound effect. . . . This freedom to transcend the laws of basic physics, to hop around in time and space, and to skip from one dimension to another has long been a crucial aspect of imaginative poetry.
So, according to Collins, if you know how to watch cartoons, you know how to read poetry. That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.