The social value of contemplating poetry

Author Identifier


Date of Award


Document Type



Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Arts and Humanities

First Supervisor

Susan Ash


Justifications for defunding the Arts and Humanities are well rehearsed: public funds should be reallocated toward developing skills directly leading toward sustainable employment, that is, toward labour streams demanded by industry. President John F. Kennedy took a different view, envisioning the role of the artist (and poet in particular) as an essential moral function. For Kennedy, the poet is both philosopher and prophet, providing a moral compass that leads the nation back to its better self when excesses of power have corrupted it from within. The role Kennedy assigned to poets echoes the civic/cultural practice of theoria (contemplation), a pilgrimage for the pursuit of knowledge enacted by ancient Greek intellectuals. Notably, for Plato and earlier Greek intellectuals, the insight gained from this contemplative endeavour was expected to have practical value and advance the city state, which indicates that outcomes mattered. Like Plato, Hannah Arendt also links the progress of civilisation with the quality of our thinking. As is well known now, Arendt attributes banal acts of evil to thoughtlessness, thus heightening the imperative ‘to think what we are doing’. There is evidence to suggest that contemplative compassion training can work as a potential mode to bridge the motivational gap between empathetic awareness and moral action. Western pedagogic and psychotherapeutic strategies incorporate contemplative principles for their capacity to support transformation. These interventions draw on Buddhist conceptions of wisdom, distress tolerance, and non-judgmental awareness to develop a structure for training compassion, thereby enabling the agent to move from intention to productive action. This thesis therefore explores the potential for poetry to participate in this work.

The first part of this thesis considers how poets have long modelled the capacity of poetry to do political work, as demonstrated by fifth century BCE poet-legislator Solon, who recorded justifications of his laws in poetry. The second part examines how the Romantic poets foreshadowed Kennedy’s idealised philosopher poet by 200 years, including the 18th century poet Anna Letitia Barbauld, who enacted the political work elevated by Arendt through poetry and prose that outlines the obligations of the citizen and critiques the actions of the state. The third part explores how poets in the early 20th century participated (or not) in this kind of work. The contribution of ‘High Modernist’ T. S. Eliot is assessed as well as the Modernist anarchist poet, Lola Ridge, who advocated for marginalised, incarcerated, and deceased identities in both the public and private realm. By reinserting poetry into the public sphere, Ridge models how poetry can be repurposed toward political/moral ends and provide a unique platform for social critique and the emergence of new identities. The thesis concludes by considering how, in addition to public advocacy, poetry may also participate in compassion training. Following psychotherapeutic interest in Buddhist principles to facilitate transformation, this thesis explores the capacity of poetry to participate in cultivating compassion by reading T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and Four Quartets and Lola Ridge’s ‘The Ghetto’ (and other poems) through the Buddhist lens of the Four Noble Truths. These readings demonstrate that poetry can do more than provide aesthetic pleasure. As an effect of and a medium for contemplation, poetry can facilitate critical thinking; further, it can stimulate creative possibilities toward realising moral ends. Crucially, it can cultivate moral agency by enlarging our capacity for compassion. In short, the contemplation of poetry can enable us to follow Arendt’s council to ‘think what we are doing’.

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