The main use poetry in “The Use of Poetry” is seduction: specifically, the seduction of the liberal artist Maisie (recalling shades of Henry James: What did Maisie know?) by the scientist Michael Beard in the late 60s. Michael learns enough Milton to impress Maisie, with her artistic tendencies, a feat that I doubt I’d have the discipline for despite being another liberal artist; they go out, Michael realizes his disdain for what seems the foppish laziness of the liberal arts, and he reinforces the inferiority complex many English majors feel in the face of hard science.
Or maybe not: when we think we see Michael’s perspective on how easy it is to read “four of the best essays on Milton,” McEwan drops this in by airmail:
Many years later, Beard told this story and his conclusions to an English professor in Hong Kong, who said, “But, Michael, you’ve missed the point. If you had seduced ninety girls with ninety poets, one a week in a course of three academic years, and remembered them all at the end—the poets, I mean—and synthesized your reading into some kind of aesthetic overview, then you would have earned yourself a degree in English literature. But don’t pretend that it’s easy.”
That’s the only mention of the “English professor in Hong Kong,” who appears, nameless, only long enough to correct us. He or she disappears: there is no wrapping up, no coming together of the English professor and some deeper meaning. He or she is there to tell us, and “The Use of Poetry” seems like a rebuke to the “Show, don’t tell” school of writing: it is all telling, or nearly all, and it teasingly plays with real world correspondences. “The Use of Poetry” says:
This understanding was the mental equivalent of lifting very heavy weights—not possible at first attempt. He and his lot were at lectures and lab work nine till five every day, attempting to grasp some of the hardest things ever thought. The arts people fell out of bed at midday for their two tutorials a week.
A February 2009 profile of McEwan, also in the New Yorker, says:
McEwan enjoyed studying calculus—“It was like trying to lift a weight that was a little too heavy”—but he settled on literature, and showed enough promise that he was urged to apply for a scholarship at Cambridge.
Maybe McEwan fears the limits of our cognition, or his own cognition. Or maybe I am engaging the intentional fallacy. Surely the editors of The New Yorker noticed this correspondence in their earlier nonfiction piece and this later work of fiction. What, if anything, did they make of it? Were they as uncertain as me?
Finally, what to make of the title: “The Use of Poetry,” rather than “uses?” Apparently poetry has only one use, seduction, as I unfairly said in the first line of this post. But maybe it is not asking, “What is poetry used for?” but rather, “how and why is poetry used by a particular person—Michael—or people in general?” The title probably has other meanings too, like most poems, with their rascally habit of evading a single interpretation.
For some reason, I am reminded of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being: both that novel and this story are highly directive, allusive, focusing on what love means in a modern context, using love to examine ideas and ideas to examine love. They both end, not with a statement or feeling of wholeness, but with a feeling of new sight but perpetual incompleteness, like that is our fate, no matter the math we learn or the poems we study. Could “The Use of Poetry” be to remind us of what we can never fully grasp, like Michael trying to understand the liberal arts, or Milton, who was in turn trying to understand us? Hard to say. But then, a lot in life is hard to say. The best we can do with it is try. Maybe with a poem.
Or a story.
EDIT: If you’re here because you’ve been assigned a paper on McEwan, you might find this post to be of great interest.