Writing a poem involves a great deal of choosing between trade-offs. The use of one particular word or phrase brings with it one set of connotations, while the use of an alternative word or phrase invokes entirely different connotations. Choosing between synonyms is often choosing between subtle variations in “color.” Meanwhile different words bring with them different opportunities for rhyme, as well as having distinct impacts upon meter. At every turn, the poet is beset with alternative choices, selecting the particular choice that offers him or her the best benefits as a whole. But there are always trade-offs: every selection involves at the very least an opportunity cost. For example, word A might be the best word for the content, but word B offers better possibilities for rhyme; so the poet experiments with the next line, which may impact the relative merits of words A and B on the previous line.
The point here is that every choice is a matter of relative trade-offs between alternatives, as opposed to a simple problem-solution matter. Which, by the way, is how most choices in life are. Very rarely do we get a defined problem with a single optimum solution—even when the many and diverse variables can be computed mathematically, our own value systems are also multivariate, so our alternative solutions are actually being scored several times, according to each value (e.g. pleasure, economy, morality, etc.).
And yet—so much of the time in conversation/debate with others, we think only in terms of problem/solution. Actually, I think its even more pervasive in monologue towards others. (I find this particularly maddening in “scholarly” texts, where the author can continue for hundreds of pages in “critical” analysis, entirely oblivious to a myriad of variables that were factors in the original matter being “analyzed.”) While this is bad enough when it comes to understanding history and economics, it get even worse when it comes to considering politics: narrowing the scope of our minds to a problem/solution framework when we really should be using a trade-offs-among-alternatives framework results in bad decisions, as we become incapable of measuring either the positives of other alternatives or the negatives of our “solution,” which competes only with the status quo and not against alternatives.
I would like to give some examples here—but I know that any specific political issue I pick will generate entirely the wrong comments, arguing about that topic instead of discussing the general principle. So here, I have to consider the trade-offs: and this time I will choose to accept less clarity in exchange for greater peace. Now, if I were writing a political blog instead of a poetry blog, I would choose otherwise.
Here, for a poetry blog, I just want to emphasize this: the practice of writing poetry can make a person a better thinker, if we work at it. And one of the ways it can help us outside the realm of poetry is to help us to develop a pattern of imagining and considering alternatives, and recognizing different trade-offs in our choices. Just as a poet has reasons for selecting meter, words, and phrases, so too do policy-makers, businesses, and groups of people have reasons for their choices—and those reasons tend to be more complex than the simple go-to answers (such as assuming that they’re stupid, or evil). So I encourage you to apply that skill and mind-set to considering history, economics, and politics; you just may start to develop a better understanding than you had before.
Update: to learn about another way that poetry can make you wiser, click here.