The Value of Poetry

On Sunday, about 10:30 PM Pacific Time, a one ton nuclear powered rover carrying lasers to blast rocks, a laboratory, and 3-D cameras will land on Mars after an eight and a half month trip. It cost the American taxpayers about 2.5 billion dollars, most of it spent in California.

Some people think that it’s a colossal waste of money.

I believe the people who think that are ignorant barbarians.

Over and over I hear the same tired argument. Even as we just celebrated the forty-third anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon, there are those who decry the cost of it and the cost of all things space related. They wonder why we spend money on space when we have so many problems here on Earth. Then such people go off on a rant about how the money spent on space could be spent on whatever good cause they imagine is being neglected.

In response to the morons, I’ve read numerous articles pointing out all the practical benefits of space travel. How we got the modern computer industry and life-saving medical technology. They explain about global positioning satellites and communication satellites–after all, you like your satellite TV and radio, don’t you? They discuss weather satellites and all the lives they have saved.

But arguments about the practical benefits of space travel seem to be missing an important something that those who hate the space program are also missing.

I believe that even if there were no practical benefits to our voyages into space, and our expenditures on it—expenditures that amount to about a tenth of one percent of the nation’s gross domestic product—they would still be worth it.

How so?

Is life all about practicality and nothing but practicality? Do you spend every waking moment working? Is life merely about survival and existing?

Do you use your money to rent the smallest one room apartment you can afford, eat only beans, drink only water and then donate all your remaining money to good causes? Or do you waste some of your money eating food beyond just the bare minimum you need to survive? Did you eat a cinnamon roll? Did you spend money on a television? A radio? Maybe every month you blow part of your pay on cable or satellite bills? Perhaps you spent money renting a DVD or even went to see a movie? Did you go out to eat when you could have made better and cheaper food at home? Did you buy a CD, download an MP3, or get a video game? Maybe you wasted money on going to a concert or the theater. Do you have any idea how many meals all that wasteful spending of yours could have provided to the disadvantaged? And look at you, I’ll bet you live in a house and waste gobs on your mortgage and insurance. You probably spend money just to keep your lawn green and trimmed. You probably even have a car—maybe two—when you could ride a bicycle or, even better, walk on your way to that homeless shelter where you donate all the time that you’re not busy working or sleeping. Did you know the American people wasted 7 billion dollars last year just on potato chips? Money that could have been given to the homeless?

Consider: Michelangelo spent about four years painting the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. He was paid a lot of money. And it was only art! Couldn’t they just have painted that ceiling white? Did we really need all those complex pictures on it? Couldn’t Michelangelo have better used his efforts to help the poor? Just think of all that money the church wasted on him when it could have gone to provide food, housing, and better healthcare for the needy.

Hollywood spends billions of dollars every year. Why don’t they use all that money for something worthwhile instead? How many meals could have been provided with the budget of just the latest Twilight movie? Outrageous salaries were paid to those actors and producers and writers and technicians. I mean, just look at how long those credits are at the end of the film: a bunch of selfish evil people who took money from the mouths of the poor just to give bored teenagers something to do on a Saturday night.

What good did Shakespeare ever do for anyone? Where’s the practical benefit in his silly scribblings upon the page? He devoted his life to writing plays and poetry and what does he or the world have to show for it? Were any poor given a meal by him putting words on paper?


But there is, after all, more to life than just the practical. It isn’t all just about giving money to the poor, is it? If we do not leave ourselves room for art, for music, for scholarship, for exploration, and for all the rest that inspires, then haven’t we become even poorer than the poorest outcast? Would the critics of the space program suggest no money be devoted to art, to movie making, to music and books, until we take care of all those who are hurting? Do we cast stones at poets who spend all that time creating poems when they could be devoting their days to volunteering in a homeless shelter? Were Walt Whitman and Henry Longfellow evil sons of bitches?

Those who think the space program is a waste of money simply haven’t thought things through very well. This isn’t an either/or situation. Those who decry money spent on space are spouting clichés that may sound compassionate, but in the final analysis are just irrational. When the philanthropist Ruth Lilly in 2002 gave approximately $100 million to the Modern Poetry Association, which publishes Poetry Magazine, most people thought it wonderful. But some critics complained that the money “could have been given to the poor.”

Frankly, I worry about people who think giving money for poetry a waste, just as I worry about those so earthbound and soulless they never bother to look up and wonder about the stars. Can we really put a price on the iconic image of the Earth rising over the moon, photographed by the astronauts of Apollo 8?

What kind of a person is it that would try?


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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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