How did poetry begin?
Poetry began long before man started writing. Our ancestors used it to communicate important information that needed to be repeated often and to be passed from generation to generation. This information could be anything from prayers to the gods to recipes for magic charms and tales of heroes and daring deeds. Many of these developed in the the epic poetry you may remember studying in school — tales such as Beowulf, which many of us did not appreciate much because it was in an older and unfamiliar version of English. Here’s how it sounds.
Back before written language, these poems served not only for instruction and religion, but also for entertainment in an age that not only did not enjoy electronics and TV, but did not even have books. All they had was oral language. Out of it, they put pleasing sounds and images together that were easy to remember. They became songs, chants, praises and prayers to gods, and even took the place of the newspapers we have today. This early poetry was sung, because we all know it’s easier to remember a song than a paragraph. How did you learn your alphabet and how many days are in each month? Why are there musical versions of the multiplication tables? Because songs are easy to remember.
So what is poetry?
Before you ever thought about this, poetry was probably a big part of your life. If you were fortunate, your parents sang you lullabies and maybe even silly songs. They may have read you nursery rhymes and picture books. If so, you were introduced to verse and to rhythm, and possibly even to imagery and figurative language. You might also have responded emotionally.
When I was very young, my mother used to read Edward Lear’s The Jumblies to me from the old orange Childcraft poetry volume. As you will see in this video, it has the elements of poetry. It is full of rhymes, repetitive sounds, and poetic devices like alliteration. It also engages the emotions of children as you see the storm come up. They care how the Jumblies will fare.
Many people assume they know what poetry is and have never thought of trying to define it. Others throughout the centuries have tried to explain it. Many think poetry is that stuff they had to read in school and didn’t like. They never thought of Elvis in connection with poetry, but much of what he sang was poetry. My own definition is in the top photo: Poetry: Words Arranged as Music to the Ear to Strike a Chord in the Heart
In my own search for a definition, I consulted my now out of print Poet’s Handbook by Clement Wood, currently available on eBay. On page three he simply defines it as “verse which produces a deep emotional response.” Of course, to understand that, one has to know what verse is. Clement defines verse as “words arranged according to some conventionalized repetition. ” So it appears poetry is one type of verse. (Amazon may also have The Poet’s Handbook in stock. It is out of print.)
To learn what separates poetry from prose, it’s handy to have one or more of these books around. They are useful to those who teach or write poetry. They also help those who read or study poetry and want to fully appreciate the techniques poets use.
What’s the difference between poetry and prose? Wood believes that in our western culture, prose is “words whose rhythm tends toward variety, rather than uniformity or regularity,” as opposed to poetry, in which the rhythm tends toward regularity. He also points out that in some other cultures, notably the Hebrew culture, the conventions are different.
For purposes of our discussion here, we will consider western conventions, keeping in mind that Oriental and Semitic cultures have different criteria, which are equally valid. One common thread I see running through all is that poetry means to elicit an emotional response in the listener or reader. Were you one of the millions who responded emotionally to “Love me Tender”?
Let’s look at some writing.
I wrote this at Sequim Bay in Washington, where at night we could see phytoplankton fluorescence in the water. It’s still written in my trip journal and I looked back at it in search of something to use in this article. Would you call it poetry or prose? Why?
In the bay at night
Where fish glow in the dark
I throw gravel in by the handful
And fireworks go off
Below the water’s surface.
Is this poetry, verse or prose?
#1 The want of you is like no other thing; it smites my soul with sudden sickening; it binds my being with a wreath of rue– this want of you. (Ivan Wright)
#2 Is it a sin to love thee? Then my soul is deeply dyed, for my lifeblood, as it gushes takes its crimson from love’s tide; and I feel its waves roll o’re me and the blushes mount my brow and my pulses quicken wildly, as the love dreams come and go. (Unknown)
#3 I went to the animal fair,
The birds and the beasts were there.
The big baboon, by the light of the moon,
Was combing his auburn hair.
#4 And then the cat came. After the rains, when Grandfather and I were silent and uneasy with each other, and the lawn grew too long, and June bugs threw themselves against the lamplit screens, I heard the soft thump as the cat jumped up to my sill. (Patricia MacLachlan, Journey, p. 38)
#5 I heard the creaking door as I sat at my desk, writing,
And the the floor beneath me and the chair I sat in shook
and the shaking echoed in my heart. (B. Radisavljevic)
(We had a brief earthquake, the second, of two the night I wrote that.)
I have changed the formatting on some of these excerpts on purpose. I am going to share some principles below and then throw the discussion open in the comments to let you sound off on whether these excerpts are poetry, prose, or just unpoetic verse. Since nobody here but me wrote any of them, no one’s feelings will be hurt and you can have at it.
What makes poetry poetry?
In the five examples I gave above, there were different formats, but the format does not make a poem. I love the simple definition Shelley Tucker gives for poetry in the book Writing Poetry: ” A poem is a compact piece of writing that contains one or more poetic elements. ”
What are poetic elements? The repeated rhythm of sounds is one. It might be a repeated consonant sound (alliteration) or a vowel sound (assonance). Those are the two easiest to identify for our purposes here. To illustrate both of them I will share another video which has both. This song, “I Am So Proud,” is one of my favorites from “The Mikado,” by Gilbert and Sullivan. If you are unfamiliar with this light opera in English, I have written about it at HubPages: Gilbert and Sullivan, the Mikado, and Me, and you can get the story there, since it’s pretty intricate. The three characters in the video are trying to decide which of them should be executed by beheading. Each gives his reasons why he’d volunteer, but finds a face-saving reason why he can’t. At the end they sing together about the fate of the unlucky one:
To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!
Although you can see the consonants and the vowels repeated if you look, this was really meant for your ears to hear. So it will be better if you listen to the video. You will also hear the rhyming words at the ends of the lines, another element used in poetry, in this song. Gilbert was a genius at using these poetic devices, but they are intended to be heard, like most poetry, not just read.
The End of the Matter is This
Clement Wood shared the definitions many renowned poets and critics gave of poetry. Most were so broad they meant little. He quoted Bryant, Lee Hunt, Samuel Johnson, and Macauley, and finally Shelley, who said poetry was “the record of the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds.” If you’ve ever read the life and work of Edgar Allen Poe, who was far from happy, and many of the other poets, you will be aware that it was not always the happiest moments they wrote about. So it would seem this definition is nonsense.
By the time I finished reading quotes from the dictionary and from Wordsworth, who said it was “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” and Matthew Arnold who said: “Poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive , and widely effective mode of saying things,” I conclude with Wood that no one really can say for sure what poetry is, and how it differs from prose. Coleridge said the difference was this: “Prose is words in the best order, poetry is the best words in the best order.” I think many prose writers also choose the best words in the best order for the effect they want to have on a reader. Some prose is poetic. Some of what is intended to be poetry, isn’t.
I believe poetry is using sounds, rhythm, and /or rhyme in ways that repeat themselves while using imagery and figurative language to inspire an emotional reaction in the reader or listener. That might be love, sorrow, a sense of loss, happiness, compassion, or even humor. It is not necessary for words at the end of lines to rhyme, and blank verse is more popular now than other more regulated poetic forms.
But even blank verse has repeated rhythms and sounds, just as a song does. Formatting a piece of writing with short lines and starting each line with a capital letter doesn’t make something poetry. Neither does a perfect verse have to be a poem. It’s my opinion that a verse that does not reach the heart or funny bone of a reader probably isn’t poetry. It’s also true that what reaches my heart might not reach yours.
What Do You Think?
Now I leave the rest of this discussion to you. Are the five examples I gave above poetry or prose? Pick and choose the ones you want to talk about by number so we will all be on the same page. Be sure and give the reasons for your opinion and we will all learn something.
As to what I wrote about Sequim Bay, I don’t consider it poetry. It would be interesting to see what you poets would do to make it poetry. I have my own ideas, but I’d rather see yours in the comments. Have fun. That’s what poetry is supposed to be, unless, of course, it’s sad. How wold you define poetry?