Thursday, April 25, 2013

History of Poetry

I'll be finishing up my month of Thursday posts about poetry with a little bit about the history of it.

Telling stories in poetic forms made them easier to remember, and therefore to pass on. If there are a bouncy meter and rhyming lines, it's catchy, and you'll be able to retell it closer to the original. (It's like how you can remember all the words to Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" but you'll be damned if you can remember all the polyatomic ions you're supposed to know for chemistry class.)

The oldest surviving epic poem is the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. It was written in cuneiform on clay tablets, then put on papyrus later (and, even later, high school English textbooks).

Other epic poems include Virgil's Aeneid, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and the Ramayana and Mahabharata from India.

Aristotle (probably thinking about poetry)

Aristotle starting picking apart the mechanics of poetry in Poetics, where he describes epic, comic, and tragic poetry, and lays out rules for how to create the best in each genre. Many people adjusted Aristotle's theories throughout the ages, but the gist of his work influenced poetry for ages, from the Middle East's Islamic Golden Age up through the Renaissance (and, to a lesser degree, still today).

What this all developed into was that poetry is meant to reach the same ideas as prose, but without requiring linear narrative or logic. (That doesn't mean that it doesn't make sense; it just means it's a freer form of literature than prose.)

Now, in modern poetry, we pay less attention to the formal structures and solid rules. Instead, we define a poet as someone who creates something using language as their materials, and poetry is what a poet creates. Simple as that.

It's easier to define what poetry isn't than to define what it is. Poetry is non-prose. If it's prose, it's prose. If it isn't prose, chances are pretty good it's poetry. (Unless it's not literature, like a grocery list or a tax form or an instruction manual.)

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