Poetry predates history…

October 30, 2016


Let me begin with three crucial observations about the art of poetry. First, it is the oldest form of literature. Indeed, it is the primal form of all literature. Poetry even predates history because it not only existed, but flourished before the invention of writing. As an oral art, it did not require the alphabet or any other form of visual inscription to develop and perfect a vast variety of meters, forms, and genres. Before writing, poetry stood at the center of culture as the most powerful way of remembering, preserving, and transmitting the identity of a tribe, a culture, a nation. Verse was humanity’s first memory and broadcast technology – a technology originally transmitted only by the human body. In Robert Frost’s astute formulation, poetry was ‘a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.’

Frost’s pithy definition is usefully ponderable. He calls poetry ‘a way of remembering,’ which is to say a mnemonic technology to preserve human experience. He claims the loss of what it preserves ‘would impoverish us,’ which is to say that poetry enriches human consciousness or, at the very least, protects things of common value from depredation. Finally, he asserts that poetry maintains these virtues against the human danger ‘to forget.’ Here Frost acknowledges that the art opposes the natural forces of time, mortality, and oblivion, which humanity must face to discover and preserve its meaning. As Frost said elsewhere, one of the essential tasks of poetry is to give us ‘a clarification of life…a momentary stay against confusion.’

The second observation is that poetry is a universal human art. Despite post-modern theories of cultural relativism that assert there are no human universals, there exists a massive and compelling body of empirical data, collected and documented by anthropologists, linguists, and archaeologists that demonstrates there is no human society, however isolated, that has not developed and employed poetry as a cultural practice. Most of this poetry, of course, has been oral poetry. Many of these cultures never developed writing. But the fact remains – and it is a demonstrable fact, not mere opinion – that every society has developed a special class of speech, shaped by apprehensible patterns of sound, namely, poetry. Cognitive science now suggests that humans are actually hard-wired to respond to the sort of patterned speech that verse represents. Like the songs of birds or dances of bees – but on a higher level of complexity – poetry reflects the unique cognitive capacity of the human mind and body. Why humanity universally needs this special class of speech is another question entirely, which will be considered in a few pages.

Third and finally, poetry originated as a form of vocal music. It began as a performative and auditory medium, linked to music and dance and associated with civic ceremony, religious ritual, and magic. (The earliest poetry almost certainly served a shamanistic function.) Most aboriginal cultures did not distinguish poetry from song because the arts were so interrelated as to be porous. Nor did the classical Greek or Chinese cultures two or three millennia ago differentiate poetry from song. Verse was not spoken in a conversational manner, which was an early twentieth century development. Poetic speech was always stylized – usually either chanted rhythmically or sung, sometimes even sung and danced in chorus.

Dana Gioia
Poetry as Enchantment