This three – series article is devoted to the evolution, birth, growth, maturity and contemporaneity of the most celebrated genre of literature of all times and spaces- poetry.
Poetry has been there since music existed. Its earliest form was oral recitation, probably to remember history or law- they were repeated phrases or sentences as fragments of some mythology, incident or cultural fragments. They were sung repeatedly, making them easy to re-tell and maintain one’s culture’s identity. This clearly hints that poetry predated writing. Large theological and religious scriptures, like Sanskrit Vedas, are basically called ‘sruti’ meaning what is heard and this sets them apart from other texts which are called ‘smriti’ meaning what is remembered. Even literary master pieces like Odyssey* is originally in a poetic form to ease oral memorization for transmission.
There are traces of some fixed quintessential features of old poetry. To begin with, it was a kind of mandate to have gods and goddesses- live or through divine intervention shaping and kicking the events of the poem and as a result directly weaving the plot. So much so at times we feel the poetry being writ by gods! Aristotle’s highly influential Poetics** splits poetry as a whole to three categories- a) the epic b) the comic c) the tragic. Later literary critics distinguish poetry into epic, lyric and dramatic poetry and dramatic poetry further into comic or tragic poetry.
Sources claim the oldest surviving verse to be the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor– an ancient Egyptian lyrical narration. Set in the Middle Kingdom, about 2500 BC, it is a tale of a sailor returning from a voyage in the sea from some failed expedition fearing his reception by the King. Some say it is the Epic of Gilgamesh that is the oldest. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Mesopotamian lyric divided into twelve books called ‘tablets’. Among other major poetries are Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The latter is known to be the “longest poem ever written”(1) – consisting over one lac shloka making it two lac verse lines since each shloka is a couplet. Apart from them, there are long prose passages too. W. J. Johnson has compared the importance of the Mahabharata in the context of world civilization to that of the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the works of Homer, Greek drama, or the Qur’an(2). “By medieval times — about 455 to 1485 — poets began to play with both the subject matter and language of their poems. Some medieval poets, like Geoffrey Chaucer, even experimented with writing in the language of the common people, known as vernacular. Before that, most scholarly and artistic works were written in Latin.”(3). Creativity reached its peak during the Renaissance*** period and the poets got more creative. Verse dramas developed and William Shakespeare, Thomas Marlowe wrote poetic dramas clubbing dramas and poetry and adding layers of meanings to poems.
Odyssey* and Illiad are two long epic poem by Homer that is believed to be written around 8th century BC.
Poetics** is a literary treatise guide lining the features of an ideal poetry- epic and otherwise, focusing on tragedy as an ideal flavor.
Renaissance Period***- 1558-1603 AD is the British period of Queen Elizabeth, in literature called the Renaissance period owing its peak creativity and literary fertility.
Poetry grew serious, formal and straight jacketed during the following age, in the Neo-Classical age where rules and canons asked a formal way of poems- “Regular meter, carefully controlled rhyme, and masterful use of difficult rhetorical and figurative devices, often imitating those found in Greek and Latin poetry, characterized this work.” (4) It was because Neo-classical poetry rose from intellect, not from imagination! Poetry progressed to a trance feel in the Romantic Age (1798-1832) where verse gurus like William Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, Keats, Byron and Shelley et al hunted for novel ways to express themselves. Choosing creativity over logic and emotions over wit, these Romantics opted for a transcendental movement in poetry. “During the Victorian period (1832-1901), writers continued to break away from the established forms and structures that had been developing during the previous literary periods. Poets like Walt Whitman began writing in free verse or completely without meter” (3).
Lastly, the modern English poetry owes its conception to the Imagists- they emphasized on the economy of words using a clear, sharp language. Apart from these, the modern poetry essentially features fragmentation, inter-textuality, allusion and juxtaposition. It’s generally anti-romantic and lays bare the harshest realities of lives.
(1)James, G. Lochtefeld. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A- M. The Rosen Publishing Group.P. 399.ISBN 978-0-8239-3179-8.
(2)W.J.Johnson (1998). The Sauptikaparvan of the Mahabharata: The Massacre at Night. Oxford University Press.p. ix. ISBN 978-0-19-282361-8.
(3)Uttley, Caitlin. How Poetry Works. Howstuffworks.com. 10-04-2016. Web.
(4) What are the main features of poetry in the neo classical age?Posted on 31.12.2009.enotes.com.