What is poetry, anyway?
At school you probably got taught about things like rhyme and meter (certain arrangements of stressed and unstressed beats in a line). These are frequently found in English-language poetry, often in set forms like the sonnet or the villanelle — but not always, as we also have free verse, which eschews any consistent pattern of such things, and prose poems, which have no line breaks, but rely heavily on the imagistic devices of poetry. In other languages you find different features, like the syllabic count of the Japanese haiku or the alliteration and mid-line caesurae of Norse and Old English verse. So there’s a sense in which poetry is anything we deem poetic, i.e. written with a strong focus on the aesthetic use of language.
In that sense, a great deal of oral literature is poetic. Devices like rhyme, meter, alliteration, and so forth make words pleasurable to listen to . . . and they also make the text easier to remember. I can still recite all fifty of the United States in alphabetical order because of a song I learned in elementary school — poetry and music being closely allied arts, though the latter I’ll have to defer until we talk about the performing arts someday. It might be too strong of a statement to declare that non-poetic prose is an invention of literate society, but there’s definately a significant correlation there.
The features of poetry turn out to be the key to an early mystery in folklore studies: was it really possible that epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey were memorized by the people who recited them? The Fitzgerald translation of the Iliad takes about fourteen hours to read out loud; committing something like that to memory seems like a superhuman feat. In order to figure out how it was done, Milman Parry and Albert Lord went to Yugoslavia and observed the poets there, whose performances were comparable in scale. The answer turns out to be oral-formulaic composition: the poets know the plots of their tales, and they have an enormous stock of formulas — phrases of varying lengths which fit the meter — which they can deploy as they go. The poem isn’t memorized so much as composed anew every time it’s performed. Homer’s “grey-eyed Athena” and “wine-dark sea”? Those are formulas at work.
For someone like me, who can barely write poetry at all, being able to compose it on the fly seems miraculous. And yet, this is exactly what people have done in a wide variety of contexts — everything from the Heian-era Japanese court to modern freestyle rap. I have to imagine that some of those Japanese courtiers maybe weren’t quite as spontaneous as they seemed; if you know there are non-zero odds that you’ll be asked to compose a poem about the summer moon or rain in autumn, you might keep a few good lines in your head for use at an opportune time. But real improvisation does happen, and those who do it well are admired for it.
In fact, poets in general have often been admired to a degree that can be difficult to imagine in modern, mainstream American culture. There are poets laureate in the United States, bestowed that title by national or sub-national governments and organizations, but how many of us pay attention to them? Amanda Gorman’s performance at the 2021 inauguration of President Biden may have been the highest-profile example since Maya Angelou, nearly thirty years previously.
But look back in time or elsewhere in the world and you’ll find a very different picture. Poetry has been our means of everything from recording history to getting laid. It’s extremely common for rulers to keep poets on hand whose job is to sing their praises in verse; these have various names depending on the culture, such as bards, skalds, or griots (that last being a catch-all term used in English for the many types that exist in Africa). Courtiers might curry favor by the same means, both with their superior and with each other. Poets today often make only trivial amounts of money from their work; poets of the past could be the equivalent of rock stars (Lord Byron comes to mind), or get wealth lavished upon them by enthusiastic patrons.
Being able to compose poetry has sometimes been considered a key skill for aristocrats — and not at all incompatible with being a hardened warrior. Nowadays we may associate poetry pretty strongly with love or the admiration of nature, but it can also be about the glories of chopping off your enemy’s head. That doesn’t mean sentimentality is right out, though: modern toxic masculinity may consider it undesirable for men to show softer emotions, but other paradigms have felt it’s ideal for them to demonstrate the profound depths of their hearts in verse. Or perhaps what’s prized is learning instead, and the best poetry is packed to the seams with allusions to myth, history, and earlier poetic works.
That makes it sound like poetry is inherently an elite game, but it isn’t . . . unless you choose to define the category of “poetry” in a fashion that limits it to elite types of texts. One of my folklore professors worked a great deal with poets in Somalia, and when he lamented to them how there’s almost no poetry in the U.S., they gave him a mystified look and pointed at the radio. Are song lyrics poetry? I’ve seen a poet reject that notion when I related this anecdote, probably because a lot of song lyrics are frankly doggerel. Still, being doggerel doesn’t prevent something from being poetry; it’s just bad poetry. Or perhaps it would be better to call it “simplistic,” for a less overtly judgmental description.
An illiterate peasant farmer can compose poetry to woo his milkmaid lover, so long as poetry is part of his world. He doesn’t need pen and paper or a library full of historical references; he just needs to hear enough examples that it enters his mind as A Thing People Do. Oral literature can provide that easily. And I suspect that a study of the modern U.S. would find that rap is the most thriving genre of vernacular poetry we’ve got. How many kids out there grow up listening to rap, then try their hand at composing their own verses? The ones who turn out to be good at it can win social acclaim from their peers, gain the favor of a love interest, even go on to make a professional career out of it. Not all of them, of course — some will never rise above composing utterly predictable dreck — but that’s always been true of poetry.
Basically, poetry can be anything: rhymed or unrhymed, metered or unmetered, sentimental or bloody, intellectually rarefied or the stuff of children’s songs. And yet we see very little of it in fiction, probably because so many authors are like me, unskilled in the art. At which point you can make narrative use of the poetry in the story being not very good . . . or just do as most of us do, and leave it out.
But maybe we should take a page from history, and pay some poets to scribble a few lines for us.