The Origins of Poetry

This is the second essay of an essay series on the fundamentals of poetry. They are all brief and not exhaustive, but simply some rambling thoughts on each of a few points. This essay concerns the origins of poetry.

“Poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure.”1 Note, Shelley does not say poetry is merely “pleasant” or “pleasurable.” Adjectives do not make for the best help here. And “pleasure” is an altogether hard word to use, since there are many kinds of pleasures we might refer to. If anything, it is neither the adjective “pleasurable” or the noun “pleasure” that is useful for us, but the verb “to please.” It is in poetry’s action that its origins are discerned.

But we have begun abstractly, so I will return to Earth. Poetry is, of course, made up of words, it takes place as an oral or written manifestation of language. Each language approaches the production of poetry, whether orally or in writing, differently than others. Generally speaking, the rule is that the closer languages are genetically and/or structurally, the more likely it is for their poetries to be similar to one another. Conversely, the more distant structurally and genetically, the more likely they are to have different sorts of poetry. Now, as with all rules of this nature, there are bound to be exceptions. Nevertheless, these rules do tend to be applicable.

Yet, regardless of the differences of languages and their poetries, they do have some commonalities. Poetry tends to be made up of patterns of either sound or meaning designed to exceed by building upon the already established patterns of meaning and sound found in the lexical and grammatical resources of a language. This is again put abstractly, but there are so many different examples of such patterns I could not spell them all out. But, some examples from English poetry will do. Rhyme is a poetic pattern, and so is meter. Alliteration and homophony are others. These are all aural patterns of sound. Poetry is also full of meaning-based patterns that, again, go beyond the prosaic patterns of grammar. These are harder to technically point out with terminology, yet it is the presence of these finely tuned strings that distinguishes between truly great and simply good poetry. Classical poetry in Greek and Latin relied heavily on syllabic length and count for its basic aural patterns. Ancient Hebrew poetry relied more on sense patterns than aural ones – so-called “parallelism” – but it did rely on both as well.

This patterning seems to come from a tendency to “musicalize” language. My presumption is that aural patterns emerged in poetry before richer logothematic patterns were consciously created and weaved in as well at a more subtle level. Through countless generations, humanity would have learned how to construct lengthy poetic narratives which were, of course, always oral in our prehistoric past. These were the cathedrals of the tribes; the multi-generational constructions for the ages. Because of the primarily oral nature of early poetic language, sound patterns would be of the most concern, but then sense patterns in time.

When reading the Iliad, one becomes accustomed to the consistent use of lengthy metaphors to describe the events portrayed, and one also recognizes that these patterns feel somewhat awkward, even clunky at times, to the modern ear. Yet, these metaphors are likely vastly superior to some far earlier constructions in their complexity and thoughtfulness. And it is also likely that it was after the invention of writing, in its various births around the world, that there was a shift with more focus being put upon the development of sense patterns over aural ones, even though both seemed to ultimately benefit from the use of written language.

It is conventional wisdom that infers humanity uses these patterns because of their facility with regards to memorization. Patterns reduce the need to remember as much because the brain is able to recognize common patterns throughout some poetic work. Especially if one must remember a long epic narrative, it can be useful to have some methods for making this possible. I would gander though that this development was not always conscious, at least not at first, but the use of it over time would have made its conscious development quite useful, and, therefore, inevitable. I would argue there is more to these patterns, though, than memorization’s function.

What I would be willing to admit is that our discovery of poetic patterns maybe was triggered by its use in memorization. Nevertheless, the results of this discovery have been infinitely more useful. What was opened up for us was a whole new way of representing the world, discussing it, perceiving it. So far, I have given this idea of the motion of poetic patterns through time: aural poetic patterns > sense poetic patterns, AND oral poetry > written poetry. These are the chronological tendencies. And we see the priority of memorization as probably being the first driving motivation behind using poetic patterns.

Yet, there must have been an original motivation behind why humanity wished to tell such long tales in a poetic fashion. The short poem, in its many forms, is a phenomenon of literature; it is a result of the presence of written language. All early prehistoric poetry came as the tale. And so it seems to have remained even after the creation of written systems. For centuries, writing was a boring tool of bureaucrats for keeping track of harvests and taxes. Next, it proved useful for history (read “propaganda”). That it could be used as a tool for creating poetry would take longer to become an option. But at some point, it was used to at least record poetry that was once only oral in its recording and transfer. So narratives such as The Epic of Gilgamesh have come down to us as an example of this transition. It was an originally oral poem then put to writing. Beyond this point, it would have endured both transformation in the oral and the written spheres simultaneously and cross-ways – making the problems of merely textual criticism appear easy by comparison.

By the beginnings of Western civilization, we tend to only have to answer the textual question and not the oral one. Poems were written down by authors, not passed down orally so much, and if they were transformed at all it was in the process of copying them down to parchment or papyrus afterwards. Poems were now transferred by page and not by brains primarily. And writing was also used to create poetry, not just to record it.

But I digress. The point is that only with the transition into writing rather than speaking poetry did short form poetry come to exist. Beforehand, the long form poem was king with no real contender. Why is this? Here I can only speculate, as others have.

First, we must look at what these poems were about. They were tales of a certain type: myths of spirits, demons and gods, and of early men, made by spirits and mixed in descent with them. The broad tendency of human tribal cultures is to have a collection of tales that cohere with some kind of internal mythic logic with one another: a kind of unified perception of the world, trying to stick together as if by a psychic gravity. All of them tell one tale: the tale of the tribe in relation to the environment, how the environment came to be, and how they from it came to be as well. Myth is an attempt to unify the phenomena of the world into a narrative. And it is this underlying tendency which caused humanity to fashion myths in the first place, hence necessitating the need for memorization, hence the turn towards aural and sense patterns. And with the development of those patterns, their possibilities could be further explored.

But, as I said, it cannot just be memorization that is at play here. There is, I propose, a deeper connection between poetic patterns and the poetic perception they attempt to communicate. The rise of these patterns is organically related to the fact that not only do they aid memory, but they also aid the communication of perceptions that do not seem to easily come from ordinary speech. We all recognize the age old distinction between poetic and common language. It would ruin the purity of poetry to use its language at all times. We cannot always do so anyways. I believe this must come from a deeper root.

And, thus, I return to the beginning thoughts of this essay. It is because we human beings require the meaning found in our poetry. We all come across language as a sculptor comes across a marble slab, and some have attempted to make the slab of meaning a form of meaning, that which can have that organized differentiation which communicates as much as possible in the right amount of space. And even if we ourselves cannot sculpt, we would rather gaze upon a work of art rather than a block with six sides and three basic measurements of height, depth, and width. And there is a peculiar pleasure that arises from this experience. Rather, I should say there are “pleasures” that arise from this. For “pleasure” is a tricky word. It can mean too easily only one or two things to someone in their experience, but it can also potentially mean too many things to understand its meaning at all. I will wait until the next essay to reflect on the nature of the pleasure that poetry causes. Here it will suffice to say that it is this capacity to create pleasure which is the motivational factor behind its creation and reception.

And why is it that poetry causes pleasure? I will actually attempt to answer that in a fourth essay following the next essay. The next essay will concern the function of poetry: what it does. That discussion will concern poetic pleasure, its character so to say. Naturally, a discussion of why in the world poetry came to cause these pleasures will be required.

Featured image: Cave paintings of animals at Lascaux from approximately 20,000 years ago, photo by Prof sax on, licensed under,_version_1.2

  1. Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “A Defense of Poetry,” in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 2nd ed., ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York: Norton, 2002), 516 []

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