April Is For Poetry Lovers

Apr 12, 2015 By Vibeka Sisodiya
Vibeka Sisodiya's picture

If you were only one inch tall, you'd ride a worm to school.
The teardrop of a crying ant would be your swimming pool.
A crumb of cake would be a feast
And last you seven days at least,
A flea would be a frightening beast
If you were one inch tall...

This poem is by Shel Silverstein, a famous American children’s poet and illustrator.

Aren’t poems like this fun to read?  Poems can also make you feel other emotions, like anger or sadness, depending on the words and how they are put together. That is the beauty and power of poetry, which is being celebrated in April, which is National Poetry Month in the USA.

How Did Poetry Start?

Turns out poetry existed even before humans knew how to read and write, dating back to around 3,000 BC. Some of the earliest poetry was recited or sung and was used as a way to record and pass down historical and religious stories and cultural traditions from one generation to the next. Since writing was not practiced then, certain sounds and rhymes were used to make these stories interesting and therefore, memorable.

Ancient poetry was mainly of three types. The first was an epic or a long narrative poetry usually about a historical event. The world’s oldest known poem is the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating back to around 2000 BC from the Mesopotamia region (modern-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran). It was about the Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh and was written in cuneiform, a form of picture writing on clay tablets and papyrus leaves. Other famous epic poetries include the Greek epics of Iliad and Odyssey, and the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The second type was lyric poetry or poetry that expressed personal and emotional feelings. Originating in Greece, they were usually accompanied by a “lyre,” a type of musical instrument, and were very popular across Europe. William Shakespeare’s sonnets are an example of a lyric poetry, which has 14 lines and a specific rhythm. Japanese Haikus and Iranian and Indian Ghazals are other examples of lyrical poems. Finally, there was dramatic poetry, or dramatic stories written in verse and usually acted out like Greek tragedies and Shakespeare's plays.

Poetry For The People

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century brought poetry to the common man and with it day-to-day subjects. This was followed by several major literary periods, during which poetry went through dramatic changes. It started with Europe’s Renaissance period in the 14th to 16th centuries, which first helped popularize poetry and poets like Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh. 

The Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th century saw personalized poems that expressed a poet’s joys, hopes, and sorrows expressed in a conversational tone. Then came the Victorian era in the mid-19th century, which saw the end of structured poems and the birth of modern “free verse” poetry. American poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is considered to be the first example of free verse poetry. 

Modern poetry is a combination of all of these styles. We still see rhyming in children's poems and in the popular African American styles of hip-hop and rap music, which are a form of rhymed poetry put to a musical beat. However, in serious modern poetry, the words used are more important than the rhythm and rhyme, in order to make the reader think about what is being said. 

Poetry will continue to grow and change as we do. Given that we are now living in the closely connected world of the Internet and social media, how do you think it will impact poetry in the future?