By Margo McKenzie
When patrons walk into a Barnes and Nobles store, immediately they are confronted with hundreds of books, which are either novels or memoirs. To find the poetry section, they’d have to go further into the interior. Though not exactly the most popular form of writing, poetry is still alive. Dylan Thomas was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for 2016, and Juan Felipe Herrera is the current Poet Laureate Consultant. In April every year, the Academy of American Poets promotes the art form with Poem in Your Pocket Day.
Exactly what is poetry, though? When my students used to ask me that question, I’d say the following: a shortened, delightful piece of literature in which the writer has confined space to communicate her emotions. Is that enough?
One early English writer, William Wordsworth (19th century), in his famous introduction to a collection of his poems entitled “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, he makes several profound claims about poetry:
What other genre of writing can be described as “the most philosophic,” or “the image of man and nature?” If man is made in the image of God, “the image of man” must reflect some aspect of the Creator.
According to Percy Bysshe Shelley (I’m stuck in the 19th century) in his essay entitled “A Defense of Poetry,” he makes these powerful statements about the poetry:
In 2002, Reverend William Augustus Jones, former pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn asked, “Which conveys the best knowledge concerning God: theology or poetry?” Implied in the question is that poetry, at its best, is a genre that belongs in the realms of the divine. It is an elevated language best suited for revealing truth and beauty.
Where did it all begin? Let’s take a look.
Epic of Gilgamesh
The English credit the anonymous author of Beowulf for getting the genre started, but if we take a look at the literature of the world, we will find that a poet from present day Iraq (Mesopotamia) wrote the first poem ever written on tablets entitled “The Epic of Gilgamesh," an heroic epic about how no one escapes death. That was some 2,000 years before Christ.
Some other ancient writers of poetry include names we’ve probably heard like Homer who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. Then there’s Virgil who wrote Aeneid, an epic history of Rome.
The Bible also contains some pretty astounding poetry, which is included in those books known as the poetic books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Songs of Solomon. I thought I’d take a closer look at some of the poetic devices contained in the Psalms.
This book of 150 poems was sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments like harps and lyres. The idea of poetry and music is a major feature of today’s rap. Of course the contents of the two are starkly different. But understanding the similarity of some genres gives us reason to pause. According to the Scoffield Reference Bible, these poems were written approximately 10 centuries before Christ ( p 540). Amazing, isn’t it? Many of the poetic devices used in the Psalms, we still use today.
Ever since times of antiquity, many different poems have been written, the best still succeed in accomplishing two things: speaking truth and providing pleasure. Poets have developed poems, which obey varying rules concerning rhythm and rhyme. Other poets exercise complete freedom from the constrictions of those formulas and will write in free verse. We will begin our discussion with a few poems that follow a formula.
It’s the type of poem that tells a story. The ballad--a song that tells a story-- and the epic--a long poem that tells a story--are considered narratives. Some of these narrative incorporate a rhyme scheme. To qualify as a story, the poem must include characters, setting, theme, narrator, and plot and maybe even dialogue. The main components of the short story are included in narrative poetry. The rhyme scheme of the poem below is ababc.
Two woods diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler long I stood
I looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the overgrowth
Then took the other, as just as fair,
Ad having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Thought as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leave no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sight
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by
And that had made all the difference.
Consider the title of a few other narrative poems.
Annabel Lee Edgar Allen Poe
My Papa’s Waltz Theodore Roethke
Dance With My Father Luther Vandross
The Touch of the Master’s Hand Anonymous
The is a fourteen line poem, which begins with an octet (eight lines). It explains a problem and concludes with a sestet (six lines), which resolve a problem. Some variations of sonnets include the Petrachaean and Shakespearean, which differ in meter and rhyme.
Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are known by their first lines:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day(18)
“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes (29)
“Let me know to the marriage of true minds” (116)
Elizabeth Barret Browning and her husband are famous for the love Sonnets from the Portuguese. Here’s one of the sonnets from these poems:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Claude McKay, a Jamaican poet of the Harlem Renaissance who relocated to New York City, is also known for his sonnets. Take a look at “America.”
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
There are several other types of poems that follow rules of line, rhyme, or meter. The Japanese created the haiku. This type of poem contains three lines with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the last line.
Here is a sample:
The sun is so bright
It lights even my darkness.
Then here comes the moon.
This type of poem is a light, funny poem. It contains five lines, which follow an aabba rhyme scheme like the poem below:
There once was a woman from Rome
Who feared others and stayed in her home.
One day she ate something became very ill.
The doctor came by to give her a pill.
And she attacked him with a broom.
Rappers took poetry to another level when they set their rhymed words over hip-hop music, and the skill of the deliverer came into play.
Here are additional quotes about poetry:
Despite the internet and other fast-moving methods of entertainment, poetry will survive. As long as human beings need beauty, truth, and pleasure, there will be a need for poetry. Whether we know it or not, poetry speaks to the soul: and as long as man has a soul, mankind will need poetry.
So if you’re looking for a stocking stuffer, consider giving someone the gift of words this Christmas by giving them a book of poetry.
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