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History of Poetry

A concise history of poetry.

Understanding Poetry History

Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as "the art of apprehending and interpreting ideas by the faculty of imagination; the art of idealizing in thought and in expression. For poetry is the blossom and the fragrance of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language." Many poets have attempted to define poetry; however, a brief overview of poetry history may help us to have a more rounded understanding.

History: Poetry as an Art

Poetry as an art form predates literacy. Some of the earliest poetry is believed to have been orally recited or sung. Following the development of writing, poetry has since developed into increasingly structured forms, though much poetry since the late 20th century has moved away from traditional forms towards the more vaguely defined free verse and prose poem formats.

Poetry was employed as a way of remembering oral history, story (epic poetry), genealogy, and law. Poetry is often closely related to musical traditions, and much of it can be attributed to religious movements. Many of the poems surviving from the ancient world are a form of recorded cultural information about the people of the past, and their poems are prayers or stories about religious subject matter, histories about their politics and wars, and the important organizing myths of their societies.

Poetry as an art form may predate literacy. Thus many ancient works, from the Vedas (1700 - 1200 BC) to the Odyssey (800 - 675 BC), appear to have been composed in poetic form to aid memorization and oral transmission, in prehistoric and ancient societies. Poetry appears among the earliest records of most literate cultures, with poetic fragments found on early monoliths, runestones and stelae.

The oldest surviving poem is the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, written in Hieratic and ascribed a date around 4500 B.C.E. Other sources ascribe the earliest written poetry to the Epic of Gilgamesh written in cuneiform; however, it is most likely that The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor predates Gilgamesh by half a millennium. The oldest epic poetry besides the Epic of Gilgamesh are the Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey and the Indian Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The longest epic poems ever written were the Mahabharata and the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar.

History: What Makes Poetry Distinctive

Ancient thinkers sought to determine what makes poetry distinctive as a form and what distinguishes good poetry from bad, resulting in the development of "poetics", or the study of the aesthetics of poetry. Some ancient societies, such as the Chinese through the Classic of History, one of the Five Classics, developed canons of poetic works that had ritual as well as aesthetic importance. More recently, thinkers struggled to find a definition that could encompass formal differences as great as those between Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and Matsuo Bashō's Oku no Hosomichi, as well as differences in context that span from the religious poetry of the Tanakh to love poetry to rap.

Context can be critical to poetics and to the development of poetic genres and forms. For example, poetry employed to record historical events in epics, such as Gilgamesh or Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, will necessarily be lengthy and narrative, while poetry used for liturgical purposes in hymns, psalms, suras and hadiths is likely to have an inspirational tone, whereas elegies and tragedy are intended to invoke deep internal emotional responses. Other contexts include music such as Gregorian chants, formal or diplomatic speech, political rhetoric and invective, light-hearted nursery and nonsense rhymes,threnodies to the deceased and even medical texts.

The Polish historian of aesthetics, Władysław Tatarkiewicz, in a paper on "The Concept of Poetry," traces the evolution of what is in fact two concepts of poetry. Tatarkiewicz points out that the term is applied to two distinct things that, as the poet Paul Valéry observes, "at a certain point find union. Poetry [...] is an art based on language. But poetry also has a more general meaning [...] that is difficult to define because it is less determinate: poetry expresses a certain state of mind."