Words by: Natasha Bloomfield
Image credit: alice-in-wonderland.net
There is something mysterious about poetry that often induces a sense of confusion and distrust in readers, yet as someone who has dedicated several years to reading the art form, I can tell you that poetry is not scary. Furthermore, I can tell you that not only do the most amazing topics in life make for good poetry, but some of the most banal also sound melodic and beautiful when approached in poetical form. For example, see below a poem by Melbourne poet Bronwyn Lovell:
When it happens, be mindful how you label it.
Avoid words like ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’. Say to yourself
“What a coincidence!” and think on it no more (I 1-3).
Running into your ex never sounded so good. Lovell’s contemporary poem, fantastic in itself, is the result of a long development of poetic forms, some of which I will outline below.
Often associated with the Ancient Greeks, the epic actually originated in Mesopotamia c. 2100 BC, with The Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is considered the first work of literature, and is a narrative in verse form that revolves around gods, kings, and eternal life. A translated extract is included below:
Anu granted him the totality of knowledge of all.
He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden,
he brought information of (the time) before the Flood.
He went on a distant journey, pushing himself to exhaustion,
but then was brought to peace (I 4-8).
The first well-known epics of the Western world are Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Virgil’s Latin poem The Aeneid (29-19 BC), and Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320 AD), with a section of the Iliad here:
Which of the gods was it that made them quarrel? It was Apollo,
son of Zeus and Leto, who started the feud because he was
furious with Agamemnon for not respecting his priest Chryses.
So Apollo inflicted a deadly plague on Agamemnon’s army and
destroyed his men (I 7-11).
Homer’s Iliad is considered the earliest work of Western literature, dated to 700 BC. It began as an oral poem, and there are theories that as it was far too long for oral recitation, it was actually a series of small connected oral poems that were expanded by several poets until writing them was feasible, c. 800 BC.
The sonnet originated in 13th century Italy with Italian poet Giacomo da Lentini. Written in iambic pentameter, they are composed of five lots (the pentameter) of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (an iamb). The most well-known English sonnets are William Shakespeare’s, or Shakespeares’, depending on which theory you prescribe to, which were not limited to his poems – see below the prologue to the 16th century play Romeo and Juliet:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean (I 1-4).
Nothing like a bit of the Bard to warm the heart.
The haiku of the 17th century was the result of a thousand years of form development in Japan which began with the popularising of tanka, or “short forms,” of poetry. A well-known haiku is Bashō’s “old pond”:
古池や old pond
蛙飛び込む a frog leaps in
水の音 water’s sound
Traditional haiku uses 17 on (equivalent to meter in English verse) in three lines of a 5-7-5 pattern, and usually utilises a seasonal reference for its subject matter.
The Romantic Period (1785-1830) is known for the English Romantics; William Blake, John Keats, and William Wordsworth to name a few. Regarded as producing “nature poetry,” their poetry seeks to counteract the urbanization and revolution that was prolific at the time, and it is more the time period that binds the poets together than a similar use of techniques. A section of Keats’ poem “To Autumn” (1820) is included below:
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind (II 1-4).
Keats’ oeuvre is broad, including sonnets, odes, ballads, and nonsense verse. But as a personal favourite poet, I’m not complaining.
Representative of the literary output of the Victorian Age, nonsense verse is practically synonymous with Lewis Carroll. First published in 1872 in Through the Looking Glass, his poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” is a perfect example:
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings” (I 61-66).
Here, if you consider rhythm and rhyme your friends, rejoice! Nonsense verse, which is a form of nonsense literature, adopts both for its standard techniques, and nonsensical and whimsical subjects are embraced. Limericks are a common form of nonsense verse.
The American free-verse movement of the 20th century was crystallised in 1915 by Alfred Kreymborg’s little magazine Others. The magazine was considered radical for its time, particularly for its rejection of conventional aesthetic and social categories. Free-verse poetry is the curve-ball of the poetry world, characterised by a rejection of meter and rhyme and relying mainly on natural speech patterns and repetition for its structure. See Mina Loy’s “Song to Joannes” (1917):
It is ambient And it is in your eyes
Something shiny Something only for you
Something that I must not see
It is in my ears Something very resonant
Something that you must not hear
Something only for me (XIII 9-15).
Given that free-verse poetry is reliant largely on repetition – the “it is” and “something” of Loy’s poem – it is not entirely free. T. S. Eliot summed this up by stating, “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.”
Nearly four thousand years since Gilgamesh, we now stand on the shoulders of giants in this age of contemporary poetry. Be sure to not miss out by reading some here.