Understanding Poetry (A Brief History)

While poetry as a whole may be almost impossible to completely define, due its ever-changing nature and continued evolution, we can get a better understanding of it by looking at its history. This can be extremely helpful in understanding and appreciating individual poems, by understanding the context in which they were written and the conventions they either use, or break, or invent. It can also help us to understand poetry as an art form in the broader sense, and hopefully help us appreciate poetry on a more significant level.

(It would be completely impossible to condense the entire history of poetry throughout the whole world in a single article, and much of it would be irrelevant to the poetry that most people reading this would be familiar with, so this will mainly cover the evolution and history of poetry in the Western world, although I have included some references to Eastern traditions as well.)

The Very Beginning

The first thing to take into account is that poetry was a spoken form of communication long before it was ever written down. Before many languages had created their own alphabets and started to record their stories on paper (or stone tablets, slates, or whatever else was eventually used in a given region), poetry was recited and passed down through generations as oral presentations. Some of the linguistic tools that still appear in poetry today, such as rhyme and meter, were originally used to make these stories and moral lessons more memorable, so that the wisdom imparted by the poems was better preserved over the years. As poetry was a common way to share stories and knowledge, it inevitably became one of the earliest forms of the written word to appear.

It will probably come as little surprise to learn that the ancient Greeks were one of the civilizations at the forefront of developing written language. The oldest poem known to have been written down – The Epic Of Gilgamesh – was a traditional Greek myth (or collection of smaller stories, which may be the case with parts of it, although it is usually classed as one piece) which had been passed on through several generations before the invention of the Greek alphabet. As one of the highly valued stories of the Greek culture and society, it was one of the first traditional tales to be transcribed, to ensure that it would continue to survive. As writing was first developed in the area formerly known as Sumeria and Mesopotamia, there was also poetry which was preserved from those early civilisations, particularly the Sacred poetry of Enheduanna – the first poet (or author of any kind) whose name was actually recorded to give her credit for her work. Enheduanna was a High Priestess in a major Sumerian city (Ur), and most of her poetic work was in the forms of songs and homages to the goddesses she served (Inanna and Nanna), which was in a much shorter form than the Epic poetry that was coming from elsewhere. While epics served the same function as novels today, telling a long story with characters and themes etc, the shorter sacred poetry was more for reciting in religious services and as songs of worship.

The first known analysis of poetry and the beginnings of classifying poems into different types was started (also in ancient Greece) by Aristotle. At that time, he divided poems into three types; Epic poetry, Lyric poetry and Dramatic poetry. He also theorised that whichever of those classifications a poem fit into, that it would also either be a tragedy or a comedy. Tragedies were designed to portray intellectual or socially important characters and situations, generally teaching moral lessons through a form of catharsis, while comedy was more for simple entertainment and centered on less crucial experiences and lessons.

Poetry & Music

The traditions of sacred poetry and its ties to religious ceremonies and services also continued, mainly due to the scarce availability of writing materials, as well as fewer people who were able to read and write in those early civilisations. These barriers meant that it was usually only the religious leaders who decided which stories and information were worthy of being written down, so most of the earliest poetry and literature in general tends to center around religion and mythology. Many of the earliest poems were written as songs to be performed in religious services, because the musical elements of the language (sometimes paired with actual music) made them more memorable. A good example of this is the Psalms from the Hebrew Bible and subsequently, the Christian Bible’s old testament. The name ‘Psalms’ actually means “music of the lyre”, which tells us that these poems or songs were written specifically with the intention of accompanying the words with music. It is actually the lyre (an ancient stringed instrument) which served as the root of the word ‘lyric’, as these types of poem were specifically intended to be accompanied by music.

Epic poetry also continued in the early civilisations, particularly with works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer (who may not have even actually been a single person). However, the massively long-form poetry of this tradition began to die out as writing became more commonplace. As more stories and information could be written down and preserved, and more literature was able to be produced, it became more common to tell longer stories as novels rather than poetry. The need to memorise passages became less important when the words could be read by anyone, and revisited if and when necessary. This obviously became much more important centuries later, with the invention of the printing press and moveable type, which made it even easier to reproduce books and get stories and information out into the world. However, the shorter forms of lyric poetry and sacred poetry traditions were still very much alive and well. While the works of Homer were first being transcribed, there were poets such as Sappho writing Lyric poetry, which has unfortunately only survived in fragments, but shows us that shorter form poetry was quite prevalent, even in the bygone era of epics.

In addition to Sappho and others from the Sumerian region writing lyric poetry, the tradition had also spread to the East, such as China. While the Greeks and western civilisations tended to produce more historical narratives and dramatic tales through poetry, the Eastern populations produced more works based on nature and the human experience, which became more commonplace in poetry throughout the world as epics fell out of fashion.

As poetry continued to spread and grow throughout the world, the stories and traditions that had been passed down throughout the generations were adapted into songs by travelling musicians (called balladeers, troubadours etc) and recited by bards – who were essentially continuing the tradition of spoken word poetry. The musical elements of poetry were still fairly crucial to ensure that the stories and histories were easier to remember, which is why ballads, or lyric poetry, became the most universally preferred style.

When written down, ballads are usually divided into four line stanzas (quatrains) which, when turned into a song, would make up the different verses. They employ a structured rhyming pattern and tend to be written in fairly plain language, without many complicated or obscure words (although many poets have broken these ‘rules’ over the centuries). Ballads were usually still narrative poems, which told a complete story of some kind, but much shorter versions than epics. The ballad form has been used in later years to convey all kinds of emotions, ideas and arguments without necessarily telling a story. These are still one of the most common forms of poetry.

Sonnets & Early Rulebreakers

The next form of poetry which became extremely popular was the sonnet, which began in Italy in the 13th century. These poems are quite short, so they tend to be grouped together in collections of between (approximately) 10 – 100 sonnets. They follow a strict rhyme structure, which was adapted from the original pattern by William Shakespeare in the 16th century to allow for more variation in the rhymes. Essentially, this was done out of necessity, because the original structure called for only four rhyming sounds to be used at the ends of lines, which is suitable for Italian language poems because a lot of words tend to end in similar sounds in Italian, but it is much harder in English because the ends of our words tend to be more varied in their sounds. Sonnets were highly influential in the evolution of later styles of poetry, and because the writers of this time were able to utilise new mass-printing technology (as mentioned earlier, with the invention of moveable type), they became the first to be widely read. This meant that certain styles and conventions which were popular at the time became what people expected and demanded from poetry, so while the popularity and newfound availability of poetry was great for the readers and writers of the time, it also arguably caused writers for the next few generations to all create similar works within strict ‘rules’, so there was very little variation.

The shift in poetry from being a mainly oral tradition to being available in print meant that the messages and stories within poems could be more complex and the language could be used more as an art form in itself, rather than needing to be easily understood by listeners. This started to be seen relatively soon after the advancements in mass-printing, but there were also writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, who purposely used more common language in their poetry so that it could be understood by more than just the upper classes.

In the 17th & 18th centuries, the period known as the Enlightenment saw a cultural shift to more scientific schools of thought, which was embraced and captured by the contemporary poets of the time. These writers, such as John Dryden, John Donne and Andrew Marvell, became known as the Metaphysical poets. This saw a deliberate shift away from some of the previous conventions of poetry, particularly those of sonnets, such as using less imagery of nature, and more emphasis on death, the afterlife, and the supernatural. As well as the shift in the subjects being addressed by poetry at that time, from historical narratives, mythology, and love poems, to contemplating existence and understanding the world, the language of the poems also started to become more figurative and artistic. Rather than just relaying narratives and emotions with simple language and using comparisons to nature, these poets began to use more metaphor to express and explore their message.

This, in turn, influenced the Romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th century, such as William Blake, Lord Byron & John Keats. Returning to heavy use of natural imagery and concentrating on human relationships rather than distant and ethereal ideas, these poets were firmly rooted in what we can experience from the world and the people around us. However, they incorporated many of the same ideas and linguistic conventions as the Metaphysical poets who had preceded them, weaving complex ideas and everyday experiences into a new, distinct style. They also stood out because they began to stray even further away from the existing, traditional forms of lyric poetry, creating poems in a style or structure of their own creation, or having them stand alone as pieces with their own, unique forms. This further deviation from the predefined ‘rules’ of what qualified as a poem was highly influential on the styles which evolved over the following century.

The Explosion Of Styles In The Modern Age

American transcendentalism began in the mid-1800s in the USA, and centers on the idea that the individual and what they experience is all-important, while conventional social structures and obeying traditions corrupt the purity of the individual. It could be seen as a very progressive and rebellious era in the history of poetry, almost like a punk subculture which predated actual punk by around a century and a half. This also extended into the way many of these poets viewed form and structure, as well as the content of their poems. While sonnets and the highly structured poems that had preceded the transcendentalists had meant that there was little or no individuality in a poet’s style, these writers embraced unconventional styles, or in some cases, created their own completely. Arguably the most important of these is Walt Whitman (pictured above), who is generally considered to be the father of Free Verse. He completely abandoned all sense of rhyme and meter, writing poetry which was ‘free’ of the rules or constraints of the earlier poetic traditions. This then influenced other poets to do the same, and to create entire styles of their own, or else write without any set style or pattern.

Modernism is an umbrella term, of sorts, for the poetry being created in the first half of the 20th century, which really emphasised the use of language as an art form in itself. There are a few styles which are generally lumped together into this category, but this is more to do with the time period rather than the styles being overly similar. Two of the main styles which fall under the banner of modernism are Imagist poets and Symbolist poets. While these styles are quite different, one thing they have in common apart from the use of artistic language is that they tended to be more universal than their predecessors. Much of the poetry from previous generations had been highly specific to the time in which they lived, or to the experience of their class or culture in some way. The move towards using more abstract ideas to explore common emotions and experiences (along with socio-political advancements and expansions in publishing which transcended previously difficult barriers) meant that poetry started to become much more of a multicultural experience, with more diverse voices being represented and appreciated. The poetry of this era tends to create vivid images instead of telling narratives, and from that single action or image, the reader can infer as much as they could from an entire story. In some cases, it also became much more about how artistic the language (particularly use of figurative language) was in the poem, rather than about the profoundness of the message itself. The language and focus on a single image was a means to evoke a specific emotion, rather than creating a whole plot to get the reader to that point. 

After World War Two, the next generation of poets to gain notoriety were the Beat poets, who took their lead from Walt Whitman and essentially just rejected all of the previous poetic forms and structures. They also mostly incorporated specific themes, like taking hard stances against materialism, exploring what it is to be human, progessive thinking, and (as with many eras of poetic revival) a liberal dose of existential angst. Their usually political bent was embraced by the hippie movement of the 60’s and 70’s, and often strived to be controversial, shocking, or else gritty and base – dealing with the less pleasant aspects of the everyday human experience.

Jack Kerouac (Beat Poet, Author of ‘On The Road’)

The 1980s saw a new revolution in performance poetry, with the rise of both Slam poetry and Hip-Hop as emerging cultural phenomena with huge followings. Each drew significant attention to new poetry forms and have each continued to be polarising in terms of their fans and critics, with some people claiming that they were no legitimate forms of poetry, while others embraced the shift in the media/platforms being used to deliver poetry.

Now…

This brings us to the modern age, where the last few decades have been fairly uneventful for any significant movements or specific emerging styles, until the explosion of social media began to make waves in the world of poetry. While the majority of modern poets continued to embrace free verse or incorporate styles from previous generations, there were relatively few who were actually making a significant impact beyond the scope of the existing poetry community. While there was no shortage of incredible talent, it is usually writers or movements in poetry that transcend the genre and appeal to a wider reading audience that have the most impact and are remembered for their contributions. Poets in the 21st century using social media as a platform to share their writing (most notably, but not exclusively Instagram) started to gain massive popularity, which resulted in some of the more established and popular writers either self-publishing to great success or even being picked up by traditional publishers and becoming international best sellers. Names such as Rupi Kaur, Courtney Peppernell, Atticus, R.H. Sinn and many others became known collectively as InstaPoets, which – as you would probably expect from the previous stylistic and cultural shifts throughout history – became a hugely divisive and widely criticised form of poetry. The term InstaPoetry is often used as a criticism rather than necessarily a description of the genre or style itself. In addition to gaining its name from the social media platform where it has proved to be most popular, it also refers to the instant nature of the poems themselves. Stylistically, they tend to be paired with an eye catching image and be extremely short, so that the audience can read it in only a few seconds (although some writers achieve the same effect by posting snippets from their work, rather than full poems). The popularity of these poets and the form itself has led to a significant rise in the production of short-form poetry designed to gain attention and followers, specifically influenced and shaped by the platforms being used to reach those audiences.

So, hopefully this has been helpful in explaining the key movements and changes in the history of poetry, so that it will give you a better understanding of the poetry you read and enjoy. It can be helpful to know if a poet is using the conventions of their time, creating completely new styles or adopting old ones to make a specific point. Understanding the context of when a poem was written can give a whole new appreciation for its meaning and the impact of the choices that the writer made when creating it. It can also point you in the direction of even more poets that you will enjoy, because they were part of the same era or movement as one of your favourites.


If you enjoyed this article, don’t forget to check out some examples of my own poetry by clicking here.