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History of poetry - a brief overview

Poetry is believed to have pre-dated literacy and in one sense it foreshadowed it. One of the main uses of reading and writing is to ‘fix’ language, making it more long-lasting and giving it a power that spoken language doesn’t have. Poetry gives communications a life of their own because there is a ‘rightness’ about them.

The oral tradition of poetry – as recited by troubadours in the middle ages and others before them - was also the precursor of modern newspapers, being the only way in which great chunks of current history could be conveyed from group to group with any amount of detail. It is from this tradition that the characteristics generally associated with poetry are born. Rhyme – or in many cases assonance (where just the vowels are the same rather than the consonants as well) – leads the reciter on from line to line. Rhythm gives the lines a ‘family feel’ and makes them easier to remember.

Poetry is also about conciseness, echoes and resonances. A poem can suggest things by putting two words near to each other or giving a thought-provoking image. It doesn’t have to spell things out; in fact it does better not to.

Probably the poetic form we hear most about is the sonnet, which particularly in English (as opposed to Italian which has a larger number of useful rhyming words) means that choices are very limited and ingenuity is often necessary. Strangely, the difficulty of the form often leads to a far better poem than if there had been fewer restrictions.

The sonnet has a strong history in Europe; in other places there are traditions just as strong - for example the Haiku or Tanka in Japan, or the Ghazal in Iran and India. It can be a game writing poems in these formats, perhaps a bit like playing Scrabble.

Serious modern poetry is written by and for well-educated, highly literate people. The vocabulary used is deliberately unusual so as to force the reader to think about what is being described. The choice of precisely the correct word is often seen as more important than any devices of form which might dictate the use of a less startling or original word. Rhyme is almost seen as having a cheapening effect.

But clever verse with recognizable ‘poetic’ features like rhyme refuses to die out because it is still in demand. Witness the popularity of someone like Pam Ayres.

Alongside the sonnet with its refined imagery and huge emotions stand the limerick and the Rugby song. They are all poetry.

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