Y’all need a break from C19 and Flynn at the moment. I know I do. Cross-posted at Assistant Village Idiot, as usual.

We think of poetry as a decorative art, important for beauty and the expression of elusive ideas in a strong or vivid manner. This is true of some early poetry, but many cultures used poetry more functionally. The point was to tell a story, an important story to preserve history. What strike us as decorative items now, such as rhyme or meter, were put there as aids to memory. The poet could not write things down, and did not want to falter or get lost over many passages. Structure locks these in. We still see this even in our literate culture. Children learn the states of the union as a song “There’s AL-abama, AL-aska…Rhode Island, Tennessee!” I have heard at least three songs teaching the books of the Bible: “I’ll tell you the truth about the book of Ruth…There’s Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther and Job – I want to go to heaven in a righteous robe…” (and that was just from overhearing my sons). It is not unusual for adults in Bible study to laughingly mention that much of their memorized Scripture is from music. (Note: Handel’s Messiah is excellent for this.)

Telling a story in poetry happens less often these last two centuries. Rudyard Kipling would do it, Tennyson. When story is attempted now, however, the intent is often comic. We don’t allow songs to go on at story length very much these days. But we do see the memory advantage of this, don’t we? “Bumpty, bumpty, bumpty bright, BUMPity, bumpty, bump tonight!” And if you get lost, having to slur a few syllables, you can get right back on the horse next line.

The Illiad had a specific meter. It wasn’t for decoration, though the skilled can use such things to good effect. We used to call Homer the author, and he may have been the final one rounding it into shape, but we now see it as descending from an oral poem, likely dragging in the good bits from other poems of its time, with stock phrases and reiterations.

Anglo-Saxon poetry has an alliterative convention that seems odd to us, of using a single initial sound for at least three of the four stressed beats of a line. We use the final sounds of words instead, as rhymes. Looked at that way, it’s not very different. In the same way that a line in our songs might be a bit forced in order to fit it into rhyme or meter, lines in even the best of Old English poetry are forced into the alliterative form, so that they work, in both senses of that word. Good poets find ways to make it less and less forced sounding, and are always on the lookout for a clever turn of phrase to work in. Banging around on the harp the next day, a professional is thinking “I don’t like the way that H-line followed by the M-line is going about Grendel’s mother. And I still need more back-references to Hrothgar in that whole section.”

Those weird kennings in that poetry come about in that way. There just weren’t as many words to draw from as we have now. “I need a synonym for the sea that begins with a hr-sound. Maybe a whale-something. Hran-radh. Whale road.” It wasn’t just to be clever, it had to fit the convention and push the story forward. If you’ve even tried to put a poem or song into rhyme and meter you’ve seen this happen. Novice lyricists force in dumb stuff, some of it so trite and predictable that we joke about it: moon/June; love/thinking of. If you do it for a living, like a bard, you get better at it. And you definitely steal good stuff from other bards you hear. In the Germanic traditions there was also a fondness for riddling, as Tolkien used with Bilbo and Gollum, so you would have an audience who really liked paying attention and trying to guess what your new little poetic figure meant when you threw it in there. “Whale-road? Oh, Whale-road, ocean! Very good! Hehehe.” Poetic performances had a participatory audience in that way. They wanted to hear about heroes, they liked stories about adventures and monsters, and having a string of small, clever guessing games thrown in added to the fun. The poet had to apply these judiciously, certainly. It would be tedious to have to solve a small puzzle every four seconds, especially while drinking mead and shoving your friends around for fun. Thus “bone-house” as a poetic word for body, especially in the context of singing about people getting injured or killed, or undead spirits rising again to threaten the living, became a standard form that the listener did not break down into component parts, much as we don’t entirely break “graveyard” “daydream,” or “groundhog” into their literal pieces now. It is technically called “Oral -Formulaic Theory,” explaining how ancient poets were both wildly creative and mere boring overrated craftsmen at the same time. The composition pattern is there, so when “ponytail” or “videogame” suddenly shows up, we get it immediately.

Which is all to say, as I usually do, that people in other times were completely different and exactly the same as we are now. Except now you have cool examples and are way more educated that you were ten minutes ago.

5 thoughts on “Poetry”

  1. If you are looking for a bit of a curveball, I would suggest War Music, a modern re-interpretation of Homer’s Illiad by British poet Christopher Logue. It’s actually a lot better than it sounds, if you are into that sort of thing. An action-adventure remake of an old classic.

  2. Thanks. We remember stories but we also remember rhythms – in the 1600s people memorized 224 rollicking stanzas about judgement day by Wigglesworth – now few would think they could. But how many lyrics do they remember, tumbling out line after line without having tried to memorize them? But we do change – I can’t get through the book long Longfellow’s – narratives both my grandfathers loved – and with strong meters. But tastes differ: a friend described his village dentist, who recited Longfellow as he worked on teeth – he said it was mesmerizing and he never felt pain. (Fifty years later he collects vintage glass dappen bowls in memory of the experience of those thrilling stories in verse.)

  3. “We think of poetry as a decorative art, important for beauty and the expression of elusive ideas in a strong or vivid manner.”

    Modern poets seem content with expressing banal ideas in obscure and overly stylized ambiguity. Far too precious for the unwashed masses, rather to be dissected at great length in doctoral theses, rhymes with feces, that will never see the light of day past their one presentation.

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