Return to Poetry
"The poet only asks to get his head into heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heaens into his head. And it is his head that splits." - "Orthodoxy", G.K. Chesterton
Out of all literary genres, poetry was probably the one to suffer the biggest loss in its popularity - very few are the people who say they read poetry and even less are those who buy books of poetry. On the other hand, poetry or at least what attempts to be poetry is spread via social media. Usually the poetry that is on these platform consists of sentences broken into separate paragraphs by pressing enter on a keyboard. This kind of popular poetry has not only the lost the poetic form, metre and rhythm, for free style poetry can be of outstanding quality, but it also has lost one of the main characteristics of a poem and that is the poetic language. The poetic language differs from the daily language and its intricate network of figures of speech are what transfrom daily, mundane, sad, shameful and heartbreaking into beautiful and redemptive. Losing poetry, humanity is losing one of its earliest companions, one of the first traces of literacy, imagination and civilization.
The Dawn of Humanity
"Poetry always remembers that it was an oral art before it was written art. It remembers that it first was a song." - "The Divine Comedy", Jorge Luis Borges If one is to take any literary theory textbook or course, or simply look into the history of literature, one could easily find that most, if not all of them claim that poetry was the first of the all literary forms. It took a very long time, centuries for a novel to appear and to gain primacy in humanity's art of words. The earliest poems, were, like Borges suggests, primarily in oral form. They were usually hymns accompanying rituals and celebrations. One can find these early forms probably in any civilization and in any folk tradition that existed or still exists. In Ancient Greece, drama and poetry evolved from dithyramb, an ancient song sung in honor of the god Dionysius (Bacchus for Romans). Dionysius was the god of fertility and wine, closely related to agricultural cults and celebrations. The Dionysian ceremony included orgia, ceremony in which devotees wore masks and performed animal sacrifice with an intent to break down the barriers between the divinity and themselves through the mystical ecstasy. These celebrations were later banned. It is widely accepted among anthropologists, sociologists and historians that the earliest agricultural communities had close relationship with earth and that ecstatic celebrations of fertility were part of the religious practice. No celebration, no devotion could ever be complete without a song and in the moment of ecstasy, verses can come out on their own from the mouth of an already poetic soul. Poetry as such, as a combination of rhythm and words became the companion of the earliest settled communities, and perhaps its first roots could be traced back earlier. From the Dionysian dithyramb came written poetry, drama and from drama came films and novels. As poetry gradually achieved its written form, very soon it became the principal part of many peoples' heritage - Homer was beloved by almost every Greek philosopher, including Plato who was greatly against imitative arts but found in Homer quality that rose above sentimentality and mere imitation, Ovid and Virgil were pride of Rome, Beowulf, Poetic Edda, Epic of Gilgamesh, Ramayana, Shijing, epics of various peoples all stand as the pillars of the people, of the civlizations they belonged to. They later came to be something that entire humanity would accept as outstanding pieces of art. Poetry was there, at the first attempt to gather in celebration of both sacred and secular, it was there to tell the first stories since the first stories were told in the form of poem (narrative poems) and thousands of years after they had been created, they have transcendent the borders of their religions, cultures or languages. The entire humanity values them and loves them - poetry being at the dawn of humanity appeals to humanity within each.
The Apotheosis of Humanity
Slowly, as the humanity moved from primarily agricultural to more complex, stratified urban dwellings and with development of institutions and philosophy, poetry from the realm of Dionysius slowly came under the patronage of Apollo. Apollo is a Greek and Roman god of sun, light, knowledge, healing (and protection from evil), poetry, song, dance and many other things. It can be said that, as opposed to primordial innocene and non-differentiation of Dionysius, Apollo represents the awareness, the conscious and controlled creativity and knowledge. Apollo is the light that is shed over the dark of the unconscious. With him, poetry moved from its roots, from its oral form and slowly started getting an artistic, intentional form. Mathematics became part of poetry and music. Rhythm and metre were developed. Poetry became an art that not just anyone who dances could take part in but had to be studied as well. Of course, as Nietzsche would suggest there is no poetry or tragedy without its Dionysian roots. The feeling, the ecstasy of life is still inside a poet but the poet now has greater knowledge and can create that which expresses the illuminated humanity. Poetry became one of the greatest intellectual and creative achievements, an art to be developed and respected. Poetry, however, did not lose its devotional aspect, it just, gradually came to have form. It is no wonder then that almost every major religious text, of almost any religion is written in poetic form - we may look at the beauty of Psalms, or at the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita, or Upanishads and Puranas, of Orphic Hymns, Homeric Hymns, of Dante's "Divine Comedy". We may admire the beloved Muslim Sufi poets such as Rumi, Hafiz, Khayyam, Rudaki and others who often saw the Qur'an as the poem they could never "outdo". Poetic form was the preferred form of the sacred and devotional texts because the poetic language of which I spoke in the beginning, offers the poet a powerful means of expression through metaphors and other figures of speech. The poet then, does not simply imitate the real life, but rather creates the entire microcosm within a poem, through which the deeply individual, subjective experience is best expressed. The poet "gets his head in the heavens" and translates into human language that which he hears. "Apotheosis" means to elevate something or someone to divine status or to simply reach the highest development of something. Poetry unites the various, sometimes polarised parts of humanity, it unifies the need of form, of mathematics, of the objective with the need of chaotic, irrational and deeply subjective. Poetry, after it unites the two, demands beauty of language, of expression that differs from the simple daily expression. It demands of human to look at the language as a form of art itself, to create with this unique gift of humanity. True poetry, in its truest form, demands of human to rise above the ordinary and accidental and create extraordinary and intentional. Creation of poetry or reading of poetry offers a human being the chance to reach the highest realms of his own being.
How To Enjoy Poetry?
How are we then do enjoy the seemingly complex and heavy poetry of Dante or Ovid? Those may also be shorter poems of Christina Rosetti or Algernon Charles Swinburne, or bursting with emotion poems of Sufis. The simple answer is to slowly learn to take time, pay attention and with tranquility do something that serves no "productive" purpose. To truly read a poem, we also have to forget about our rational minds that want to "make sense" but rather allow other parts of our being to dominate the interaction. To read a poem is to be receptive, to communicate with the deepest corners of the poet and our own selves. Once we learn this, very soon we discover we have favourites and what is unique to poetry is that once we have favourites, we return to them, rarely do we return to our favorite theoretical book or even a novel, but a favourite poem(s) we easily go back to.
Links "Orthodoxy", G.K Chesterton "The Aleph and Other Stories", Jorge Luis Borges "How Dante Saved My Life"