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Poetry – Introduction to Item 73

The war poet Wilfrid Owen, in uniform and cap, on the front cover of a book of his poetryPoetry was something I read very occasionally, usually when one of my more literary friends gave me a book. A friend of mine was obsessed with Ted Hughes, but all the angst and the allusions left me cold. Much like art, I prefer it when I actually understand when I know what the poet is on about. I did enjoy the ‘100 Poems You Should Read” books, and learned Christina Rossetti’s lament on grief, ‘Remember’, by heart.

My parents introduced me to Michael Rosen at a young age, and I watched videos of him teaching poetry to children. I met him when I was a contributor to Waterstones’ ‘In Brief…’ magazine. We also interviewed the poet Adrian Mitchell, and I was particularly excited to notice that one of my favourite bands, The Bluetones, had borrowed some of his lines for lyrics.

Like many British schoolchildren, I studied war poetry for GCSE, and actually really enjoyed it. I was particularly taken with Wilfred Owen, who seemed like a lovely, sensitive soul (I was 15!), compared to Siegfried Sassoon. Perhaps I also liked him because he died tragically just before the end of WW1.

One of my proudest moments was seeing some of his original manuscripts while on a tour of the British Library. It had been organised by Waterstones, and we were taken into their special collections room. I was given permission to touch his signature, which was thrilling.

The History of Poetry

Rather excitingly, I think, poetry is older than written text (I presume that includes glyphs as well), and the act of singing or narrating a poem made it easier to remember important information. Poetry in its earliest forms were chants or hymns.

Enheduanna, a Sumerian priestess, lived in Ur (what is now southern Iraq) in 2300 BC, and wrote hymns to the An illustration of a scroll between two wooden sticksmoon god Nanna and the goddess of war and justice, Inanna; she served as high priestess to both. African poetry dates back to prehistory, with topics including hunting and heroic epics, and examples from 2500 BC were found amongst the Pyramid Texts, the oldest known collection of written works.

‘The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor’ also dates to around this time and was penned in Hieratic, a form of Ancient Greek. ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’, which like Enheduanna’s works came from Mesopotamia, is regarded by some as the oldest piece of poetry, but other historians believe it came much later than ‘Sailor.’

A bust of Greek poet Homer, with long beard and curly hair

Homer

Along with these, Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’, epic tales of the adventures of Greek heroes, and Indian Sanskrit ‘Ramayana’ (about the prince Rama) and ‘Mahabharata’ (about two groups of cousins during a war) are the oldest known poems.

The latter is considered to be the longest example of epic poetry in history, although it has competition from ‘The Epic of King Gesar’, from Tibet. Aristotle defined the rules of poetry and described three genres – epic, comic and tragic. These were later redefined as epic, lyric and dramatic, with both comedy and tragedy classed as subgenres to dramatic.

In China, the ‘Odes’ date to between the 10th and 7th centuries, and comprise 305 songs and poems which tally up with different Dynasties, and discussing historic events from each. Lyric poems were shorter and designed to be sung. They appeared in Greece in the 7th century BC and named after the ‘lura’ (lyre) the instrument played as the accompaniment. They were followed by dramatic verse, performed by large choruses, in the 6th century.

Oral History

Early poetry, then, was a way of capturing stories from the past, as a collective way of remembering where each civilisation came from and the moments that defined and shaped it. And because it predates the written word, it is classed as ‘oral history’.

The best definition of oral history comes from the Oral History Association, who say: “Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events.” As technology has developed, historians have found permanent ways to record these stories for future generations.

There’s something nice about being able to collect and save stories from our own families and communities, to learn about what life was like, to spot the similarities to how we live today, or ancestors we resemble, and to see how far we’ve come (or not).

One of the key aims of today’s oral history research is to hear from people who can describe past events, whether they were active participants or just observers. The idea is to collate different perspectives which don’t exist in written form. Archives of these interviews may not be published, but they are stored in archives and available for academics.

The Welsh Bards

The word bard (or ‘bardd’ in Welsh) comes from the Proto-Celtic ‘bardo’ or ‘praise maker’, and were found in Scotland, Ireland and India as well as Wales. The term was used as a derogatory term for itinerant musicians in 16th century Scotland.

The bard was a professional poet whose job it was to compose eulogies for nobles. The lord in question was usually still alive, as he was expected to pay for the honour of having a poem about him. If he didn’t pay promptly, he would then be the subject of a satirical work instead.

Some of the stories and the names of the bards themselves, but there are a number of poems collected in medieval Welsh literature, and legends exist of bards who are probably based on real people. The Middle Welsh literature influenced Arthurian tales, and we do know that after the conquest of Edward I in 1283, the Welsh princes were toppled and the bards executed.

The story goes that, once Edward’s victory was certain and he had made himself the new ruler of Wales, he held a celebratory banquet at Montgomery Castle. No doubt aware of the bardic tradition of eulogies for the rulers, he demanded the bardds sing his praises. Outraged when they refused, he ordered their mass slaughter.

References

Poem of Quotes: History of Poetry
Oral History Association: Oral History Defined
BBC: Hungary Celebrates Massacre

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