Monday, March 30, 2009

The Beginnings of Poetry

I used to tell this tale to illustrate how poetry might have begun, about its usefulness and early development. I never did write it down, so here is your chance to develop your own thoughts.
Back in the days when civilization wasn't even a dream, every male of the tribe huddled in their caves and huts was expected to provide food for all. Some wandered through the forests gathering fruits, stems, roots. Others fished in the streams, hunted for animals on the plains.

One reluctant young man went with the hunters but felt out of place. He found his place one day after a very exciting hunt. The hunters returned with a story about many big animals - they killed two, see? Our young man figured he could tell the story better: he had been off to the side and was a better witness than the hunters.

He told a tale of coming upon a great number of large beasts on the plain. These beasts became angry when the hunters slowly approached. They swung their heads back and forth; their horns cut the air like the hunters swinging their knives. The light in their eyes glowed like the coals in the fire at night. Then they decided to run, and as they ran their feet made a loud sound, like that from the sky when it rained sometimes. Even so, the hunters managed to bring down and slay two of these mighty beasts.

Our story-teller was using comparisons to let his audience identify more closely with his experience. He discovered the simile, one of the basics of poetry. In time, all he needed to say was "thundering " and everyone knew he was telling of a herd of great beasts running over the plain. He now had metaphor, the sky-noise standing in place of the hooves-noise. The tribe liked the way this one told stories, but they wanted to hear them again and again.

To help him remember what came where, he developed a pattern of sounds in the telling - rhyme and then other patterns. He developed a rhythm so his cousin could beat that pattern on a drum and help him out, especially when the stories became more intricate or when he began to make up some that hadn't happened but he had only imagined.

This way of passing on history and imagination became not just popular but necessary since there was no other way to let the younger ones know what the elders had done. Poetry became the history, the record, the expression of the life of the tribe.

And then came painting scenes on the cave walls. Nice, but unlike poetry and stories, you couldn't take it with you when you moved.

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