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People have been writing poems for a very long time. The Sanskrit epic Ramayana dates to around 300 BC and is still popular throughout India, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand. The Chinese Shih-ching, or Book of Songs, contains 305 poems dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC. Poems meaningfully pattern the musical features of language, using rhythm, pitch and timbre (texture) and often grasp at truths that resist the logical pen of prose. This book looks at the patterns of poetry, its shapes and rhythms, through foot, metre and form.
The word ‘poetry’ derives via Latin from the Greek term poiein (‘to make’). In the Archaic Period [800-480 BC], poetry was largely improvised orally, often accompanied by music (derived from the Greek word mousikê, ‘having to do with the Muses’). In the Classical Period [480-323BC], poetry began to be performed with the other verbal arts, rhetoric (public speaking) and drama, and some poems were memorised and written down.
Ancient European poetry was often sung: land songs, Anglo Saxon oar songs, Celtic smith songs, Greek altar songs, medieval court songs, and children’s songs. The vast majority of pre-12th century English poetry is lost, but the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings brought with them a canon of verse full of epic myth which rolled and rowed to a four-beat turn with a stress on the first syllables of words, forming an earthy rhythm. Other settlers who followed them sometimes emphasised the ends of words, encouraging rhymes and a lilting upward beat. These two opposing styles combined in the daily rhythms of speech, poetry and song. Only later did the Crusades and the Renaissance bring with them the Greek and Roman classics, encouraging poets of the time to imitate these ancient forms.