Poetry is an ancient art, with its origins well before those of recorded history (about 3,000
BC). The oldest surviving remnants come from the Near East, dating as far back as 2,600 BC.
The Assyro-Babylonian, Sumerian, and Egyptian cultures all contributed to this fascinating
and fragmentary store of work. The remnants are preserved in cuneiform, an ancient wedge-
shaped writing on clay tablets, or papyrus paper stenciled with hieroglyphs, characters used
in picture-writing. These early poems included praises of gods and heroes, chants (songs that
repeat the same note or words), wisdom literature (lists of advice and truths from elders or
other authorities), magic charms, and laments to mourn or inspire pity. All these poems were
for the most part religious in nature. One of the chief structural characteristics was the use of
recurrent phrases or refrains.
Evidence suggests that much early poetry was intended to be sung, at times with musical
accompaniment. Longer works existed as well. With its earliest portions dating as far back
as 1,200 BC, the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament, stands as one of
the world’s oldest and most influential poetic works. The oldest poem attributed to a specific
author is the “Hymn to Ianna” (about 2,300 BC) by Enheduanna, a high priestess and daughter
of Sumerian King Sargon I.
Traces suggest the presence of a widespread oral poetry tradition aimed at providing pleasure
and offering prayer, as well as fulfilling the important social function of commemorating
lives, battles, and historical events. Within the warrior culture that helped shape much early
Greek poetry, this final purpose was particularly crucial. In a preliterate world lacking many
means of remembering a person’s story after death, oral poetry took on great importance as
a vehicle for awarding a kind of earthly immortality. Once passed into the “fame” of words,
the hero would live forever in the minds of listeners. Poetry gained power and authority in
part because it was felt to be divinely inspired. In the Greek epic tradition, exclusive to male
poets as far as we know, the singer called upon the muse, a goddess, to fill him with voice. This
summoning of the muse, known as invocation, implied the existence of an imaginative force
outside the poet’s own mind and body. In the ancient past it was believed that inspiration—a
Greek word meaning literally the “taking in of breath”—was conferred through the generosity
of divine beings, linking earthly humans and their brief lives to the eternal spirit of the gods.
An important change in this idea of inspiration would come centuries later. With 17th-
century Romantic poets, the center of inspiration moved inward to the soul; still later, with
19th-century Romantic poets, to the unconscious mind and the imagination.
While much early poetry dealt with the lives of heroes and gods in an elevated style, poets
have also turned to the flawed lives of ordinary people.
Poetry in the last few centuries has turned increasingly to ordinary, day-to-day concerns,
with a corresponding interest in bringing literary language closer to natural speech. William
Wordsworth, in his 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads, railed against artificial poetic diction and
declared his intention to write “in a selection of language really used by men.” In part, he was
reacting against the excessively stylized poems of 18th-century Augustan writers.
Similarly, in the 20th century, the celebration of the ordinary came in part from a reaction
against outdated forms of expression. Early in the century, poets of the movement known as
imagism—including Americans Ezra Pound, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Amy Lowell, and William
Carlos Williams—turned from ideas to things, and the impersonal description of objects in the
world, a style which could actually produce a profound emotional response in the reader.
Throughout its long history poetry has relied on evolving rules about what a poem is, with new
kinds of poetry building on earlier kinds to create greater possibilities of expression. In the
20th century poets increasingly used the language of everyday speech and created new forms
that break the usual rules of poetry. Increasingly during the 20th century, poetic language has
reflected a response to severe and agonizing circumstances. Yet to surprise a reader and evoke
a response, the new has to be seen in contrast to the old, and thus poetry still depends upon a
reader’s depth of knowledge about poetic practices of the past for its effectiveness.
Poets create literary history and tradition by using and passing on poetic structures and ideas
about life and art from generation to generation. Although great poetry is sometimes said
to be timeless, poets think of their writing as part of history (including literary history), and
they intentionally imitate earlier poets. The idea that a poem should be original is a relatively
recent development, dating from English Romantic poets of the early 19th century. In fact
many avant-garde experimenters of the 20th century—poets seeking to break with existing
conventions of poetry—turned their attention to ancient poetries or to oral practices that
continue today. The word “original” contains the word “origin” and for the modern poet the
search for new poetic forms is often a matter of looking back at the past ones. Prior to the
19th-century emphasis on the original, imitation of earlier models was not only acceptable but
was the standard way of learning to write poetry and becoming a poet in other people’s eyes.
Poets throughout the ages have defined their art, devised rules for its creation, and written
manifestos announcing their radical changes, only to have other poets alter their definitions,
if not declaring just the opposite. At its deepest level, poetry attempts to communicate
unspeakable aspects of human experience through the still-evolving traditions of an ancient
and passionate art