Poetry as an art form predates literacy. In preliterate societies, poetry was frequently employed as a means of recording oral history, storytelling (epic poetry), genealogy, law and other forms of expression or knowledge that modern societies might expect to be handled in prose. The Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic which includes poetry, was probably written in the 3rd century BCE in a language described by William Jones as “more perfect than Latin, more copious than Greek and more exquisitely refined than either.” Poetry is also often closely identified with liturgy in these societies, as the formal nature of poetry makes it easier to remember priestly incantations or prophecies. The greater part of the world’s sacred scriptures are made up of poetry rather than prose.

The use of verse to transmit cultural information continues today. Many English speaking Americans know that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. An alphabet song teaches the names and order of the letters of the alphabet; another jingle states the lengths and names of the months in the Gregorian calendar. Preliterate societies, lacking the means to write down important cultural information, use similar methods to preserve it.

Some writers believe that poetry has its origins in song. Most of the characteristics that distinguish it from other forms of utterance-rhythm, rhyme, compression, intensity of feeling, the use of refrains-appear to have come about from efforts to fit words to musical forms. However, in the European tradition the earliest surviving poems, the Homeric and Hesiodic epics, identify themselves as poems to be recited or chanted to a musical accompaniment rather than as pure song. Another interpretation, developed from 20th-century studies of living Montenegran epic reciters by Milman Parry and others, is that rhythm, refrains, and kennings are essentially paratactic devices that enable the reciter to reconstruct the poem from memory.

In preliterate societies, all these forms of poetry were composed for, and sometimes during, performance. As such, there was a certain degree of fluidity to the exact wording of poems, given this could change from one performance or performer to another. The introduction of writing tended to fix the content of a poem to the version that happened to be written down and survive. Written composition also meant that poets began to compose not for an audience that was sitting in front of them but for an absent reader. Later, the invention of printing tended to accelerate these trends. Poets were now writing more for the eye than for the ear.

The development of literacy gave rise to more personal, shorter poems intended to be sung. These are called lyrics, which derives from the Greek lura or lyre, the instrument that was used to accompany the performance of Greek lyrics from about the seventh century BCE onward. The Greek’s practice of singing hymns in large choruses gave rise in the sixth century BCE to dramatic verse, and to the practice of writing poetic plays for performance in their theaters.

In more recent times, the introduction of electronic media and the rise of the poetry reading have led to a resurgence of performance poetry and have resulted in a situation where poetry for the eye and poetry for the ear coexist, sometimes in the same poem. The late 20th-century rise of the singer-songwriter and Rap culture and the increase in popularity of Slam poetry have led to a renewed debate as to the nature of poetry that can be crudely characterized as a split between the academic and popular views. Today, this debate is ongoing with no immediate prospect of a resolution.

Love poems proliferate now, in weblogs and personal pages, as a new way of expression and liberty of hearts.

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