Remembering the World of Poetry: A Faculty Feature by Jackie White

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This month of October—which begins with Dashain in Nepal and ends with Samhain among the Celts, which sees the conclusion of National Hispanic Month and the start of German Heritage Month and includes Indigenous and Italian and Polish Heritage celebrations, as well as the Independence Days of Cyprus and Portugal, Nigeria and Turkey, Turkmenistan and the Grenadines, with the birthday of Ghandi on the 2nd, Lief Erikson Day on the 9th, and Thanksgiving Day in Canada on the 12th–seems a fitting time to encourage JFR blog readers (and everyone) to explore the global vastness of poetry—itself the oldest and most universal genre. I’m also prompted to propose such an exploration because my father called me the other night to ask if I knew anything of the poetry of the Bible and why it didn’t rhyme. Finally, I thought, he’s glad I was an English major and became a poet!

Similarly, in my Native American literature class, I recently introduced students to the basic elements of all good poetry (rhythm, repetition, and imagery)—something I introduce in every literature course I teach—and always there’s a question about the assumed requirement of rhyme, especially for poetry in English.

Like my father, students are surprised to learn that rhyming didn’t really come into English poetry until Chaucer brought it over from France and into his masterwork, The Canterbury Tales. Soon thereafter, the sonnet made its way into English poetry, courtesy of the Italians. So, you can see that, as with the English language itself, our poetry is richly imbued with global or international borrowings. Whitman was influenced by Chinese and Indian poetics and worldviews as much as by the Hebraic parallelism of Old Testament poetry (i.e., primarily, The Psalms, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon).The same is true of the Modernists (Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Williams, H.D….) who also fancied the Japanese haiku (another non-rhyming poetic form).

All of which is to say (to echo William Carlos un poco) that rhyme is only one of myriad types of repetition, of sonics or musicality, that a poet might choose to employ. Because most of us grow up on nursery rhymes, however, and the brilliant verse (but not poetry) of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, among others, we tend to focus on that device as the distinguishing feature that separates poetry from prose. That might be the subject of another post; for now, I’ll just invite you to do a little global googling and find a non-English poet to enjoy—then share it in a reply to this post.

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And I’ll begin our “links across the globe” with a bit from those old Israelites who wrote elegant lines in half-lines perfectly balanced vertically or horizontally in paired or parallel syntactical phrases clasped together with consonance. (Much, many of you may know, as the bard of Beowulf did, as well, which suggests that alliteration pre-dates the “modern” invention of rhyme, especially for “rhyme-poor” languages, like English).

“My heart is firmly fixed; my heart is fixed.         I will sing and make melody.

Wake up, my spirit; awake, my lute and harp.     I myself will waken the dawn.

I will sing praise among the people.                  I will sing to all the nations.

For your kindness is greater than the heavens.  and your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.”

from Psalm 57, attributed to David

2 thoughts on “Remembering the World of Poetry: A Faculty Feature by Jackie White

  1. Carol; Wassberg October 20, 2014 / 1:59 pm

    I never understood why everything had to rhyme. It was enjoyable in some pieces, but often seemed to limit what was said. I had a teacher in seventh grade who used song lyrics to get us interested enough to try poetry, and many of the lines stretched beyond the familiar sing-song rhymes, creating new opportunities to express oneself. Of course, I am of a different generation and our song lyrics were more traditional than today’s. And I recall her teaching us the the first lines of “Stardust,” which was then a old song and considered a classic: “And now the purple dusk of twilight time, steals across the meadows of our hearts….” It goes on beautifully, and loosely rhymes, but not with rigor.

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