How Poems Move #2

Friday, April 5, 2013

It’s National Poetry Month and TriQuarterly is proud to introduce a new web series by Reginald Gibbons, the Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University. Professor Gibbons will report on his class discussion—what can be talked about with clarity and what is elusive, too.  And also what his students find most interesting and how they develop through the course.


Poetry is one of the capacities inherent in language. It uses qualities of language as a medium, beyond what words mean. (That is, it’s more than most narrative, for example, which always depends on what words mean.) Poetry is a particular way of using language, and it’s a kind of thinking that can be very different from our everyday thinking. It’s also very likely the earliest human art, in the form of song and prayer, blessing and curse, story-telling, memory aid and a way of expressing praise and lament.

A few traces of all the lost ancient oral poetry—that is, from the time before the invention of writing—are still preserved in some of the oldest poems that have survived to our day in written texts, and these traces suggest that some of the elements of poetic technique that we still use are amazingly old. It’s interesting to think about why that should be so, since the functions of poetry in human society have changed so much.

In all later historical epochs, including our own, poetry has continued to flourish, expanding into new forms and media, while at the same time it has narrowed: from having been the principal genre of verbal art in ancient societies it became only one verbal genre among many. In modern times, techniques of poetry and rhetoric were also incorporated into mass commercial and political utterance (these two having become closely linked).

Also, in ancient Greek tragedy and comedy, in Renaissance and some later drama, and in other places and times, poetry (not just song) has been associated with spectacle. Now its association with spectacle is in popular music performance and also in music videos (a huge audience) and an even more recent genre, video poems (a tiny audience). Just as the medium of transmission of poetry has drawn poetry toward its own purposes and possibilities throughout the past, so the medium of the spectacle also partly reshapes poetry to its own ends.

-Reginald Gibbons