Just finished writing the content for an exciting new project, “Poetry Through The Ages,” which will be launched early next year on WebExhibits.org. The project brings together the power of Internet technology to revitalize education in powerful, interactive ways with something I have always loved to write, read and hear — the spoken word.
The exhibit will feature 20 different poetry forms, examples of which are in parentheses — old (ode), new (Fibonacci verse), ancient (Anacreontic verse), popular (ballad) and obscure (triolet). Each form treatment begins with an historical background that talks about the movements, cultural scene, influences and writers who first worked with the form. It then discusses the lifespan of the form, whether it was introduced to other peoples and cultures, and how the form contributed to poetry as a whole. Next came examples, old and recent, followed by a how-to on writing the forms yourselves.
The number of poetry forms in literary history numbers in the low thousands — far more than we’re ever taught in school. Many of these forms went the way of dinosaurs, conquered civilizations, city razings and book pillagings (such as an estimated 95 percent of the works of Sappho, the great Ancient Greek poetess), but many survived. Picking 20 was extremely difficult, but there will be another time and day to bring all of these fabulous forms out in their glory.
One of the most challenging and exciting parts of writing this exhibit was to write in some of these forms. In a few cases, finding examples was highly difficult; thus, I had to write examples. It was a wonderful process that speaks to the organic nature of writing a poem — feel the rhythm and movement of the experience. Write it out. Shape it to match the form. What I learned was that, in working with ancient forms, it is virtually impossible to write about a 21st century subject, such as wireless technology or material objects. The rhythm, line, syllable and rhyme schemes match the times and their energies, as much as they do the words.
It goes to what I believe is the greatest value of poetry: Each poem is a window into true, uncensored history. We can learn the cultural history of the literate world by reading poems, whether or not we ever look into a history book. The emotions, fears, joys, landscapes, loves, losses, triumphs, tragedies, disciplines, excesses, crusades, myths, legends, leaders, followers, conquerors and conquered all carry voices in poetry. They inform us about the human condition through the ages, and also titillate our senses with the oft-intimate presentation of a single moment. Women and men alike have used the poem to communicate truth of the soul and heart, the truth that created, informed and changed worlds.
I believe that looking at the poem from this perspective will help to re-popularize poetry in our society, which so desperately needs to be reminded of the deeper relationships between human beings of all ethnic backgrounds and religious persuasions. I also believe that, using modern technological tools like the Internet and more immediate delivery vehicles (iPhone, iPod), we can again make poetry cool among younger people — as happened during the ’60s.
I’ll post previews of “Poetry Through the Ages” intermittently between now and launch date. Meantime, next time you’re online or in the book store, check out a poem or two. They’re great for insight, reflection and the study of depth of feeling and observation. Most of all, in reading poets through the ages, you’re looking into the people who really lived and worked outside the box — trailblazers with indomitable hearts and courage.