The human tradition of poetry is a vital part of the spiritual and cultural legacy of our species. It likely began as a simple mnemonic device used to transmit messages across great distances. Eventually, poetry emerged as a very poignant form of language created to move and inspire the reader, as well as preserve memories through descriptive and detailed storytelling.
Rhythm and rhyme are essential parts of the oral poetry that many believe existed well before the age of written words. Assonance, the use of repetitive vowel and consonant sounds within a poem, also played a significant role in the creation of early verse. These characteristics were designed to aid in the memorization of a large amount of wording and information so that history could be more easily maintained by the itinerate poets of the age.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a piece of literature that is representative of the earliest age of written poetry. This lengthy narrative poem, carved in Sumerian text upon tablets made of clay, was created to honor a famous king and warrior of the ancient near east. Near this time, the legendary Iliad and Odyssey epics were written by the Greek poet, Homer, detailing the Trojan War and the myths surrounding it.
Greco-Roman poetry extended the tradition of retelling occurrences in history but added its own cultural conventions by changing the lengths and forms of the most widespread poetry. Psalms and hymns became more and more accepted, and poems were an integral part of the elaborate religious rites that took place within the era. Latin poems maintained strict rules as to the length of meter and number of beats, as exemplified by the poet Ovid. Medieval times saw a steady flow of religious themes in poetry, from hagiographic details on the lives of the saints to songs meant to be sung during Mass, often times in Latin. Secular themes were still quite popular, nonetheless, and usually written in the language of the common people. Medieval poems were often sung before an audience to the accompaniment of a lyre, or read as script in plays such as the works of Shakespeare.
The modern age sustains a vast appetite for free verse poems, with a high emphasis on careful selection of each word and placement to evoke a thoughtful response from the reader. E.E. Cummings is an example of a modern writer who employs unusual experimentation with freedom and language to create memorable poetry. Form has not been abolished, however, and many poets seek to reinvent former styles including those that cross cultural boundaries.
The world of poetry has, much like the world around us, undergone quite a few changes since its beginnings. Due to the increasing advancements and complexities of human thought and society, poets continue to stretch to the very limits of imagination in their epic attempt to find the right words.