Discover the History of Your Favorite Poems

Reading poetry is a treat. Those who appreciate poetry benefit from the stimulation of parsing multiple meanings and the therapeutic effect of finding words that express exactly how they feel. Reading poetry is a pleasure in and of itself. But for some, the text on its own is simply not enough. Instead, they are curious about the things that shaped the life and writing of the author. The following strategies can be helpful for those interested in learning about the background of some of their favorite poems.

Consider the Historical Context

One of the best ways to understand where the poet is coming from is by making an effort to learn about their life and the circumstances of their existence. A little background research into the social or political climate a poet lived in or their personal struggles can help provide context and additional meaning when reading their work.

Screen Shot 2016-10-19 at 2.56.39 PMTry not becoming too overwhelmed by the history. You could spend hours reading about the social, political, and historical circumstances that shaped a poet’s work. (Academics spend years doing just that in pursuit of an advanced degree.) Instead, consider skimming through the poet’s wikipedia to get the salient details of their life. And if after reading the poem you find yourself obsessively fascinated by their work and circumstances, you can conduct further research.

Look into Its Place Within A Specific Literary Movement

Chances are your favorite poem shares the theme, style, and approach of a whole host of other poets. In fact, as in art, poetry and literature exist within particular movements defined by specific ways of writing about or viewing the world.

Are you a fan of Blake, Wordsworth, or Keats? These big names were part of the Romantic literary movement that focused on nature and imagination. You’ve almost certainly heard of the Elizabethan era most notable in the literary world for The Bard, more commonly known as Shakespeare. Identifying the movement within which a poem existed is very helpful for understanding the influences of the time, the impact of that particular work on poetry, and the ways in which literary expression has changed throughout history.

Seek Out The Original Language of the Poem

Many famous poems were originally written in a language other than English. Dedicated scholars and poets with a talent for languages have worked to translate these works in a way that makes the story accessible to more readers while also retaining the poet’s intended meaning. But this is a very difficult job to do and oftentimes, certain nuances are lost. You do not have to become fluent in the original language of the poem, but you can research what that original language was and read what scholars have to say about intended meanings, mistranslations, and more.

Reading poetry is a rich and marvelous experience. For those who are not satisfied with simply peeling away the layers of meaning, there exists a whole other world of history, biography, and linguistics to explore.

The Psychology of Poetry

Poetry is a peculiar form of creative expression. Like prose, it uses our everyday language, but how we use it stimulates different parts of the brain. In fact, a Red Orbit article shared research that found that poetry activates parts of the brain that are more associated with introspection. Poetry is powerful because it’s so deeply reflected. It’s just the words and us.

An interesting piece in Psychology today took it a step further, and explored the link between the psychologist and the poet. Dr. Diana Raab takes a deep dive into Robert Romanyshyn’s The Wounded Researcher, in which the author deems the psychologist as “the failed poet”. It’s an existential stance, one that most of us probably haven’t thought about. The psychologist, says Romanyshyn, is constantly engaged in a professional duality. They have similar sensibilities and poets, and the book he even identifies famous and their similarities to researchers of the mind.

Raab, a psychologist, also identifies as a poet. She says that Romanyshyn’s book has opened her eyes to parallels that she didn’t know existed. When writing poetry, you’re usually taking that introspective stance. When reading it, you’re being let in on the narrator’s own innermost thoughts. Many times, the message isn’t explicit, and it’s up to one’s own mental faculties to seriously figure out what’s going on. This isn’t unlike the job of a psychologist or researcher, who must work with people and their emotions. Sometimes, those emotions aren’t instantly laid bare, and they must learn the narrative by probing with insightful questions.

Raab also discusses the work of one of her favorite poets, Thomas Greening, who argued that psychology and poetry are more than compatible— they need each other. Reading and understanding poetry is a complex process and requires skills that are invaluable to the psychologist. Raab also recognize poetry as a useful therapeutic tool, because it engages the reader, again, with words in isolation. It’s an art form that emphasizes mindfulness.

 

An Introduction To Epic Poetry

hand holding open bookEven those unfamiliar with poetic forms have heard of epic poetry. Like the name sounds, they are quite epic, grand, and extraordinary. Epic poems are steeped in an oral tradition where stories, histories, and adventures were recited to eager listeners before eventually being recorded on paper. While there are many works that fall into this category of poetry, there are a few works that have transcended mere historical record and become synonymous with the words “epic poetry”.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Considered one of the earliest known written stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh recounts the tale of the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is a strong and powerful being who is part god and part man. In order to control Gilgamesh’s despotic rule over his people, the gods create a wild man named Enkidu, but the two strike up a legendary friendship. When Enkidu dies, a grief-stricken Gilgamesh embarks on a journey to learn about the earthly and spiritual worlds.

The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth-century exploration of the afterlife is considered a masterpiece and a jewel in Italian literature. Started in 1308 and completed in 1320, about a year before his death, the Divine Comedy follows Dante through a medieval representation of the afterlife. He travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven with the ancient poet, Virgil, serving as his guide throughout the journey. The Divine Comedy is perhaps most widely known for its depiction of the nine circles of Hell. Dante travels through each circle where the sins and the corresponding punishments become progressively worse.

Don Juan

This satirical take on the story of Don Juan was fittingly written by Lord Byron, a poet known not only for his widely-read work but also for his numerous and scandalous love affairs, even by today’s standards. The work was unfinished before Byron’s death, but it enjoyed tremendous popularity as well as intense criticism due to its “immoral” content. Instead of portraying the famous womanizer as a seducer, Bryon paints Don Juan as a man who is easily seduced by women, turning the famous story on its head.

Odyssey

What would a list of epic poetry be without mention of Homer? Odyssey is considered the sequel to Homer’s Illiad. It chronicles Odysseus’ journey back home after the fall of Troy. Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, is presumed dead during his ten-year journey back to Ithaca. In the meantime, his wife, Penelope, and their son, Telemachus, must deal with the persistent attempts of suitors to win Penelope’s hand in marriage.

Epic Poetry Has Made Epic Storytelling Possible Throughout History

Epic poetry has been used as a way to relay the stories of great individuals, nations, and wars throughout history. Today, epic poetry is no longer the preferred mode of storytelling. The novel is perhaps its closest contemporary relative. Nevertheless, there is still great joy and adventure to be found by picking up one of these epic poems and getting lost in the powerful prose.

An Introduction To Epic Poetry

 

Even those unfamiliar with poetic forms have heard of epic poetry. Like the name sounds, they are quite epic, grand, and extraordinary. Epic poems are steeped in an oral tradition where stories, histories, and adventures were recited to eager listeners before eventually being recorded on paper. While there are many works that fall into this category of poetry, there are a few works that have transcended mere historical record and become synonymous with the words “epic poetry”.  

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Considered one of the earliest known written stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh recounts the tale of the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is a strong and powerful being who is part god and part man. In order to control Gilgamesh’s despotic rule over his people, the gods create a wild man named Enkidu, but the two strike up a legendary friendship. When Enkidu dies, a grief-stricken Gilgamesh embarks on a journey to learn about the earthly and spiritual worlds.

 

The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth-century exploration of the afterlife is considered a masterpiece and a jewel in Italian literature. Started in 1308 and completed in 1320, about a year before his death, the Divine Comedy follows Dante through a medieval representation of the afterlife. He travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven with the ancient poet, Virgil, serving as his guide throughout the journey. The Divine Comedy is perhaps most widely known for its depiction of the nine circles of Hell. Dante travels through each circle where the sins and the corresponding punishments become progressively worse.

 

Don Juan

This satirical take on the story of Don Juan was fittingly written by Lord Byron, a poet known not only for his widely-read work but also for his numerous and scandalous love affairs, even by today’s standards. The work was unfinished before Byron’s death, but it enjoyed tremendous popularity as well as intense criticism due to its “immoral” content. Instead of portraying the famous womanizer as a seducer, Bryon paints Don Juan as a man who is easily seduced by women, turning the famous story on its head.

 

Odyssey

What would a list of epic poetry be without mention of Homer? Odyssey is considered the sequel to Homer’s Illiad. It chronicles Odysseus’ journey back home after the fall of Troy. Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, is presumed dead during his ten-year journey back to Ithaca. In the meantime, his wife, Penelope, and their son, Telemachus, must deal with the persistent attempts of suitors to win Penelope’s hand in marriage.

 

Epic Poetry Has Made Epic Storytelling Possible Throughout History

Epic poetry has been used as a way to relay the stories of great individuals, nations, and wars throughout history. Today, epic poetry is no longer the preferred mode of storytelling. The novel is perhaps its closest contemporary relative. Nevertheless, there is still great joy and adventure to be found by picking up one of these epic poems and getting lost in the powerful prose.

 

Life’s Tapestry

Shared with permission from the author, Steve Good.

The Master’s hands so diligently sews.
Stitch by stitch life’s tapestry grows.
Seam after seam as straight as a string.
Revealing blessings only God can bring.

God’s divine plan sewn in Heaven above,
With stitches of mercy and stitches of love.
A flawless masterpiece, a true work of art
The good Lord controls from the very start.

Turn-over life’s tapestry so many tangles and knots.
This reveals when our own path was sought.
When wrong choices seemed to be perfectly right.
Our side of life’s tapestry is a terrible sight.

Each taut knot tethered firmly binds
Life’s darkest moments tortures the mind.
Each tightly twisted tangle a terrible sore
Revealing a broken heart shattered and tore.

Yet God continues to sew with loving care.
Heming-up the rough edges of despair
Smoothing out life’s twists, tangles and knots
God’s beautiful tapestry is free and can never be bought.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6

— Steve Good

Poetry: The Power in Us

Brainpickings founder Maria Popova dissected an essay by the poet Jane Hirshfield. Her analysis of Hirshfield’s writing serves as an inspiration for poets of all stripes, as well as other creators of art as well. It lies in the virtues of concentration and how that focus seems to take you to another plane of consciousness.

What poetry does to our minds sometimes seems magical. What makes it even more special is that we as humans have felt this connection to lyric art for centuries— even before we could use brain imaging to examine what’s really going on when we write and recite poetry.

But it’s the ‘concentration as concentration’ that makes poetry so special. Deliberate practice and the embrace of routine is one way to reach that “concentration status”, but equally important is the acceptance of difficulty. There is little more rewarding than grappling with something difficult and in the process unlocking something new about you and/or your work.

The reading of poetry engages your mental faculties in a way that everyday speech and prose (usually) does not. We seek out patterns and are jolted awake by unexpected turns and disruptions. The words create brilliant images that are reconstructed in our own minds, a property that makes poetry so distinct from other art forms. It’s a fully collaborative process, both with the author and the reader; and with the reader and their own mind.

The Best Selling Poet in the United States…Isn’t An American

It’s a testament to the transcendent power of poetry that the best selling poet in the United States isn’t an American.

This should not come as a complete shock. The United States is a wonderful mix of several cultures as demonstrated by our food, music, and events. But what makes this little poetry tidbit doubly interesting is the fact that this famous, non-American poet is from an entirely different time period altogether – the thirteenth century in fact.

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, more popularly known as Rumi, was a Persian poet born in 1207. Although his work is over 800 years old, Rumi still enjoys a wide readership throughout the world. Rumi travelled extensively and as a result he was influenced by a wide range of experiences and in turn influenced many people over the course of his life himself.

Picture of Rumi, the poet

One of the most influential moments of Rumi’s life was meeting Shamz of Tabriz, a wandering mystic, who dramatically changed Rumi’s life. When Shamz mysteriously disappeared Rumi was devastated and it’s believed that this had a significant impact on Rumi’s work and outlook. Scholars suspect a jealous son or follower of Rumi’s murdered Shamz.

In addition to being a poet, Rumi was a Sufi mystic, Muslim scholar, and a preacher. He wrote over 3000 love songs and incorporated music and dance into his poetry. His songs and dances have persisted throughout the centuries and are used for both worship and celebration. His work is used as a source of inspiration for countless artists even today. At the core of his poetry are themes of joy, love, and spirituality.

Scholars of poetry believe that Rumi’s themes of love, joy for life, and spiritualism are the elements that allow his work to resonate with people from different backgrounds, experiences, and time periods. Most particularly, Rumi’s poems speak to the wonder of the world even amidst the mundaneness of everyday life. For all of our day-to-day responsibilities and struggles there are unspoken desires, secret sadness, and hidden goals that we hope to someday solve or fulfill; poetry helps us engage with these emotions.

Coleman Barks famously “translated” the Persian poet’s verse and brought Rumi’s work to life for American readers, even though he neither speaks nor reads Persian. (His interpretation of Rumi’s work is a free verse paraphrasing of other English translations of Rumi’s work.) He gives the following reasons for Rumi’s appeal: “[Rumi’s] startling imaginative freshness. The deep longing that we feel coming through. His sense of humor. There’s always a playfulness [mixed] in with the wisdom”.
As evidenced by the life and legacy of Rumi, poetry is the common language that allows us to transcend national and cultural barriers and find the common elements like love, faith, and longing that make us human.

3 Common Misconceptions About Poetry

Poetry often gets a bad rap. One minute it’s being classified as self-indulgent, the next minute someone is saying you’ll never get a job studying poetry in a university. For those naysayers, we’ve already tackled why poetry is pretty useful to society. This time around I’d like to tackle a few common misconceptions people have about poetry.

 

Poetry Is Boring (Or Pretentious)

It’s rather unfortunate that poetry has developed this reputation, woman reading bookparticularly among young people. Poetry is far from boring, and it certainly isn’t pretentious. Like most things, it’s only boring if the content is boring and a poem is only pretentious if discussed or written by a pretentious individual. The trick to poetry is learning how to simply enjoy it.

Sadly, in the popular imagination, poetry has been painted as an “all or nothing” genre. Either you understand all poetry or you do not get poetry at all. This could not be further from the truth. Some poems will speak marvelously to you, your life, and your experiences whereas others will hardly nick the surface of your soul. That does not mean you do not like poetry or all poetry is boring – it simply means it’s not the poem for you.

 

Poetry Is Hard

Poetry and mathematics seem like polar opposites, but they share one popular association in common: that they are hard. This is another false narrative. Neither is hard but both areas have suffered from seriously unfortunate approaches. Much like mathematics, poetry is taught in an inaccessible way that prevents students from discovering the wonderful function served by words – and in the case of math, numbers.

Oftentimes in school, students are forced to tackle the same poems year after year in a formulaic fashion that requires them to take such a flexible form and fit it to concrete worksheets or strategies. While there are certainly established methods for studying poetry, such a rigid introduction to a beautiful art form is enough to turn anybody sour.

If you would like to get into poetry and are worried that it is too dense or inaccessible, simply start by finding poems or an anthology of poems that you can relate to. It can be in a form you find enjoyable (limericks or free verse) or a topic that you are passionate about (nature or love).

 

Poetry Is Not For Young People

This could not be further from the truth. Poetry exists in more popular forms today even if it’s not called poetry: think rap, hip-hop, and spoken word. In fact, many popular artists reference poets that have served as sources of inspiration for their own art. Additionally, young adults are using the internet to create digital anthologies of their free verse, short poems, and more. The mediums through which poems are broadcast to the world may have changed, but people are still writing them.
People create poetry, so it is impossible for it to be the domain of “the old”. As new generations discover poetry and experiment with it, they find new ways of using the written form to convey unique experiences and emotions to their audience. And the best poetry? Well, the best poetry transcends age and circumstances.

Why Poetry Is Vitally Important For Society

It seems that more than any other discipline, poetry comes under the most scrutiny. In the past, I’ve given reasons why we should write poetry. These reasons were primarily in regards to the positive impact it has on our personal lives by building confidence and allowing for creative expression and emotional release. An equally necessary discussion is why poetry is important for society.

In a world full of heartache and disease, people often ask, “What is the usefulness of poetry?” What does poetry contribute to a world with so many pressing problems? While other scrutinized subjects like music or literature are granted a few practical applications, poetry has largely been classified as a self-involved activity. In reality, it plays a vital role in our society and our history.

Poetry Builds Empathy

“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” – Robert Frost

Frost’s words capture the unique power of poetry. Emotions and experiences are multifaceted and layered. As a result, they can be excruciatingly difficult to express in a traditional way. Poetry provides a magical medium through which this expression can happen. Oftentimes, this expression makes it easier for others to understand what somebody else is feeling whether it is obstacles they have overcome or an upbringing that differs from their own. Arguably, the most important way of building community and a sense of global citizenship is through empathy. Poetry helps build this in those who write and study it.

Poetry Encourages Unique and Imaginative Ways of Thinking

“Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” – Carl Sandburg

Poetry reaches out time and time again to capture the elusive. Then it does something remarkable: it shares that insight with the world. Many of our world’s greatest problems are solved by people who dare to think differently. Medical researchers have to be innovative in their approaches to disease. Politicians and policy makers must be forward thinking in their leadership. Engineers keep pushing the limits of what humankind can build and do. All of these jobs, and many more, require an ability to think outside the box and consider age-old questions in new, original ways. Poetry is a terrific exercise in dynamic thinking. It encourages readers to consider multiple angles and different interpretations.

Poetry Helps Us Transcend Our Limited Reality and Encourages Gratitude

“Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.” – Aristotle

History is a wonderful way to access the stories of the past, but it is also limited in scope by the perspective of those who write it. Poetry enables us to access universal truths and consider alternative viewpoints. It opens our minds to different interpretations by helping us gain a better understanding of the lessons of the past.

Through Poetry, We Become More Grateful People

“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

If we all took the time to recognize our fortune and express gratitude at what our life has to offer, our world would most certainly be a better place. Gratitude inspires happiness and helps us recognize all of the good in our lives. This positivity contributes to closer families, healthier friendships, and better communities. Moreover, gratitude urges us to consider the lives of those less fortunate and become more charitable and graceful individuals.

Poetry is wonderful, and it can certainly do a lot for you at the personal level. But at the societal level, poetry also makes many significant contributions towards our intellect, our happiness, and most importantly, our humanity.

6 Unique Types of Poetry

The beautiful thing about poetry is that rhythm plays a large role in the message conveyed. You can write a poem in whatever format you feel expresses your feelings best. But if you feel you need regulations to help you write, this doesn’t mean you have to shy away from poetry. In fact, there are a number of different forms of poetry that have their own specific rules. Here are a few different types of poetry to try:

1) Cinquain

A cinquain is a poem comprised of five lines. Line 1 has only one word, which is the title. Line 2 describes the title in two words. Line 3 tells the action in three words. Line 4 expresses the feeling in four words. Line 5 is made up of one word that recalls the title.

2) Haiku

Chances are, if you’re heard of any type of poetry, you’ve heard of a haiku. A haiku is a Japanese poem made up of three unrhymed lines. The lines have certain rules with regard to syllables. The first line must have five syllables, the second line must have seven syllables, and the last line must have five syllables. Haikus tend to contain season words.

3) Shakespearean

A Shakespearean sonnet has 14 lines consisting of three quatrains and one couplet. Each of the three quatrains has lines 1 and 3 rhyming, as well as lines 2 and 4 rhyming. After the three quatrains, there are two lines that rhyme with each other. The resulting pattern is abab cdcd efef gg. These sonnets typically use the iambic pentameter. The iambic pentameter is a pattern in which there is one short syllable followed by one long one, five times in a row. These ten syllables make up one line.

4) Ballade

A ballade is a poem that has three stanzas of seven, eight or ten lines. It then ends with a shorter final stanza. This final stanza has four or five lines. All stanzas of a ballade end with the same one-line refrain.

5) Ghazal

A ghazal is a short lyrical poem that arose in the language of Urdu. A ghazal can be anywhere from 5 to 15 couplets long. Since a couplet is two lines, this makes a ghazal 10 to 30 lines long. The rhyme is established in the first couplet. The second line of each couplet rhymes with the second line of the first couplet. While the rhyme carries throughout the entire poem, each couplet has its own poetic thought. The lines of each couplet should be equal in length. The theme of a ghazal is usually related to love and romance. The closing signature will often include, or allude to, the poet’s name.

6) Italian sonnet

An Italian sonnet begins with an octave that has the rhyme pattern abbaabba. These eight lines are then followed by six lines that have a rhyme pattern of either cdecde or cdcdcd.

These are just a few of the beautiful forms of poetry that exist. Each type of poem has its own rhythm and its own feel. If you’re having trouble writing free from, or you just want to give yourself a challenge, why not give one of these types of poetry a try?