Students are always astounded when I tell them about the role that poetry has always played in cultures throughout history. “Come on,” they laugh almost in unison. “Poetry?” But the truth is poetry has always been with us, most probably since the beginning of language. Its origin is most likely rooted in the sacred, what was the beginning of ritual and religion. Members of the community who acted as interpreters between humanity and the abundant natural gods that were believed to exist in hunter-gatherer clans and tribes, what we anthropologists call animism, couldn’t just speak in everyday language when communicating with the gods or spirits; anyone could do that. Instead, these shamans employed their own language, their own elevated or exalted speech patterns that sounded like they must indeed be speaking to the “other world.” Shamans passed on their secret knowledge to apprentices. Over time, these special speech language patterns may have become what we presently call poetry. I am by no means the first to make such a claim. My friend Gary Snyder, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poetry, drew similar connections half a century ago.
Poetry’s connection to ritual and religion is still with us today. Consider the Psalms in The Old Testament. The Qur’an is said to be poetic, if not poetry altogether. Many other seminal texts of world religions contain poetry. I recently finished reading a translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, a major poetic text in Daoism (also spelled Taoism). Even Confucius wrote poetry. In Hinduism, the Mahabharata is the world’s longest poem. The oldest existing literature, the epic of The Gilgamesh, written in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) around 2100 B.C.E., is a poem. Not only is it a poem, but it centers on two main characters, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who was created by the gods to stop Gilgamesh. In fact, the whole story involves the frequent intervention of gods. Within the epic are also the stories of The Garden of Eden and The Flood (see The Flood tablet at left), both of which eventually made their way into the Old Testament. Even our childhood bedtime prayers are poetry:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
May God guard me through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.
The use of a “special” language is still a component of religion. Consider how Pentecostals sometimes speak in tongues when attempting to communicate with God, and how Roman Catholics use Latin in their litany, even though it’s been dead for over a thousand years. Ask yourself this question: When you pray, are your prayers exalted, i.e. do you use archaic, old-fashioned speech in your prayers (e.g. “O’ Lord, thou who are the highest...”)? Why do you speak like that? Doesn’t God understand modern languages? It harkens back to the notion that to communicate beyond ourselves—with the sacred or invisible—requires that we use uncommon, exalted language.
But the power of poetry extends to other aspects of society, such as politics and social justice. It is said that whenever a despot usurps power, among the first citizens to be rounded up are the poets because poets have always used words—spoken or written—to illuminate the truths that others cannot, or will not, see. Perhaps this function is tied to poetry’s marriage to religion—to communicating what others cannot see, namely the magical and invisible world of spirits and gods. Maybe poets are still shamans of sorts. In fact, many people have made this claim. Thomas Merton, one of the most influential religious and spiritual thinkers and writers of the twentieth century once said that “poets are prophets and seers.” And the American poet Wallace Stevens once said that “poets are the priests of the invisible.” Prophet. Seer. Priest. These are words from religion. Like shamans or priests, poets communicate with the invisible, that which is unseen by the mass, who is frequently blind to truth by things like nationalism, patriotism, and religious zealotry. This is as true today as it was in the past. Even that great thinker and artist of the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci, understood the poetry of poetry when he wrote, “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.”
This is why despots and tyrants fear poets . . . because they can communicate truths to the blind. They can reveal the holes in propaganda, the lie of “Fake News.” This has always been true. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe people who have stood up against despots and tyranny, like Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, who wrote that “poetry cannot stop a bullet or calm a water buffalo, but it can bear witness to tyranny and brutality, thereby cultivating a flower in a graveyard.” Thomas Merton proclaimed that “there can be no revolutions without poets.” President John F. Kennedy, whose assassination Merton presaged, once wrote, “What government corrupts, poetry cleanses.” And Mexican Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz questioned, “What is poetry that does not save nations and people?” If you want to change society, listen to the poets. Bob Dylan knew this. His songs from the 1960s were like the voice of a prophet pointing us toward peace and tolerance. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 because of it. John Lennon of The Beatles (who was also a poet) knew it. That’s why he said, “My role in society, or any artist or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.” (Note his use of the word preacher.) And Jack Kerouac, of On the Road fame, once said about inciting social change, “Don’t use the telephone. People are never ready to answer it. Use poetry.” Tell that to all the folks who call you during elections to sway your vote. One of the most enduring definitions of poetry was given to us almost two hundred years ago by English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, husband of Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) who said “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Poetry can do many things besides pointing at truths, fighting oppression, and inciting social change. With its ancient roots bound to the sacred—religion—it is no wonder that poetry can also heal us emotionally and spiritually. Poetry can even help us to heal physically. Next time you feel down or unwell, reach for a good poem.
Professor, anthropologist, archaeologist, cultural linguist, mythologist, and poet, John Smelcer, PhD, is the author of over 50 books, including his international award winning novel, The Gospel of Simon. His writing appears in over 500 magazines worldwide. In the spring of 2015, John “discovered” the worldly possessions of Thomas Merton, safeguarded for half a century by a former monk and nun. Dr. Smelcer is the inaugural writer-in-residence for The Charter for Compassion, where he teaches a global course entitled “Poetry for Inspiration and Well-Being.”