Poetry as a literary style has existed almost as long as the written word, and it’s easily arguable that it predates it. Although the most famous ancient text of poetry is the Epic of Gilgamesh, historians speculate that the Indian epic Vedas was documented by an earlier oral tradition. The stories we tell reflect the cultural and political zeitgeist of our time, and because of this the poetry had to change along with it. Some detailed epics of tribulations and triumphs; others questioned authority in three simple lines, while some were written with the intent to evoke feelings of melancholy and devastation. Poetry has evolved, but the purpose has remained the same: it is an artistic and literary form of expression.
The works of Rumi, Pushkin, Angelou and hundreds of other poets are arguably best appreciated in their native language, but the magic of poetry is that it transcends that barrier. Do poets ever intend to have their work translated into other languages? I’m not sure, but I think it doesn’t matter. A poet’s meaning can be translated into any language, and I believe that the feeling one gets after reading it would be the same feeling had they been able to read or speak in the poet’s native tongue.
Today, spoken word is a popular form of performance poetry. Readings and Slam competitions can be found all over the world in coffee shops and jazz clubs, and it is a testament to poetry’s transcendence of language.
On occasion, I will personally participate in a spoken word performance. It is a nerve-racking feeling to go up on stage and perform in front of a group of strangers, especially if I am reciting a language that covers a topic I am passionate about. Before I perform I ask myself, “Does the audience care about this subject as much as I do? What if they laugh? What if they boo?” But once I am done a huge sense of relief rushes over me, and the audience applauds in admiration. Because it doesn’t matter how they personally felt about my content, they appreciated the fact that I performed.
When a performer reads from a text or recites words that they have memorized, it doesn’t matter if we don’t understand the language or the context, because pain can be heard in the speaker’s voice, love can be seen in their smile, and serenity can be discovered in their eyes. The same can be applied to the written form of poetry, we simply imagine the poet instead of seeing them in the flesh.
What is poetry? It can be written, spoken, read or sung. But I have a personal definition for it: a form of communication that goes far beyond language, time, and nationality – a unifier.