The Origins of Poetry

‘Asking where poetry comes from is another way of asking what it is and what it means. In my view, all literal inquiries into the origins of art are eminently disposable. To claim to penetrate to the beginnings of art betrays a naked quest for ascendancy over the work at hand.’ Mark Edmundsen[1]

Traditionally, the sources of creativity are inaccessible, and tied to religious, or mythological discourses. Homer touches on inspiration when the bard, Phemius, pleads with Odysseus:

You will be sorry afterwards if you kill a bard who can sing for both gods and men as I can.  I make all my lays myself, and heaven visits me with every kind of inspiration. I would sing to you as though you were a god, do not therefore be in such a hurry to cut my head off.
‘The Odyssey’, Homer[2]

In the Ion, a magnetic stone attracts an iron ring that attracts other iron rings; this is a figure for poetry deriving from a an exterior force one is unable to control or explain As a result Plato supposes that Ion‘s skills as a rhapsode arise not from techne or knowledge but divine dispensation (theia moira). Here, Plato is at his most poetic, with metaphor and flow of language.[3]

Origins of anything are mysterious and energise myth, of poetry doubly so.  Helen Epstein points out that, ‘Just as there are some now who believe there are genes for ‘happiness and ‘novelty-seeking’, phrenologists thought there were bumps on the head corresponding to poetic talent…’ [4] I suggest that lyric poetry (as opposed to oral ballads or modernist collagist practices) tends to form through a two-stage process, which Wordsworth first described  (via a ‘receptive state’) in ‘Tintern Abbey’. He expanded this idea in the 1800 introduction to Lyrical Ballads (famously) as, ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’ [5] In the 1802 introduction he wrote that poetry, ‘takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation is gradually produced and does itself actually exist in the mind.’[6] This is an example of a two-stage process, which attempted a mimetic attunement to past experience, rather than a descriptive mirroring of objects and events. Coleridge proposed at first, ‘gentle’ then ‘profound or vehement’ emotions working with ‘that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination.’[7]

Shelley claimed: ‘§275. The functions of the poetic faculty are twofold, by one it creates new material of knowledge and power, by the other it engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them . . .’ (Defence of Poetry)

Poems are cognitive scaffolding, and are valuable being alert to the outside environment, not dulled to it, and not self-reliant (as in Taoist theories of creativity).[8]

Poems are based on speech-acts which are social and structural. Robin Dunbar’s study of contemporary English speakers found that social relationships and personal experiences accounted for about seventy percent of conversation time.[9] They follow identifiable patterns of organisation to further their purpose and can be artistic, using symbols to capture attention, produce a mood or stimulate an audience to action as in poetry. This element stresses the performative and communicative elements, but speech-act theorists have ignored the larger context of speech-acts, e.g. the embodied nature of human language use. [10] Understanding metaphor as conceptual and concepts in turn as experiential and embodied, fits with a performative view of language as dynamic, active and tending towards the poetic. V. N. Voloshinov, a language philosopher, argued that instrumental and expressive theories of the literary separated social structures and referential function from individual utterance and creativity. He emphasised language as activity and as dialogical, implemented in a dynamic process of interaction between speakers.[11]


[1] Mark Edmundsen, Literature against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida: A Defence of Poetry, Cambridge UP, 1995, p219

[2]  Homer, The Odyssey, Bk 22, 330; 1946, p 337.   In a similar vein Hesiod offers an anecdote about his winning a tripod in a poetic contest at Chalcis, in Amphidamas’ games, this being the only time he ever crossed the sea.   His point is to explain why, despite his lack of nautical experience, he feels qualified to give seafarers advice on how and when to sail:                                                                   I can

Tell you the will of aegis bearing Zeus,

For I have inspiration in my songs,

Because the muses taught me how to sing.      Works and Days. L649-660.

[3] It is sections like this and works like the Symposium that led Shelley to enthuse, ‘Plato was essentially a poet – the truth and splendour of his language, is the most intense that it is possible to conceive.’ Shelley, The complete works London, 1965, p114.

[4] Helen Epstein, ‘The Fly in the DNA’, New York Review of Books, 24.6.1999.

[5] ‘. . .–that serene and blessed mood, / In which the affections gently lead us on, – / Until, the breath of this corporeal frame – And even the motion of our human blood – Almost suspended, we are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul: / While with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things. from Tintern Abbey, 1798.

[6]  Wordsworth began the poem in its vicinity, and then refined it over two or more days prior to writing a fair copy on July 13th 1789, as he approached Bristol. He had walked across Salisbury plain west to the Wye Valley, hardly eating for three days, which can disorientate and be soporific. There is such a thing as the physiology of the poetic.

[7] ‘This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, control (*laxis effertur habenis* [it is carried onwards with loose reins]) reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.’ Chap XIV end of The Biographia Literaria (1817).

[8] Chang Chung-yuan writes, ‘The Taoist concept of creativity is of self-realisation, which requires no outward instrumentality to effect its inward process. Tao is the inner reality of all things. It depends upon neither external God, nor concrete substance, nor abstract principle, as various other Chinese schools of philosophy maintain.’ But creativity often needs scaffolding, technique and discourses and genres to work with or against. Chang Chung-yuan, Creativity & Taoism, Wildwood House, 1975, p65-6. There is a sense of nature, ‘direct contact with nature produces what the Chinese commentators call shun yun or spiritual rhythm.’ p171.

[9] Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, Faber and Faber, 1996.

[10] Communication is at the heart of the speech act (though it can be internal communication). Bronowski divides the arts into those of sight and of sound, ‘arts which are mediated by speech and sound, like the poem and the novel and the drama and music… used by us largely in order to make contact with other people or with other living things.’ Jacob Bronowski ‘The Mind as an Instrument of Understanding’ in The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1978, p10.

[11] V. N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, tr. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik (1929) Cambridge, Mass., 1986.