Have you ever wondered why the word “poetry” is used to bestow such high praise–so that the work of a brilliant chef or architect or filmmaker is called “poetic” or “poetry in motion,” even by people who would never be caught dead at a poetry reading?
No other art besides poetry has had such a mythology attached to its sources of inspiration. Painters have no myth of Helicon, the sacred spring whose water brings inspiration. Dancers have no Pegasus to ride, composers no Mount Parnassus to climb. Everyone knows that “the Muse” is a poet’s companion. Why is poetry so revered among the arts?
Long before writing was invented, poets held the entire culture of their people–legend, history, genealogy, religion, mythology–in their memories, thanks to the power of meter and other tools of poetic craft to make language memorizable. Rhythm and patterned language were used by shamans, wisewomen, and witches in cultures worldwide for another purpose as well: to craft magical experience and transformation. These crucial skills were the source of the great respect in which poetry was held. No wonder Brigid, Celtic Goddess of Poetry, was also a Goddess of healing.
In the post-writing age, and even more in the post-keyboard age, poetry changed. It lost touch, almost entirely, with those structuring tools that enabled healing, magic, and poetry to join forces so directly and powerfully in the body and in memory. But those tools can never really go away, because they are still a part of us. When we tap a foot while singing, chant a rhyming slogan at a rally, or feel stirred by the triple repetitions in the Gettysburg Address, our hearts, breath, and souls are responding to the way repeating patterns of words resonate within us.
Repetition does not only make a poem easy to remember; it can lull the logical part of the brain, hypnotize a listener, transport a reader into a new state of mind, speak directly to the physical, irrational part of our brains. Like the drumbeat of a shaman, poetic repetition can move language far out of its normal realm. That is the paradox of poetic technology: it is at once replicable and ineffable, mundane and transformative. To work with poetic craft in a skilled and attentive way brings us full circle back out of the realm of craft and into the realm of inspiration—and magic.