Paul Engle, noted American teacher and literary critic, once called poetry “ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.” He obviously thought that poetry is something special, complex, inexplicable—and he is not alone. The poetic devices of metaphor, simile, and hyperbole have the power to stimulate our imagination; poetry’s rhythms can synchronize our breathing and heartbeats; brain research seems to suggest that poetry is actually a paradox, “…language is a predominantly sequential activity, of a conspicuously logical character, typically associated with the left cerebral hemisphere; whereas diffuse emotional processes are typically associated with the right cerebral hemisphere…. Accordingly, emotional poetry, or mystic poetry ought to be a contradiction in terms” (Reuven). But it is not a contradiction. The poetry of love, for example, may be structured and logical, but also highly emotional, conveying feelings of longing, disappointment, anxiety, and admiration. Poetry stretches our minds in ways that few art forms can.
Thoughts and emotions are able to travel through the medium of poetry to virtually any destination. Verses written thousands of years ago in China, Israel, or Greece can change the life of a twenty-first century Guatemalan, and a poem written today may very well influence the fate of future generations. Ancient Egyptian Poetry, for example, is full of images and emotions that a modern reader can easily identify with, and is an example of the “universal language” of poetry. Though inscribed on papyrus thousands of years ago, these poems are still capable of communicating with us, offering both knowledge and enjoyment.
Poetry is a great communicator, meeting the ordinary reader on his or her own level. Someone with no interest in Egyptian theology might dive into the beautiful verses of the “Leiden Hymns”; those who might never read a textbook on ancient religions can learn about Horus, Amun, Nun, and Hapy, through the beauty of the “Hymns’” lyric verse. But what if the author of this group of poems had written them in dry, dull prose? The glory of the Egyptian sun god might have been adequately conveyed by a religious creed, but poetry is rich in symbolism and descriptive power that conveys the emotion behind the words. Poetic devices, like personification, are able to make something that is unique to one culture relevant to everyone. One hymn describes the Egyptian sun god, Amun, in relatable terms, “The mind of God is perfect knowing, / his lips its flawless expression, / all that exists is his spirit, / by his tongue named into being; / He strides, and hollows under his feet become Nile-heads—” (“Ancient Egyptian Poetry” 87). These vibrant images would be instantly recognizable to medieval Britons and postcolonial Indians alike. Though these readers have never seen Amun, the poet communicates a mental picture of a magnificent figure, with human characteristics but superhuman power, that would be familiar to any culture.
The language of poetry helps us understand one another at a very deep level. The universal concepts of love, loss, worship, and heroism, shaped by the beauty of diction, work like intercultural magnets. When a 12th century BC Egyptian poet writes “My love is one and only, without peer” (“Ancient Egyptian Poetry” 89), even a teenager from modern New York can identify with him. When Pharaoh Akhenaten expounds on the glories of the one and only God (“When in splendor you first took your throne / high in the precinct of heaven, / O living God, / life truly began” [“Ancient Egyptian Poetry” 83]!), people of every religious background can catch a glimpse of his faith and contrast it with their own. But why did Akhenaten write a hymn instead of an article? Why compose a piece of poetry when he could have said the same thing more concisely with prose? The impressions he is trying to communicate to his readers are so strong, so ethereal, that he must appeal to the heart as well as the mind. For an idea to be properly understood, it must be transferred complete with all its associated feelings, vibrations, and perceptions. The devices and elements of poetry are tools to convey the kind of meaning which no prose, however fresh and vibrant, can.
From this we see that the power of poetry lies in much more than left-brain logic; its meaning is only complete when it is made enjoyable. The words of a poem—as opposed to words in a newspaper—are painstakingly selected and skillfully arranged in meter, synchronized in repetition, and composed into a beautiful work of art. One Egyptian love song is translated thus, “So there she stands, epitome / of shining, shedding light, / Her eyebrows, gleaming darkly, marking / eyes which dance and wander.” The caesura and imagery of that descriptive passage stir the imagination, conjuring fantasies of bright, perfect beauty and delicate features. Dusty hieroglyphs may still bring pleasure after all this time, showing modern readers that this is beauty, this is what thrills the heart.
Thoughts concerning human emotion are as old as mankind, and the communication of them almost as ancient. From Grecian epics, to Egyptian love songs, to Victorian rhymes, poetry has played a major role in connecting cultures, promoting understanding, and providing enjoyment to hundreds of generations. Some might believe that archaic poetry has no bearing on the practicalities of everyday life, that it is little more than a waste of time. But the extreme longevity of poetry, its captivating style, and its themes that span millennia, make it clear that even papyri from ancient Egypt might have more to offer us than first meets the eye.
“Ancient Egyptian Poetry.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Shorter 2nd ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2009. 81-92. Print.
Engle, Paul. "Poetry Is Ordinary Language Raised to the Nth Power." New York Times Book Review. 17 Feb. 1957. Print.