It’s National Poetry Month! Ancient Poetry and the Created Self: From Early Epics to Afghan Women’s Landays

Marble terminal bust of Homer. Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic original of the 2nd c. BC. From Baiae, Italy. In the British Museum.

Marble terminal bust of Homer. Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic original of the 2nd c. BC. From Baiae, Italy. In the British Museum.

Throughout time, poetry has been one of the most evocative of art forms.  From ritual chanting and epic histories to love sonnets and modern free verse, poetry has represented the essence of what it is to be human.  Since April is National Poetry Month in the United States, let’s take a look at the origins of this artistic device.  As well, we’ll observe a unique poetry tradition recast with a 21st century perspective. We’ll see how poetry is giving voice to women in Afghanistan, who as with early cultures that forged their identities in verse, are tapping the extraordinary power of poetry to create their own sense of “self.”

History of Poetry

Poetry is rooted in preliterate society. The word derives from the Greek poema “fiction, poetical work,” literally “thing made or created.”[1]

Poetry first arose in cultures as an oral vehicle to transmit traditions and rituals.  Indeed, a people’s histories, important events, beliefs and stories could be more easily remembered by using repetitions, rhythms and sounds—key components associated with ancient poetry. These poetic intonations created a sense of self for each culture and inculcated the values that unified them as a people.

Part of a clay tablet, containing the Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 11, story of the Flood. In the British Museum. Image courtesy of Fæ.

Part of a clay tablet, containing the Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 11, story of the Flood. In the British Museum. Image courtesy of Fæ.

As language and its recording in symbol and script evolved, poetry also changed as evidenced by fragments in monoliths and runic stones.The expansive themes of heroism, history, religion and human emotion are woven across cultures.  One of the oldest surviving poems is the “Epic of Gilgamesh” from the 3rd century BCE.  Written in cuneiform on clay tablets, it tells of the heroic exploits of a real-life king named Gilgamesh who ruled the Sumerian city-state of Uruk. Other cultures also used epics that continue to hold an important place in the world’s art and history today.  The Iliad and Odyssey by Homer are a complex telling of the Trojan War and its aftermath. Virgil’s Aeneid is an epic poem about Roman ancestry. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are Sanskrit epics that teach Hindu life and culture by blending storytelling, philosophy and religious elements. In China the Shi Jing is a compendium of classical poetry about Chinese life preserved for 2,000 years, and the Chu Ci is a collection of mostly lyric and romantic poetry.

Bust of Aristotle.

Bust of Aristotle.

As time went on poetry became more established in design and expression.  In his Poetics Aristotle categorized poetry into three genres:  epic, comic and tragic. He described each category according to its intellectual and emotional effects on the listener.  His views were later reflected in poetry during the Islamic Golden Age and the Renaissance in Europe.

There is a biological reason for how poetry shapes cultural realization. Poetry can function as a memory-booster.  In a study by the University of Exeter (UK), functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (fMRI) mapped the different ways that the brain responded to poetry and prose.  Something very distinct happened when volunteers read a favorite passage of poetry. “…the scientists found that areas of the brain associated with memory were stimulated more strongly than ‘reading areas’.” Moreover, they found evidence that poetry “…activates brain areas, such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to introspection.”[2] Coupled with how humans are hardwired to bond together, one can see the importance that poetry has had on early society in shaping perception of the group and the individual.

These early beginnings of poetry demonstrate how vital this art form was to ancient societies in constructing a sense of identity. Poetry through the millennia has sought to capture time and events, the struggles of humanity, the meaning of a higher being and the complex workings of the human heart.  Today, there is a modern example of how women are employing poetry to forge their identities, banish social invisibility and use words and memory to defy oppression.

Finding Our Voices: Afghan Women Unveil Their Inner Lives

Ancient veda text.

Ancient veda text.

Thousands of years ago during the Bronze-Age Aryan caravans brought a poetic form to what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (around 1700 BCE).  Called a landay, these poems possibly came from the call and response that was necessary in communicating when traveling as part of a long caravan.  The poems are thought to be related to the Hindu scriptures called Vedas that are at least 5000 years old.[3]

Poetry is highly regarded in this part of the world, particularly the kind derived from Arab or Persian verse. Although the landay has little of the formalities of what are considered the higher literary poetic styles, it does have a distinct structure. As with early oral traditions, a landay involves a certain pattern.  Each poem has twenty-two syllables, nine in the first line, thirteen in the second, and ends with the sound “ma” or “na.”  The couplets are passed along with no claim of authorship, added to, embellished and altered with each speaker.  In this tradition landays can be seen as “mirrors which reflect the sentiments and passions of every sensitive pashtoon man and woman.”[4]

A group of Afghan women wearing burqas.

A group of Afghan women wearing burqas.

Afghanistan is a country of many facets.  Its history has been a brutal succession of overlords, and its forays into modernism have often been thwarted by geopolitics and sectarianism.  Women’s roles and value in society have followed the same upheavals.  Today, however, women are using landays to express a sense of self. These poetic expressions have

…the piercing ability to articulate a common truth about war, separation, homeland, grief, or love. Within these five main tropes, the couplets express a collective fury, a lament, an earthy joke, a love of home, a longing for the end of separation, a call to arms, all of which frustrate any facile image of a Pashtun woman as nothing but a mute ghost beneath a blue burqa.[5]

Think of the roiling emotions of this young woman as captured in this landay:

You sold me to an old man, father.

May God destroy your home, I was your daughter.[6]

In the brevity of these words comes an unimagined fate:

When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.

When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.[7]

And here love is doomed, a casualty of war and ideology.

Because my love’s American,

blisters blossom on my heart.[8]

You can see more examples of landays on the PBS Newshour segment “Ancient Afghan Poetry Form Adapts to Portray Modern Life.”

From the dawn of collective living, people have wanted to document who they are, why they exist and what defines them.  Afghan women are doing just that.  Poetry unveils their remarkably layered inner lives. As Pashtun poet and former Afghan parliamentarian Safia Siddiqi observed: “In Afghanistan, poetry is the women’s movement from the inside.”[9]

Identity and self.  They seem like such modern notions.  But a sense of identity and the understanding of self have been pursuits from humans’ first ventures in abstract thinking. So when we celebrate National Poetry Month, we also celebrate humankind’s ancient and continuing quest for place and purpose through the words and verses that have resonated through the centuries.

For more on landays, read The New York Times article “Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry


[1] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=poem

[2] http://www.sci-news.com/othersciences/neuroscience/science-fmri-brain-response-poetry-prose-01458.html

[3] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/media/landays.html

[4] http://watanafghanistan.tumblr.com/post/17502067306/pashto-landay-a-form-of-afghan-poetry

[5] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/media/landays.html

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/magazine/why-afghan-women-risk-death-to-write-poetry.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

2 responses to “It’s National Poetry Month! Ancient Poetry and the Created Self: From Early Epics to Afghan Women’s Landays

  1. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Greece | AntiquityNOW

  2. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Mesopotamia and the Middle East | AntiquityNOW

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