World Poetry Day: a chance for language to be heard

World Poetry Day, which is observed March 21, is a lyrical reminder that before we humans wrote, we spoke—and in native, rather than universal, tongues. Providing a forum with opportunities for endangered languages to continue to be heard is one of the reasons why, in 1999, UNESCO established World Poetry Day. UNESCO calls poetry “a universal art” that “helps to promote dialogue among cultures.”

The oral tradition, in verse

It is also an ancient art. Mesopotamia’s Epic of Gilgamesh dates from the eighteenth century B.C.E. What is believed to be the world’s oldest love poem was transcribed on a tablet in Sumerian in the eighth century B.C.E.

Beowulf is the classic Old English epic poem that many students in American high schools and colleges struggle through—perhaps because they’re reading something that was intended to be listened to. That aural aspect of poetry was certainly the case for Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well (even though they were also written). On a day like World Poetry Day, we’re reminded that the oral tradition is a muscle we moderns should exercise more frequently.

…and in reverse

Winston Churchill was one who frequently practiced this oral tradition. Among the many things he was famous for was memorizing copious lines of poetry from an early age. He could still recite stanza after stanza in his advanced years.

Ironically, the way most of us learn to recite poems today is by first reading them and then memorizing them—just the reverse of the oral tradition.

Translation, lost and gained

World Poetry Day is an ideal impetus for exploring poetry beyond our linguistic borders. Two books that can help are The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, which the Academy of American Poets features on its site, and World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time, which W.W. Norton, long famous for its anthologies, published.

Both feature poems originally composed in a myriad of languages…and all translated into English in these volumes. The irony isn’t lost, given the purpose of World Poetry Day, but as the American poet Allen Tate once observed, “Translation is forever impossible and forever necessary.”

And in the case of these collections, the translations could open many of us to a far larger world of poetry and languages than we might ever have imagined.