Songbirds of the Primate Species and the Poets Who Fail to Sing

by John MacBeath Watkins

Humans are the songbirds of the primate species. We are the only primate that can choke on its food, because our vocal abilities are more important to the perpetuation of our genes than the ability not to choke on our food. The human larynx has been shaped by our need to vocalize, and that need must have been great to produce, as a side effect, a tendency to die in a way no other primate does.

With songbirds, we assume sexual selection is the main force here, although clearly some vocalizations are warnings, or communication between parent and child. When discussing the reasons for human vocalization, we focus on language, and the ability to coordinate our actions through communication.

I don't doubt that is an important aspect of selection now, and for hundreds of thousands of years. But before we could have language, we had to have the vocal abilities that made language possible. You don't need language to express pain, longing, affection, or to make those little gruntled noises when you're happy. Our voices can express all those things without language. This sort of pre-linguistic communication would be useful for the seduction of mates, bonding with offspring, warning the tribe of danger, expressing pleasure at the discovery of a source of sweet fruit, warning a rival away and otherwise organizing a society. Such sounds could lead to songs before the invention of language. Perhaps this is why a baby experimenting with its vocal aparatus sounds more like scat singing than like someone talking.

Daniel Leviton has written about this sort of thing in The World in Six Songs, which I intend to read when I get the opportunity. My own feeling is that song preceded language, and the combination of song and language created lyrics. Lyric poetry is the next step, with rhythm and rhyme contributing to its beauty, but with a less musical approach to the vocalizations. In the oral traditions of some cultures, such as that of ancient Greece, rhythm and rhyme also were used as mnemonic devices, helping the poets to preserve the traditional stories with a minimum of change over time.

But we now live in a world of visual language, in which much of our tradition is passed on through the written word. This changed poetry. It no longer needed to be remembered, because we could look it up; consequently, it is written in ways that are harder to remember. Consider one of my favorite sonnets, by Percy Bysshe Shelley:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Although the rhyme and meter are correct, the line breaks are in some cases not at the end of phrases, which makes the poem harder to memorize. No nursery rhyme would do this, because nursery rhymes are an oral tradition. Compare this nursery rhyme to Shelley's sonnet:

Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean,
And so betwixt the two of them
They licked the platter clean

Clearly, this is meant to be read rhythmically, and each phrase is defined by a rhyme; leave off the rhyme and you don't have the poem or the story it tells.  This connects to memory in a very different way than Ozymandias, actually a stronger and deeper connection than Shelley's great poem. We now teach students to read poetry conversationally, not rhythmically like a child. Once that line is crossed, the poetry does not read as a lyric, so what are the meter and rhyme there for? The step to free verse is a small one.

The Fog

THE fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

--Carl Sandburg

The sentiment could be a nursery rhyme, but the poem is entirely visual. It relies on the written word to be remembered, and on its imagery for its beauty. It is poetry entirely divorced from the oral tradition that was once the purpose of poetry. It is good literature, but it is not poetry in the sense a nursery rhyme is. Because it does not lend itself to an oral tradition, its connection to memory is more tenuous. This means its relation to our culture is entirely different than the connection the long of the long oral tradition. It has become, in fact, academic, Art with the capital A, an object to be admired rather than a way of telling a story that resonates with memory in a peculiarly effective way.

This has had the effect of removing poetry from popular culture and setting it in the realm of high culture. Ogden Nash once said that he chose to be a good bad poet rather than a bad good poet. He meant that he chose to do poetry as a part of popular culture. Our one remaining form of oral tradition is jokes, and it is certainly not accidental that Nash committed to popular culture through humor.

Casey at the Bat first ran in a newspaper, at a time when poetry was still considered one of many ways one could tell a story. Like photography, opinion columns, editorial cartoons and the funny papers, it was one aspect of the storytelling traditions embraced by newspapers. Can you imagine a newspaper running a poem today?

When I was in high school, I wrote a sonnet that won me a scholarship to a creative writing class taught by three University of Washington professors at the Cornish School of Allied Arts. I enjoyed the class, and learned from it, but the most important thing I learned from it was that I did not want to be like these professors, striving to be published in incestuous poetry journals read almost entirely by people who wanted to be published in them. I chose instead to study journalism, where I could tell stories that mattered to regular people who had no interest in the high culture of poetry. I had no wish to belong to a world in which poets rely on academic institutions to certify them as poets, or one in which the publications that try to foster poetry rely on patrons of the arts.

This removal of poetry from popular culture is decried by some poets. On the blog PoemShape, an essay begs us to "Let Poetry Die" so that it can be reborn. John Barr, president of the National Poetry Foundation, argues that something new is needed in poetry, and describes the stultifying effects of careerism as one who has seen it close-hand:

"They operate on a network of academic postings and prizes that reinforce the status quo. They are sustained by a system of fellowships, grants, and other subsidies that absolve recipients of the responsibility to write books that a reader who is not a specialist might enjoy, might even buy."

As a bookseller, I can tell you that people will read poetry and are willing to pay for it. But how will it ever transition from a form intended to appeal to grant committees -- a sort of literary grant application -- to the once vibrant form of storytelling it should be? It might help if the academics and foundations who now dominate poetry come to recognize what has happened to it, and to look back to the historic roots of poetry.

The primal voice of poetry is the nursery rhyme, not the arid, delicate dried flowers arranged for the foundations. That is the first lesson. The humor of Ogden Nash, the nonsense of Edward Lear, and Lewis Carrol's satires of sanctimonious Victorian children's verse all have greater appeal than the forms of poetry supported by academia and  foundations. Poetry must get off its high horse, stop trying to be Art, and start telling stories in a way that sings.