Humor Fiction posted August 10, 2015


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90,000 BC to 1940

The History of Poetry, Vol. 1

by Mark Valentine



It has been said that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny*, and so some posit that language development in early man resembled that of a baby; indiscriminate vowel sounds, followed by babbling, giving way to monosyllabic utterances signifying objects or actions. It was from these monosyllabic utterances that the first poem was formed. In 100,000 BC, the human lexicon consisted of just a handful of such utterances. Bok (large animal), urg (water), flek (fire) and ug (How bout you and me go back to my cave?) being among them. The first known poem occurred in 90,000 BC when Gropp of the River People (aka “Gropp the Damp”) uttered “Ug Gug”. This utterance drew quite the response from the cavewomen, who left the alpha male of the clan and began to gravitate toward Gropp. Unfortunately there were no copyright laws in those days, so Bruto, the alpha male clubbed Gropp to death and claimed “Ug Gug” as his own. “Ug Gug” remained the only poem known (or needed) for millennia until Kranek, the alpha male of the Mammoth Hunters penned (actually chiseled) the now famous work "Hubba Hubba". Hiram the zeta, or “nerd” male of the species, pointed out that this was not really a poem, since Hubba and Hubba did not technically rhyme. Kranek clubbed him to death. It would be many years before the art of literary criticism would resurface.
 
Primitive people were so amused by rhymes, that there was no need for meter or coherent content. Simply stringing a series of rhyming words together sufficed to draw raucous applause from the masses - a tradition that started with “Ug Gug” and culminated in 1989 with Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”.
 
Poetry remained in this fairly primitive form until the ancient Greeks (known at the time simply as “the Greeks) came on the scene in the 4th century BC. The ancient Greeks had no problem getting chicks given that they owned everything and everybody in the world. Not needing the aphrodisiac power of poetry, they turned their minds to using poetry for other purposes such as documenting the heroic deeds of their warriors and boring the crap out of generations of yet-to-be-born high school students. These poems were called epics and were often years in the making (apparently no tight fanstory deadlines existed back then). High school students today have taken their revenge on the ancient Greeks by reapportioning the word ”epic” so that it applies to really good hamburgers or “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!”
 
Two of the more famous epics, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were written by a guy named Homer. Homer had a good friend named Odysseus who often found it necessary to explain his long absences to his wife, Penelope. Homer, being a good wing man, was happy to oblige.
 
Odysseus: “I was not at the bar, I was off fighting in the Trojan War – check the book.”
 
After about ten years, Penelope grew suspicious and sent their son, Telemachus, down to the bar to check for Odysseus, thus prompting the need for “The Odyssey”, which would later be turned into a major motion picture and a Honda minivan.
 
Next came Shakespeare. When I say “next”, of course, I mean 2,000 years later. Some stuff might have happened in the intervening period, but I never took those courses (they probably started too early). Shakespeare wrote plays and sonnets and was married to Anne Hathaway. Folks used to say “Will hath a way with words. Anne hath a way with Will” (puns were popular back then). Apparently Anne wasn’t the only one hathing her way with Will. Shakespeare was the first poet “rock star” often reciting his sonnets before sell-out crowds at the Globe Theater. The women would throw their corsets at him, screaming “Compare me to a summer’s day Will!". Groupies would follow his every move, and Will was known, on occasion, to admit impediments into his and Anne’s marriage of true minds. On one occasion, Anne walked in on Will and a young Avon woman making “the beast with two backs”. Anne was not pleased and left him to launch her movie career.
 
It was around this time that the poetry-as-social-commentary movement began. The poems we know today as children’s nursery rhymes initially were written as political commentary. Thus “Three Blind Mice” references the beheading of three infidels, “Jack and Jill” is a critique of King George I’s tax policy, and “Little Bo Peep” is about a ditsy dame who lost her sheep. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
 
The reason nursery rhymes had a shelf life beyond their original intent was that parents found them useful tools for making their kids shut the hell up and go to bed. Also, young aspiring poets often got their start by parodying these poems as kids. Yours truly gained a small amount of fame at St. Theodore’s by penning hits such as:
 
Frere Jacques stepped in caca,
Left footprints all down the blocka
 
 And,
 
Little Boy Blue go blow your nose
and stop wiping snot all over your clothes
 
 
My nascent career came to a sudden halt though when Sister Dolorata came across my take of “Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick”. I was immediately sent to confession where, according to Vatican sources, my penance (5 Our Fathers and 3,000 Hail Marys) remains a record for children to this day.
 
Meanwhile, back in England, the Shakesperean tradition continued as a new generation of English poets plied their craft in the hopes of getting lucky. The Romantics (Byron, Keats, Shelley, and their ilk) were so named because they were getting laid almost every night. That being the case, they were always in a good mood and could write odes to almost anything; a vase, a skylark, the west wind, a louse on a ladies’ hat for goodness sakes. After one particularly good streak, Percy Shelley penned “Ode to A Dung Beetle”:

O thou magnificent creature perched upon yon chestnut pile
Dost thou await thy lover there?
Wilt thou sit there all the while.
Breathing in the fecal air?
 
 
Shelley never finished the poem, for when his wife Mary (the better writer of the two) read those first lines she proclaimed; “Bysshe please!” Literary criticism had resurfaced.
 
Literary criticism was in need of an audience and thus the English Department was born. It would soon become a staple of every major American University, with the exception of Florida State. One of the more renowned English Departments was at Harvard where, in the spring of 1840 a young man named Walt Whitman matriculated. Legend has it that Whitman was awakened one morning by the sound of leaves rustling through the grass outside his dormitory window. This prompted him to say “Oh crap, I overslept.” He jumped out of bed and rushed down to Wordsworth Hall and into class with only 10 minutes left before the final exam was over. With no time to worry about rhyme or meter, Whitman hurriedly threw some words on his paper. At the bottom he wrote the following:
 
Dear Doctor Spellman:

The poem above represents a new, unconstrained form of poetry which I call “free verse”. Its lack of boundaries or preconceived ideas allows for a more spontaneous expression of the human spirit and mirrors modern man’s existential condition.

Dr. Spellman’s gave him an ‘F’ along with the following note:

Dear Mr. Whitman:

Bullshit
 
Shortly thereafter, Whitman transferred to Florida State where he graduated Summa Cum Laude in philosophy in 1844.
 
It wasn’t long before students everywhere were oversleeping their poetry classes and transferring to Florida State. So many transferred in fact, that other universities were forced to recognize free verse as a legitimate poetry form. Poetry students could not believe their luck. “It doesn’t get any easier than this”, one student declared. “Oh yeah, watch this!” his roommate said. The roommate’s name was e e cummings. He would tell his professors that the shift key on his portable typewriter was broken. Unfortunately for cummings, the portable typewriter had not yet been invented**. cummings transferred to Florida State and was elected governor upon his graduation.
 


Story of the Month contest entry


* I have no idea what that means, but it sounds impressive, doesn't it?
** Yes, it had. I lied.

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