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A History of Poets, Poetry, and Prose

A well-known cliche says “Poets are born, not made.” Many people feel that the very nature of poetry is too mysterious to bear examination. In ancient times, poetic lore was based on magical principles, or so it was written. However, contemporary poetry rarely can be considered “magical” just because it is labeled so.


Alchemists claimed to be able to turn base metals into gold. However, only gold can really be turned into gold, and only poetry can be made into poems.

Bards and Minstrels The ancient Celts distinguished the poet, who was originally a priest and judge as well, as sacrosanct from the gleeman (other court entertainers). A clear distinction was made between court bards and the wandering minstrels of the ancient Celts. Bards, or master-poets, had their professional traditions such as song and memorization.

Bards and Memory

Memory was a very big part of poetry. Poets memorized all their materials, for exhibition, so that they could ask their audience for subjects they wished to perform. This was basically because the masses could not read or write (some kings were illiterate as well, such as Malcolm III of Scotland). History was learned via songs, rhymes, and riddles. We can compare this to the Native American who had their storyteller’s oral history.

Bards even had contests much like knights had tournaments of combat. They would vie for the position of court bards (which was a lofty position). Myths legends, common knowledge, romance, and other themes manifested themselves via ballads or song.

Distinctions Made Between the Two Poetic Schools

In the beginning, there were two poetic schools:

One (1) was the Court Bard, who was forbidden to compose in the minstrel style. They were fined if they visited any but the houses of the kings, princes, or nobles.

The second type (2) was the ragged minstrel who could not perform at court. With the “Norman Conquest” of the Isles, and the influx of French influence this form waschanged.

The Transition of Poetry

By the 13th century, poets of either group could perform for the kings and peerage.
By the 14th century, the minstrel style was commonplace in both the courts and on the streets.
In the 15th century, court poetry and minstrel poetry were united.

Welsh versus Irish Poetry

“Bard” stood for “master-poet” in Wales. While in Ireland, Bards were inferior poets who had not yet passed through the “seven degrees of wisdom.” These degrees took twelve (12) long years to complete.
Mistrels, like Irish poets, recited their traditional romances in prose, breaking into dramatic verse, with harp accompaniment. Poetry became song and many rhymes and riddles resulted.

The Importance of Trees

In the Celtic language, “trees” meant “letters,” and Druidic colleges were founded in woods or groves. “Beech” is a common synomym for “literature.” Druids or poets were “oak-seers,” and thus came the idea that poetry was magic. (Graves, Robert, The White Goddess. New York: The Noonday Press, 1995 reprint).

The following is an early poem which illustrates the importance of trees, and the teaching in poetry. This poem tells which trees to burn and which not to burn from E. M. Hull’s Poem Book of the Gael:

Oak logs will warm you well.
That are old and dry;
Logs of pine will sweetly smell
But sparks will fly.

Birch-logs will burn too fast,
Chestnuts scarce at all;
Hawthorne-logs are good to last
Cut them in the fall.

Holly-logs will burn like wax,
You may burn them green
Elm-logs like to smouldering flax,
No flame to be seen.

Beech-logs for winter time,
Yew logs as well,
Green elder logs are a crime
for any man to sell.

Pear-logs and apple-logs,
They will scent your room,
Cherry-Logs across the dogs
Smell like flower of broom.

Ash-logs, smooth and gray,
Burn them green and old,
Buy up all that come your way
Their worth their weight in gold.

Trees were a sacred part of the Celtic rituals. This more “modern” poem speaks to their importance for fuel:

Song of the Forest Trees

Fiercest heat-giver of all timber is green oak;
From him none may escape unhurt.
By love of him the heat is set an arching.
By his acrid embers the eye is made sore.

The Bible, Mother Goose, Chaucer, etc:

Biblical Psalms are poetry and song.

Mother Goose rhymes are another development of poetry that teaches. Many think they are for children, however, they spoke to political issues of the day.

Great poetry has been written in the English language for at least 600 years (before that, Latin was the choice of monks).

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400) wrote his Canterbury Tales about pilgrims and the beliefs of his time.

Tudor and Elizabethan Poetry:

Sir Walter Raleigh wrote his “Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” about the war between men and women.

“Courtly Love” poems were written by kings. Henry VIII wrote many poems to Anne Boleyn, as well as riddles, rhymes and songs.

Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn, even wrote poetry and played the virginals.

William Shakespeare wrote his plays, ballads, and poetry:

Take , O Take Those Lips Away

Take o take those lips away,
That so sweetly were forsworn,
And those eyes, the break of day,
Light that do mislead the morn.
But my kisses bring again:
Bring again:
Seals of Love but sealed in vain,
-Sealed in vain!

(from Measure for Measure)

Modern Classic Poetry

Much classic poetry has love as its theme. Love was a popular subject, because everyone could understand it and identify with it. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” is sung by Loreena McKennitt in her album The Visit.

and “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes in her album The Book of Secrets. Loreena’s haunting renditions prove that poetry can be put to song. Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber sets T.S. Eliot’s poems about cats to music.

Songwriters are poets too. John Lennon’s “Imagine” proves that point.

Today’s poems should also tell a story, but they don’t necessarily rhyme. Many modern poems are simple, such as Carl Sandburg’s “Fog.”


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

Sandburg compares the fog to a cat.

Some modern poetry resembles prose, with its lack of meter and rhyme. Poetry today may please its author but “Poets are born, not made,” and just saying you’re a poet does not necessarily make it so.

Modern poetry can be compared to modern art. You must study the classics to sharpen your skills. “Arts for Art’s Sake” only recently in vogue.

Copyright 1999 by Matthew R. Sypniewski.


Bad Poetry

Bad Poetry, like bad prose, is often obvious to the unattached observer (reader), Subject matter can take on many forms and people can understand things based on their own life experiences and morals. One man’s candy is another man’s vinegar. It all boils down to taste. However, really bad poetry has its own mark of mediocrity. Here are some examples:

The Stuttering Lover

I lu-love you very well,
Much mu-more than I can tell.
With a lu-lu-lu-lu-lu-love I cannot utter;
I kn-know just what to say
But my tongue gets in the way,
And af-fe-fe-fe-fe-fection’s bound to stutter!....

(you get the idea)

by Fred Emerson Brooks


A Pretty Girl

On her beautiful face there are smiles of grace
That linger in beauty serene
And there are no pimples, encircling her dimples,
As ever, as yet, I have seen.

by J. Gordon Coogler



First of walkers come the earwigs,
Earwigs or Fourficulina;
At the tail we find a weapon,
Very like a pair of pincers,
And with this ‘tis said the Earwigs
Open and fold up the hind wings;
You may watch them and observe it
I have never had the pleasure.

by Edward Newman


The worst tribute to a great poet from an English poet, James McIntyre:


We have scarcely time to tell thee
Of the strange and gifted Shelley
Kind-hearted man, but ill-fated,
So youthful drowned and cremated.


(This next one makes me wonder...)

My Last Tooth

You have gone, old tooth,
Though hard to yield,
You have long stood alone,
Like a stub in the field.

Farewell, old-tooth...
That tainted my breath,
And tasted as smells
A woodpecker’s nest.

(unknown author)


These are all excerpts from the book Very Bad Poetry, edited by Kathryn Petra and Ross Petras. A Vintage Original (a division of Random House, Inc.), April 1997.

They label the following poem as the “Worst Poem Ever Written in the English Language:”

A Tragedy by Theophile Marzials

The barges down the river flop.
Flop, plop.
Above, beneath.
From the slimy branches the grey drips drop ...
To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop ...
And my head shrieks - “Stop"
And my heart shrieks - “Die”

; Yet I knew - I knew
If a woman is false can a friend be true?
It was only a lie from the beginning to the end -
My Devil - My “Friend” ...

So what do I care,
And my head is empty as air -
I can do,
I can dare
(Plop, Plop The Barges flop
Drip, drop).

And let myself run all away with my head
And Stop.
Drop Plop, flop.

(Believe it or not, all these poems were published somewhere, Hopefully, you will not make the same mistakes.

Poetry and Prose have the same basic criteria, they are just written in different form.

The very nature of poetry, makes it much easier to proofread, unless you are writing an poem of epic proportions.


Poetry - (1.) the art of rhythical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts (2.) literary work in metrical form of verse.

Prose - the ordinary form of spoken or written langauage, without metrical structure (as distinguised from poetry.

- a short metrical compostion intended or adapted for singing, esp. one in rhymed, stanzas, a lyric, a ballad.

Minstrel - one of a class of medieval musicians who sang or recited to the accompaniment of instruments. Any musician, singer, or poet.

Bard - one of the ancient Celtic orders of poet.

Story - narrative, either true of fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest or amuse the hearer or reader.

Storyteller - one who tells stories.

Artist - a person who practices one of the fine arts.

Artisan - a person of superior skill or ability.

Artiste - French word meaning an artist, actor, dancer, or other public performer.

Art - the production or expression of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance, skilled workmamanship.

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