The Science of Poetry: A Prehistoric Telephone Game


Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on May 21, 2013, in the Inlandia Institute‘s weekly column. More from my series on “the science of poetry” will be appearing throughout the year.

“Who reads poetry anymore?” I remember asking as a know-it-all 8th grader.  “And what  is poetry, anyway?  The music and rhythms of language?  What’s the point of that?”  I see the same questions flash through the minds of strangers when I tell them I work as a poetry editor.  But the answer is easy:  Just sit in a circle.

Do you remember the telephone game?   A group of kids sits in a circle.  One whispers a phrase into her neighbor’s ear, and then the neighbor whispers the same phrase into his neighbor’s ear, and so on around the circle, until it returns  to the one who started it—but with all the original details comically confused.

Play it with a random phrase and it always works—the blue house becomes  a black blouse right on cue, and by the end none of it makes sense.

Then find a couplet of poetry to send around the circle, maybe Shel Silverstein, from his poem “Sick”:  “I have the measles and the mumps,/ a gash, a rash and purple bumps.”  The couplet survives whole, almost magically intact.

That’s the point of poetry.  Or at least one of the points.

Try this exercise:  Draw a line.  Label one end 200,000 years ago; label the other 0, for present-day.  This is the timeline of human history, dating back to the earliest appearance of anatomically modern humans within the fossil record.  Along this line have lived 10,000 generations of Homo sapiens, all with the same brain size and bone structure, all with some capacity for complicated thought.  The oldest of them is 100 times older than the Roman empire.  Think about that for a moment.

Now cut the line in half, and place a midpoint at 100,000 years ago.  This is when the FOXP2 gene, believed to be largely responsible for our understanding of grammar, first appeared.   Because this gene must have developed within a relatively stable linguistic environment, this is strong evidence that rudimentary language existed prior to this date.

Cut those halves in half again.  Each of these four new segments represents 50,000 years—the nearest is the dawn of the Upper Paleolithic.  Humans are transitioning from the common hand ax to an array of specialized blade tools for hunting, dressing meat, and working hide.

Cut that line in half, and we arrive at 25,000 years ago, just one-eighth of the timeline backward from today.  This is the period anthropologists call the “cultural explosion,” the sudden emergence of art.  All over the world, and in a relatively short span of time, human enterprise shifted from the entirely utilitarian production of hunting tools to all things ephemeral.  People began adorning themselves with bead and bone jewelry.  They began making musical instruments, and cave paintings, and burying their dead.  This suggests they lived rich social lives, with strong interpersonal relationships and increasingly complicated mythologies.

Cut that line in half again:  12,000 years ago, the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent.

Cut that line in half again: 6,000 years ago, the first proto-writing emerges in the form of pictograms carved into tablets and tortoise shells.  Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform.

Cut that line in half one last time and we arrive at 3,000 years before present, the first appearance of the Phoenician alphabet, and a genuine writing system.

Now step back and look at this timeline.  It’s broken into 64 segments, and in only one of them—in only the most recent 3,000 years—did humans have the ability to fully record their thoughts.  To put it another way, 9,500 generations of human beings were alive in our prehistory, all of them feeling their own forms of love and lust, fearing death and disease and hunger, wondering about their place in the world, pondering the meaning of it all, making gods, offering sacrifices, praying for peace—with no way to pass on that experience but with words .  For so much of our history, the only tradition was the oral tradition.

And the oral tradition is the telephone game:  one generation whispering to the next, and whispering to the next, and whispering to the next, forever down the line.

So how do we save the stories that matter?  The details here might truly be life and death, might mean the difference between finding the herd of aurochs and starvation.  How do we make sure that the blue house doesn’t become a black blouse and ruin the ritual?

Meter.  Rhyme.  Repetition.  Consonance, assonance, inflexion.   All of these tools that poetry is trying to teach us.  This is why  our holy books are written in verse.  It was poetry that saved the things that mattered, before we had prose.