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A very short history of poetic tradition

Professor Derek Attridges discusses poetic tradition - exploring the history of poetry, and how poems both honour and innovate this tradition.
Poetic Tradition As soon as poets started composing poems – originally for oral performance, since writing hadn’t been invented – traditions were established. There’s something called the “Western tradition of poetry”, but this is made up of many strands, each a tradition in its own right. One of the longest of these is the epic, the large-scale narrative of heroic deeds, whose history can be traced from Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, composed around the eighth century BC, right up to the present. Among the finest poems of the past thirty years is the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s Omeros, a book-length epic that weaves together a contemporary love-story, episodes from the colonial history of the West Indies, and Walcott’s own autobiography.
As the title suggests (“Omeros” is simply “Homer” in Greek), Walcott is revisiting Homer’s epic poetry – but he does so in a verse form, called terza rima, that links his poem to a very different one, Dante’s fourteenth-century Italian epic, the Divine Comedy. The Divine Comedy itself imagines the poet’s descent into Hell under the guidance of Virgil, composer of the great Latin epic, the Aeneid – itself modelled on Homer’s works. Every poet who attempts an epic draws on this rich tradition, and expects readers to have some familiarity with it. The same is true of other traditions.
There are those that, like epic, are distinct genres – including lyric, elegy, pastoral, riddle, ballad, satire, and narrative – and others that, like terza rima, are forms, such as the sonnet, the limerick, the haiku, and free verse.
But these traditions didn’t evolve separately: they’ve constantly blended with and bounced off each other.
Take the elegy: for us the term means a poem of mourning, like Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (which is a sonnet, a form that goes back nearly 800 years). But the name “elegy” comes from a verse form, the Greek, and later Latin, elegiac couplet, which was used for a variety of subjects. John Donne’s elegies include the very sexy “To His Mistress Going to Bed”, inspired by the erotic elegies written by the Roman poet Ovid. A recent example of elegiac poetry is Denise Riley’s superb collection Say Something Back.
Riley makes use of many poetic traditions to mourn the death of her son – including the tradition of rejecting tradition that’s a common feature of elegy, whose task is to convince the reader that the speaker’s grief is genuine.
Thus one of Riley’s poems begins: Oh my dead son you daft bugger This is one glum mum. Come home I tell you These lines may seem to speak for themselves, but we get much more out of them if we’re aware of the two-and-a half-millennia-old tradition they evoke and challenge.

In this video, Professor Derek Attridge discusses the history of poetic tradition, and outlines how poetry engages, adapts, and subverts these different traditions.

Starting with the epic, one of the oldest known forms of poetry in literature, Attridge explores how this particular poetic tradition continues to live on in the poetry of Derek Walcott – you can find out more about Derek Walcott on the Poetry Foundation website.

Over to you

  • What do you think about poetic tradition?

  • What does it mean to use an ancient form in a contemporary world?

  • What does tradition mean to you?

Let us know what you think about these questions in the comments below.

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