Poetry Is a Living Fossil

A Poetry Squawk
By Ricardo Thomas Manuel Hernandez

Ricardo Thomas Manuel Hernandez, fossil“Poetry is a living fossil.” That’s a rather bold statement to make about poetry in the 21st century. Maybe it’ll be received as one poet’s abstract perspective on the poetry scene in the modern world, or as an opinion that might hold some validity if broken down using the lens of said poet. Perhaps it’s simply a title to get you engaged in a subliminal conversation: that poetry is an under-appreciated and under-sought out art form.

Think about it, how can an art form be considered as a living entity that owns many characteristics holding true to its ancestral roots, and that has come and gone and returned back into existence anyway? You might think to yourself: what is this guy smoking? And if asked I’d probably tell you something cosmic to view an art form this way—that and regularly attending poetry open mic series, slam competitions, curating and hosting poetry readings, as well as performing spoken word pieces to packed coffee shops, bars, bookstores and school auditoriums.

Let’s add the experiences of speaking with people of all walks of life about poetry with every opportunity that presents itself, and by then we might get to what ultimately led me down this road of thinking. Maybe it’s more along the lines of being a coping mechanism, as to say: my poetry and the poetry of others are worth the modern world’s time—if the modern world would notice that we’re very much still here.

Now in order to tackle the entire scope of this conundrum, of a one-time highly-revered art form becoming what I perceive to be a modern-day living fossilized art form, we have to define what a living fossil is and look at the first poems of the world. Where could they be found? Who wrote them? Why were they written? And do the first poems resemble modern day poetry at all? Also, when did poetry vanish (so to speak) from the public eye or ear for that matter?

To start, an organism that is a living example of an otherwise extinct group and that has remained virtually unchanged in structure and function over a long period of time (like sharks and horseshoe crabs) is considered to be a living fossil. There are two categories of living fossil: 1) those believed to have changed very little over time and still to retain a close resemblance to their older extinct relatives, and 2) those believed to be extinct, but to have been rediscovered in modern times.

It’s already sounding like a bit of a stretch but stick with me.

The answer in short as to where the first poems were written actually predates literacy, so technically they were not written at all, instead they were memorized and performed. It is here we find the art of oral tradition being where the first poems of the world existed. The art form was employed to remember historic events, genealogy, and common law. It also thrived in ways such as: instructing everyday activities, education, the telling of heroic tales in order to inspire young warriors, religious stories to continue the faith, as well as love songs and songs of common angst—all of which could be found in modern day poetry with renewed content and use of language.

Gathering this information and putting it into perspective you can see poetry has come a long way. So long that it was around before cuneiform-script was invented, before clay tablets and papyrus was used by ancient civilizations. Heck, I had a poetry mentor of mine put it further back in history, into prehistory, and to sum up his viewpoint on the matter I’ll paraphrase what was said one day in his workshop:

“The first poem spoken into the world had to have been from the caveman. Emerging from his dwelling to let out a great big sigh to the morning sun so as to say, here I am!”

I’m certain it sounds a bit abstract, or crazy even to consider, but it made so much sense to me and other poets alike—to know that something as small as a sigh to the morning sun from the dawn of man is oozing with poetic vibes.

Now let’s mix into the equation the personal experience (that I’m sure I share with many other poets) of speaking to people about writing poetry, or performing poetry on a monthly or weekly basis, and that sometimes (or quite often in my case) they would give the most inquisitive look and openly-question: do people really perform poetry still? Sometimes the question is: do people really write poetry still? And that could pang any poet’s heart to understand—that there are people who don’t believe poetry exists anymore, that poets don’t write let alone perform poetry any more—as if it is extinct!

So, to some, maybe poetry did vanish off the face of the earth—only to reappear now as Facebook invites to poetry open events from maybe a co-worker, past high school friend, or maybe you have a close friend that’s a closet poet who shoots you an invite to test the waters.

By now I hope you’re able to read the title with a different lens, a slightly different abstract perspective on the art form many adore. The rich history of poetry, the personal experience I have within the field, and the conversations I have with common folk that make me feel poetry in itself is a living fossil, an art form that has died many times over but yet constantly reappears throughout different cultures and regions of the world since its inception. One can easily argue the point that poetry is not a very lucrative endeavor, yet hundreds to thousands or even millions of poets have existed at every given time during human existence.

Poetry may not be as cool to some as sharks or horseshoe crabs, but I can assure you it’s up there. The layers of poetry are countless, and those who peel back the layers indulge in the beauty of all the spectrums of the human experience.

Ricardo Thomas Manuel Hernandez is from the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. With influences from early hip-hop culture, Ricardo is inspired by the written form of graffiti and the spoken word of rap. From painting walls under the street lights to hanging out on the corner kicking freestyle rhymes with friends, Ricardo found himself expressing the world around him through the arts. Today the spray can is no longer in hand, but he hasn’t put down the pen and pad. Ricardo is a veteran of the United Sates Air Force and served with the 71st Fighter Squadron. He is one of three host/curators for Poets Settlement Open Mic Series at Breuckelen Colony. Ricardo was named Brooklyn Poets‘ Yawper of the Year for 2014, and will be featured in the inaugural volume of the Brooklyn Poets Anthology (slated for release by Brooklyn Arts Press in 2017.)