The 21st of March marked World Poetry Day – an internationally eminent day dedicated to supporting and celebrating linguistic diversity through poetic expression. This observance also aims to provide increasing opportunities for endangered languages to be heard through the promotion of the reading, writing, publishing, and teaching of poetry. The celebration of language and expression is especially pertinent as the 21st of March is also Human Rights Day in South Africa. This day thus also commemorates the sacrifices made to attain recognition of our human rights as South African citizens – not the least of which pertain to linguistic access and artistic expression within our multilingual society.

Described by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as “one of humanity’s most treasured forms of cultural and linguistic expression and identity”, poetry is also one of humanity’s oldest forms of communication, predating written language by several millennia. Oral traditions once reigned supreme as a means of passing on both history and providing entertainment. Today, while archival information and linguistic longevity is often rooted in written text, spoken word poetry continues to be an asset to many endangered languages which remain without a written format, effectively keeping these languages alive for future generations.

World Poetry Day was first endorsed at UNESCO’s 30th General Conference, which was held in Paris in March 1999. Since then, this day has strived to endorse all things poetic, encouraging people to take up the ancient practice of poetry recital and promote poetry as an esteemed artform besides more mainstream manifestations such as music, dance, and painting, as well as the more modern forms of audio-visual and social media. As both an observance and a celebration, World Poetry Day encapsulates the human endeavour to preserve all things artistic and cultural. Just as we have sent probes into space, boasting gold-plated records of what is believed – by a select few – to be the epitome of Earth sounds, so do we aspire to mitigate forgetting these treasures while earth-bound.

Pleasing Poetic Particulars…

  • The word “poetry” stems from the Greek term “poiesis,” which means “to make”
  • The earliest forms of poetry were sung or recited to help people remember genealogy, laws, and history
  • The longest poem in the world is an Indian epic 1.8 million words in length, titled Mahabharata
  • Poet George McDonald (1824–1905) wrote a two-word poem called The Shortest and Sweetest of Songs. It reads “Come Home”
  • The oldest surviving epic poem is the Epic of Gilgamesh and dates from the 3rd millennium BC in Sumer (modern day Iraq)
  • The word “unfriend” (meaning “one who is not a friend” as opposed to social media divorce) first appeared in a 1275 medieval poem titled Brut by Layamon
  • “Metrophobia” is the fear of poetry, while “metromania” is the compulsion to write poetry

So, step out and engage with verse. Pick up that poetry anthology you’ve been eyeing at your local bookstore, perform one of Shakespeare’s sonnets for the squirrels and the dogwalkers in your nearest park, or watch one of the million or so poetry performances readily available on YouTube. There’s no better excuse to read or write an oversweet ode to the ones you love, than a UNESCO approved occasion!