Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks writes that victims of severe cerebral hemorrhages, who have lost the ability to speak, read, write, to play or even remember music, still have rhythm. Rhythm seems to be hard-wired into our nervous systems. But why?
We know rhythm is an excellent mnemonic device. Try reciting “a, b, c, d” aloud without falling into the sing-song rhythm of the alphabet song. Rhythm is what made it possible for Homer to recite the Illiad and the Odyssey from memory. Ancient prayers, rituals and ceremonies were composed in rhythmic verse and often memorized by people who were illiterate. One can easily imagine that the repetition of all those “begats” in the Bible also made it possible for families to keep track of their genealogies for centuries before they were written down.
Rhythm is a basic element of music and language. There is some debate about which came first. If we accept that the rhythmic croaking of frogs is a form of music, then we have our answer. But did hominids engage in such singing or use some form of rhythmic communication before language evolved?
Human infants use grunts, coos, whimpers, whines and a variety of pre-verbal sounds to communicate. These are often accompanied by gestures that appear to emerge instinctually. No one needs to teach a toddler that reaching both arms upward, opening and closing the hands, and bouncing while repeating little high-pitched pleading sounds means “pick me up.”
Ask a stranger in a foreign city for directions, and if you have a severely limited common vocabulary, you will both inevitably fall into using a form of sign language that appears to be universal. We all know how to indicate “turn-left,” and all seem to understand that repeated overhand waving indicates the desired destination is far away.
It’s not hard to imagine that our ancestors used gestures and sounds to communicate before language emerged. We’ve all seen those astonishing elaborate dances bumble bees perform to indicate the location of food sources to other members of their hive. It takes no great leap of the imagination to believe that early hominids might have performed similar dances.
Rhythm would certainly have made those dances easier to remember. Natural selection would favor those that could do the best job of relaying information concerning the location of food or water, or indicating to a youngster how to hunt, or how to behave in battle.
However it emerged, rhythm is an essential part of what defines us as human. Poetry comes from this ancient, essential place, which is also the source of music, dance, ritual and theater. Let us not make the mistake of believing poetry is merely a cerebral art. The infant in this video reminds us just how natural it us for us to be caught up in the pure pleasure of rhythm.