Poetry Around The World Is Celebrated on March 21st

Held every year since 1999 on March 21st, World Poetry Day celebrates the oldest way of expression that people from all cultures can identify with. We find poetry in the history of every culture, every nation. Poems express the core of our humanity, our shared feelings and values, bringing us all together.

UNESCO designated March 21st as World poetry Day in 1999, to support “linguistic diversity through poetic expression and increasing the opportunity for endangered languages to be heard”.

Poetry is the oldest form of storytelling. Stories told in ancient times were in the form of poems, even before the existence of the written language. In fact, it is safe to assume that poetry was born from the need to remember stories. The human brain seems to remember stories told in rhyme, especially if they have a rhythm, as well.

Rumi: Story Water (excerpt)

What Is Poetry?

The answer these days is harder to define. When I was a child, I learned that poetry differs from prose by its rhyme and rhythm, and its use of literary devices. But with the free verse poems the definition changed, since now poems no longer need to rhyme. I admit, this got so confusing for me, I gave up trying to write poetry. Maybe I also grew out of it.

Poetry is literary work expressing intense emotions and feelings, though it may also describe ideas. Its main characteristic is still a distinctive style and rhythm. This style and rhythm usually makes it easy to memorize. Certain moments in life still make poems pop into my head I learned as a young child. At eighty years old, my grandmother could still recite poems she learned as a child.

Poetry is literature in images. Using fewer words than prose, it speaks through images and evokes emotions.

Poetry, as a form of storytelling, expression of feelings is older than prose.

The Oldest Known Poetry

For the longest time we all learned that the first known poem was the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient story from Mesopotamia, created sometime in the 18th century BC. Until recently, I thought the first known poet in the world was Homer, who wrote the Iliad and Odyssey about a century later.

However, I learned that known poetry goes back in time even more. And, contrary to popular beliefs that poets in ancient times were men, the first known poet in the world was a woman named Enheduanna.

A high priestess of the Sumerian moon god Nanna, Enheduanna lived in the 23rd century BC in the city of Ur. She wrote several hymns dedicated to the priestess Inanna. The Descent of Inanna, an early epic poem, is the oldest known epic, and the oldest work of poetry ever written by a named poet, male or female.

Ancient Sumerian – and any – literature was written by anonymous writers. Or, most likely, created by several poets. However, since Enheduanna was an important figure as a high priestess, and princess (her father was king of an important city of Mesopotamia), she signed her name at the end of her work.

How did her poems even survive for so many centuries, we may wonder. Like most things that survived from ancient times to today, her work was carved in stone tablets.

Poetry Around the World

Since ancient times, poetry has been used worldwide to express strong feelings, and ideas. As an art form, or a form of literature, it has changed over time, taking on different forms in different cultures, forms that eventually started to be used universally.

Some forms of poetry are easy to recognize and most of us also relate it to the cultures they originated from, even if we read it or hear it in other languages.

Epic Poems

As discussed above, epic poems are the oldest type of poems, as they marked the beginning of literature in the world. Starting in Sumeria, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Greece, they tell a story (often very long story). The best-known epic poems are Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, but modern poets also used the form to write stories in verse.

More modern epic poems include Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Beowulf.

Some of my favorite poems in Hungarian literature are epic poems, like the Toldi-trilogy written by Arany János. Inspired by a real-life medieval hero, Toldi Miklós, the three epic poems recount his stories.


From the longest, let’s go to the shortest poems. Originated in Japan in the 15th century, the haiku consists of only three lines. Each has a limited number of syllables: five, seven, and five again. While it seems the simplest way to write a poem, it might be difficult to express a thought, a feeling in such a short way.

Oh tranquility haiku

The most famous haiku poet, Matsuo Basho (1644 – 1694), is known worldwide for developing Haikai poetry that was the base for haiku. His most representative work was the travel book filled with haiku poems, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

A popular form of poetry, haiku is now used internationally, in every language.


Shakespeare was the poet who made sonnets famous. He wrote sonnets on many different themes, 154 of them published in one volume, in 1609. However, he also included several others in Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, and Love’s Labor Lost.

Sonnet 18 - Shakespeare

Though we tend to think of Shakespeare when we hear the word sonnet, this form of poetry actually originated in Italy, in the 13th century. The word sonnet derives from the Italian word “sonetto”, meaning “sound”. While many Italian poets of the Renaissance explored the form, including Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarch is the one credited with perfecting it.

Usually (though not always) dealing with the topic of love, the sonnet is a 14-line poem, with internal rhymes. The rhymes differ depending on the style of the sonnet (Petrarchan or Shakespearean).

Pastoral Poetry

Pastoral poems talk about the natural world, landscapes, and the rural world. They have been around since Ancient Greece, and still popular today.

Rhymed, Blank Verse, and Free Verse Poems

While rhymed poetry is most recognizable, since it always has a rhyme scheme, blank verse and free verse poetry are not so easy to recognize.

Blank verse at least has a specific rhythm, even if it doesn’t rhyme. Usually written in iambic pentameter (each line contains five iambs, two syllable pairs where the second syllable is emphasized). Shakespeare used this form often. However, in his plays, he also used free verse.

The most confusing form of poetry for me is the free verse. Used since the Middle Ages, it became popular in the 19th century, and to this day it is the most popular form of poetry. It has no rhyme, and no rhythm, though it has an internal structure, and sometimes sentences or phrases might be repeated.

Concrete Poems

And then there are the concrete poems, probably the most fun, playful ones. Even if some of them were religious poems. Concrete poems combine image with the words. The words of the poem are arranged on the page to resemble the shape of the thing they describe.

The term “concrete poetry” is relatively new, however, the idea existed as far back as in Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greek poet Simmers of Rhodes composed poems that resembled a pair of wings, an egg, and an axe, among other things.

Most English-speaking readers are familiar with Lewis Carroll’s “The Mouse’s Tale” from Alice in Wonderland. A playful poem, the story the Mouse tells Alice, it is arranged in the shape of a mouse’s tale.

My Personal Experiences with Poetry

I grew up on Hungarian poetry. Even before I could write, I learned a few poems, mostly written by Sándor Petőfi. When visiting my grandmother as a very young child, we talked to her dog and her chicken by reciting a Petőfi-poem. I learned more Petőfi-poems than any other, since he wrote some for every occasion, and they were easy to remember. They all rhymed and had a rhythm similar to folk poems.

My favorite thing about the Romanian language was Eminescu’s poetry. In fact, I remember learning his longest poem by heart, and it wasn’t even difficult.

It was also a Robert Frost poem that connected me to my American husband and his culture when I first met him.

I also wrote poems and short rhyming verses as a teen. Though I gave up on it a long time ago, I still enjoy reading it.

Poetry Brings Different Cultures Together

Every culture in the world understands poetry and has poets, both in folklore and written by known individual poets. Sometimes, even when we don’t understand a new language, we still enjoy a poem and since it uses repetition, we might pick up new phrases or words.

Poems are also the easiest ways to remember expressions, words, and phrases in a new language.

On World Poetry Day we honor poets in every culture, of every language. We can use the day as an opportunity to revive oral traditions of poetry recitals, read and write poetry. We can also look for the connections between poetry and other art forms, like music, dance, theater, and painting.

As all art forms, poetry, even if it uses language specific to different cultures, has the power to bring together people from all over the world, regardless of cultural background.

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