In most oral societies, literature is the major art form, and the main genre in oral literature isn’t the novel, it’s mythtelling. Myths are conveyed through narrative poetry. So in oral cultures, by and large, poetry is the main way of trying to tell the truth. That, in a nutshell, is the history of poetry and truth for the first nine tenths of human existence. Then you start to get literacy. Then pretty soon you get prose and mathematics. You start to get experimental science. You get historical, philosophical, epistolary, and scientific writing. Later still you get prose fiction. Now you have lots of ways of trying to tell the truth – and lots of ways of trying not to – so different truths get told. A lot of humans get more interested in themselves than they are in the larger world. This isn’t just a literary phenomenon, of course. Urbanization, central heating, fossil fuel, and the electrical grid have a lot to do with it too. Print and broadcast journalism accelerate it. The internet sets it ablaze. People find themselves living in a sea of human voices, most of them talking of small-time human concerns. Human truth – heavily laced with human falsehood – obscures all other truth, and poetry suffers, like everything else, in these conditions.
- Robert Bringhurst, in conversation with Evan Jones over at The Manchester Review. You can read the whole thing here.