Do Porpoises “Write” Poetry?

Porpoises and close kin dolphins may be a lot smarter than we give them credit for.  Recently, researchers have discovered that, when dolphins encounter a stranger of their species, they introduce themselves with a greeting that appears to consist of their own distinct names and other information.*  That is amazing for many reasons, such as that they have the self-awareness to identify themselves as individuals and that they have social protocols similar to our own.  Although researchers are hesitant to call the structured dolphin whistles language, these sounds do seem to convey fairly complex meaning.  Just how like us are the dolphins, and what questions about them reignite questions we ask about ourselves?  Could they construct poems?  Are they motivated to?

The question about porpoises writing poetry came up in a discussion of imagery at another blog,).  I was caught by the question and wondered how it applied to humans and poetry.  I think it is far too early in our understanding of our ocean cousins to be concerned with dolphinian poetry, but it does raise the old question about why they or we would write poetry to begin with.  (I’m using the word “write” metaphorically, of course.)

Poetry can be a fraught topic.  Students often dread studying it, while poets and academics complain that too few people read poetry.  Nevertheless, amateurs write rhyming stanzas for family reunions and retirement parties.  Teens and young adults, in particular, write free verse describing their angst.  Purists deplore retirement party poetry and angst-poetry as travesty, claiming it diminishes all poetry by being just plain bad.  There’s a disconnect about motivation in that complaint.

Many years of education have taught me that poetry is based on economy, community, memory, emotion, and what I’ll call grounding.  Poetry began in oral culture, when people could pass along stories and ideas only by memorizing them in some form.  The appealing rhythms and structural devices of poetry, such as rhyme, made the stories and ideas easier to remember, as well as adding something similar to musical pleasure.  Because poetry had to be memorized, it depended on economy, or packing as much information and feeling as possible into as few words as possible.  That economy was largely accomplished by calling on community memory through references to other poems, mythology, and well-known events as well as through symbols and images.  Imagery and metaphor have the advantage of touching us viscerally and grounding us in our environment.  If we speak of autumn leaves falling, we can call up physical memory, sadness about or fear of winter (which also calls up the idea of death), and personal experiences of autumn and winter or the ideas they represent.  Over thousands of years and through the invention of writing, poetry has become refined into a variety of conventions and forms, as well as processes of economy and enrichment.

Often, for students, all this becomes merely a puzzle they lack the life-experience and motivation to solve.  Sometimes we try to compensate for the life-experience with footnotes, but we do little to encourage the motivation to read poetry.

I have a theory about writing and reading.  It is that our first natural desire is expression, followed closely by the knowledge-seeking of reading.  This means that writing or forming language to communicate is our first impulse, so why shouldn’t that apply to poetry as well?  What if we taught the economy and elements of poetry—even at the college level—mainly as tools of expression rather than only reception or knowledge-making?

I can tell you what would happen, because I’ve tried it.  You would get lots of bad poetry.  But, so what?  It’s like the ridiculous comic paradox: you can’t go in the water until you know how to swim.  All expressive experience with language gradually makes us better speakers and writers of language.  Why not of poetry as well?

Encouraging people and giving them the tools to write poetry would have the added health advantage of helping them refine experience and emotion.  A former colleague who is a biologist once told me that, after he would write up his field research for potential publication in a science journal, he would sit down and write a poem about it in order to express the wonder and other emotions he experienced.  Although he didn’t intend to share his poetry, doing this helped him understand his reactions as he tried to reshape them into the economy and grace of poetic language.

So, do porpoises write poetry?  If they have language and the desire to express and remember their life experience, then my guess is they do.  When you think about it, it’s natural.

*“Bottlenose dolphins appear to engage in formal greeting ceremonies while at sea.  The ceremonies involve exchanges of signature whistles, which likely contain information such as name, sex, age, health status, intent and more.”

** Memoirs of a Husk, in a post titled, “If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words” (


One thought on “Do Porpoises “Write” Poetry?

  1. What a thought provoking piece.
    I have never been able (or thought myself able) to write poetry. I tried after the death of my mother but it felt like manufactured tears.
    What you say about the oral tradition is something that’s been on my mind, well, in my mind somewhere. On Monday when I went for a solitary walk (as you may have read), I put my camera and phone away – and realised I had started to use them as my memory. It was a real effort – albeit an enjoyable one – to see and feel and remember things I would have seen and felt and remembered not so long ago.
    Verse is helpful, obviously, in remembering – I think of the English and Scottish ballads I had to learn for exams at school – morality tales and history wrapped up in rhyming words. And the more I write, the more I find it essential to have my rhythm right, it almost hurts my head if I can’t quite work it. Do porpoises get headaches when they can’t sing? Do they have the porpoise equivalent of shamans do you think?
    I absolutely love the anecdote about the academic – I am passing that one on – I think it’s a fantastic idea. Learned journals should commission such a piece of the occasional author on a random basis! Finally (for now) thank you for sharing a post i had forgotten. Very timely. And now, for more thinking 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s