It will no doubt prove impossible to determine when the first “poem” was composed. However, we do know the first person to attach their name to a poem. It was a high priestess of a temple in Iraq. Her name was Enheduanna and she lived more than 4,200 years ago.
A fascinating article in The Literary Hub by Charles Holton asks why this pioneer is so unknown, especially when compared to the first novelist (Mursaki Shikibu) and the first essayist (Michel de Montaigne):
“She wrote poems, edited hymnals, and may have taught other women at the temple how to write. Archaeologists discovered her in the 1920s and her works were published in English beginning in the 1960s. Yet, rarely if ever does she appear in history textbooks. There are almost no mentions of her within pop culture. No one name checks her in song lyrics, she isn’t taught in MFA courses, and there are no paintings of her except for a few crudely drawn sketches that float around the outer edges of the internet.”
Holton suggests there are three main reasons for this lack of celebration. The first is that cuneiform scholars “have an almost divine-like ability to take ultra-fascinating ideas and make them slightly less exciting than a traffic ticket.” The second is basic sexism (although the first novelist Shikibu was a Japanese woman). The third is that historians tend to concentrate on events and inventions that are more technical than humanist. Holton stresses that
“[i]t is incredibly inspiring that the first author that we know of in all of human history was a woman living within a kick-your-teeth-down-your-throat, highly repressive patriarchal society. I imagine it took a lot of courage for her to step out of the convention of anonymous writing and boldly attach her name to her works.”
Some of her poems at least can be considered radical:
“In one of Enheduanna’s Inanna poems, Inanna kills An, the chief deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, and becomes the leader of the gods herself. I’m not sure how the male religious establishment felt about this, but I’m guessing they weren’t thrilled. Perhaps we could regard this as the first feminist poem?
We should thank Holton for reminding us that, regardless of patriarchal suppression, artistic endeavour has always been a gender-neutral exercise.