Definitions (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Oral literature comprises a vast range of verbal products, including modern blues lyrics, African drum songs, ancient Greek epic poetry, urban legends, the latest jokes or limericks, ballads, folk songs, folktales, children’s rhymes, and streetcorner games such as the “dozens” (a series of rhyming insult verses that can be extended to any length by improvisation). On one hand, it is quite useful for an investigator to know about all of these genres of oral literature, to take the term at its most inclusive, so that one can learn by comparison exactly what makes each given composition “oral” and therefore different from its written counterpart. On the other hand, some restriction of the term is needed to examine in any detail the workings of such literature. This essay, then, focuses on one narrow area of oral literature that has exerted influence of a disproportionate magnitude. While at times referring to African and Asian literature, most of the essay discusses Western literature. Unfortunately, this means excluding such great compositions as the Babylonian Gilgamesh (c. 2000 b.c.e.) story, the Iranian Shhnma (1010 c.e.), and the Sanskrit Rmyaṇa (c. 500 b.c.e.; The Ramayana, 1870-1874) and Mahbhrata (c. 400 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; The Mahabharata, 1834), as...
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Greece (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Modern Western culture, for which “illiterate” is a pejorative word, takes writing for granted as something both necessary for civilization and good in itself. However, those who set out to read ancient Greek literature must divest themselves of this, among many other modern attitudes, and think themselves back into a culture which, while it valued speech above most things, did not have at all the same regard for the written word. Ancient Greece was an oral culture, and its early literature is oral literature; it is only when one understands the exigencies of oral composition and the expectations of an audience attuned to the oral art that Greek epic and lyric poetry—even history, oratory, and drama—become fully intelligible.
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedros (c. fourth century b.c.e.; Phaedrus, 1804), Socrates relates the story of the invention of writing; his account provides a good starting point from which to examine Greek attitudes to written art. As Socrates tells it, in the Egyptian region of Naucratis lived the god Thoth, inventor of numbers, geometry, astronomy, and writing. Thoth once asked Thamus, king of the land, to pass on these arts to the citizens, for the good of all. “My discovery will enable the Egyptians to become wiser and better at remembering,” said Thoth, when talk came to the new craft of writing. Thamus refused, however, saying, “This will make men forget, seeing that...
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Non-Homeric oral poetry (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Although the earliest extant Greek lyric poetry postdates Homer, one cannot assume that epic poetry was “invented” before lyric; indeed, it is clear from the Iliad and the Odyssey that Homer knew other genres of poetry. He pictures the social use of genres which were to become familiar from later poets. Wedding songs can be paralleled in the work of Sappho in the late seventh and early sixth century b.c.e.; laments are the first songs in a long oral tradition that is alive today in rural Greece; choral maiden songs were composed later by Alcman and Pindar; and hymns to the gods were later elaborated as long narrative poems such as the Homeric hymns. It must be assumed that these later poems simply continued a tradition of oral poetry as old, if not older, than that of Homeric epic. It may even be that epic verse developed from the simpler meters of lyric poetry, as some scholars suggest (see G. Nagy, Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter, 1974). This would explain some of the richness of Homer’s poems: They incorporate the varied themes and emotions of the range of concurrent lyric poetry known to the poet Homer, that poetry that closely preserves the folk traditions of the Greek people.
Early Greek lyric poetry shows its oral heritage in several important ways: first, by its directness of style, simple syntax, and use of concrete, often stunning, images (qualities much admired by Ezra...
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Choral poetry (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
A discussion of the unique combination of public and personal which defines early Greek poetry would not be complete without mention of choral poetry, that elaborate art form that used words, music, and dance to celebrate important community rites. The earliest representative of the form, Alcman, active in Sparta in the seventh century b.c.e., displays the characteristics marking this increasingly important poetry. In his parthenion (maiden song), for example, the local mythology of Sparta combines with gnomic utterances (“Do not try to fly to heaven; no one should try to wed Aphrodite”) and details of the immediate occasion, such as the praise of the local maidens through extensive comparisons to traditional beauties: stars, sun, moon, horses, and goddesses. Only the introduction of strophic structure (the format in which two identical verse units are capped by a third, differing in meter), which might have occurred in the sixth century b.c.e., differentiates Alcman’s choral song from those composed in the fifth century flowering of the genre, both in the choruses of Athenian tragedy and in the works of Bacchylides and Pindar.
“One might say that each song in oral tradition has its original within it and even reflects the origin of the very genre to which it belongs.” This observation by Albert Lord, though meant to be general, might apply...
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Other issues (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Although not discussed here, other oral traditions are rich, if not as thoroughly documented in Western literature. A fuller account of the sources and methods of oral traditional narrative poetry is needed. Even if it were to be restricted to Europe, such an account would have to examine Russian poems such as Slovo o polku Igoreve (c. 1187; The Tale of the Armament of Igor, 1915), the large field of Romance poetry other than The Song of Roland and the Poem of the Cid; and nonepic genres such as Greek and Irish praise poetry (Pindar and Bacchylides, bardic verse) and Icelandic skaldic compositions.
Of interest too is the relation between written and oral forms: It is clear that the two modes interact; it is equally certain that there is no one sure marker of oral or written style, since copying goes on from one sort to the other. However, while there has been much work done to “prove” that certain works have roots in oral traditionals, the student of modern literature would benefit most from the study of the figure of “speech” in known written literature. Repetition of words, motifs, themes—all of these in written works, such as the novel, are in fact the heritage of a “literature” that was not written but spoken to an audience that responded to such symmetries. What is the true written work—the epistolary novel? How deeply is the idea of speech and hearing ingrained in all literature? These are...
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Bibliography (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Acker, Paul. Revising Oral Theory: Formulaic Composition in Old English and Old Icelandic Verse. New York: Garland, 1998. Places oral-formulaic analysis within the larger context of folklore and mythology theory, concentrating on Eddic poetry, Beowulf, and Old Norse rune poetry.
DuBois, Thomas A. Lyric, Meaning, and Audience in the Oral Tradition of Northern Europe. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. By looking at the ways lyric songs are interpreted by various Northern European cultures, the author points out significant differences between audiences and notes the characteristics they have in common. Includes comments on lyrics within epics, religious lyrics, and the songs of Shakespeare. A unique and valuable work.
Foley, John Miles. Homer’s Traditional Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Addresses the question of how an understanding of oral tradition can illuminate the understanding of the Iliad and the Odyssey and other ancient poetry.
_______. The Singer of Tales in Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Covers the theory of oral-formulaic composition and offers specific analyses of Serbian charms, Homeric hymns, and Old English poetry using the theory.
_______. Traditional Oral...
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