What is the oral tradition? How does it relate to poetry? How has poetry and our relationship to it changed over time in the Western world, from where it began to where it is now? What is it now as opposed to what it was?

Oral traditions refer to compositions transmitted orally rather than in written form. Many cultures have stories that were originally told orally but have since been written down.

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The term "literature" derives from the notion of written texts, but many cultures either were not literate or transmitted much of their cultural heritage orally. Oral tradition refers to oral transmission, performance, and composition of culturally significant narratives. Much of oral tradition was handed down in poetic form and consisted of epics performed by skilled bards who adapted and added to earlier works that they had heard. Oral traditional works were often improvised in performance using standard phrases, scenes, and stories. Many cultures have oral traditions that were later transcribed or written down. The Homeric epics, Slavic tales of Prince Marko, the African Sundiata Epic, and Norse sagas are part of oral tradition.

Many cultures move from illiteracy to scribal literacy to the modern condition of hyperliteracy, in which everyone can read and writing is a primary means of cultural transmission. In nonliterate societies, crucial information is codified in an oral tradition, which is composed collectively and shared orally. Epic is not an individual expression of the poet, but as Homer and Hesiod suggest, the Muses (or tradition) speaking through the poet. In literate societies, although early epics still tend to have echoes of oral tradition, they become much more individuated and poetry is more likely to be composed by individual authors and expressive of their unique viewpoints rather than representing a collective consciousness.

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