NOTE: For those who are not familiar with Jaynes’ ideas, I suggest you check out this Wikipedia Link first: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Jaynes
One of Julian Jaynes’ pivotal insights in developing his theory of consciousness came from his study of preliterate poetry. The frequent occurrence of situations where the characters heard the Gods speaking to them as to how to proceed suggested to Jaynes that these poems might actually be reporting how pre-literate people experienced the world. It also led him to suggest that the mysterious Ka of Egyptian theology was none other than those same voices.
Prior to that time, most scholars took those voices to be metaphoric, or stylized ways of reporting insights, but Jaynes took them literally and for that we have to thank him.
The second insight Jaynes had came from his own personal experience with poetry, both as a writer and reader, where he quite correctly saw that the ecstatic mental and emotional state experienced by today’s poets during the advent of a poem was linked to what pre-literate people experienced when hearing bi-cameral voices.
Jayne’s lack of experience with spontaneous oral composition of poetry, however, led him to several inaccurate conclusions about the nature of preliterate poetry and the nature of the Muse’s voice, which is a quite different internal voice ( in its characteristics) from the guiding voices pre-literate peoples experienced and some 2% of us still hear in times of stress and high creativity.
My own experience with both kinds of voices leads me to believe that the Muse’s voice came out of a later evolutionary development that resulted from early humans imitating their right-brained guiding voices.
Jayne’s errors stemmed largely from the fact he was only acquainted with the written composition of a poem, which is quite different from spontaneous oral composition, the latter being a largely unconscious act, closer to dreaming while awake than conscious writing.
In addition, most of the scholarship on oral, preliterate composition that Jaynes relied on is inaccurate for the same reason: lack of actual experience. It is impossible to experience spontaneous oral composition from the fully conscious mindset of a scholar or scientist.
True oral composition It requires surrendering completely to the artistic unconscious, or more accurately, (in Jungian terms) to the Poetry “archetype” . My experience in doing so has led me to believe that the mindset I enter when spontaneously creating an oral poem is not only very close what was experienced by preliterate poets, but also, very close to the mindset of preliterate humans when the heard bicameral voices.
Finally, I have pursued Jaynes’ insight into the nature of the Ka a bit further than he did. Based on my own experiences, I have come to believe that the Egyptians desire to keep the Ka alive was the seed that gave birth to their elaborate and totally consuming mummification practices.
Most of the criticism and explication of Jaynes work is from scientists from various disciplines but very little of it from poets, which I find appalling, since many of Jayne’s initial insights came from his acute observations on the nature of pre-literate poetry, in particular Homer’s great epics.
We should remember that Jaynes clearly loved poetry. More importantly, he knew it as much from the inside, that is emotionally, as he did from the outside. If you don’t see poetry that way, the way Jaynes saw it, you’re going to miss much of what Jaynes was about. I can understand that blind eye in scientists, but we shouldn’t see it in poets. Yet we do.
While poets almost to a man considered Jaynes’ revolutionary insights a confirmation of their own intuitive sense of the essential nature of poetry (the gods speak through us) they haven’t gone much further.
This silence stems partially from the fact that so little is really known about preliterate composition, by both poets and scholars. All that poets and scholars really know is the act of writing poetry, but speaking poetry, the spontaneous creation of poetry without any premeditation at all, is an entirely different animal.
I am one of the few poets today who can create poetry in much the same manner as pre-literate poetry was created. I canspeakpoetry. Because of that, I am particularly well situated to shed additional light on why preliterate poetry was such a powerful indicator for Jaynes that preliterate man had a much different consciousness.
With all that said, I must add that Jaynes really didn’t know pre-literate poetry at the level he should have. That is understandable since most of the scholarship on it is woefully wrong. All he really knew was his own experience with literate, written poetry, which he used to intuit the nature of preliterate oral poetry.
That intuition was close enough to allow him to come close to grabbing the golden ring, but he missed by wide enough a margin to need some correction. Hopefully, this poet’s experience will supply that correction.
I want to make it abundantly clear that by the term oral poetry I am not talking about mentally composing and memorizing a poem and then speaking it out, or writing a poem and memorizing it and then speaking it out, but creating one out of nothing, with no premeditation of any kind.
“Sing Muse and through me tell the story…” as Jaynes makes clear, describes exactly what Homer was doing: spontaneously creating poetry without any premeditation at all. It is what I do, and for that matter anyone can do with the proper preparation. I have hundreds ofrecordingsthat back up this claim.
My first encounter with Jaynes’ work took place in the late eighties, when I became curious about the possibility of creating poetry in the manner of the pre-iterate poets. Where that curiosity eventually took me is the subject of a recent biographical novelAlice Hickey: Between Worlds,but suffice it to say that it led me through a series of psychic experiences, not the least of which was the spontaneous oral creation of a long, mythic poem,The Witnesses Log, whose meaning was a complete mystery to me.
Although the existence of psychic phenomena is not generally accepted by scientists after the time of Newton and his peers, I can categorically state that none of the world’s great poetry would have been created without it. No Shakespeare, no Homer, no Emily Dickenson. None. Rein. Nada. Zilch.
I consider alltruepoetry to be the result of a primal psychic act. I am not talking about the “poetry” of Dr. Zeuss, or Shel Siverstein or the overly conscious poetry of our academic journals, or the hundreds of bawdy limericks that float about boy’s locker rooms.
The poetry I am talking about is nothing less than the unbidden, ecstatic emergence of the unconscious into consciousness in the form of a rhythmic, metaphorical story. It is the poetry that Robert Graves inThe White Goddesssays “..raises the hair on your neck.”
One last thing: the difference between writing a poem (which is a largely conscious process) andspeakingpoetry, lies in the fact that speakingpoetry can only take place if the poet turns off his thinking , conscious mind (“Sing Muse and through me tell the story…”) and has the courage to remain on the hazy golden thread between consciousness and unconsciousness as thespeakingunfolds itself .
In my experience, it is a much more powerful physical and psychic experience than is encountered in writing poetry. I also believe it to be very close to the mind state Jaynes’ posits as belonging to preliterate man.
What I have to say about Jaynes in this knol , JULIAN JAYNES PART TWO, I have taken from an earlier non-fiction book, SOULSPEAK the Outward Journey of the Soul.
The on-line journal and Alice Hickey provided the excerpts for JULIAN JAYNES PART ONE, the knol that accompanies this one. That knol is primarily concerned with clarifying some of Jaynes theories about the Ka and the nature of Muse’s voice. This knol, JULIAN JAYNES PART TWO, is primarily concerned with correcting some of Jynes misconceptions about the nature of ancient oral poetry as well as providing some accurate information about how ancient oral epic poetry was created and how the great themes were continually recreated by each generation of poets.
“SOULSPEAK” is the name I eventually gave to the act ofspeakingpoetry so as to distinguish it from the act of writing poetry.“The Witnesses Logmyth” I often refer to is the long mythic poem that wound its way out of my unconscious in December 2000
After wading through perhaps too many of the academic papers on Jaynes, I decided not to mangle my excellent prose by reducing it to “paperspeak.” Instead I thought it might be useful for the scientifically minded to get a taste of artistic prose (and thinking) in its native form.
Jaynes obviously appreciated that style or he wouldn’t have been a poetry fan. Thus I have supplied excerpts that address certain aspects of Jaynes’ thinking that don’t seem to be completely understood by both his detractors and admirers.
One last thing. The term “witness”is used extensively in these excerpts. Its’ strict meaning within the context of these excerpts is “to observe and report” , or in simpler terms.to create a story.In addition, you can equate soul to unconscious in reading these excerpts. Jung did so in much of his own thinking, so perhaps we should follow his lead.
FROM SOULSPEAK: the Outward Journey of the Soul
The Effect of Writing on Consciousness
“Speak, Muse, and through me tell the story . . .”
….I want to take a side trip into the consciousness of preliterate man. Much of what I’m going to say has been gleaned from Julian Jaynes’
Origin Of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind.I first encountered Jaynes’ book in the early stages of my attempts to create a spontaneous oral poetry. As I progressed in oral composition, Jaynes’ book somehow appeared and opened all the remaining doors. This book should be read by anyone interested in the nature of poetry and the arts in preliterate times, as well as by anyone interested in the true impact of writing on our culture.
It is apparent to me (as an oral poet) that in our literate, technological world, speech is often seen as a sloppy, unreliable version of the written (printed) word. One might say this attitude first emerged when Moses came down from the mountain with written commandments. It was a signal that things were about to change. It was a signal that speech (the miracle that separated man from the animals and allowed men to communicate with each other and the gods) was about to lose its primacy to the act of writing—a product of the necessities of trade. When Moses delivered a written contract to his people to assure them of God’s intentions, it symbolized, among other things, the change from a wandering, tribal culture to a more centralized one that was taking place throughout that part of the world. But in another sense, and perhaps an unconscious one, it intimated that the spoken word couldn’t be trusted. Even the spoken word of the gods.
In a related, inverse sense it also symbolizes our unconscious realization that we were beginning to lose our ability to speak from the soul. Or as Jaynes puts it, we were beginning to lose our ability to hear the gods correctly. After all, the two acts are different phases of the same moon. We are reminded of this relationship by Homer, our greatest preliterate poet (and to my mind the greatest poet of any period), when he says, “Speak, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending. . .” because in that opening statement he is equating the act ofspeakingto the gods speaking through him (i.e., of hearing the gods). Two sides of the same moon. The invention of writing was going to have a huge effect on us. In a very real sense, we were going to lose that moon, and get a paper one in its place.
As Jaynes intuited, the invention of writing brought about a very rapid change in our consciousness—our sense of ourselves. That change is symbolized by another biblical story—the story of our expulsion from the Garden of Eden into the world of knowledge, of self-consciousness. It symbolized our expulsion into the endless, forward-gazing, backward-looking, second-guessing world that grew within us and that now occupies all of our anxious, waking days.
When we learned to write, we lost much of our ability to float in the sea ofis,the very same sea that gives us access to the soul—the very same sea where the gods speak to us. This didn’t happen overnight. It took centuries. This “leaving of Paradise” is still going on in remote parts of the world: there are still some small, remnant cultures in the deep interior of Africa and New Guinea that exist in a true tribal, preliterate state. And that is where we want to go, if only symbolically, to learn more about how tribal man spoke from the soul. To learn more, we are going to have to look at preliterate poetry, because that is the distant ancestor of SOULSPEAK.
Preliterate Poetry: A Primer
Preliterate poetry is not literature, but an intensely human art.
Earlier, the focus was on the visual art of preliterate tribal man because that is what has survived. We are lucky to have that, because as we know by looking at contemporary tribal art, most of it is fashioned from wood or bone or feathers, not metal or rock. Preliterate man was not overly concerned with the historic importance of his art. It was something he lived and died with, not something he donated to museums for tax write-offs and subsequent eternal life in the Metropolitan catalogs. While these ancient tribal pieces do provide an important window into his world, they are not quite enough for our purposes. But of the arts that were equally important to him, if not more so—his poetry and music and dance—we have nothing. Well, almost nothing. The music and dance, of course, are completely lost. But in the Western world, we do have the translated, transcribed versions of preliterate poetry at its most developed. It is no longer tribal poetry, but it is close enough in many respects to give us a window. I am talking about David’s Psalms and Homer’s epics. Of course, they are not quite what you would hear if David or Homer were around to chant them, but they give us some idea of what that poetry was like.
There is a short but detailed exposition of the nature of ancient preliterate poetry in the latter half of this book. Despite some scholars’ (and poets’) ideas of how that poetry was composed and how it sounded, there is no doubt in my mind that the poems were chanted spontaneously, without premeditation, to slow rhythmic music and that they were responded to in the same manner. Only lately are scholars (and poets) beginning to understand the communal (speaker/responder) nature of all oral poetry. This is because they have tended to interpret and describe it based on the only poetry they really know: written poetry. Except for its impulse and result, however, written poetry is a completely different poetry, being single-voiced and written in private, without music. One is an oral/aural art designed for the ear and one is a written/visual art designed for the eye.
This is an important distinction. ….. Being a poet who creates poems in both the written and oral mode, the scholarship on preliterate poetry makes me wince at times, much as an athlete might wince at a sportswriter’s description of a game. For example, my assertion that listeners responded to David and Homer will make many scholars and poets leap up in objection. Yet these were public poems spoken to others. One has only to actually practice the art or visit a black church to see the truth of this assertion. After all, African-American churches are a visible, true remnant of a once-vibrant tribal culture. In fact, what takes place at black churches is close in spirit to what took place when David and Homer chanted their poetry. And don’t forget that Phemios, Homer’s alter-ego in the Odyssey, is chanting his songs in the midst of the continual gaming and whoring and drinking of the suitors, hardly the counterpart of a reading at the American Academy of Poets.
The term intimates that something extraordinary is happening—something that separates it from ordinary talk. The termspeakingsalso emphasizes the often-disregarded fact that preliterate poetry sounded like speech. It might have been chanted, and employed certain idioms from time to time, but the syntax and structure were identical to speech. One has only to read a strict translation of Homer to see this. Indeed, it can’t be any other way,because, in essence, we can only spontaneously speak in one way: the way we speak to each other, in stories. There is, however, a major difference between peaking and everyday speech. Speakings come from a deeper level than our normal speech. That is what distinguishes it from our everyday speech. Poetic speech is ordinary speech in structure. Its authority is internally generated. It has a cadence—an authority—we instantly recognize, because what we hear in a speaking is the sound of the soul speaking rather than the self. That is the authority we hear. Everyone knows the difference once they’ve heard it. Or, more to the point, spoken it.
Now let’s take a closer look at tribal poetry. We have seen that tribal man had a poetic, unpremeditated speech (like ordinary speech). It had the same syntax and structure as ordinary speech, but was cadenced and spoken to rhythmic music. And it was responded to in the same manner. Cadence is nowadays understood as any one of a number of metrical schemes the poet can adopt to give rhythm to his writing. But the cadence of a speaking comes from an internal source—from the soul, our very deepest self—not from some book on metrics.
The soul (or as Jaynes would have it, the right brain) speaks in cadence. It is a cadence over which the poet has no control—a cadence that establishes, in part, the authority we hear in a speaking. It is my belief that this cadence—though coming from a deep internal source—is shaded by the language being spoken. Jaynes, on the other hand, believes that the cadence consists of dactyls (a stressed sound followed by two unstressed sounds, e.g. “higgledy, piggledy”) regardless of the language, and cites Homer’s work and the apparent rhythm of speaking in tongues as evidence. Well, maybe he’s right, and maybe he’s not. What is important is the realization that the cadence is internally generated. And powerful.
……..All preliterate poetry consisted of stories—sometimes very long, sometimes very short (as in the case of refrains), but stories nevertheless. We dream in stories, so why should the soul speak any differently when we’re awake? If the simple beauty of this isn’t immediately apparent, it may be because the task seems too complex. You’re probably saying to yourself: not only do I have to speak (in cadence) to rhythmic music, and to a responder, but I also have to make up a spontaneous story at the same time. Now how in hell am I going to do that? Well, the answer is, relax, you don’t have to do anything. Your body will do it for you. With a little help from the soul, which is never far from the body.
I believe the body contains an instinctual memory of the mindset of tribal man, especially with regard to the art of speaking. Tribal man was just like us but not quite. “Not quite” because he had a very quiet consciousness by our standards—there was very little separating his surface self from his deepest self, or soul. The whale was just beneath the boat all the time. This conscious state could be likened to a state of meditation, or as Jaynes suggests, the semi-hypnotic state that sometimes occurs when you’re driving on the freeway. You somehow make all the right logical, physical decisions to get from point A to point B but have no idea or memory how you did it.
Amazing. Someone was driving, but not the conscious you that’s always so busy controlling your every move (or so you’d like to think) by projecting your future and second-guessing your past. By thinking. But as our freeway trip just proved, you can go about your life completely tuned out to that busy consciousness. That semi-hypnotic state is perhaps as close as we can come to understanding how tribal man went about his life. In other words, it was all done without the busy self-consciousness that drives our lives. Tribal man simply didn’t have to contend with that kind of consciousness, he lived close to his soul, and because of that, speaking came very easily to him. It simply possessed him. And when it did, he spoke to the gods. In stories. …..
Citing the Psalms and Homer as examples of late tribal poetry may be misleading. They are, but at its most developed state. They occurred just before, or during, the period when writing was invented. This was a time when tribal/feudal cultures were changing into more centralized trading cultures. By that time, singular poets had started to emerge—men with extraordinary gifts such as David and Homer. This is the beginning of a court poetry, in which the communal, or antiphonal, nature of tribal poetry began to change. Responses had an etiquette now—they were no longer the spontaneous, passionate, soul-driven responses of early tribal man. They were more mannered. They deferred to the leadership of the lead speaker. At times they’d sound something like the responses in a contemporary black church, and sometimes they’d be more like crowd responses at a hotly contested ballgame. But they weren’t the organic, interwoven responses of early tribal poetry, when both speaker and responding speaker had equal weight.
Because of this, ….. We want to go back to the earliest state of poetic speech. We want to go back to the time when everyone was a poet—when everyone participated in creating a speaking, because that is the true Galapagos of poetry. It is there we can clearly see the nature of oral, antiphonal poetry ….. One way to get back to that time is to turn on the TV and trail along behind the latest National Geographic camera crew filming a contemporary, preliterate tribe in Africa or South America or New Guinea. Then all we have to do is wait until the tribe begins to celebrate a victory or death or birth or drought or defeat or harvest.
I say celebrate because that is the exactly correct word. No matter how sad or joyous the event, it was to be celebrated by the tribe, made into art in the form of a story. There was to be a speaking. We sometimes forget that tribal man was a constant artist. He was constantly celebrating the mystery of creation and destruction. We, on the other hand, would only think of celebrating the act of creation, or birth. We have thought our way into that position. Tribal man was more artist than thinker. While he mourned and wept at the death of a fellow tribesman, he instinctively understood that destruction and creation are co-equal, inter-linked forces. This is why animals (and even people) were sacrificed: to imitate the mystery of destruction and creation in God’s story. It was a praise act. A celebration.
So here we are, poised to watch a celebration, a speaking. But first, take a quick side trip into early, tribal Greece, to see what the Greeks had to say about all this. After all, we know the Greeks were very exact. The most ancient word they had for what I call a speaking was “
poein,” which means, “to make.” That was their earliest word for poetry:to make. Not make words, images, similes, metaphors, stanzas, stories, music, lines, chanting, just: to make. What does this say to us, that this exasperatingly exacting culture chose to be so concrete and simplistic in describing the very art that dominated their lives? This root is archaic, and therefore must describe poetry at a very early stage, the tribal stage, many hundreds if not thousands of years before Homer. And that poetry was very similar (in structure) to what we are about to see in our National Geographic TV special on tribal life. What we are going to see is a poetry that is everything: music, speech, costume, and movement. A celebration. And it’s going to take place all at once.
What’s more, there are no specialists involved. Instead, each tribe member is going to simultaneously incorporate several art forms into his speaking. In this light then, we begin to see the aptness of the Greek root,poein. The simplicity of the root refers, in part, to the fact that poetic speech, or a speaking, seems to come out of us.It makes itself.But the root also refers to the fact that there is no need to describe what in particular is being made, because poetry at this stage is made of everything. It is composed of every way in which we can express ourselves: speech, music, dance, and costume. The arts had not yet separated into the seven Muses, a separation that ultimately took place with the advent of writing. In this early poetry, everyone expresses themselves through multiple, interconnected portrayals of their souls. It is art at its most human and most potent.
Witnessing a true speaking, we’re going to be a bit puzzled, perhaps dazzled. We won’t understand the language, but we will detect a speaking, responding pattern. What we are hearing is oral, antiphonal (“to return the sound”—again the Greeks were very accurate about it) poetry.
It is being chanted, or cadenced, to rhythmic drums and/or simple wind/string instruments. But what is really strange to us is that everyone seems to know what to say, and we immediately assume that everyone has memorized their lines, like actors, through verbatim memory. But they haven’t. There may be some phrases that are tribal clichés/phrases that have become so important and valued by the tribe that they are used over and over. But everything else is unpremeditated improvisation, for both speakers and responding speakers. This is also true for the music and movement and costume. There is no centralized authority, no director dictating what should take place.
What governs the celebration is an unconscious agreement on what is to take place for a particular event, say the death of a tribe member. But the agreement is constantly open to improvisation. This is difficult for us to understand, with our regimented and scripted dramas and ballets and operas and movies, but improvisational collaboration is at the heart of tribal poetry. We immediately think that such freedom would lead to chaos, but we have to remember that these cultures moved very, very slowly. And so did the act of improvisation. If anything, it was prompted by a change in the group soul, because we also have to understand that there are no individuals in the tribe, only members.
Consensus thinking and feeling were the prized attributes. Individuality, as we know it today, was a menace and quickly eliminated. It’s equally important to realize that these improvisations took place in the midst of performance and were quickly adopted or denied on the spot. No thinking was involved. The improvisation simply rose up from the shared, emotional mainstream of the celebration like a backward-moving wave in a rapid stream.
There were no scripts for this poetry. But how, then, do twenty tribe members respond identically to something the lead speaker(s) has just improvised? There are several answers, the first being that the response was most often an echo. …. [another] answer is that the members knew what the response should be because of custom, i.e., they were responding to aclichéon the part of the speaker. And the last answer is that the members sensed what the response should be. After all, the role of antiphonal poetry is to unify the tribe, to eliminate individuals, to reinforce everyone acting as one body, one thought, one emotion. In a poetry like this, we are dealing with responses from a very deep level, a soul level, a level where we are all ultimately connected. Our problem is that our busy consciousness prevents us from getting through to that level. But tribal man had no such problem. What seems a superhuman occurrence to us was an everyday event to tribal man.
The Differences Between Oral and Written Composition
Homer didn’t teach anybody anything.
To understand the difference between the oral and written mode of composition is to further understand the nature of oral poetry itself. ….I was reminded recently just how little we understand of oral composition when I witnessed a well-known intellectual (whose name I’ve forgotten but who should have known better) stating (on television, where else?) that Homer’s epics probably weren’t written (God forgive us) and, moreover, that Homer undoubtedlytaught them to othersso they could repeat them. It seems that despite linguist Millman Parry’s definitive findings seventy odd years ago, proving the oral composition of Homer’s epics, some still don’t want to admit of any form except the written. The second part of his statement—that Homer taught others—is so off the mark in recognizing the nature of oral poetry that only someone so bound up in the act of writing and scholarship could have made it. Homer didn’t teach anybody anything. For one thing, there’s nothing to examine, to reference, to teach. An oral poem existsonly in the telling.
Because it exists only in the telling, an oral poem can’t be transmitted by teaching it. It goes by like the wind. It can’t be stopped and examined like a document. The poet has to keep going or he’ll lose it. This is why oral poetry (unlike its written counterpart) isn’t made [ as Yeats claims] by “studying monuments of its own magnificence.” There are no monuments to study. There are some culturalclichés(wine-dark sea) and rhythmic standards (six-stress dactyls) that could be discussed, but any neophyte poet would have picked those up as a child simply by listening to the songs all around him. The air was filled with examples. All an oral poet can do is illustrate the intangibles of his speaking by letting you experience the wit, the surge, the flavor of his rhythmic storytelling. This is because oral poetry exists only on the breath of the speaker. Nowhere else. It appears, then disappears. Like the wind.
When Homer—through the mouth of Phemios—tells Odysseus he is “self-taught,” he is really saying (much to our MFA embarrassment) that he hasn’t studied any monuments. Past epics weren’t known except by distant reference. They disappeared when the poet died. But Homer is also saying that whatever poems were being created around him played no real part in the creation of his own epics. Those other poems were no more than flavors wafting up from various poets. He may have liked a particular smell, but that’s about it.
That’s what an oral world is like. The essential elements of the great myths and stories would be known to him through his hearing of other poems and the general gossip all around him. So would the noble or culturalclichés (wine-dark sea, grey-eyed Athena)and the dactyls (six-stress formulaic phrasing) that were mandatory elements of the epic of that period. After all, these were very stable, slow-moving cultures that valued only a handful of themes. Novelty wasn’t prized as it is in our culture. But the very heart of the poem itself—the texture and progress of the narrative—wasunique to a particular poet,and could only be created by his speaking it. It could not be a copy or imitation of anything else in whole or in part.
An oral poem is something that happens spontaneously when a poet steps into the river of speech and submits to his unfolding genius. There is no verbatim memory—no copying—only his own unique recreation of the story. When he stops, the poem disappears in more ways than one. If we still don’t understand Homer’s statement about being self-taught, Homer obviously did, or else he wouldn’t have made such a point of it. No one can tell an oral poet how his poem is to be formed, because the true oral poet instinctively knows that the unfolding progress and “flavor” of the poem will always be his, that there is no other way, and that his poem will either rise or fall on the river of his own mysterious speaking.
…… each poet was free to fashion the story as it came to him, because that is the only way he could do it. But because there was no prize attached to innovation, or “newness,” as there is in ours, the basic story and plot would tend to stay very close to the trunk of expectation. No wild limbs just for the hell of it. But the way in which the story was told would differ from generation to generation. Those stylistic differences would usually be subtle, but they could be quite dramatic for a poet of some genius.
Outside of style, the extraordinary conscious and unconscious consensus that existed in preliterate cultures kept the basic events, themes, values, and character and plot elements of the story relatively fixed. These were very difficult to change, and the poet would never change them for the novelty of it, as we might. …..These elements might eventually change because the consensus ….might change with time as to the validity of certain story elements and themes. Usually very, very, very slowly. These were extremely stable cultures, but they could change. After all, everything changes. Whether those changes would be minor or substantial would depend on what was happening to the culture, and how close to essential myth the poem was.
The more a story element reflected a value that was at the very heart of the culture, the more unlikely it was to ever be changed. But, over very long periods of time, changes were inevitable. Thus, most epics arrive completely intact as to basic story elements and themes. The names of people and places are generally very accurate survivors (Achilles, Troy). The general events and themes survive intact (war, dishonor, deception) but the emphasis on each may change subtly. The elements of size, time, dress, customs, and linear dimension are almost always exaggerated or changed in some way, especially in tales that have traveled very long spans of time.
It is important to realize, however, that the [people] wouldn’t be aware of any of these changes because there was no “original” with which to compare. Moreover, since the “current” version reflects the consensus ……., if an “original” version, by some magic, were to be presented to the [people], they would find it to be strange, or false, or unsatisfactory.
The “current” version of the story …..may be quite different from, or almost identical to, its five-hundred-year-old ancestor. But it is the only version that exists. Accuracy, then, is a relative term under these conditions. Secondary elements such as size and time are almost always suspect. The basic elements and themes of the story, however, are almost always intact, even after five hundred years. But then again some of them may have been subtly changed. There is no way of knowing.
…….Only writing gives us the ability to retrieve a written story from the distant past and compare it to a current version. We can then detect if essential elements of the story have changed. Preliterate cultures had no such way of accurately going back over long periods of time. Stories were all they had, and the stories came and went like the wind.
A Closer Look at Homer’s Oral Composition
There is no time to think; there is only time to do, to sing.
There is no better example than Homer when looking at the nature of oral composition. What I say will hold true, for the most part, for any preliterate poet—lyric or epic. After all, the essential difference between the two styles is the dramatic structure and the length of the story. Like Shakespeare, Homer probably worked in both modes. And like Shakespeare, Homer’s greatness lies in the fact that he was a great storyteller—a fabulous one to be exact. The immediacy of the exquisite carving out of The Iliad (as translator Richard Lattimore points out) from the myriad of incidents and probably hundreds of contemporary epics surrounding the Trojan War is proof of that. So it wasn’t so much the “uniqueness” of character or plot that distinguished Homer from his contemporaries, because all these elements were set by tradition. What distinguished Homer from his contemporaries was the power of his storytelling.
Outside of a poet’s improvisational and narrative abilities, however, there was little else that was available to the epic poet of Homer’s era. This is because the theme, much of the language (the nobleclichés), and plot and character elements were fixed and couldn’t be touched. Don’t forget that the audience had to feel satisfied with the poem for it to be successful. And Homer, after all, was retelling a divine story that was not to be played with casually. Each new improvisation had to satisfy both Homer and the audience for it to stick. It is safe to say that there wasn’t the thematic and/or verbal freedom in ancient, oral, epic poetry that we enjoy today. Rather, the poet would distinguish himself by the manner in which he told the basic story.
And don’t forget that for Homer, as for all oral poets, the process of creating the poem, and then later recreating it out of thematic (story-telling) memory,is occurring in real time.There is no time to think, there is only time to do, to sing. That is why music and rhythm play such an important part in oral poetry. They lay down an almost invisible backbone around which the poet’s narrative entwines itself as he speaks. Once this is understood, we begin to sense how fluid Homer’s mode of composition was as compared even to Milton’s, who (by his own testimony) could really get into the zone on occasion.
We can also begin to understand that the Homer we have today is but one version of Homer. It is [what was somehow] transcribed and carried forth into our literate times. I might add that it is also a very dry version, because it completely lacks the musical and performance elements that were so much a part of the fabric of the original poem. Thus, reading Homer is a substantially different experience from the one we would have had if we had sat at Homer’s feet.
One indication of that difference is to take a literal, line-for-line translation of The Odyssey (say, Albert Cook’s) and compare it to another translation (say, Lattimore’s). It becomes apparent that Homer’s own language is direct and speech-like, whereas Lattimore’s Homer is elegantly written. It is a magnificent creation. It is what had to be done……to make an oral, sung poem come alive on thewrittenpage. If Homer actually spoke like Lattimore has him speak, he’d die of brain stroke. Homer’s direct speech was heightened by his music and performance. By performance I mean not only Homer’s “showmanship”—which many poets today (unfortunately) have learned to frown upon—but also Homer’s dynamic rebuilding of the story through a rhythmic, oral narrative built out of cliché and improvisation. It is clear that Homer on the page is nowhere near the actual Homer. It is a tribute to his genius that his epics still work after centuries of manhandling.
Let’s Pretend You’re an Epic Poet
There are many stories all around you, like wind in the trees.
The Role of the Epic Poet
Their poems were great mirrors.
Up to now, we’ve been looking at oral poetry from the outside. Now it’s time to go inside. So let’s pretend you’re a young, epic poet, oraoidoi,in preliterate Greece. Poets had a high position in this culture. They were a source of entertainment, guidance, and stability. Their poems were great mirrors in which others could see themselves as they really were. In fact, much of what we know of the soul of any preliterate culture comes from the oral epics that eventually found their way into writing. …..But for many others (e.g., the Egyptian, Etruscan, or Minoan), we have nothing in the way of a surviving, preliterate epic. And because of that, we have only a limited understanding of those cultures.
[ Here’s the question]..Homer lived some five hundred years or so after the [Trojan] war and had no written documents of any kind to reference. All he had were the stories of others that entered and left him, much as pop music enters and leaves us today.
So how was this feat accomplished by Homer? A common misunderstanding goes as follows: the very first Trojan epic was quickly created (when things were fresh) and memorized verbatim by an early poet and then subsequently memorized verbatim by every succeeding generation up until Homer, who put some icing on it. This is not how preliterate poetry was created, however. It is our literate imagination’s idea of how it was done. But it’s wrong.
With that in mind, imagine you are a youngaoidoiliving some five hundred years before Homer, and that the fiefdom you live in is one whose warriors are still fighting in Troy:
There are many stories—in the form of gossip and poetry—all around you. Like wind in the trees. The speakings you hear are both small and great. Some of them are about passion, some about conflicts with the gods, and some are about previous wars. Indeed, some of them may even be about the Great Leaving that occurred when warriors from all over Greece sailed the treacherous seas to conquer distant Troy. After all, many of the initial elements of the story would have already been known, and an enterprise of that magnitude and daring and uncertainty would have certainly given birth to any number ofspeakings.There you are, listening, looking up at the trees. The days pass like falling leaves, silently, one after the other. Sun, moon, sun, moon.
Then, one day, the warriors return in their black ships. Newspeakingsand gossip fill the air. Elements of the story are flying all around you day and night: Helen’s deceit and flight, the black ships, the greed of Agamemnon, the dishonoring of Achilles, his anger, Hector’s defeat, the death of Achilles, the deceit of the wooden horse, the fall of Troy. And then, one day, everything comes whirling down around you like a flock of crows and you suddenly begin tospeak.It just comes out of you, almost fully formed, and fills the air for hours.
But how did you really create it? This is the most interesting of questions and one seldom looked at. …….. My experience as an oral poet leads me to believe that all epics start (as all poetry does) with a deeply sensed theme, often quite nebulous….. as our buddingaoidoi,let’s take a guess that what sets your soul swimming to the surface of your body is a deeply sensed but perhaps unformed theme of dishonor and deceit that colored the entire Trojan enterprise.
Why you were seized by this particular theme is something bound up in the mystery of art. But we know one thing: in preliterate cultures, the poet’s soul was a mirror of the tribal soul. (Despite the fact that we’re talking about Mycenaean culture, the term tribe can still be used, even at this late feudal stage of development.) We’re not talking about a trade-based culture, but one whose wealth and social structure were determined solely by the act of war:you have what we want, we kill you and take it. Simple as that. So in the case of an aoidoi like yourself, dealing with events of immense importance to that culture, war was at the top of the list. It revealed the true colors of that culture’s heart. You would also respond to such an event on an individual soul level, but it would be on a level so intimately linked to the tribal soul as to render the distinction almost meaningless. So all we can say about thespeakingthat is slowly rising to the surface of your body is that something about the Trojan War has excited your soul—something about the threads of dishonor and deceit glittering through everything you heard that reflected the very soul of your people. And it wants out.
There is no pre-thought, no schematic.
Once you’ve reached that particular state of fever, the rest is relatively down hill. You’re ready to go into autopilot. There’s none of this going to the research library and gathering notes and outlining the plot and all of that. But just before you do, there’s one more task. The very last thing you have to do is rein in all the …. rooms that are forming in your head. They would have begun to appear of their own accord as the nascent story began swimming to the surface of your body. There is no prethought, no schematic involved in this. The rooms simply begin to appear. One room after another. All of them contain essential scenes, but they are embryonic. The rooms are small and very dimly lit at first, but all the characters and potential action are there. Even if you can’t see them, you know they’re there. Somewhere. Ready to spring into life. You may take quick, little dashes through each room, like a fast-forward dream, just to get a feel for what’s going to happen. You stop doing that once you like what you’ve glimpsed, or felt. You’re ready to go.
You may sense that a given room will lead to another given room, probably in much the same sequence as they are popping into your head. But you don’t bother to remember any order. This is because something in you knows they’re already connected. While you have a general sense of their progression, you’re not really concerned, because you knowsomething in you will establish the actual order as you speak.All you know for sure is that when you walk out the back door of one room you’ll automatically enter the front door of the next one you’re supposed to go in. And you also know that once you enter a room, it’s going to explode so quickly with characters and action that all you’ll have time to do is hang on and trust the genius in you to report what’s happening. No thinking. You also know this: once you’ve got the rooms all dimly lit and circling all around you like a flock of crows, you have to pick the starting room. You really have to trust your body on this one, because it’s critical. It’s the first match and it has to strike fire. Once your body tells you which room to start with, you invoke a short, appropriate opening statement to get the ball rolling: “Sing Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled . . .” or, “ This is the story of a war like no other . . .” Then you open the first door and let yourself be pulled in lock, stock, and barrel. The rest is going to be history.
You jump in the river. The first room flares into light. The characters and the furniture quickly flesh themselves out. The action starts and keeps going. Characters and action that were left dim in the background suddenly light up. Something in you is moving your attention to where it should be and your body is reporting what’s happening. It’s happening so fast there is no time for thinking, only saying what’s happening in your mind’s eye. Your speech feels the same as your everyday speech, it just comes out of you, except there seems to be a cadence to it. Every so often, though, something seems to brighten—both in you and in the room—and you break out of the normalclichésof your everyday, common speech and improvise something that is uncommon, a metaphor or simile that rises to meet and express the brightening. You are on a roll; that is exactly how it feels. You are gliding between common and uncommon speech in a way that is beautiful. You’re flying.
Then you get the weirdest feeling, like you want to turn yourself inside out and then something in you does just that and all of a sudden you’re not on the outside looking in, but you’re actually in the story, reporting out. Then you get that weird feeling again and you pop back outside. But you never stop speaking; you never stop reporting what you’re visualizing. You’re gliding right along—brightening and turning yourself inside out you don’t know how many times—and then you feel something in you slowing down like a train coming to a station. You let your body have its way. You let the action close.
And then, right on cue, another door opens in front of you. You may be in the room you expected or you may not. You don’t care. As you step into it, the room flares into light and the process begins again. Nobody, least of all yourself, can tell you how or why your speaking is forming itself in the way that it is. Your body does it, is the only way you can explain it. Once in a while, a completely unexpected anteroom may open just off the main room you have just walked into. There may even be characters in it, but you’ve learned not to worry. You let it light up and have its way with you.
When you’ve finally finished speaking, you may sense, or recall, that some rooms were never entered. Most probably they never will be. But you can’t be sure. Anyway, they’ll remain part of the room inventory until such time as the story starts to harden. Certainly some new, dimly lit rooms are going to suggest themselves as additions. Then, when you’ve got them all circling around you again, you have another go at it. Same thing, except the action in each room starts to get fatter, more on target. And the back doors of some rooms get more fixed to the front doors of others. You can feel it.
After several more speakings, everything starts to harden of its own accord. The rooms don’t get larger or any more lit up. The connections between rooms tighten up. And the way you describe what’s happening in those rooms doesn’t change anymore because it’s absolutely perfect. The body has allowed the soul to created a speaking that is both impossibly beautiful and impossibly true. Yet, despite its apparent solidity, there will be small variations, little tweakings, every time the speaking is recreated. But that’s how it should be. After all, everything changes. Everything.
Time and Oral Poetry
Homer is born and starts to perk up his ears.
If the simplicity, or perhaps complexity, of oral creation seems just too much to believe, I suggest you trust your body on the matter. This is how it was done. And is done. If you haven’t learned to listen to your body yet, keep a very sharp eye on yourself the next time you make up a particularly juicy bit of gossip. Watch yourself from the moment of conception to the fourth or fifth time you tell it to your acquaintances. The only difference, essentially, between your gossip and the epic poem just described is the scale and the source. Yours is small and from the self. Theaoidoi’sis large and from the soul, and it’s to thatspeakingwe want to return.
As our youngaoidoi,let’s say you recreate your speaking about the war many times. Then you die. Five hundred years pass. Homer is born and starts to perk up his ears. Manyspeakings,great and small, fill the air around him. Let’s imagine for a moment that only one exists about the Trojan War. And let’s imagine that its distant ancestor is your poem—the poem by the youngaoidoiwith the crows circling all around him. (This supposition is in the realm of science fiction; there would actually have been many different speakings about the war, but it allows me to make my point more easily.) Here’s the question: Have any of your basic themes or story elements changed after five hundred years? The answer is: probably not, but again, Homer has no way of knowing.
Let us imagine, however, that the following is true: even though the way the story was told has changed quite a bit (because that’s almost a given), all the themes and story elements have arrived basically intact. With one exception: the theme of deceit has become larger than it was initially. Maybe the wooden horse itself has become larger. Much larger. I give this as an example of a possible change because, as Jaynes theorizes, planned deceit is a part of our consciousness that evolved when writing was invented. (Which was right around the corner from Homer but nobody, including Homer, knew it.)
Deceit was different from lying. It was something you planned in your new daydreaming, reflective head. Telling a lie, however, was a part of preliterate life. It was a very serious breech of honor, because you dishonored the person to whom you lied. While honor was the key value of preliterate cultures, lying did happen, but it was never planned, like deceit. When you lied, you did it right there, on the spot.
So planned deceit was in the air. To what degree we don’t know, nor do we know to what degree it was initially displayed in the youngaoidoi’spoem. In theory, it shouldn’t have been there at all. Its presence, however, could easily be attributed to the fact that, despite Jaynes’s theories, we really don’t know if the invention of writing caused the creation of our reflective consciousness or vice versa. All we know is that these events were roughly coterminous and influenced each other. Thus, our young, preliterate aoidoi (and those around him) may have begun to discover the act of deceit as the culture as a whole moved towards a more reflective consciousness. This could account for its presence in the form of the wooden horse in our youngaoidoi’spoem.
But the huge wooden horse may never have been present in that first epic, perhaps having been added later, as the culture began to change. Maybe in its first appearance it was a very small but beautiful model of a horse that brought havoc when the Trojans opened the gates to retrieve it. Perhaps it was enlarged as time went on (tall tales) to contain a small boy, and finally made big enough by Homer himself to contain a squad of soldiers. We’ll never know.
This whole exercise, by the way, has also been a way of acquainting you not only with the nature of ancient, oral, epic composition, but also with the atmosphere of Homer’s time. As Jaynes points out, Homer’s greatness lies partly, and perhaps mainly, in the fact that his poems reflect the immense change in consciousness that was stirring among the Greeks.. In this respect, his songs have the quality of myth. They represent one of those transcendent leaps that sometimes occur in truly great art. Homer’s epics are about the monumental transition in the nature of our consciousness. They are the Greek version of our leaving the Garden of Eden.
Thus in Homer’s lifetime, we go from an heroic, preliterate world [of the Illiad] that is consumed by honor (while at the same time beginning to give evidence of the emergence of deceit), to a world [ of the Odyssey] where the hero, by comparison, will stoop at almost anything to get his way. The name Odysseus roughly translates as “troublemaker.” The job he does on the Cyclops is enough to give you some idea how out of control he really was. The Greeks loved him. There’s no doubt that of all the speakings young Homer heard, the themes and characters and elements of the Trojan War must have been like gold laid at his feet. Indeed, after he created The Iliad, it was only a matter of time before he reached back and pulled out the wily, redheaded Odysseus again (only a bit player in The Iliad) and blew him up to the proportions required. When Homer finally set him loose on the world in The Odyssey it was unlike anything the Greeks had ever heard.
The Odyssey is a poem whose artistry transcended Homer’s time. The very depth and magnitude of the mirror he held up to the Greeks is almost beyond comprehension. To the Greeks, for hundreds of years afterward, the grotesque deceptions and heroic endurance of Odysseus was impossibly beautiful and impossibly true. The man not only slept standing up, he did it with his eyes open. Odysseus is none other than self-conscious man stepping out of the eggshell and displaying himself in all his individualistic glory. What is equally beautiful is that Homer had a sense of humor about the whole thing. And so did the Greeks.
Using Rap and Homer to Convince the Skeptical
Rhythmic music is the backbone around which
rhythmic, narrative speech entwines itself.
…….It’s only when we begin to compose poems orally (as the ancients did) that we begin to understand that rhythmic music is the backbone around which rhythmic, narrative speech entwines itself. Rap artists understand this because they’re working from a rhythmic/musical, oral tradition that is at the very heart of African-American aesthetics. Even oral scholars don’t usually understand the true rhythmic/musical nature of oral poetry. They are generally fixated on those technical aspects of oral poetry that can be reduced to textual analysis, such as the epic’s formulaic structure.
Indeed, Jaynes quotes one scholar suggesting that Homer may have sung his epics on a plainsong scale of say, GCC-GCC, to correspond to the dactyl beat of his phrases. While it is true that when Homer says “sing” he truly means “sing” (and not “speak” as some of our translators would have it), what we are talking about is a simple, improvised singing, such as the singsong speech small children create when left to their own devices. This is a type of speaking that wraps itself around the ordinary rhythms and pitches of speech, not the kind of predetermined note schemes mentioned above, which are almost impossible to integrate into spontaneous oral composition.
Another recent suggestion, which seems more plausible to me, is that the accent was created not by emphasizing or stressing the sound, as we would do, but by extending its duration. We’ll never know, of course, just as we’ll never know what ancient, preliterate Greek sounded like. My own guess on what Homer sounded like (in principle) is something like a slowed-down rapper. Rappers use a rhythmic, chanted song-speech, quite distinct from what we know as singing or speaking. They also understand the function of music and antiphonal responses. A drastically slowed-down version of the late poet and rapper Tupak Shakur, who seemed to be a step above most rappers in his grasp of rap’s potential as poetry, would be a good starting point. Grab an album and listen up if you have any doubts.
Rappers are Right in Step with the Ancients
To “free-style” in rap is to create in the true, oral tradition.
One difference between rappers and Homer is that Homer’s singing speech-rhythm was based on a simple, six-stress phrase of dactyls (the dactyl being a stressed vowel, followed by two unstressed vowels). This phrasing must have been quite close to ancient Greek speech. The complex, African-American beat phrases tend to be closer to music. And of course, Homer didn’t rhyme his phrases as rappers do, and for good reason. Unless the language is one that rhymes almost automatically, attempting to rhyme orally, even to couplets, is next to impossible (unless what is being produced is nonsense or light, clever verse). To “free-style” in rap is to create verse spontaneously in the true oral tradition, and some of rap’s best free-styler’s do an incredible job of creating light, rhymed verse. But to do anything beyond that, with rap’s frenetic beats, is incredibly difficult. This is because when the oral poet is composing, he is consumed by the spinning out of spontaneous narrative to a rhythmic pattern. Everything happens too fast in oral poetry to even think about anything such as rhyme. Rhyming, although a natural urge of the body, is more a part of written poetry, and is seldom present in ancient oral poetry. This is not only because it is difficult to do if the poem is at all serious, but also because the presence of music in oral poetry lessens the need for harmonious elements such as rhyme. ….
And yet rap, in many respects, is much closer to a true oral poetry than slam poetry, because rap always employs a rhythmically stressed speech that plays against rhythmic music. It is one of the beauties of oral poetry. Rappers understand this perfectly and are right in step with the ancients. Whether it is rap’s African-American rhythm phrases, or Homer’s six-stress phrases built around dactyls, or the Anglo-Saxon three-stress phrases built around alliteration, the resulting cadenced speech is always played against the rhythmic music driving the whole enterprise. This simple rhythmic fugue is at the heart of a true oral poetry. Rhythmic music is the spinal cord around which rhythmic narrative speech entwines itself to achieve the unique beauty of oral poetry—like the double helix in DNA.