I am one of a handful of poets who can compose in the spontaneous oral tradition of preliterate poets. For those who would like to know more about me and see and hear samples of this contemporary oral poetry, which I call SOULSPEAK, you can visit the following blog, http://justin-soulspeak.blogspot.com/ which has links to a variety of articles, mp3 recordings and videos.
This knol discusses the background, culture and unique characteristics of spontaneous oral poetry both past and present, and its relationship to the written poetry of the the past 2000 years. Special attention is given to the art of Homer. It was adapted from my book, SOULSPEAK: The Outward Journey of the Soul, published by SPT press in 2002.
I have excerpted a small section of the book (Chapters 22-27) which discusses the essential nature of true oral poetry and how it differs from written poetry. If you wish to pursue the matter further, I suggest you link to my blog that contains a WORD version of the book. A fully featured PDF is also available.
The blog starts with Part V: A New Call for an Older Poetry. Chapters 18-31, which is the section that should be of interest to you.
October 1, 2008
click here to see entire book : SOULSPEAK: The Outward Journey of the Soul
Oral Poetry: Common and Uncommon Speech
Speaking and writing produce fundamentally different poems.
When I speak to poets about the differences between oral and written poetry, there is often a moment of irritation and/or bafflement on their part. Much of this comes from a lack of familiarity with oral poetry as an art, as their conception of oral poetry usually exists only in some vague flashback to the epic oral tradition of Homer. This seems to make no sense to them at all as a way of producing contemporary poetry. As a result, they drop the matter immediately, mainly because of their assumption that oral poetry can only come in the epic form. But they also automatically assume that the speaking out of a poem during creation (besides seeming impossible) will result in the same type of poem they would have made by writing it out, except it would be more impoverished in vocabulary and structure. In other words, they automatically conclude it is simply a lesser (and therefore undesirable) form of written poetry.
But they couldn’t be more mistaken; the two are simply different beasts. Even if convinced that speaking out a poem results in something that is still a poem but one with somewhat different aesthetics, these poets don’t see the oral production as a poem. They see it as theater, or performance or something like poetry but not quite. What they are really saying is that it isn’t written poetry, which it isn’t. But it is most assuredly poetry because it produces that same peculiar moment of awareness we associate with written poetry. At least that has been my own experience. You just have to let it in through its own methods.
Sometimes I get backed against the wall so hard on this matter I have to pull out Alan Turing, the British mathematician who postulated the Turing Box as a way of proving artificial intelligence to his doubters. His logic was impeccable and went like this. Forget what’s in the box, whether it be a human, a dog, or a machine. If you can’t tell whether the responses from the box are from a human or nonhuman, then you have to say that the box is intelligent. I think the same principle applies to oral poetry. Forget what it looks like, or sounds like. If the rush of awareness you get by experiencing it is indistinguishable from that produced by written poetry, then it has to be poetry.
One poet whose work I admire wrote me he was afraid poetry would lose its precision, or more succinctly, the “radical accuracy of its language” if it became oral. Of course he’s right, it would. But then again, as I explained in my reply, oral poetry doesn’t depend on that particular kind of radical accuracy. He also offered the opinion that an audiotape I had sent him of the musically driven, multi-voiced oral poetry I call SOULSPEAK was more theater than poetry. On that he was only half right, because that’s often the only term close enough to describe what oral poetry sounds like at first glance: theater. But it is not theater in any conventional sense. Rather it is oral poetry, which has a different relationship to performance than written poetry. It is no more “theater” (as we know theater today) than Homer was “theater” in speaking out his Iliad. Oral poetry and performance are inextricably linked. You can’t have oral poetry without it being performed—you can’t speak to someone without “performing” what you are saying
Excerpts from my reply to him:
“…After all, the only difference between the poetry I now make and the poetry you make (quality put aside for the moment) is that I have chosen to physically speak it to make it, and you have chosen to write it; in all other respects I think we pretty much share the same aesthetic principles: a demand for clarity, a love of narrative, a hard dislike of the abstract and the disengaged, a distinct feel for the innate rhythm and musicality of language (especially that of speech), and a strong compulsion to touch others through art (although you have a very discreet way of going about it; when you talk about me being a performer, as though it were a talent you lacked, I can only say that every time I look up on stage I see both of us, except I’m wearing blackface and you’re wearing quiet-face).
“But no matter how we conduct ourselves on stage, I think it’s good for both poets and listeners to hear the difference between the two poetries, because the listener soon comes to the conclusion (but maybe only on an unconscious level) that you can use your everyday ears for spoken poetry but you must use a special set of “reading” ears for written poetry. Of course the listener may change those ears several times within the performance of a poem because a written poetry (like yours) can come quite close to speech. But the listener eventually learns he has to always have his “reading ears” on, or at least half on, i.e., he can’t let his everyday, dog-like, trusting ears have their way, because they will soon tire of the written speech and eventually tune out, no matter how daunting the performance.
“. . . I think it is difficult for written poets to comprehend just how radically different their poems would be if they truly spoke them, that is, if they let spontaneous, unpremeditated speech have its way with the poetic impulse when it arises. Until you actually create poems by speaking them, you’ll simply think that your speaking language will be much like your written language, i.e., it will be a sequential string of the symbols we call words, except that the symbols will be made audible and slightly less precise, but still a very recognizable sibling. But it’s simply not so, at least in my experience. If you let speaking have its way with you during the making of a poem, it will eventually produce a poetry radically different from your written poetry. You just have to let it happen; and when you do, you’ll discover as I did that the major difference between writing and speaking poetry is that spoken poetry (or to put it more accurately, the inspired, unpremeditated speaking of one person to others) puts out God knows how many unique sensory and psychic and linguistic tentacles to ensnare you, tentacles much different than those that the arranged symbols we call language produce when we read them silently on the page. It’s not an accident that the ancients had a somewhat special term for those tentacles: spiritus, the breath, the animating vapor. And it’s those hundreds of little feelers that give spoken poetry its particular precision. It’s the precision of unguarded, human expression, and it always cuts the mustard. To put it another way, it’s not the jumping up and down that makes spoken poetry great (although that may be what’s required to effect its spoken precision in a particular instance), it’s the mysterious ability of everyday, unpremeditated speech to wend its simple, predictable way to our most interior self and suddenly unseat us without any apparent effort.”
Even those few poets partially convinced that speaking and writing produce fundamentally different poems (each with their own peculiar way of reaching us as poetic experiences) still have difficulty believing that one could speak in the same intimate way as is possible in writing. My answer to that is: while I haven’t yet heard many oral poets speak out a poem with the emotional intimacy and erotic power present in one of Sharon Olds’ erotic love poems, I don’t see many written poets around like Sharon Olds either. It’s not a matter of the medium; it’s a matter of genius.
Indeed, one of the problems I encounter in talking to people about contemporary oral poetry is they automatically assume it will sound like rap or jazz poetry. Both of these forms, however, are highly musical, written/oral hybrids that haven’t quite crossed over into a true, orally composed poetry. A true oral poetry always sounds like speech, because that’s what it is, give or take any specialized speaking conventions that may be invoked by the poet, such as chanting or the archaic bardic idioms (wine-dark sea) of Homer.
In our times, a true oral poetry would sound like ordinary speech, because that is the way we address each other. But it would be more heightened and rhythmic so it would sound both common and uncommon. (Which, by the way, is a good way of describing the sound of all oral poetry, past to present.) As for the music, generally we must use something other than the sophisticated forms and rhythms used in jazz poetry and rap. The music driving a true oral poetry (ancient or contemporary) must be a relatively simple, rhythmic music whose structure and tempo allow spontaneous narrative speech to take place. This is because the music in oral poetry always serves as a spinal cord around which the body of narrative winds itself. Think of the double helix of DNA.
The Transition from Oral to Written Poetry
It takes courage to step from the known to the unknown.
Poetry, historically, has only something to do with literature and almost everything to do with speaking and music and rhythm. So why are we unwilling to accept this ancient form of poetry and unwilling to recast it in the terms of our times, as other artists have done with their ancient art forms? The major reason is that oral poetry uses a completely different aesthetic. It is an oral/aural art as opposed to a written/read art. It takes courage to step from the known to the unknown, and what most poets know today is the written/read form of the art. By comparison, composers, dancers, and visual artists didn’t face that kind of jump in going back to their ancient roots. No matter how strange primitive dance, music, or painting may seem, it is still dance and still music and still painting. Even to taste the power of oral poetry requires a good-sized (and scary) jump for most writers of poetry. That is, if they attempt to make the transition without any help. But there are a number of external catalysts used in SOULSPEAK that help make the transition almost effortless. Without that first step—without that body knowledge—writers of poetry will never be able to truly see what oral poetry offers.
We are left, then, with this question: given the power of oral poetry, why did written poetry take root and flourish? After all, it must have been a very difficult transition. It is the very opposite side of what poets face today. One answer is that written poetry didn’t flourish immediately. This is because, in the main, early writing was not used for original work. Rather it was used to transcribe the great oral poems of the past, as was the case with Homer, and then later to continually re-copy the early, written documents that have become our classics. It was only sometime later that written poetry, as an actual species, first appeared (for example, in Greece, the first tentative, written tendrils in the work of Archilochos, some hundred years or so after Homer). But more importantly, in Greece, and everywhere else, the two poetries continued to exist side by side until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, for no other reason than that reading and writing were still extremely rare. This can only lead us to conclude that oral poetry must have continued to be the dominant form of poetry during that long, semi-literate period. And yet, because oral poetry existed only on the wind, the only form of poetry that has survived to our times has been written poetry (and whatever oral poetry someone chose to transcribe).
Which brings us to the first obvious significant advantage of written poetry: it survives the telling and it survives the poet. This fragility was an enormous problem preliterate cultures faced, and there was no easy solution. (In later chapters, I describe the monumental efforts the ancient Greeks employed to insure that The Iliad and The Odyssey survived Homer’s death intact.) It was the quality of survivability that first drew poets to investigate writing. The actual writing of poems, rather than speaking them out to music, must have been a wrenching change to accommodate. Although we cannot know for sure, it seems entirely probable that for a very long time (most likely right into the middle ages, or perhaps right up to the invention of the printing press) most lyric poems we now regard as having been written were composed orally and then written down (by the poet or a scribe) simply as a matter of record—for safekeeping. Part of the reason we now write poems is because people can read. That wasn’t necessarily the case prior to the printing press, because reading and writing were highly specialized activities rather than everyday activities. If they weren’t being used to preserve the classics, these skills were being used in support of speaking, not in place of it.
As an example of the continued dominance of orality, scholarship shows that even in St. Augustine’s time, in literate church circles, people were still reading out loud to themselves. The act of writing had not been separated from speaking as it is today. Speaking was still the primary way to communicate. This may be difficult to understand today, as writing is such a separate, automatic, and easy activity for most of us. But when we think of the early, physical difficulty of writing (and copying) text, to say nothing of finding a reader, we can begin to see why writing didn’t come into full flower until the invention of the printing press. For a long time, writing poems often meant writing them down after the fact. But no matter how they were composed, all of these early written poems are remarkably speech-like—reflecting the influence of speech—and except for epic and didactic poems, were probably performed to music, much as their oral counterparts were.
As time went on, however, it must have become evident to poets that a new, different poetry could be made through the act of writing, and moreover, that poetry could be a private act—a poetry in keeping with our new reflective consciousness. This change from an oral, communal poetry to a written, private poetry offered the poet the advantage of being able to select his audience. And as poetry began to accommodate the inner recesses of our reflective consciousness—our daydreaming—that privacy became highly desirable.
Oral poetry could accommodate the most intimate daydreaming as well, but the poet would have to speak out those dreams to an audience to complete the poetic act. Whether that was desirable or not depended on the poem. And the audience. Writing gave the poet an option. So privacy and survivability were two distinct advantages of written poetry over oral poetry, and they were enough to turn many poets eventually to the written form as literacy spread beyond the confines of the courts and the scribes.
It should be noted that for a contemporary, oral poetry, survivability is no longer an issue because of electronics. Nor, by the way, is privacy, and for the very same reason. Contrary to popular belief, extremely intimate oral poems are not difficult to make. What is difficult is finding a random, live audience that can handle that spoken intimacy. Oral poetry is a social act in every sense of the word, and there are rules of behavior that have to be observed. You wouldn’t go up to a stranger on the street and divulge your most intimate secrets—both for your sake and the stranger’s sake.
Sometimes this dilemma can be solved by only performing before selected audiences, or to audiences aware of the nature of the poetry. The most likely universal solution for our times is to record the poems so they can be listened to in privacy, much as we read books or listen to music or go to the movies in privacy. There is, however, another solution. That is to view oral poetry primarily as a participatory, communal art, rather than one performed for a passive audience. SOULSPEAK is a contemporary version of ancient, oral, antiphonal poetry that can be easily learned by anyone who wishes to participate in creating a communal speaking. In this mode there is no audience. The participants are the audience.
A Brief History of Oral and Written Poetry
He was who he was, a singer of songs.
As written poetry eventually took root and flourished because it offered the poet privacy and survivability, the structure and mechanics of poetry also changed in order to take advantage of writing. The species called “poetry” is incredibly adaptable. If we look at the various forms it can take (e.g., multi-voiced tribal poetry, the oral, lyric poetry of David, the oral, epic poetry of Homer, the written, lyric and dramatic poetry of Shakespeare, or the musical poetry of someone like Bob Dylan) it is clear that poetry wends its way out through whatever medium will transport it. Like the mountain climber, it will take on whatever mountain presents itself, if for no other reason than the mountain is there. Poetry will seek whatever route is available to get to the surface of our consciousness, eventually taking on the characteristics of that route. So it is no surprise that written poetry, in time, eventually lost its early oral flavor and become a poetry more allied with the structure of writing than the structure of speaking. It became a poetry that would require its audience to read it (rather than hear it) in order to easily and fully comprehend it.
This didn’t happen (to any great measure) for thousands of years. The written lyric poetry of the Greeks and the Romans and medieval Europe has much of the open quality of oral poetry. It acquired a more reflective nature, but not the kind of dense, elaborate structure that would make it difficult to speak (and hear). That came about sometime after the invention of the printing press. This density first appeared in the Elizabethans, whose work, while it still reflected the everyday, rhetorical speech of the semi-oral age that preceded the printing press, also openly reflected the effect of 150 years of printing press-driven literacy upon the structure of the English language. By the seventeenth century, reading and writing were beginning to affect the way in which people communicated socially, politically, and artistically. Moreover, as reading and writing became widespread, writing began to imitate itself rather than speech; it began to have a structural and stylistic life of its own. In the case of poetry, this is evidenced by the elaborate, dense, proselike constructions that began to appear starting in the seventeenth century. This density, compounded by the fact that Elizabethan poets had a correspondingly intense concern with form, produced a poetry that (for all its glory) can be hopelessly difficult at times compared to the work of Chaucer.
The openness of Chaucer’s work is due partially to the nature of his poetry—narrative tales—but also to the fact that the pre-Gutenberg culture was one in which the spoken word was still the major form of communication. Writing, to a large extent, imitated speaking, not itself. Chaucer’s world had no way of adequately reproducing writing in the quantity necessary for it to influence the way in which language was used. All that existed were the extremely limited reproduction facilities (scribes) available to a very small number of people (aristocrats). These reproduction facilities were not so much used for publishing purposes, but for reproducing the great written and oral documents of the past. That is why written poetry remained quite speakable and hearable from the invention of writing right up through the sixteenth century: speaking was the model that writing was imitating.
Which brings us to written poetry’s current dilemma, much of which has been brought about by the growing orality of our culture. It is ironic that this move towards the spoken is happening at the very peak of our literacy and we are helpless to stop it. In fact, our literacy helped bring it about in the sense that our technology is an outgrowth of our literacy. It is also ironic that the only segment of our culture that will not be greatly influenced by this growing orality will be the scientific segment. That part of our culture will continue to communicate through written symbols. After all, science is writing’s child.
Written poetry’s increasing inability to communicate with our new semi-oral culture has also been deepened by the very nature of writing. Writing “prefers” prose. (Prose, by the way, didn’t exist until writing was invented.) While many poets don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that their poetry is becoming more prose-like (and indeed may be indistinguishable from prose at times), the influence of prose has driven poets farther and farther from our speech-like, song-like roots, the very things our culture is beginning to re-value, and that are at the very heart of poetry. The second aspect of writing that has widened the gap between poetry and its audience has been writing’s inherent ability to be non-narrative. This characteristic is so much a part of our poetry today it is difficult for us to consider a time when it wasn’t so.
But preliterate poetry was always narrative in structure. The straightforward narration of the poet was an important element of preliterate poetry. He was who he was. A singer of songs. A transmitter. After all, the gods spoke through the poet. These characteristics changed when writing was invented. If you are persuaded by Julian Jaynes that our consciousness became reflective with the emergence of writing, then it also follows that poetry, in time, would itself become reflective. This would be true, by the way, both for oral poetry and the new written poetry that began to appear. This change found expression in what I’d term a pose in which the straightforward narrative attitude of the poet (I am telling you something) is superseded by attitudes that are more inward-looking, more linked to the reflective imagination. The poet is no longer merely the transmitter of the Muse’s song, but a self-created presence, just as he had become in his new daydreams. He is the poet listening to himself as a dog; the poet talking to his imagined, future self; the poet talking to himself after his death.
If the concept of pose was easily accommodated by both types of poetry, there was another change that took root only in the newly emerging written form, because it was one that oral poetry could not incorporate: the use of non-narrative expression. This form of expression was made possible by the very nature of writing. While speaking is solely a narrative act that occurs and then disappears, writing is a thing—a string of words that doesn’t go away—and therefore something that can be manipulated in a non-narrative manner. But this mode of expression was seldom used in any significant way until modern times. It simply lay there, hidden, like a worm in an apple. A simple example of non-narrative expression would be to make a poem that consists of a list (something that didn’t exist until writing was invented) of unconnected phrases. Here is an example:
She was quick. Too quick.
He never came home.
Let it rain.
It was the Bismark.
I’m talking to you.
She had several homes in Peoria.
We never visited his aunt.
Say goodbye. Now. Right now.
This is something that cannot be done in a true, oral poetry, as there is no way to recreate the poem through story-telling (thematic) memory. One can think of non-narrative expression as a further extension of the concept of pose—an extreme pose in which the poet sees himself as a disembodied presence, seemingly free not only from the triadic concepts of beginning, middle, and end, but also those of time and place and identity. It is a pose that allows the poet to imitate the daydreaming that takes place in our interior mind space. This daydreaming, like our night dreams, seems to obey no predictable rules. What is radically different about non-narrative expression, however, is that when it is fully exploited, the reader may no longer be clear who is speaking, or to whom, or when, or why, or about what. Pound’s Cantos are a good example of this use of non-narrative expression. Here is the beginning of Canto XVII as an illustration:
So that the vines burst from my fingers
And the bees weighted with pollen
More heavily in the vine-shoots:
Chirr-chirr-chr-rikk-a purring sound,
And the birds sleepily in the branches.
ZAGREUS! IO ZAGREUS.
With the first pale clear of heaven
And the cities set in their hills,
And the goddess of the fair knees
Moving there, with the oak-woods behind her,
The green slope, with the white hounds
leaping about her;
And thence down to the creek’s mouth, until evening,
Flat water before me,
and the trees growing in water,
Marble trunks out of stillness,
On past the palazzi,
in the stillness,
The light now, not of the sun.
This mention of Pound is not accidental. It is only when we get to our overwhelmingly literate twentieth century that we first see non-narrative structures truly exploited in the work of Eliot and Pound. And even though their obvious intent was to liberate poetry, the revolution couldn’t have happened at a worse time. It created a school of influence within our academies so out of tune with the oral forces simultaneously transforming society that poetry’s audience simply walked away. This is not to say that non-narrative poetry cannot be beautiful and moving, and even, on occasion, speak well. After all, we don’t want to turn the clock back to 2000 B.C. That’s not the point. The point is that something has gone wrong, and one of the culprits is the use and promotion of extreme non-narrative expression.
It is not that the work of Eliot and Pound is not brilliant. It is. For example, there are few collections more moving and beautiful than Pound’s Cathay. Forget that it’s a translation, because it’s that in name only. One has only to look at all the other translations of Li Po (the Chinese poet known as Rhiaku in Japan) to see that. The real problem is that Pound and Eliot created a poetry that was made to order for our academic poetry culture. Frost, to my mind, was by far a greater poet, but his poetry was not one that could be endlessly studied and explicated, as could the work of Eliot and Pound. And if there is anything that our academies prefer, it’s a poetry that can be studied. Endlessly. Read Hugh Kenner on Pound to see to what incredibly complicated lengths such scholarship can go. So, in addition to giving us their poetry, Pound and Eliot also inadvertently gave birth to a body of critical thought that continues to exert far too strong an influence on our poetry for its own good. It is a kind of death-star that keeps whizzing by, distorting things.
If I were to create a counter-balancing galaxy of classic and contemporary written poets who I felt reflected orality (and therefore our times), I would include all the poets I mentioned in earlier chapters. But I would also place some of our non-narrative poets, such as John Yau, on the very outside fringes, because he balances off the non-narrative quite nicely against a faintly visible scaffolding of narrative. His work also speaks quite well at times, even if it is a very odd, internal speech we’re not quite sure how we get. It is no small accomplishment on his part, this stringing together of highly reflective, non-narrative states that we somehow comprehend as speech, and we should applaud him for it. Here is a taste:
Angel Atrapado XV
Someone likes you, someone like you. Or is it? Someone like you,
someone likes you. In the castle of mirrors one of us turns to sand,
while the other polishes the stones floating beneath his or her tongue.
We were talking about getting inside the place we were in, the one you
described and the one I pointed to, a schoolhouse burning between them.
We were talking about the distance one needs to see the other clearly
through the lens of pronouns and verbs, the little mudcaked skull of
illumination we, one of us, carry, while the other gets down on his or
her knees and tries to decipher the words appearing on the screen.
Some other extreme non-narrative poetry, however, like the work of Donald Revell, doesn’t have the same magic. The ghostly scaffolding that helps Yau’s work communicate isn’t there. As for the ability of Revell’s poem to be spoken and understood, it simply doesn’t exist. As an example, here are the opening lines of Revell’s Zone:
At last you’re tired of this elderly world
Shepherded O Eiffel Tower this morning
the bridges are bleating
You’re fed up living with antiquity
Even the automobiles are antiques
Religion alone remains entirely new religion
Remains as simple as an airport hanger
In all Europe only you O Christianism are not old
The most modern European Pope Pius X it’s you
The windows watch and shame has sealed
The confessionals against you this morning
Flyers catalogs hoardings sing aloud
Here’s poetry this morning and for prose you’re
reading the tabloids
Disposable paperbacks filled with crimes and police
Biographies of great men a thousand various titles
I saw a pretty street this morning I forgot the name
New and cleanly it was the sun’s clarion
Executives laborers exquisite stenographers . . .
Thus in my galaxy-building, non-narrative poetry such as Revell’s would simply be assigned to some distant, nameless system. I would then return to completing my own galaxy, where I would set those written poets whose work directly honors the principles of orality swirling right around the hot center, which is the seat of orality, and where some of us should be thinking of voyaging.
The Form of Oral Poetry
Spontaneous, oral narrative can change like quicksilver.
With all that said about the characteristics of written poetry, it makes sense to take a good look at the characteristics of oral poetry as well—an instructive contrast. First of all, the position that a viable oral poetry existed side by side with written poetry up to the widespread use of the printing press may surprise some, but it could be further stated that lyric, oral poetry dominated the written poetry of those pre-Gutenberg times. Yet even to think that the scraps of written poetry we have inherited were the dominant form of poetry of those early times, is somewhat parochial. They were simply what most easily survived the ravages of time. Oral cultures (and subcultures such as existed in the middle ages) and oral poetry are bound by nature to each other in a fragile, Siamese-twin relationship. When the culture goes, the poetry goes with it. At best, only an epic or two survive, if anything at all.
Whatever oral poetry we have today (the epics) has survived thanks to the transcription efforts of those who recognized and honored its particular genius. But those epics were more than “literature” (if we can call oral poetry that for a moment) because those great poems were so important to early oral cultures that they were, in effect, their bibles. It is no accident that such precious cargo would not only be passed orally from generation to generation (not quite the orderly task many assume it to be), but also recorded in writing when writing began to dominate (and endanger) those cultures. As for the lyric poetry of that time, it survived (if it survived at all) by taking a slight turn to the left, and turning itself into song. Although we tend to think of song today as a sophisticated art different from poetry (and for the most part it is), all it takes is someone like Bob Dylan to make us think twice (or not think twice, as the lyric goes) to realize that song and lyric, oral poetry are only separated by an eyelash. Song was the closest and most desirable vehicle for lyric, oral poetry to grab onto in order to survive.
With such a lack of knowledge about the characteristics and place of oral poetry in the scheme of things, it is no wonder poets sometimes go so far off the mark trying to define just what it is that gives written poetry its peculiar power. Because oral poetry is, in a very real sense, our Galápagos. Once you visit it, you understand the art of poetry as never before. Unlike Darwin, however, few of our poets have actually visited it. Oh, we’ve read about it, heard rumors about it. But few, if any, contemporary poets have actually set foot on it, even though to do so is to truly understand the nature of the species called poetry. One of the first things you learn when you actually step foot on the island is that oral poetry relies on “forms” that are different from those associated with written poetry. In fact, the forms associated with oral poetry are almost “formless.” Since written poetry has increasingly become involved with the use and manipulation of pose and form, it is somewhat off-putting to encounter a poetry whose forms are almost non-existent. By “form” I mean not only those traditional poetic forms (such as sonnets and villanelles with their formal rhyme schemes and metrics), but also any free-verse form or any non-narrative pose.
The first form encountered in oral poetry (and the most important to recognize) is the spontaneous, oral narrative that drives it. It has the essential “formlessness” of ordinary, unpremeditated human speech, but in this case it is driven by the impulse of poetry, by the desire of the soul to display itself, not the self-interest of the gossip. It is difficult to describe this spontaneous narrative as a form, because it is within us—flowing out endlessly, day and night, without a moment’s thought. In some sense we are blind to it. All that can be said about it with certainty (as a form) is that it obeys the fundamental triadic structure of beginning, middle, and end as described by Aristotle as necessary to art. It also satisfies us in the way air satisfies our lungs. Indeed, telling stories is the only way we have of telling ourselves and others who we are. This wellspring of oral poetry was as essential for Homer’s poetry as it is for contemporary, oral poetry. There is no other way for humans to communicate unless we turn to writing: a thing, if you will, where language can be rearranged to allow us to communicate in an almost endless number of different ways.
There is also the matter of cadence: the stress pattern the oral poet imposes upon spontaneous, narrative speech. This cadence is about as close as one comes to what we would call an element of poetic form. In our times, however, it need not be as rigorous a pattern as that of the ancient epic poets. The stresses can be as remarkably formless as the best of contemporary written free verse. So the contemporary oral poet is not only dealing with a very free, almost invisible form of narrative, but also a cadence that can have the same relative formlessness. Although the underlying structure of unpremeditated oral narrative always follows the fundamental triadic structure of beginning, middle, and end, it is so ingeniously and freely spun out of us as to make that oral structure quite airy indeed. Compared to the structure of written poetic narrative—which is almost always visible and invariably tedious—oral poetic narrative can turn on a dime. Homer is the best example of this, but so is your favorite neighborhood storyteller. The pacing and tone and direction and depth of spontaneous oral narrative can change like quicksilver.
Compared to the rather low position that narrative holds in written poetry, one cannot say too much about the importance and nature of narrative in oral poetry, as it is at its very heart. Performance and cadence and rhythmic music are essential components of oral poetry, but only in the sense that the riverbank is essential to the river. Make no mistake about it: no river, no banks. If there is one definitive statement that can be made about oral poetry, it is that the great oral poet (whether lyric or epic) is, by definition, a great storyteller.
This would not seem to be true about the written poet, especially the lyric poet, yet, no matter how elusive the apparent structure, the frame of narrative can always be detected in the background of every great lyric poem. That delicately hazy scaffolding again. Paradoxically, that scaffolding is much more evident (and in much worse shape) in our written epics. For example, the narrative pulse of the epics of Dante, Virgil, and Milton seems stiff and turgid next to Homer. Homer moves so quickly and naturally as to make the others look as if they’re standing still. And they are, to a certain extent. Because the oral poet is a daredevil. He jumps into the river in much the same way as we blindly launch ourselves into our favorite stories at cocktail parties.
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. Unfortunately, that difference is seldom fully understood. In an article that touches more bases in one game than Ty Cobb ever dreamed of (“American Poetry in American Life,” American Poetry Review, March 1996), Robert Pinsky, an excellent poet and former Poet Laureate, writes about his passionate belief that poetry wants to be spoken. He tells us it is a passion that has persisted despite the ongoing, good-natured ridicule of his peers. While Pinsky’s instincts are absolutely on target, they’re aimed at the wrong poetry. Despite the apparent catholicity of his tastes in poetry, he probably never gave a moment’s thought to oral poetry. While he understands on an instinctive level that the essential spirit of poetry is that of the soul speaking, what he doesn’t quite get is (and how could he being, like most poets, a stranger to oral poetry) that those instincts can only truly fulfill themselves through oral poetry.
The desire to speak written poetry is a body memory of the power of ancient oral poetry. Although written poetry seldom speaks well, in most cases it doesn’t really want to be spoken. It wants to be read. The irony is that Pinsky’s own poetry doesn’t really speak that well. The poems are too written. He is simply too much a writer. Just how much a writer (from an oral poet’s point of view) can be seen in his observation that one’s poetry grows and matures by “paying attention to great examples of the practice of that art . . .” (referring to Yeats’ lines) “. . . Nor is there singing school but studying/ monuments of its own magnificence.” This is more or less true about written poetry, probably more so now than in the past because of poetry’s absorption into our academies. But why quibble? By its very nature and its dependence on forms and poses, written poetry is always created, in part, through the act of studying and honoring and emulating its past creations.
This is not the case with oral poetry. 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 undoubtedly taught them to others so 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 exists only 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 by “studying monuments of its own magnificence.” There are no monuments to study. There are some cultural clichés (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 cultural clichés (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—was unique 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.
How was Homer’s work preserved until it could finally be put down in written form? This is probably the most vexing question about Homer’s work, and one scholars really don’t like to think about, primarily because it is so difficult to conceive of anything being transmitted accurately into the future without being written down (which in Homer’s case was probably a hundred or two hundred years). In addition, if you understand how oral composition works, you realize that once a poem is re-spun, it automatically takes on the “flavor” of the speaker. There is no way to avoid the “personalization” of an oral poem. Imagine if you could speak (tell stories to yourself and others) exactly in the manner of someone else, even your best friend, for more than a couple of seconds. It can be done only by very good mimics.
Verbatim memory is no help either. Although it is not widely understood, verbatim memory is seldom encountered in preliterate cultures, and then only on a very limited basis. Those ancient, prodigious feats of memory we hear about took place in early literate (not preliterate) societies. This is because verbatim memory is really the child of writing and the stepchild of rhetoric. Story-telling memory, a completely different beast, is the workhorse of retention in preliterate cultures. My best guess is that the poets who continued to recite Homer after his death did not have gifts of the same nature as the aoidoi (the ancient, epic poets). The Greeks even gave them a separate name: rhapsodists. Not only is their name different, but they appear only after Homer’s death, apparently with the sole task of recreating Homer for the Greeks.
It is difficult for us to grasp the elevated status of Homer while he lived. And after he died. One indication of that status is that his name survived and was carried forth into literate times, an honor reserved for the greatest warriors and kings and heroes. Hector. Achilles. These were great, real warriors. And Homer was a great, real poet. But more importantly, he is the only preliterate poet whose name has survived, save those aoidoi mentioned by Homer himself. Names are seldom made up in an oral tradition unless the poet makes clear he is concocting a fiction, a play on words. This applies both to the names of places and the names of characters. Names are sacred to an oral culture. When those traditions tell us that Achilles fought at Troy, or that Homer made the epics we call The Odyssey and The Iliad, we are hearing a truth.
Once we understand this essential fact, we can also put to bed all those theories that Homer did not create The Odyssey and The Iliad. All of these “other poet” schemes show a lack of understanding as to how things work in an oral culture. These were cultures that lived and died for honor, and the greatest honor you could pay someone was to remember his name. To not let it die. (This accuracy, however, was not always present for other things passed down through that tradition. Time was exaggerated. Numbers and size were exaggerated. Deeds were exaggerated. Dress and customs were exaggerated. But the names were real.) The pronunciation of those names may have been modified over hundreds and hundreds of years, but the names themselves are real. Because of the survival of Homer’s name, there is no doubt in my mind that Homer was huge, as they say in show business. Bigger than Elvis. And real. It is hard to say which was worse for the Greeks to contemplate: Homer without life, or life without Homer. Not only couldn’t they get enough of him while he lived, but they undoubtedly dreaded the thought of his songs disappearing forever.
The rhapsodists were the apparent solution. They even worked in a different manner. They didn’t recite with the lyre as the aoidoi did, but with large sticks which they beat on the ground to keep rhythm. There must have been many of them and they must have worked in shifts because of the enormity of the three-day effort (which is how long it takes to recite each of Homer’s epics). They were probably similar to today’s highly skilled classical musicians who dedicate their lives to reproducing the great classical music of the past—becoming Mozart or Beethoven for a few hours. This is not to minimize the task at hand for the rhapsodists. They had to get it all down, not only while Homer was actually singing, but while he was alive. Once he stopped breathing, it was all over. There are no stationary targets in oral poetry, only moving ones. They couldn’t study scores like today’s classical musicians. This is why I think there were many of them. The only way you could keep up with a giant like Homer was in relays, with each rhapsodist dedicating himself to a small portion of the epic in question.
Who’s to say how much (or how little) of the rhapsodist might have leaked into the “reproduced” Homer? A similar question exists with the classical pianist’s performance of a Beethoven concerto. The pianist may claim that his rendition is pure Beethoven and that Beethoven would have played it identically, but who’s to say? After all, Beethoven’s dead. All we can actually dispute is that some of the notes weren’t played. Of course, there’s no original in the case of Homer. Once Homer was dead, whatever the rhapsodist had absorbed was all that was left of Homer. But compared to the problem of the classical musician leaking into his Beethoven, it’s even more difficult to say how much of the rhapsodists leaked into the Homer we’ve inherited. This is because the “recreation” of the poem always imparts the teller’s personality, no matter how hard he fights against it.
How did the rhapsodists avoid this problem? They probably didn’t completely avoid it, but they must have come pretty close. After all, the audience in those days had very keen ears. They were all ears, to tell you the truth. They would have been very quick to correct any obvious errors. But the major burden still fell on the rhapsodists. They were most likely very talented mimics as well as poets, and they imitated Homer as best they could. (Not just the words, but the sound of Homer. Remember that Homer’s speaking was very close to song.) They became Homer in short bursts. It was the only way to do it because verbatim memory was not the memory used in preliterate times. (It may have been used by later generations of literate rhapsodists who memorized the poem from transcriptions.) More importantly, the rhapsodists weren’t true oral poets, or at least they sacrificed that portion of that talent to Homer. If they had allowed themselves to be true oral poets, God knows what version of Homer we’d have today.
The Question of Accuracy in Oral Transmission
You have to know which part of the beast you’re looking at.
One can gain another insight into the nature of oral composition by looking at the process of oral transmission, i.e., the creation and re-creation of an epic overture. For example, what happens to an epic over a long period of time, say five hundred years? All of us are familiar with the parlor game “Gossip” where a story is whispered into the ear of the person next to you who in turns whispers it to the next, and then after ten or so people have transmitted the story, the last tells the story out loud, and of course, it is not even remotely similar to the original. This common experience would lead any one to believe that the oral transmission associated with preliterate cultures would lead to the same kind of chaos. It was the common prejudice a few hundred years ago when scholars first began to examine documents derived from oral sources. That was because their idea of oral transmission in preliterate cultures was pretty much that of the above-mentioned parlor game. But the fact of the matter is that oral transmission in preliterate cultures is always extremely accurate on some matters (such as names and the nature of critical events like war or murder), while moderately to highly inaccurate on others (such as time and size). The primary reason for inaccuracy is almost always due to exaggeration on the part of the teller. Tall tales. It comes with the territory. So when you examine an epic for historical accuracy, you have to know which part of the beast you’re looking at.
In addition, the oft-encountered cliché, “It was handed down orally from generation to generation” displays a general misunderstanding of how oral transmission actually takes place. First of all, in an oral culture, there is nothing “to hand down.” You hand down documents. Oral poems exist only on the breath of the speaker. Thus, an important tribal story, or theme, would be recreated—not copied—by each generation of poets. There were limitations on improvisation imposed by the listeners (or responders), who had the power to reject what they didn’t like. But these were primarily improvisations that violated the basic elements and themes of the story.
Beyond that, 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. After all, the poet was keyed in to the same consensus as the tribe.
These elements might eventually change because the consensus of the tribe 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 tribe members 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 of the tribe, if an “original” version, by some magic, were to be presented to the tribe, they would find it to be strange, or false, or unsatisfactory. The version of the story that is eventually “handed” to the scholar (in the form of an oral “document”) 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.
When we understand this, we understand the achievement of the Greeks in saving Homer the way they did. It shows they were very aware of the nature of oral creation, and recreation, and the stylistic and narrative differences that could arise. But they also somehow sensed (and this must have been just luck) that if they didn’t “freeze” Homer’s creations through the rhapsodists, the very essence of the epics might also disappear, and nobody would be the wiser. When I say it must have been just luck, it is because the preliterate Greeks had no way of understanding the dilemma outlined in the previous paragraphs. This is because essential changes (names, themes) only occur, if they do, over hundreds of years. 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.
What is not understood sometimes is that improvisation drives much of oral composition, indeed, it is at the very heart of creating oral narrative itself. Homer’s improvisational ability, for example, is the reason for his powerful, wide-ranging similes. According to Lattimore, Homer’s extended similes have never been equaled by any epic poet, written or oral. But Lattimore doesn’t point out that those extended similes are the result of Homer’s incredible powers of improvisation. This is because many scholars don’t seem to recognize that improvisation is occurring on many levels. Most recognize that formulaic improvisation (beat-keeping) is going on. Fewer recognize that the creation of much of the oral narrative itself is an improvisational act. Once the essential flow of the story has been imagined (or sensed) by the poet, the necessary scenes, action, detail, and dialogue are created on the fly. To see how fluid this mode of composition is, compare it to Nabokov’s well-documented practice of laying out these elements on hundreds of index cards before writing a story. But there is still another level of improvisation—one that is seldom appreciated or even understood by scholars—and that is the “kick back and have at it” improvisations typified by his extended similes. Homer, after all was a musical, rhythmical speaker. He would have been crazy about Ella Fitzgerald’s jazz riffs.
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 noble clichés), 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 but the rhapsodist version that happened to be 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 speechlike, whereas Lattimore’s Homer is elegantly written. It is a magnificent creation. It is what had to be done to make the jump between languages.
But more to the point, it is what had to be done to make an oral, sung poem come alive on the written page. 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, or aoidoi, 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. This happened, for example, with the epics of the Indian and Greek preliterate cultures. It is also true for the Hebrews, but in a limited way, as we have no surviving epic. We do, however, have the Bible, a good deal of which is based on a variety of oral sources that were epic in nature. 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.
The archeological remains of buildings, sculpture, paintings, pottery, and the scraps of very early, transitional script all play their roles. But only the epics give us any kind of grip at all on their beliefs, values, and concerns—what it felt like to live in those times. Even those insights are a bit tenuous, however, because the oral epics were true living poems of which we have only the transcribed and translated versions. Not only did they lose some of that life in translation (which would be true for any poetry), but a great deal of that life was also lost when they were transcribed from an oral/musical form to a written one. And as with all poetry, the epics were so intimately linked to the language of their time that even ancient translators often had no idea as to the true meaning of certain words and phrases.
Despite this (and despite our early distrust of the historical accuracy of these epics), modern research has shown them to be remarkably on the money. The best-known example is Troy, which a few hundred years ago was dismissed by most scholars as a figment of Homer’s imagination but was shown by Joseph Schliemann (the German archaeologist) and his successors not only to have existed, but also (with some exceptions) to be physically similar to Homer’s descriptions of it. Homer’s descriptions of the battle gear and palaces and homes of the participants have been equally borne out, as has the destruction of the city itself. The exceptions, as we might expect, are mostly due to exaggeration: the size of the Greek army, the size of Troy, the size of battle shields, the length of the siege. Those that aren’t due to exaggeration (a shield design belonging to a later time) are probably due either to a mistaken adoption by an earlier aoidoi that Homer eventually repeated, a rhapsodist “leaking” into the poem, or someone tinkering with an early manuscript. Take your pick.
Thus, the accuracy of some of the major elements (place names, basic event) seems to be borne out by archaeology. And once we discount the impact of exaggeration, Homer also proves himself to be reliable on such secondary items as the palace, the walls, the battle gear. If Homer is accurate on all these matters, it leads us to believe that he must have been accurate on the other matters I’ve suggested as relatively stable: the nature of the war, the principal players, and how it played itself out. Schliemann’s archaeology has not been able to validate these other elements. Subsequent cross-cultural studies, however, have borne out such things as the existence of the Achaeans and Agamemnon. Other archaeological studies have confirmed the list of Greek places sending ships to Troy. Because of this, we have every reason to feel Homer was extremely accurate about that distant war. This is even more impressive when we realize that Homer lived some five hundred years or so after the 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. As wrong as the old chestnut that Homer’s epics are simply an amalgamation of other smaller epics. The amalgamation theory contends there was no Homer—that what we call Homer’s Iliad, for example, is merely a collection of smaller oral epics that some early, unknown oral mechanic managed to stitch together like a kind of Frankenstein’s monster.
This explanation, though nuttily ingenious, is so far off the mark one has to wonder how it can keep reappearing. It doesn’t answer the question of Homer’s remarkable consistency and accuracy. If anything, you’d expect multiple sources would lead to many more discrepancies within the whole. That aside, the sheer genius of Homer’s work—artistically and thematically—seems beyond question. Could there have been two contemporary poets of such towering genius? It’s possible, but history suggests otherwise, and so does our own interior sense of Homer’s voice. The two great epics were created by one man. The remarkable survival of his name, and its traditional association with the only two surviving epic poems, is further evidence of that fact.
How, then, did Homer get it so right? At the very deepest level, the engine that drove Homer’s accuracy was his sense of honor. Honor was everything in preliterate cultures. To forget or misname a hero, a battle, a city, a war, an action, a cause, was to dishonor it. Only exaggeration (the size of the shield) was permitted. It made heroic actions more heroic.
With that in mind, imagine you are a young aoidoi living 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 of speakings. 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. New speakings and 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 to speak. 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. To answer it I use my own experience with the story I created of my father and me—what it felt like and how it worked its way out. Although my story lasted only an hour or so (rather than the twenty or so hours it takes to speak Homer’s epics), the difference is similar to that of a one-inning game compared to a long double-header. I also didn’t have any of the formulaic concerns of creating a six-stress, end-stopped phrase, or integrating certain noble clichés, as Homer did. But these are essentially minor modifications of speaking patterns and cadence that the poet accommodates, and are mechanical in nature. (In fact, any skilled, free‑style rapper could accommodate them easily.) They have little impact on the basic creative process, which is a very human one, and which has been essentially the same for all oral poets across all cultures since the beginning of poetry. 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. The theme in my case was honor—specifically the honoring of my father. In your case, as our budding aoidoi, 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 the speaking that 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 hotel 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 pre-thought, 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.
Let’s step aside for a moment. Compared to the rooms in my story, your rooms, like Homer’s rooms, are absolutely quivering with potential characters and action, enough to last for thirty minutes or so. But they’re still as dimly lit and just as small as mine. 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 know something 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.
The Use of Cliché in Oral Poetry
Cliché is at the heart of oral poetry.
Before we let our young aoidoi open his mouth, however, we’re going to take a look at the use of cliché in oral composition. Only an oral poet is comfortable with cliché, because cliché is at the heart of oral poetry. Not only does the ear love it, it is the way the body provides the unthinking studs and frames necessary for the improvisational finishing of the room. Attractive as clichés are to the ear, and as necessary as they are to oral composition, written poetry—a poetry of the eye—hates cliché and Homer’s use of them has driven many of his translators up the wall. To help understand the use of cliché in oral composition, let’s take a look at our everyday conversations.
Somewhere, somehow, every cliché starts out as an improvised exclamation or metaphor or simile that people love because somehow it’s right on the money. Everyone gets it: “Poppa’s got a brand new bag.” “That’s cool.” “Twenty-three skiddoo.” “Run it up the flagpole.” Your friends can’t stop saying it. They want you to say it. Then it becomes passé. It becomes cliché. (It’s hard stopping this once you get started.) When we do tire of a cliché (and that may take a very long time) we never worry. We sleep well knowing that new improvisations are being invented by someone, somewhere.
Cliché occurs in oral poetry for the same reason it occurs in everyday speech. It allows us to both speak and be heard more easily, and succinctly. Part of the attractiveness of cliché lies in the fact that there is usually a second, intended meaning in addition to the obvious one. Because of this, cliché allows us to communicate a rich message without being original all of the time. There are several levels of cliché employed by the oral poet. In the case of someone like Homer, or even free-style rappers, there are a number of noble or cultural clichés (wine dark sea, grey-eyed Athena) that have to be used. The audience demands that only that description be used for the thing in question. There are two other levels—social cliché and personal cliché—that are less rigorous, and used almost unconsciously by the poet. Social cliché consists of socially acceptable and preferred ways of speaking. They are the phrases, metaphors and similes that form the patterns of our everyday speech. “I fell for her lock, stock, and barrel” is an example of a social cliché. It’s a familiar way of saying you’re crazy about someone. Oops, another cliché. Similarly, we have personal clichés that are uniquely ours, and that are often invisible to us, but listeners easily detect them as us. They are our signature. Yogi Berra’s oft-quoted malapropisms are an extreme example of this type of cliché. All of these clichés will be employed by you to make your epic really fly.
OK, OK, I know. You’re on high burn, itching to take off. Let’s do it.
The Muse Speaks
You jump in the river; there is no time for thinking—only singing.
You’re at the trigger point now, ready to speak. You can feel the crows circling all around you. Now what do you do? Well, you might choose to create that very first speaking privately, perhaps speaking to the blue Aegean. Or maybe you’d speak publicly to a small gathering of friends. Either way, you’re not really concerned. It’s going to work; it’ll hold together, you know that. But it may be a bit thin, a bit jerky in spots. It’s your call. 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 normal clichés of 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. The aoidoi’s is large and from the soul, and it’s to that speaking we want to return.
As our young aoidoi, 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. Many speakings, 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 young aoidoi with 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 young aoidoi’s poem. 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 young aoidoi’s poem.
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 that is consumed by honor (while at the same time beginning to give evidence of the emergence of deceit), to a world 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.
Oral Poetry as a Galápagos of Poetry
Spontaneous narrative is at the formative heart of poetry.
Of all our scholars, Julian Jaynes seems to understand the essential nature of ancient, epic, oral poetry best, and even suggests that Homer and his predecessors spoke “unconsciously” out of their right temporal lobes. His primary contention is that preliterate man “heard the gods” through speech internally generated in the right lobe, much as schizophrenics hear internal voices. It was that “speech” that told him what course of action to take. Preliterate oral poets simply let that speech pass into the external world. This is what Homer means when he says: “Sing, Muse and through me tell the story. . . .” Jaynes makes a convincing argument, and it is not very far from my own feeling that poetry occurs when the soul speaks. Regardless of the exact cause, however, the act of inspired, spontaneous narrative speech is such a profoundly mysterious and beautiful act as to leave no doubt in my mind it is the source of the ancient Greek root for poetry, poein: to make. What they were honoring in that root was the mystery of speaking—of the soul entering into time to make something new. Something that is us and not us. Circles within circles.
To understand poetry you have to visit its Galápagos. It is there we begin to see clearly that spontaneous narrative is at the formative heart of poetry. And that it is an intuitive form of immense mystery, power, and flexibility. When we stray from it, as is possible in written poetry, we should watch our step. Because if we stray too far from that hazy, delicate scaffolding, we may not be understood. Moreover, this Galápagos of ours allows us to see that the whole question and study of form, which often preoccupies our written poetry culture (and which to my mind often takes on the odor of alchemy) can now be viewed under a new and more revealing light. From the long view that oral poetry affords us, we can see that many of written poetry’s forms (i.e., rhyme, line break, meter, stanza break) are simply the way written poetry imitates the musical power of oral poetry. We should keep that in mind whenever we’re tempted to make too much of form as the source of poetry.
Some may accuse me of shaving things a bit too close in this matter, but when you truly experience oral poetry, you see that even though its forms are relatively nebulous as compared to those of written poetry, the end result can be equally powerful. I’ll admit that cadence is a form (as is rhythmic music, which drives oral poetry), but if you’ve actually composed orally you would give up quibbling. The river of music and cadence upon which speech plays itself out in oral poetry is like the breath that gives form to our everyday speech. It is invisible to the poet in a manner that written forms can never be. Form, as we know it, plays a rather small role in oral creation.
This particular exposition of oral poetry’s aesthetic has allowed us to put a different light on the function and nature of forms in poetry. Because when we look at the species called poetry under that light, we’re less likely to see “forms” as the “cause” of poetry (as some poets have a tendency to do because of their sheer power and breadth in the written world). Oral poetry can teach us that poetry can be made with almost nothing in the way of forms as we know them. It teaches us that poetry only truly occurs when the soul and self agree to sing a song. It is the moment that the soul says through the self: “This is the world that I am.” If the soul is not present in that singing, it is not poetry, regardless of any marriage of form and expression. What you have then is verse. The self speaking.
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