Introduction: A Brief Survey of Concepts and Aims

The two central concepts of this book can be summed up in the words performance and composition, which are to be taken as two different aspects of one process in oral poetics. The emphasis here is on performance, as the title of the book indicates.
The basic work on the interaction of performance and composition continues to be Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales. [1] Since we will be concentrating here on the oral poetics of ancient Greece, it is important to stress, from the very start, the importance of Lord’s book for Hellenists. [2] Though it is cited by many who offer various arguments about “oral poetry,” the book is often treated only superficially, and there are even instances where those who agree or disagree with it have evidently not read it at all.
The complementarity of performance and composition, as observed by Lord, parallels that of parole and langue, as formulated by Ferdinand de Saussure in the field of linguistics. [3] The present book places the emphasis on parole, parallel to the emphasis on performance. [4]
The English noun song, along with the verb sing, expresses admirably the coexistence of performance and composition as a {1|2} continuum. Further, the idea of performance inherent in song, which is absent from the word poetry, makes it more useful to apply the word song rather than poetry to archaic Greek traditions, which do not explicitly distinguish song from poetry. The resonance of performance led Albert Lord to describe the medium of the South Slavic guslar - and of Homer - as song rather than poetry. The same idea figures prominently in the title of his pathfinding book, The Singer of Tales. [5]
The background for applying the linguistic terms langue and parole, especially with reference to other linguistic terms such as synchronic and diachronic, unmarked and marked, has been worked out in Pindar’s Homer, a compendium of over ten years of research, [6] and in the essay “Early Greek Views of Poetry and Poets” in volume I of the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, which can serve as an epitome of that compendium. [7] Another essay, “Homeric Questions,” offers a general outline of comparative linguistic as well as ethnographic approaches, summing up in this way the task at hand: “The essence of performing song and poetry, an essence permanently lost from the paideía [‘educational system’] that we have inherited from the ancient Greeks, is for me the primary question.” [8]
A qualification is needed concerning the term comparative, which in linguistics can be used in two senses, one more specific and the other more general. The first is represented by the méthode comparative, perfected by linguists like Antoine Meillet, where comparison entails the study of cognate forms and meanings within the discipline of historical linguistics. [9] The second sense is more general, referring to the study of typological parallels, that is, of analogies between historically unrelated languages. [10] While {2|3} the establishing of cognates or borrowings is a matter of empirically proving a historical connection between the languages compared, the adducing of typological parallels need not be taken as proof for a given argument, but only as an intuitive reinforcement. The “beyond” in the subtitle of this book refers to both senses of comparison, applied to the study of song and poetry in performance.
Suffice it for the moment to offer one example each of the two senses of the term comparative. To start with the more specific sense: if we compare the meters of Song 44 of Sappho with those of Homeric hexameter, we are dealing with forms that are arguably cognate, that is, derivable from a common source. [11] The more general sense of the term comes into play if we compare, for example, the conventions of a performer’s switching from second person to first person in Song 1 of Sappho with similar conventions in the female initiation songs of Athapascan language groups like the Apache and Navajo. [12] Such a comparison is not a matter of proving something outright, since the Greek and the Athapascan traditions are obviously unrelated to each other historically. What is achieved, rather, is simply the enhanced likelihood that parallel lines of interpretation might lead to a deeper understanding of the individual traditions being compared.
One long-range comparative inference reached in previous work extends into the present book, which is, that group dynamics in performance help explain solo dynamics more effectively than the other way around. [13] This inference leads to a new emphasis on the distinction between group and audience, which in turn leads to refinements of the Greek concept of mimesis. Ultimately, these questions converge on a more specific question, that is, the relationship of lyric and epic.
Epic is more difficult to define diachronically than lyric. The eventual form of ancient Greek epic is more complex than that of “lyric,” despite the fact that epic happens to be the earliest-attested body of literature in Greek history. [14] “Epic” is also more {3|4} difficult to define synchronically, because it is even more deceptive than “lyric” when we apply the distinction between what Plato and Aristotle call diegesis and mimesis. While the first of these two terms is easily understood as ‘narrative’, the second is much more difficult to pin down. It will be argued at length that the primary meaning of mimesis is ‘dramatic re-enactment’. Suffice it to stress for now a central conclusion reached in this book, that the diegesis of epic is subsumed by mimesis. We may recall the perceptive wording of Stephen Halliwell, who considers the possibility that “Aristotle’s guiding notion of mimesis is implicitly that of enactment: poetry proper (which may include some works in prose) does not describe, narrate or offer argument, but dramatises and embodies human speech and action.” [15] Such a formulation of Aristotle’s notion can apply even to the “I” who narrates Homeric song. [16]
The ultimate aim, then, is to show that both epic and lyric in ancient Greece were fundamentally a medium of mimesis, which we can understand only if we keep asking how, when, where, and why these two kinds of verbal art were performed. {4|}


[ back ] 1. Lord 1960.
[ back ] 2. Cf. HQ 16-17.
[ back ] 3. Saussure 1916. A critical summary in Ducrot and Todorov 1979:118-120.
[ back ] 4. See for example the implications of parole in my preface (pp. ix-xi) to the inaugural volume of the “Myth and Poetics” series, Martin 1989, The Language of Heroes. See also Dronke 1968:13-31, the Introduction, which is entitled “Performers and Performance.” Eric Havelock remarks in The Muse Learns to Write (1986:93) that “surviving orality also explains why Greek literature to Euripides is composed as a performance, and in the language of performance.” The term orality, however, can lead to many misunderstandings, some of which I survey in HQ 19-27.
[ back ] 5. Lord 1960.
[ back ] 6. N 1990a. Hereafter abbreviated as PH.
[ back ] 7. N 1989. One additional set of terms introduced in the present work involves the distinction that needs to be made, in analyzing oral poetics, between a syntagmatic or “horizontal” axis of combination and a paradigmatic or “vertical” axis of selection. Cf. Ducrot and Todorov 1979:111: “Thus the meaning of a word is determined both by the influence of those that surround it in discourse and by the memory of those that could have taken its place.”
[ back ] 8. HQ 8. The essay “Homeric Questions” (N 1992a) was incorporated into the book Homeric Questions (N 1996b).
[ back ] 9. Meillet 1925.
[ back ] 10. A classic example is the study of Benveniste 1946 on the function of the third person in the verb-systems of a wide variety of unrelated languages.
[ back ] 11. Such a comparison is the main topic of N 1974 ch. 4.
[ back ] 12. See ch. 4 in this book.
[ back ] 13. Cf. PH ch. 12.
[ back ] 14. N 1974, PH 439-464.
[ back ] 15. Halliwell 1986:128.
[ back ] 16. There is a key formulation in Martin 1989:87-88.