1. Words Heard and Words Seen*

It seems superfluous to remark that in the history of mankind words were heard before they were seen. For the majority of people, as a matter of fact, words still are heard rather than seen, and even those who have learned to visualize words as containing particular letters in a particular sequence continue to operate much of the time with the heard, and hence the spoken, word. In our individual experience we share in varying degrees in both worlds. We have gone in our individual development from orally conceived words, without visible representation, existing within boundaries defined by utterance rather than spelling, to a sense of words with rigid, visual characteristics; cultures, like individuals, moved from one world to another through a series of gradual adaptations. Although the two worlds, the oral and the written, of thought and its expression, exhibit some striking and important differences, they are not really separate worlds.
As my title indicates, I intend to discuss words rather than orality, words in their oral form, as it were, and words in their written form. [1] I {15|16} want particularly to treat the artistic use of words in what we rightly call literature, and to stress the positive and creative qualities of oral literature, the oldest literature in the human world, and its significance for "written literature.” [2]
We use the word "literature" in at least two senses. When the automobile salesman tells us that he will give us the "literature" about a given model of car, he is not using the word in the same sense as the Department of English Literature at a university. When scholars say that they have read all the "literature" on Beowulf they are not speaking of belles-lettres. The salesman's "literature" means "something in writing," and the scholars' "literature" indicates "what has been written" on the Old English epic. In this case, scholars and salesman are using the word with the same meaning. [3] The English department, on the other hand, has made a qualitative judgment on part of the vast amount of written documents. Some people, stressing the etymology of the word "literature," make a distinction between the written and the nonwritten, thus viewing all literatures as written, by definition, as the origin of the word implies. At the same time, the same people might hesitate to subscribe to the idea that everything that is written is literature, although that is the automobile salesman's attitude. They would insist that literature means belles-lettres. This is a well-attested use of the word. Surely you have heard someone say that a given piece of writing is not "literature." Sometimes writings that contain many obscenities are condemned because they are not literature, and sometimes they are defended because they are literature. Whichever side may be in the right, they are both speaking about the quality of what is written, not whether it is written or not. In that use of the word "literature," therefore, we make a distinction of quality among various expressions in words. It is to that meaning of literature that I turn, for under it we can speak of both an oral and a written literature, products of verbal expression of high artistic quality. In sum, words heard, when set in the forms of art, are oral literature; words seen, when set in the forms of art, are written in literature. {16|17}
These considerations lead us to the question of what the role of writing is in literature. Written literature is dependent on writing. That sounds axiomatic, but the type of literature that I think of as "written literature" par excellence, historically, was created in writing and was impossible without writing. Let me illustrate by way of explanation. Can you imagine James Joyce's Ulysses being created without writing? Or a poem of e.e. cummings, whose very name must be seen to be recognized? Or a short, graphic example from Ezra Pound's Canto LXXVI:
nothing matters but the quality
of the affection—
in the end—that has carved the trace in the mind
dove sta memoria. [4]
This is visual poetry; its very placement on the written or printed page indicates a phrasing and emphasis in meaning; and its lack of punctuation is a purposeful element put there by the author to convey a message. You must see it to understand it fully. The Italian quotation was taken from Guido Cavalcanti's Donna mi prega. [5] This is real borrowing from a thirteenth-century poet, impossible without a written text. This kind of poetry requires writing. These words have to be seen.
Even such lines as the following from Yeats's "The Wanderings of Oisin," which exhibit some of the characteristics of oral literature, are inconceivable without writing:
Like sooty fingers, many a tree
Rose ever out of the warm sea;
And they were trembling ceaselessly,
As though they all were beating time,
Upon the centre of the sun,
To that low laughing woodland rhyme.
And, now our wandering hours were done,
We cantered to the shore, and knew
The reason of the trembling trees;
Round every branch the song-birds flew, {17|18}
Or clung thereon like swarming bees;
While round the shore a million stood
Like drops of frozen rainbow light,
And pondered in a soft vain mood
Upon their shadows in the tide,
And told the purple deep their pride,
And murmured snatches of delight;
And on the shores were many boats
With bending sterns and bending bows,
And carven figures on their prows
Of bitterns, and fish-eating stoats,
And swans with their exultant throats. [6]
In spite of the adding style of this lovely passage—balanced as it is, nevertheless, with necessary enjambements—this poetry must be seen as well as heard, so that one may go over it again and again to appreciate its subtleties. If Yeats's lines were really oral-traditional lines, and if you were in the traditional audience or its equivalent, you would not need to go back over them to savor them. The traditional diction would be familiar, known, understood, and appreciated on first hearing, because words and word-clusters or configurations like them had been heard before. They were "just right." On the other hand, the phrase "sooty fingers" has no traditional resonances, and the same can be said for the sentence "many a tree rose out of the warm sea." This is neither traditional diction nor traditional imagery. It is individualistic in an individualist's milieu. Its particular style, its striking choice of words and ideas and poetic combinations are purely Yeats. Song-birds cling to every branch "like swarming bees," which just might be traditional, but a million of them stand on the shore "like drops of frozen rainbow light," which I wager was not. These delights are in a tradition of written poetry, but are not in an oral traditional Hiberno-English poetry. The technique here, indeed, is to seek a striking nontraditional image.
Few cultures with which I am acquainted have developed writing from within their own society. For many of them writing was brought to them from outside, from a "more advanced" culture, or at least from a culture with writing. But writing does not always imply written literature. The ancient Greeks first presumably devised a script called Linear B, probably adapted from one called Linear A, in the second {18|19} millennium B.C.; and in the eighth century B.C. they borrowed and modified the Phoenician alphabet for writing the Greek language. One of the noteworthy facts about Linear B is that it seems not to have been used for writing down Mycenaean oral-traditional literature or even for creating a written Mycenaean literature. Mycenaean literacy served the interests of trade or religion. In Mycenaean times, to be literate had practical mercantile or cult implications but none concerning the culture of literature.
The Greeks themselves then developed a literary culture from within their own ranks. There may have been outside models from ancient Near Eastern cultures with writing and with a literature in writing, be it written down or primary, which influenced the Greeks in that development. I have often wondered whence the idea came to someone in the eighth century B.C. to write down the Homeric poems, since whatever had been written up to that point had been aimed to further commerce or administration. There is the possibility that the writing of the earliest Hebrew scriptures, or the terracotta tablets of other Near and Middle Eastern peoples, may have become known to the Greeks from their contacts with the Near East and that they may have given the Greeks the idea of writing down their own myths.
Greek literature was already formed when it was first written down. The earliest written texts, such as the Homeric poems, could not be transitional, because oral literature was highly developed and so far as we know, written literature, as written literature, was nonexistent when they were recorded. It might be said that on the basis of the oral-traditional Homeric poems and other archaic Greek poetry ancient Greek written literature was created. The oral period must have lasted for a long time and true written literature must have been worked out very gradually; oral literature satisfied all requirements. [7]
Writing did however, provide an opportunity for Homer to dictate—or write, if you wish, although I find the idea incongruous—a song, or songs, longer than a normal performance. [8] It took away one set of time {19|20} limits, that of performance before an audience, the circumstances under which the traditional epic was usually sung. It imposed another set of time limits, more flexible, but artificial and probably difficult for the poet/singer without the accustomed type of audience. Yet the flexible time limits held great potential for more prolonged composing than occasion usually afforded, a different kind of performance, as it were. At this stage, that potential was for greater length, for more of the same, nothing else.
The case of the Germanic peoples is in part much the same as that of the Greeks. They had a runic alphabet with a restricted and nonliterary use. [9] Like the Mycenaeans, they did not have a literature written in that, their own, alphabet. Like the Mycenaeans, too, they had an oral-traditional literature. That it was highly developed we know, because when it eventually came to be written down, it was revealed to be of a complexity in its structure that argued a formative period of generations before writing recorded it. Words heard were sufficient for literature, for ritual utterances, for the recounting of myths, and for the telling and singing of tales, just as words heard were sufficient for everyday communication. Literary language, oral or written, after all, differs from everyday language in its function, particularly in its association with the sacred world. It was characterized by repetitions of sounds, and by parallelisms of structure, for example, which had the function of rendering magic utterances more powerful and hence more surely effective. Writing was not needed for those devices. In fact, when you come to think of it, the written word becomes operable as sound only when spoken aloud! Many basic rhetorical devices of written literature do not depend on words being seen, but come to life only when they are words heard.
In the case of the Germanic tribes in continental Germany, Scandinavia, Iceland, and England, writing was not used to record and eventually really to write literature, until the peoples were converted to Christianity. The Church, moreover, brought these tribes not only an alphabet, but a developed literature in a hieratical language. The alphabet that came with Latin was used to write down some of the oral literature. Since that literature was pagan—non-Christian—in its sacred ambience, however, the Christian Latin texts were translated or paraphrased in the vulgar tongue so that the teachings could be understood by those who did not know Latin. And the pagan oral-traditional literature {20|21} of the people was sometimes adapted, when possible, to Christian ideology. And thus gradually a new phase began in those literatures and a real written literature in those languages began to appear. It was an amalgam of two cultures, the vernacular with its own developed oral-traditional literary style and the new Christian Latin culture. The first effect of the latter was on ideas, on content, rather than on style, because, especially in poetry, Latin written style was not easy to reproduce in the metrical and alliterative schemes of Germanic verse. The oral-traditional vernacular style continued for some time to be the backbone of the new vernacular written literatures. Only then among the Teutonic peoples did words heard become literally words seen. Yet, except for a certain small and limited group of people, the literate—not only those who could read and write, but, more specifically, those who actually read literature—the vision of the world of orality changed not one iota.
Latin brought with it not only religious writings and the works of the Church Fathers such as Augustine, but it also made available the great writers of ancient Rome, such as Vergil and Ovid, and the new non-religious Latin literature. All these writings eventually played a decisive role in the development of the new literature in the vernacular. And a new secular Latin literature appeared, which for a while dominated the learned world as well as producing a medieval Latin literature of great distinction.
Oral literature did not need writing to become literature, and it continued long after writing was invented. Walter J. Ong has given us a useful term, "oral residue," referring to the characteristics of orality which remain in the world of literacy after the introduction of writing. The term applies very well to literature. But his "characteristics of orality," given in his book Orality and Literacy, were really intended to cover many other areas than literature. [10] Accordingly, they apply more widely than "words heard and words seen," to encompass a psychology of the "oral mind" and many facets of the world of the unlettered, including their literature and its interaction with the written word.
At this point it would be helpful to distinguish oral literature from oral history and also to place oral literature in respect to that vague but useful term “oral tradition.” [11] Sometimes that term is synonymous with oral literature; it may be another way of saying "oral-traditional literature." {21|22} For example, one may hear, or read, that a particular story is found in "oral tradition." More often, the term is used to designate oral report, which shades into oral history. Oral tradition in that case covers what one hears of what has happened in the past, distant or recent Although it can exist in a casual form, when it takes on a formal aspect it is oral history. Literacy has little or no effect on oral history, except that eventually, when literacy becomes widespread and begins to be used for recording, and finally for writing, literature, the writing of history is an important part of that larger development.
Oral literature is varied. It includes a number of genres, and each has its own role. In it, stories are told, songs are sung, riddles are posed, proverbs are wisely expounded, and in Africa praises are "performed." Stories and songs entertain and instruct, as do also the more humble, shorter forms of proverbs and riddles. Each has its time and place. Certain genres of wisdom literature—proverbs and riddles—sometimes, in fact quite frequently, are contained within stories and songs. Genres are not watertight compartments.
Among the shorter forms of song is a group that includes ritual songs of several kinds, such as lullabies, wedding songs, laments, and keenings at funerals. Here, too, belong the praise poems for which Africa is justly famous. [12] Laments and praises tend to be pure improvisations. Literacy has little effect on the shorter forms of oral literature. Except for an occasional collector, no one would think it useful to write down proverbs, riddles, or sayings, and, by definition, improvisations do not require writing.
Prose stories in oral-traditional literature, that is, anecdotes or more complex folktales, do not have set texts, except that there are "more or less stable" introductory formulas, such as "once upon a time," and concluding words, as well as some short set "runs," for frequently recurring passages.
Excellent examples of such runs can be found in Irish storytelling. In his relating of the long hero story Eochair Mac Ri in Eirinn, Eamon Bourke used the following run whenever the hero came to a giant's castle and "struck the challenge pole."
And when he came to the giant's house, he struck the challenge pole. He did not leave foal in mare, lamb in sheep, child in woman, a kid in goat {22|23} that he did not turn nine times in its mother's belly and from there back again; he did not leave the old castle unbroken, the new castle unbent; the old tree unbroken and the new tree unbent; and it said upon his sword that there was not a fighting man under the ground or over the ground fit to beat him. The herald came out and asked what he wanted. [13]
Another run in the same story—there are many of them—is a description of the beheading of a giant:
And he came to him and struck him, and took the head off him on the eighth day. When he did the head was whistling as it went up and humming as it went down in hope of coming upon the same body again. But Mac Ri in Eirinn made no mistake: he struck it a blow of his right top-boot, he sent the head a ridge and seven acres from him.
"Well for you!" says the head, says he. "If I came on the same body again, half the Fianna would not take me down!"
"Well, assuredly, says Mac Ri in Eirinn, "weakling, it was not to let your head up that I took it down, but to keep it here below!” [14]
Here is another example of the same run from Myles Dillon's translation of a text of "The Giant of the Mighty Blows" that he recorded by dictograph from Joe Flaherty in County Galway in 1932.
And he struck him where his head joined his neck, and sent his head into the air. The head was singing as it came down, but he leaped up, and as it turned to go back onto its body, he gave it a kick and a shove that sent it over seven ridges and seven rows out onto the green lea.
"You did well!" said the giant. "If I had got back onto my body, half the Fenians would not have cut me off again!"
"Oh," said the King of Ireland's Son, "you may tell that to someone else.” [15]
These last two quotations illustrate individual variants of the same common "theme." The storyteller may vary the run a little or not, or he or she may omit it, but in individual practice it is comparatively stable, although not actually memorized as fixed. When writing comes, these set passages tend to disappear, because in written literary style variety, rather than repetition, is sought after. Yet the stories, as narratives, remain the same, though the written style of them changes. {23|24}
The storytellers continue to tell their stories as before. Even when they become literate, this is true. It is what the literate person other than the storyteller—usually a collector from either within or outside of the traditional community—does with the tale, that brings about a real change. Through such persons a written literary folktale genre is created. [16] The tales in it are often compilations of elements belonging to several traditional tales, told in written literary style. The literacy in the community and the presence of an already developed literature create a new genre, which lives its life in literary circles, parallel to the continuing oral-traditional stories in their usual setting, as long as that setting itself remains unchanged.
The case of oral-traditional poetry, specifically epic song, is somewhat different, because with it we are dealing with stories in long poems in verse, or rhythmic periods of some sort. The question then arises: What is the impact on the individual singer of the introduction of writing into the oral epic poet's community? If the singer did not personally learn to read or write, it had no direct effect at all, of course. There might, however, be indirect effects. Someone might read a song to the singer from a printed or written source. Other than possibly bringing him an epic tale which he might otherwise not have known, this reading would not trouble the waters of his oral-traditional literary world.
As printed material increases in the community and more and more people learn to read and write, and to read literature, prestige may become attached to the literate, and literary, members of the society, and consequently the unlettered may lose prestige. As a result, their cultural activities, such as singing traditional songs and telling traditional stories, may also lose prestige and eventually be lost. There would be pressures, of course, for the unlettered traditional singer to join the prestigious group of the literate. This would not necessarily mean at first that he would immediately become a person knowledgeable in written literature. If he succumbs to the pressure, nothing may happen to him or to the songs or stories, provided the society continues to foster the traditional culture as well as the newer written culture, to listen to and to sing and tell traditional tales and songs.
If the traditional singer/poet is composing in that special oral formulaic style which came into being to make rapid composition in performance possible, and which he has learned from previous generations {24|25} of singer/poets, he does not need writing to compose lines and tell stories. But in a literate, more particularly a literary, society, a singer might get the idea of writing down an epic song from his repertory in the words and manner in which he usually sang it. This would be the same as if someone else wrote it down from his dictation. If, however, a singer made changes in the way in which he wrote from the way in which he sang, then his knowledge of writing would have played a role in the composing of his text. If, for example, he uses some new, non-traditional, phrases or constructions, nevertheless still keeping mostly to the traditional diction, he would be moving in the direction of written literature. It could be argued that he is already a practitioner of written literature or that he is writing in a transitional style. Such a singer's text, therefore, could be considered legitimately as either a written literary text or a transitional one. One must, however, be cautious. Not every "new" word used necessarily constitutes a breaking of the traditional formulaic style, for some new words quite normally find their place in the traditional formulaic systems. The singer without the pen, including the beginner at one end of the scale, the highly gifted singer at the other end, and the unskilled singer in between, breaks the system from time to time, making unmetrical or inept lines, or even lapsing into prose. These are the aberrations of performance, be it before a live audience or in dictating to a scribe. The breaking of the new structure of the formulaic systems themselves is more important than are new words. Donald Fry was right in stressing the system in his definition of the formula in Old English. [17] As long as the systems continue, it does not matter whether the singer composes with or without writing. In fact, the "oral residue" expressed in the systems, themselves formed in orality, would persist in the world of literacy, in the usage of the literate traditional singer until such time as the nontraditional-minded writer with a pen in his hand should rearrange the words and traditional patterns in the basic systems. Thus would a written literature be born from an oral literature.
How can one distinguish an oral-traditional text from one of written literature? It must be said at the beginning that one must know something—the more the better—about the tradition in question to which a singer belongs as well as his own habits of composition in order to make the judgment. By that I mean that one must know what the specific characteristics of a given tradition are in order to tell whether they are {25|26} present or not in the text under consideration. One needs, also, as many texts of a singer or storyteller as possible.
Milman Parry distinguished three stylistic characteristics of oral style: (1) the presence of a large number of formulas; (2) the presence of "themes"; and (3) the presence of many cases of unperiodic enjambement. [18] During his lifetime he wrote much about formulas, something about enjambement, and very little about "themes." Enjambement is useful as a rule-of-thumb measurement if other characteristics are also present, but is not in itself decisive as a criterion of orality. It is a manifestation of the adding style. That style is a sign of oral-traditional composition, but it is easily imitated.
Formula density, the presence of a substantial number of true formulas in a text, is still a reliable criterion for oral composition under certain circumstances which need further review. Formula density should, however, be tempered by an additional investigation of the specific formulas used in a given work vis-à-vis the traditional formulas as they are known.
Let me give two examples that may help in determining whether a given poem is an oral composition, or, more specifically, was composed in the oral-traditional style. The first is the poetry of Peter II, Petrović Njegoš, Prince-Bishop of Montenegro in the first half of the nineteenth century. [19] He was brought up as an (oral) traditional singer of epic, but after his education he became a well-known written literary poet. One can trace in his early written poems his gradual departure from the style in which he was brought up. One can note phrases and patterns that were not "traditional," and thus one can document in his case the moving away from tradition, even while keeping the traditional meter. The formula count, in such a case, would in the course of time naturally reflect the emerging written literary style of the author. In addition, an {26|27} analysis of specific phrases and structures would show marked differences from his known tradition.
The other case is of an author, a poet, brought up in an educated milieu as a Franciscan monk in the eighteenth century. Andrija Kačić-Miošić became so immersed in the traditional style that he could write poems which were, to the uninitiated, indistinguishable from the real thing. In other words, he used well-known traditional formulas. He sought no new stylistic effects. Occasionally, as in expressing a date, he broke the tradition, not only with new words but with new structures. Thus his style betrayed the writer. But he could also write, still in the traditional meter, poems, which by content and even genre (e.g., an epistolary genre from the written literary tradition in which he was brought up) were clearly not oral-traditional compositions. If one were to analyze all his work together, the formula density would be fairly high. It is necessary, however, to analyze each song separately, or to segregate those which are clearly written literature from those "in the style of" oral-traditional poetry. His chief and most influential work was a history in prose and "popular" verse of the South Slavs, written in a manner which they could readily understand. [20] He could write in both oral and written styles.
The "theme" in oral-traditional epic, a repeated passage, is as characteristic of oral-traditional composition as is the formula and for the same reason, its usefulness in composition. [21] There are several important things to note about the "theme." First, it is not simply a repeated subject, such as a council, a feast, a battle, or a description of horse, hero, or heroine. It is that, but it is more than that. All those subjects occur repeatedly in written literature as well. The "theme" in oral literature is distinctive because its content is expressed in more or less the same words every time the singer or storyteller uses it. It is a repeated passage rather than a repeated subject.
Second, the degree of variation of text and of detailed content among occurrences of a "theme" in the usage of a single singer or storyteller differs considerably from individual to individual and from "theme" to "theme." In general it is clear that a "theme" which he or she uses frequently tends to be more stable in its text, as well as in its content than one used infrequently. It is also true that a short "theme" is more {27|28} stable than a long one. One singer I have known had the opening scene of his favorite song down pretty much word for word—not quite, but the text for ten or fifteen lines was fairly stable. This comparative fixity of text in a "theme" is not a mark of a written text. The singer involved, Djemail Zogić of Novi Pazar, was illiterate; he had not consciously memorized those lines. [22] He simply remembered them. Here are the pertinent lines from his dictated version of July 1934 (on the left) and his sung version of November 1934 (on the right). The lines common to both versions are printed in the center column.
No. 25   No. 24
Jedno jutro tek je osamnulo,   Jedno jutro kad je zora bila,
Studena je rosa osamnula,   Studena je rosa udarila,
  Zelena je bašća beherala,  
  Leskovina mlada prelistala,  
A svakoja pilad zapevala,   He svakoja pilad prepevala,
Sve pevahu, a jedna kukaše.   Sve pevahu, jedan zakukaše.
  To ne beše tica lastavica,  
  No to beše sinja kukavica,  
  Kukavica Alibegovica.  
    Kroz kukanju vako govoraše:
    —Hala njojzi do Bora jednoga,
    Bez nikoga desna ni s' lijeva,
    Kukajući dvanajes godina!—
Kroz kukanje Bosnu proklinjaše:   Sve proklinje Bosnu cip cijelu:
"Ravna Bosna kugom pomorena!   "Hala Bosno, kugom pomorena!
    A po Bosni lajale lisice,
    E sve žene ostale udovice,
  Što nemade Bosna kahrimana,  
Da okahri moga dušmanina!"   Da zakahri našeg dušmanina!"
One morning had just dawned,   One morning when it was dawn,
The cold dew (dawned),   The cold dew settled,
  The green garden blossomed,  
  The young hazelwood sent forth leaves, {28|29}  
And every bird began to sing,   And every bird started to sing,
All were singing, but one lamented.   All were singing, one lamented.
  That was not a swallow,  
  But it was a cuckoo-bird,  
  A cuckoo-bird, the wife of Alibeg.  
    In her singing she spoke thus:
    —Her lot was hard, by God!
    With no one at her right or left,
    Lamenting for twelve years!—
In her lamenting she cursed Bosnia:   Ever did she curse all Bosnia:
"May level Bosnia be struck by the plague!   "By God, Bosnia, may you be struck by the plague!
    May the foxes bark in Bosnia!
    And all the women remain widows,
  Since Bosnia has no champion,  
To challenge my enemy!"   To challenge our enemy!”
"Osamnula" in the second line, wrongly repeating the verb of the preceding line, is a slip of the tongue (or of the recording pen) for "udarila." In the fifth line the only difference is in the prefix of the verb, namely, "zapevala" and "prepevala." In the last line, in addition to the difference in prefixes in "okahri" and "zakahri," there is the difference between "moga" (mine) and "našeg" (our). The main differences between the two versions are the expansions in the singing of the second version.
As further evidence that the lines were not memorized, I present the pertinent lines from Zogić's version sung for the tape-recorder in the summer of 1962, nearly twenty-eight years later. [23]
Jedno jutro kad je zora bila, One morning when it was dawn, {29|30}
A ne beše sinja kukavica, It was not a cuckoo-bird,
No to beše Alibegovica But it was the wife of Alibeg
Od Udbine, od turske Krajine. Of Udbina, of the Turkish Border.
A kukaše na dimir kapiju, She was lamenting at the iron gate,
A preklinje Bosnu cip cijelu: And she cursed all Bosnia:
"Ravna Bosno, kugom pomorena! "Level Bosnia, may you by struck by the plague!
I po Bosni lajale lisice, May the foxes bark in Bosnia,
A sve žene 'tale udovice! ...” And all the women remain widows!...”
There is a popular misconception that oral literature is crude, formless, unstructured, and that without writing one cannot create intricate structures of verbal expression. A corollary to this belief is the idea that any work of literature with a complex structure must be a product of the written word, the word seen, rather than the word heard. Those intimately acquainted with an oral-traditional literature, however, are cognizant of the fact that this is a false impression, arising from a lack of experience with that type of literature.
Cope and Opland have demonstrated the stylistic and artistic excellence of Zulu praise poems and folktales and of Xhosa praise poetry, respectively. [24] Douglas Mzolo has done the same for Zulu clan praises, and Daniel Kunene has been especially painstaking in analysis and eloquent in describing the heroic poetry of the Basotho. [25]
For an illustration of larger orchestration in a long epic song by a talented South Slavic singer I offer here a brief sketch of ring-composition at the beginning of Avdo Međedović's 12,311-line song, “The Wedding of Smailagić Meho,” collected by Milman Parry in 1935 and written down by Nikola Vujnović from Avdo's dictation. [26]
The song opens with an assembly of the nobles with Hasan pasha Tiro at their head. He notices that young Meho, son of Smailaga, is unhappy, and he sends Meho's uncle, Cifrić Hasanaga, to inquire the reason for his sadness. Meho responds that he is sad because his elders {30|31} will not allow him to engage in warfare. He plans to rebel and go over to the enemy. His uncle tells him that he has been the darling of all, that they have been waiting for him to grow up so that he may assume his father's and uncle's position as leader of the Border warriors. The pasha agrees to send Meho to Buda to receive his credentials from the vizier there. The nobles sign the petition and say farewell to Meho.
This opening council scene—a typical “theme,” by the way—is a good example of ring-composition. Here is the scheme:
(1) Description and listing of nobles with Hasan pasha Tiro at their head.
(2) The intervention of Hasan pasha Tiro.
(3) Cifrić Hasanaga’s speech to Meho.
(4) Meho’s response.
(3) Cifrić Hasanaga’s response to Meho.
(2) Hasan pasha Tiro has the petition prepared and gives his blessings.
(1) Listing of nobles as they sign the petition and say farewell to Meho.
1. Nobles; 2. Pasha; 3. Uncle; 4. Meho; 3. Uncle; 2. Pasha; 1. Nobles
This is a perfectly acceptable ring. Its pattern is inherent in the narrative itself, and its focus, the speech of Meho to the assembly, is significant in the story; for in it is contained the background for the whole plot. The dramatic confrontation between uncle and nephew with its centerpiece of the nephew's angry speech, which is to provide motivation for the entire poem, is framed in a setting of hierarchical social organization and a statement of heroic values.
After a brief linking theme which takes Meho and his uncle back to Smailaga's house to report what has happened in the assembly, of which the father had as yet no knowledge, the scene for the next ring begins. It extends from the report of Meho's uncle to his brother Smail to the completion of preparations for the departure of Meho and his companion Osman for Buda. The first ring is the conversation between the brothers. The second circle of the ring is the scene between mother and son. This is a scene of elaborate ritual adornment of Meho prior to his appearance before his father. The center of the ring is that appearance. Moving outward in the circle we find a ceremonial preparation of the hero's companion, Osman. This balances the ceremonial preparation of Meho himself. The outermost circle reveals Meho, Osman, and their alter egos, their horses, also ceremonially prepared. Schematized, the ring looks like this: {31|32}
(1) Meho with father and uncle.
(2) Meho with mother—ritual preparation of Meho.
(3) Meho appears before father and receives his approval.
(2) Meho with father and Osman—ritual preparation of Osman.
(1) Meho with Osman and horses—ritual preparation of horses.
(Meho has passed from father and uncle to Osman and the horses.)
There is not space to follow the intricate structure of rings for the whole poem. Suffice it to say at the moment that each scene can be analyzed in this way, as well as the whole narrative, in terms of rings or chiastic constructions, resembling Cedric Whitman's analysis of Homer's Iliad. [27] Some would doubt that oral-traditional poets would have the ability to construct their scenes, and perhaps even an entire poem of some length, in this manner. Here is proof that they not only can do but actually do just that.
There is a tendency for us in the European tradition to forget how extensive and how basic our literary heritage from the world of orality has been, and there is a corresponding tendency to believe that the world of literacy invented some of the characteristics of literature, which in reality originated in oral literature. Among them is a sense of form and structure, as I have just illustrated, and many devices, later termed “rhetorical” and attributed to the schools, actually were created in the crucible of the oral world. The world of orality gave us anaphora, the use of the same word at the beginning of each series of lines, epiphora, the use of the same word at the end of each of a series of lines, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, both internal, medial, and final, and the sense of balanced structure as typified by parallelisms in sentences and other forms of parataxis. In short, our poetics is derived from the world of orality, with some later additions and modifications introduced by the world of literacy.
Consider as an example of anaphora, alliteration, and parataxis the following passage from one of the South Slavic epics from the Milman Parry Collection collected in 1935. The setting is an assembly of leaders of the Border. All are boasting except one who keeps his head down (my translation reflects the structures of the original). [28] {32|33}
Počeše se falit' kraješnici, The Borderers began to boast,
Šta je koji bolje učinijo, What each had done better,
Ko je više dobijo mejdana, Who had won more duels,
Ko l' njemačkog roba porobijo, Who had taken a German captive,
Ko l' je carski hudut raširijo; Who had broadened the imperial Border;
Ko l’ je boljeg konja podhranijo, Who had reared the better horse,
Ko l’ je boljeg sina podnivijo, Who had nurtured the better son,
Ko l’ je bolju ćerku podgojijo. Who had raised the better daughter,
Egleniše šta ko begeniše. Each said what he wished to.
Neko sebe, neko konja fali, One praises himself, another his horse,
Neko sina, a neko sinovca. One his son, and another his nephew.
Neko fali svoju milu šćerku, One praises his dear daughter,
Neko šćerku, neko milu seku. One his daughter, another his dear sister.
Neko fali od brata devojku. One praises his brother's girl.
E, sve age fale na izredu. E, All the nobles boast in turn.
Note that after two lines of introduction, there are six lines beginning with “ko” (who), followed by a summary line. The six lines are paratactic, in addition to their alliteration and anaphora. Moreover, the next five lines, this time beginning with “neko” (someone), are in parataxis with the preceding group of five lines, and they too end in a “coda.” They repeat in substance the previous group, but with a slightly different construction, both grammatically and alliteratively, the “neko” appearing not only at the beginning of the line, but also, in three lines, after the caesura.
The play of "ko" and "neko," which is joined by the neuter "nešto" (something, or somewhat) continues in the scene in the negative. The text goes on then with a rhyming couplet:
Svak se šenli des'jo i vesejo. Each was joyous and happy.
Jedan im je junak nevesijo, One hero was unhappy, {33|34}
Pa nit' vina pije ni rakije, He drinks neither wine nor brandy,
Ni duhanske tegli tumbećije, Nor does he draw on his pipe.
No mu mrke objesijo brke, But he let droop his dusky moustaches,
A ponisko podpušćijo glavu. And hung his head low.
Note the internal rhyme "pije”/ “rakije", "mrke" / “brke," and the alliterations "tegli tumbećije", and "ponisko podpušćijo."
The next couplet ends the first part of the scene and at the same time introduces the second:
Bože mili, ko je junak bijo? Dear God, who was that hero?
To je Hrnja sa Kladuše Mujo. It was Mujo Hrnjica of Kladuša.
In the next two couplets we return to the negatives:
Pa serdara niko ne pitaše But nobody asked the sirdar
Što je nešto Mujo nevesijo. Why Mujo was not happy.
Neko neće, neko ne vidaše, One would not, another did not see,
A neko ga pitat' ne smijaše. And some dared not ask him.
And the passage continues to weave its way binding couplets together into quatrains and other configurations with sound and syntax. This is oral-traditional poetic composition at its most typical.
As many have remarked, the Finnish Kalevala makes abundant use of parallelism and repetition, and in his translation of it Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. has preserved those elements of the style. For example, here is a passage near the beginning of Poem 33:
He uttered a word as he went along
kept saying while walking:
"Woe is me, poor lad,
woe the unfortunate lad.
Now I have got into something,
got into the futile occupation
of being the herdsman of a steer's tail,
a tender of calves ..." {34|35}
Another compositional device in the Kalevala is the repetition of the end of one line at the beginning of the next, as in the following:
"With what shall I now pay back the woman's mockery,
the woman's mockery, the girl's derision?"
Note that the second half of the second line is parallel to the first half. In the next example the fourth line is also parallel to the second:
In this way Kullervo, son of Kalervo,
took vengeance on the girl's ridicule,
on the girl's ridicule, the woman’s derision,
paid the bad wife her wages. [29]
Such repetitions are common in Slavic oral-traditional epic as well. In commenting on similar devices in Irish traditional poetry Daniel Melia remarked that they are not primarily mnemonic, but compositional and structural. [30] They are basic to oral-traditional style and characteristic of it.
One is inclined to ask whether written literature would tolerate the kind of poetics that makes frequent use of these and other similar devices. It is well known that most oral-traditional texts are heavily "edited" before they are published. This was especially true in the nineteenth century but such practices still exist today. The Grimm brothers are classic examples for the European folktale, but their case is by no means isolated. [31] What would a well-intentioned editor with a literary bent try to do with passages such as those just quoted to make them accord more with his own feeling for style? He would do what even the most careful translator of Homer does. Where Homer uses the same epithet for a god or hero many times, the translator varies the epithets, because English style (or written literary style in general) avoids repetitions as much as possible. In the editing practice of the person who prepared for publication the songs collected by one of the best of the nineteenth-century Croatian scholars, Luka Marjanović, of the Matica Hrvatska in Zagreb, when the end of a line is repeated at the beginning of the next, the repetition is frequently—though not always—omitted {35|36} and the lines are reformed. In short, the published texts do not reproduce what the singer said, but what the editor thought that the singer should have said, or intended to say. It is for this reason that Milman Parry made his own collection of field recordings of epic so that he could have reliable material for meaningful research; and it is with this in mind that the texts in his collection are published exactly as the singers sang or dictated them.
In addition to balanced structures and poetical devices, we have also inherited from the oral period the great myths from the past of most cultures of the human race, myths telling of the formation of the universe, of the beginning of all things. They were both believed and believed in, and they have had very profound influence on the history of mankind. Yet they, too, belonged originally in the world of orality, until they were written down. Here are to be found the accounts of the lives of gods, or heroes, saints, or legendary rulers. In them the birth of a god or hero was important, because it explained his special powers and characteristics. Narratives of his childhood deeds gave early evidence of his extraordinary personality and strength, proving his divine, or at least "different," origin. And the story in many cultures of a hero's acquisition of a horse and special weapons provided him with the means of accomplishing his mission in the world. One of his earliest deeds, after initiation and often associated with it, is his acquiring of a bride, in order to assure the continuity of quality in future generations.
In some cultures in many parts of the world the biographical scheme in oral-traditional literature plays a very large role, second only to their creation myths and sometimes intertwined with them. The miraculously born and magically equipped god or hero creates order from chaos, thus establishing the cosmos, and he also overcomes monsters that would destroy the universe and return humanity to chaos and death.
This is the mythic side of oral literature; its basic and oldest message evolved through the ages in the minds of the people who created it, perfected its forms, and continued it over time. The battles of gods and demigods, and those of heroes, provided the patterns, the fundamental vocabulary of words and themes, heard, not seen, so that in the course of time, when myth was secularized, or, whichever the case may be, when secular narratives arose side by side with myth, they found ready-made patterns in the forms of literature for recounting history. History has played a significant role in African praise poetry, as well as in African {36|37} oral literature in general. Both tribal and personal history have contributed to the praises of chiefs. Topical compositions, too, like the odes of Pindar, may on occasion make reference to past events as well as to the present subject. [32] A people's history and the fundamental values of its legal and social structures are expressed in its traditional literature.
In some societies oral literature, as such, has given way to a large extent to written literature. But the form and the content of much of our written literature were created before writing was invented. The fact of the matter remains that, without overtly realizing it, when we read the Homeric poems, the Gilgamesh epic, most of the chansons de geste, and many other "literary" works, we are reading in essence the masterpieces of oral literature, which evolved in the oral period, but became set in that of literacy. Like the oral literatures of Africa, of the Balkans, of Central Asia, of all those regions of the world where oral-traditional literature has been recorded, they too were once written down. They are older than writing.
From an intimate acquaintance with the oral background of its past one gains a perspective on one's own culture, a knowledge of its age and depth, of what it held dear in the generations long gone, as well as some insight into why one still holds it dear in the present. {37|38}


[ back ] * The original form of this paper was read at a conference, "Oral Tradition and Literacy: Changing Visions of the World," held at the University of Natal, Durban, South Africa, July 1985. Selected papers from the conference were published under the same title by the Natal University Oral Documentation and Research Centre, Durban, 1986, edited by R. A. Whitaker and E. R. Sienaert.
[ back ] 1. A work on oral style that was an early influence on Milman Parry and that he assigned me to read as a student was Marcel Jousse, Le Style oral rhythmique et mnémnotechique chez les Verbo-Moteurs (Jousse, 1925 and 1990). For studies of orality from a different point of view see McLuhan, 1962; Havelock, 1963; Bäuml, 1980, 237-265; and Ong, 1982.
[ back ] 2. See Ong, 1982, 56-57. "To assume that oral peoples are essentially unintelligent, that their mental processes are 'crude,' is the kind of thinking that for centuries brought scholars to assume falsely that because the Homeric poems are so skillful, they must be basically written compositions" (p. 57).
[ back ] 3. Robert Alter decries the leveling of literature with all other kinds of discourse; Alter, 1989, 13 and 25.
[ back ] 4. Pound, 1970, 457.
[ back ] 5. I am indebted to Jonathan F. McKeage for the passage from Pound and for the reference to Cavalcanti's Donna me prega. See Cavalcanti, 1967, 47. For other uses dove sta memoria in Pound's Cantos see Edwards and Vasse, 1957, 54.
[ back ] 6. Yeats, 1983, lines 172-192, pp. 359-360.
[ back ] 7. See Nagy, G., 1990, 17-18. "From this vantage point we should not even be talking about oral poetry, for example, as distinct from poetry but rather about written poetry as possibly distinct from poetry; in other words, written poetry is the marked member of the opposition, and the poetry that we call oral is the unmarked." Nagy continues, "From the vantage point of our own times, however, poetry is by definition written poetry, and what we need to do first is to broaden our concept of poetry. Aside from questions of oral poetry and written poetry, the very word poetry becomes a source of confusion, in that it excludes dimensions normally included in the word song.”
[ back ] 8. See Lord, A., 1953, Chapter 2 in this volume.
[ back ] 9. See Elliott, 1959.
[ back ] 10. Ong, 1982, especially 36-57.
[ back ] 11. See Vansina, 1965.
[ back ] 12. For praise poetry see Kunene, 1971; Cope, 1968; and Opland, 1983. For epic in Africa see especially Biebuyck and Mateene, 1969; Biebuyck, 1978; Johnson, 1986; Okpewho, 1979; and Innes, 1974. Finnegan, 1970, is also useful.
[ back ] 13. O'Nolan, 1982, 97.
[ back ] 14. Ibid., 145.
[ back ] 15. Dillon, 1971, 63.
[ back ] 16. For the typical case of the brothers Grimm see Ellis, 1983, and Tatar, 1987.
[ back ] 17. Fry, 1967, 193-204.
[ back ] 18. In the second stylistic characteristic, I put "theme" in quotation marks to indicate that the word is used in a special sense of a "repeated passage with a fair degree of verbal or formula repetition from one occurrence to the next," rather than simply as meaning "subject" or "topic." Some scholars use the term "formula" to designate this "theme," but I continue to use it in the sense in which Parry used it, thus differentiating theme from "formula," which is "a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea" (Parry, M., 1930, 80). For unperiodic enjambement see Parry, 1929, and Lord, A., 1948a. Parry described unperiodic enjambement as follows: "The verse can end with a word group in such a way that the sentence, at the verse end, already gives a complete thought, although it goes on in the next verse, adding free ideas by new word groups."
[ back ] 19. For more on Njegoš and transitional texts see Lord, A., 1986.
[ back ] 20. Kačić-Miošić, 1967.
[ back ] 21. See note 8 above. For more on "theme" see, among others, Lord, A., 1951; 1953, 127-128 (Chapter 2 in this volume); 1960, chap. 4; 1974, especially 19-24.
[ back ] 22. Parry, 1953, "Bojičić Alija izbavi djecu Alibegovu," by Djemail Zogić, no. 24, sung for the records, November 22, 1934, lines 7-25, and no. 25, dictated to Nikola Vujnović, July 24, 1934, lines 5-18.
[ back ] 23. Unpublished text from the Lord and Bynum Collection, transcribed by Dr. Z. Čolaković. During the sixties David E. Bynum and I collected epics in some of the same centers in Yugoslavia in which Milman Parry had gathered songs in the 1930s, especially Novi Pazar, Gacko, Stolac, and Bihać. Working out of Senica and Duga Poljana, we also went into the heart of the Pešter region in South Serbia at Karajukići Bunari; a number of Parry's singers had come from that area. This collection is presently housed with the Parry Collection in Widener Library at Harvard University.
[ back ] 24. See inter alia, Cope, 1978, and Opland, 1975.
[ back ] 25. Mzolo, 1978; Kunene, 1971.
[ back ] 26. Međedović, 1974a. Vol. 4 contains the Serbo-Croatian text. For further analysis of rings in this text see Lord, A., 1986.
[ back ] 27. Whitman, 1958.
[ back ] 28. Međedović, 1980. The text here quoted is from Međedović's sung version of “Ženidba Vlahinjić Alije,” pp. 73-74, lines 51-77, Parry Text no. 12,375, recorded in Bijelo Polje, July 14-15, 1935.
[ back ] 29. Lönnrot, 1963, p. 236, lines 7-12; p. 237, lines 44-48; p. 239, lines 219-222.
[ back ] 30. Melia, 1977, 285-300.
[ back ] 31. See Ellis, 1983, and Tatar, 1987.
[ back ] 32. See Nagy, G., 1990.