Summary: of the basic facts-of-life of oral poetry

(From an article on early Greek oral poetry by the late James A. Notopoulos in the Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, v. 68, pp.1 ff.)

(1) The oral tradition offers the bard formulae, type-scenes, themes, which he organizes into a poem. The architecture of the poem may be his own, or influenced by traditionally associated themes in certain folk-motifs, myths, sagas, or biographical sequence. In the case of the latter, no two poets treat their tradition material in the same way. There are marked differences from bard to bard....

(2) An oral poem is the product of many poets in its tradition, yet of one poet at the moment of recitation. It is both a re-creation of tradition and a new creation at the moment of recitation. There is no archetype in oral poetry as in manuscripts.

(3) You cannot step into the same river twice in oral poetry. Verbatim memorization is not the practice of a genuine oral bard: it is found where we have a fixed text in a book that is memorized and presented orally. Thus there are two (2) kinds of memory: static (verbatim) and creative. The singer or bard is an example of the latter, Ion in Plato of the former.


(4) The oral process is not mechanical, it has room for individuality.

(5) The factors of recitation affect the form of an oral poem.

(6) Internal contradictions are part of the price an oral poet has to pay by reason of the needs of spontaneous improvization.

(7) The formula is not merely a linguistic feature confined to oral poetry. The society which gives birth to oral poetry is characterized by traditionally fixed ways in all aspects of life. The oral society of the Balkan lives in a world of formulas, as exhibited in their music, their ikons, in social, agricultural, and religious patterns of life. Hence the oral formula is a natural way of life for them.

The oral poet uses certain devices for integrating his materials and style:

(1) prologue-- an oral table of contents;

(2) technique of foreshadowing and flashback, when the poet uses the in medias res technique. A corollary to this in Homer is his introduction of elements which normally belong to the opening of the war into his narrative of the ninth year in order to mirror in his work the entire war aginst Troy.

(3) an inner armature of relationship which hold together the biographic, historical or geneological treatment of the material.

(4) placement of summaries at various points to provide a recapitulation for the audience of the main theme(s) or previous events.

(5) ring composition -- introducing and ending lengthy descriptions, speeches, or simile, a speech or digression ultimately back to the them with which it had begun.

(6) repetition of key words interlaces throughout the poem in order to bind themes together;

(7) repetition of certain key images. E.g. the sea and fire.

This material has been used for many years by Professor Tom Sienkewicz in his courses at Howard University and at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. If you have any questions, you may contact him at

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