Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.10

John Miles Foley, How to Read an Oral Poem.   Urbana and Chicago:  University of Illinois Press, 2002.  Pp. xviii, 256.  ISBN 0-252-07082-8.  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Gabriel Bodard, King's College, London (
Word count: 2213 words

[This book is enhanced by and should be read with reference to a website which contains supplementary materials including annotated and updated bibliography; photographs, audio and video files of oral poets in action.]

This carefully constructed book (HROP) begins with a disclaimer: Foley (F.) opens by explaining that he aims in this volume to make oral poetry accessible particularly to the non-specialist reader, and states without apology that 'if in championing the cause of the non-specialist this book errs on the side of simplicity and availability, then so be it' (xi). This review should also begin with a warning: this book is not primarily a classics book (references to Homeric poetry appear, but they are overshadowed by other examples1) and is written for the non-specialist; this review will attempt to show its interest for a classical audience. The issues this review will address include the accessibility and successful communication of the issues involved in the reading of oral poetry to a non-expert audience, for instance how useful this book might be to a classics undergraduate reading Homer. I shall not address the validity of F.'s theories of oral poetics in detail, except where they affect his presentation of the material in this book, since the theoretical discussions are to be found in his works elsewhere and are fully referenced and cited throughout.2

As part of this strategy to reach the non-specialist reader, F. employs a slightly simplified series of models to introduce the study of oral poetry. The multiplicity of forms of oral poetry are classified into four genres or subclasses of orality: oral performance; voiced texts; voices from the past; written oral poems. Three particular methodological approaches are expounded: performance theory, ethnopoetics, and immanent art. Finally, a set of ten *proverbs* are set out to encapsulate the principles demonstrated throughout HROP (the asterisks are there to indicate that these are invented, not traditional proverbs).3 These three schemata are invoked throughout the work.

The agenda of this book is principally paedagogical, and it opens with a chapter containing four scenarios with disparate examples of oral poets, including the surprising Tibetan 'paper-singer', the modern American 'slam poet', and the ancient Greek bard. This chapter both stresses the plurality of genres and contexts that make up the collective that we call 'Oral Poetry' and, perhaps more importantly, actively confounds the reader's expectations, as any good teacher of anthropology should strive to do.

The second chapter 'What the Oral Poets Say (in Their Own "Words")' reports on conversations with three Yugoslavian oral poets who consistently define a 'word' (rec) in poetry as a larger unit than the modern lexical word. This 'word' (in quotation marks throughout) is what a classicist might call a formulaic unit, or a byte of poetic meaning, ranging from half a line to a whole episode in a story. These 'words', F. stresses, often have meanings larger or different from the simple meaning of their constituent words and need to be understood on a different level to fully appreciate the poetry. This concept will be crucial in the section on immanent art, below, and is central to about half of the ten *proverbs*.

The next eight chapters are titled the first through eighth 'words', in keeping with the usage just described. In the 'First Word: What is Oral Poetry?', F. sets out to define the terms of the title of the book, asking four questions: what is oral poetry? What is an oral poem? What do we mean by how? (The first of these is addressed in this section, the next two in the next, the fourth not until the third 'word'). The question 'what is oral poetry?' is answered by deconstructing or 'opening up' four sets of modern, western assumptions about poetry: (1) the poetic line, including the expectation that poetry will have regular line structure, metre, syllable counts, and other features; (2) the poetic genre, the most important point being that not all oral poetry is epic, that there are a multiplicity of forms, genres, and ethnicities of oral poetry; (3) the 'oral versus written dichotomy', again showing that there is a great deal of complexity and variety in the ways of speaking, composing, and writing poetry in cultures around the world; (4) media dynamics, where F. introduces the four types into which oral poetry can be classified: oral performance, voiced texts, voices from the past, and written oral poems. Each of these is illustrated with a representative example of an oral (or not so oral) poetic form. Once again, this chapter helps to break down the expectations and preconceptions of the reader/student in preparation for exploring oral poetics.

The second word, 'Contexts and Reading', addresses the second and third questions relating to the title of the book. 'What is an oral poem?' turns out to be a different question from the previous 'what is oral poetry?', although the answer yet again is that given the vast plurality of oral poetry, the question 'what is an oral poem?' can only be answered in individual cases with attention to cultural and poetic context. In answer to the third question, 'what is reading?', F. demonstrates that reading is also a complex, culture- and context-specific concept. A key term in this argument which will be revisited throughout the book is sêmata (σήματα), the deadly symbols from Bellerophon's tablet in the Iliad, which is how writing is described in non-literate terms (77).

The next three chapters together begin to answer the final question in the title: 'what do we mean by how?', introducing the three methodological approaches to oral poetry which this book exemplifies. The third word, which demonstrates the use of performance theory, is subtitled 'Being there'. Performance theory is treated elsewhere in F.'s work;4 here he demonstrates the importance of performance in the appreciation of oral poetry, giving examples from Yugoslavian singers. A useful list and explanation of 'keys to performance', including figurative language, special formulas, and appeals to tradition, demonstrates further the importance of understanding the context and genre of any form of oral poetry to appreciate the message of the poem.

The fourth word, 'Verbal Art on its Own Terms', introduces some of the strategies and methods employed by ethnopoetics. Like performance theory, ethnopoetics puts emphasis on cultural, generic, and performance contexts of oral poetry.5 F. gives two examples of the technique of 'scoring', a method of transcribing a poetic performance that records features of the poem other than the simply verbal features recorded in a traditional printed text. A performance of modern American 'slam poetry' is scored to indicate features such as volume, pitch, speed, gestures, and stage directions, bringing a reader much closer to the experience of the original audience. The opening lines of the Old English poem Beowulf are transcribed (translated) so as to 'reinstitute some of the major units and patterns found in the original Old English as a guide to becoming a more fluent audience for the poem' (104). Indicated features include metre, scene types, structure, and so forth; there are cues in the oral poem that flag certain scene types, cues that need to be recognised and translated for a non-native reader or audience. The section describing this strategy would be of particular interest to Homerists, whose texts are likewise 'voices from the past' like Beowulf.

Perhaps the most interesting of the three methodological approaches is the third, immanent art, discussed in the fifth word, 'Traditional Implications'. Immanent art is a more sophisticated version of the Parry-Lord 'oral-formulaic theory', which has had so great an impact on Homer studies in the last century. Rather than simply identifying formulae ('words') as the building blocks of oral poetry, selected and slotted together purely for mnemonic or metrical convenience, immanent art sees these 'words' as linguistic units in the complex language of oral poetry, idiomatic rather than arbitrary bytes.6 The larger language in which any given type of oral poetry is composed needs to be learned in order to read the poetry properly. This chapter is perhaps best summarised by three of F.'s *proverbs*: (1) oral poetry works like language, only more so; (4) the art of oral poetry emerges through rather than in spite of its special language; (5) the best companion for reading oral poetry is an unwritten dictionary. This dictionary would contain and define 'words', not words.

Having introduced these three methodological approaches to oral poetry succinctly, memorably, and effectively, F. goes on in the sixth word to present his list of ten newly invented, *proverbs*, each explained in detail and demonstrated with diverse examples. We have given examples of these proverbs above, and between them they typify most if not all of the important points made in this book: plurality of kinds of oral poetry, the three approaches, the importance of context, performance, and special language. In a university course on oral culture or poetics, these ten *proverbs* would probably make a useful almanac to be rote-learned by students, although I should not be able to spend so much time on them in a general unit on Homer.

The seventh word, 'Reading Some Oral Poems', presents a series of case studies exemplifying F.'s four categories of oral poetry and three methodologies. These expositions are demonstrative examples, F. is at pains to make clear that he does not intend the chapter to be a comprehensive or even representative sampling of oral poetry. Among his examples are a slam poetry gig at a New York café in 2001, some formulaic story-types from the Odyssey, and the Chanson de Roland. This chapter drives home many of the points made previously in the book, but more importantly it whets the reader's/student's appetite for more oral poetry.

From a chapter containing a scattering of diverse and varied examples of oral poetry from many different continents and centuries, F. turns next to a much more detailed analysis of the oral poetry of a single region: the former Yugoslavia. The eighth word, 'An Ecology of South Slavic Oral Poetry', may be of particular interest to Homerists, who are usually introduced to oral poetics via Parry and Lord's work with Yugoslav guslars. In an attempt to be more comprehensive in his study of the poetry of this region (which is not a monolithic genre by any means), F. does not focus only on epic poetry, but surveys the 'lesser' genres of magic healing charms and funerary laments (both female genres), and genealogies (male), before turning to discussion of Serbian (Christian) epic, and finally the Moslem epic that was the focus of Parry and Lord's work. In a final, fascinating digression, F. demonstrates that oral poets do not only compose their epics or charms in their special, formulaic language, but can also speak in this poetic form, using words that do not exist in the traditional epic register within which they usually work. This anecdotal evidence is a further demonstration of F.'s first *proverb*: oral poetry works like language, only more so.

At the end of this book is a short post-script on electronic media. F. points out that before the advent of writing, that is to say for 94% of human history, all language was oral (pre-script). For the past five thousand years or so we have been a 'para-script' species, where oral language and text work side-by-side in many cultures. For the last five years or so, since the advent of the internet, we are starting to become what might be called a 'post-script' culture. This argument is not fully developed here, and to be fair it would take a book at least the size of this one to address it properly. More important though, in my view, is F.'s point that the electronic media of the internet can enable us to create more useful and authentic editions of oral poems. Multimedia and interactive features of the computer can foreground many of the aspects that performance theory and ethnopoetics try to highlight; the use of hyperlinks and split windows on the internet can be used to provide glosses and perhaps even start writing the 'unwritten dictionary' of immanent art. This book, and its sibling website, begin to take advantage of these features already; there is, of course, so much more that can be done.

In summary, I believe HROP will be overwhelmingly successful in its stated aim to introduce the reading and study of oral poetry to the non-specialist. Any Homerist or scholar of classical poetry who is not familiar with F.'s fine work on this topic will find this book extremely valuable; any educator who attempts to introduce the issues and special languages of oral poetry to students at any level will find much essential paedagogical material between its covers.

Finally a brief comment on a very rare erratum in this attractively produced work: on page 170 Circe is twice named in a context that clearly should refer to Calypso. When I consulted the website for this book, there seemed to be a problem downloading the QuickTime version of a video file showing a performance by a slam poet; I reported this problem to the author via the email link on the home page, and it was fixed within a couple of days. The website, being a more dynamic medium, will certainly improve and grow as time passes.


1.   Of particular interest to Homerists may be discussions at pp. 8-10, 74-7, 166-71.
2.   Cf. esp. The Theory of Oral Composition (1988), The Singer of Tales in Performance (1995), Teaching Oral Traditions (ed. 1998), Homer's Traditional Art (1999). Fuller bibliography of F.'s work appears in HROP (231) and on the annotated website cited above.
3.   Four classes of oral poetry: 39 (and 40-53); three methods: third through fifth 'words' and passim; ten *proverbs*: sixth 'word', reviewed and summarised 184-5.
4.   E.g. 'Folk literature' (1995) in ed. Greetham, Scholarly Editing: A guide to research, 600-626; cf. Bauman, Verbal Art as Performance (1977), & Story, Performance, and Event (1986).
5.   F. discusses ethnopoetics further in The Singer of Tales in Performance (1995); cf. n. 4, above.
6.   Cf. Foley, Immanent Art: From structure to meaning in traditional oral epic (1991).

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