As the Bible tells us, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ (John 1:1) And I like to think that for as long as we have had the Word, we have had poetry, in one form or another. I believe it is a fundamental part of what makes us human: being able to express our thoughts and feelings, or appreciate the wonder and beauty in the world, in the form of poetry and song.
It’s a known fact that there was poetry long before there was pen and paper. Some of the oldest poetic texts we have (the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Ancient Greek Iliad and Odyssey, and Beowulf in English, to give but a few examples) were only written down centuries after the original poems were composed. How do we know this? Because these poems form part of an oral tradition – poetry that was written in such a way that it could be memorised and recited. Imagine yourself back to a time when the evening’s entertainment consisted not of sitting in front of Netflix with a glass of chilled wine, but in sitting around an open fire transported by the song of the bard into a land of heroes, villains, sorceresses and monsters. I, for one, wouldn’t mind travelling back there just for the experience! Consider this quote from John Foley’s Signs of Orality:
‘if the whole truth is told, oral tradition stands out as the single most dominant communicative technology of our species as both a historical fact and, in many areas still, a contemporary reality.’ (Source: Wikipedia)
In the era of oral poetry, poetry and song were closely related: sometimes the poems would be chanted or sung to the tune of an instrument, such as the lyre. Poems, like song lyrics, were composed of easy-to-remember repeated phrases, or ‘motifs,’ which could be varied, but always had an important place in the body of the poem. How else would bards and balladeers remember hundreds or even thousands of lines of poetry, to be recited by heart?
With the advent of literacy in the general population, oral poetry began to die out. Poetry became the realm of the written word, often composed by an educated elite, and appreciated in rather elitist and exclusive circles at times. I often wonder if the general population began to fall out of love with poetry when it began to be written down? But there are always places where oral poetry survives: think about children’s nursery rhymes: the language of the playground converted into rhyme and song before ever being committed to paper. Were there any rhymes you learned at school which you have never seen written down? I can think of a few!
Exploring Oral Poetry
Here are some examples of oral poetry being read (or sung) aloud:
From Homer’s Odyssey:
From the Old English epic, Beowulf:
You may note above the following common features of oral poetry:
- Repeated phrases or ‘motifs‘ which hold the piece together, and aid the memory in recitation.
- A regular metre and/or rhyming or alliterative scheme.
- Narrative subject: most oral poems tell a story. In fact, the story may have been composed as poetry in part to make it easier for the teller to remember, recite, and pass on to future generations.
For today’s Poetics, I would like you to try something a little different. Perhaps you are used to composing in this way; perhaps you’ve never done it before. Either way, here are the steps I want you to take:
- Begin to compose a poem without putting pen to paper: you can say the words in your head, or repeat them out loud. Record them, if you wish, as an aid to memory. Try to complete the poem as far as possible without writing it down. Think about the devices discussed above: regular rhythms, repeated phrases or ‘motifs’, alliteration and rhyme schemes – anything to aid the memory and help the words to flow. Alternatively, why not compose a stream-of-consciousness poem orally, recording the words as they come to you?
- There are no strict rules here, but do try to compose at least some of the poem without writing it down immediately, perhaps stanza by stanza. Once you have written it down, read it aloud to yourself, and think about any improvements you could make: a kind of oral editing process.
- Once you have composed your poem, you can do one (or both) of the following:
– Make an audio/video recording of your poem and post it to your blog.
– Transcribe your poem, so we can read the finished version. Don’t forget to link up to Mr Linky below, and link back dVerse in your post.
I am excited to hear/read your responses! Let’s take our seats around the campfire and begin…
Good evening everyone (it is evening here, at least!) Can I offer you a little liquid refreshment to lubricate your larynx for this oral poetry challenge? I have a fully stocked bar complete with bar snacks!
Björn Rudberg (brudberg) said:
I would like to have some herbal tea… it’s evening here as well (soon bedtime)…
One herbal tea coming up! I am having the same tea ☕️
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Hello Ingrid and All. I have to admit your prompt scared me just a little bit, but getting challenged and working through it is what growth is all about. The story came to me out of thin air and grew from there until it was time to pin it on paper. Thank you very much for this creative prompt that genuinely takes us back to the very origins of poetry. Also if you would pour me one tall fruity mint iced tea, that would be perfect.
One tall fruity ice tea with mint coming up! I love your poem, going back for another listen before commenting because there are so many great bits that I’d like to pick a few out 😊
Thanks much, Ingrid, Cheers! Glad you like the parable 🙂
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Hi, Ingrid (and All). I decided to play along. 😀 I’m not sure if this is what you were looking for.
I look forward to reading your poem Merril, thanks for joining in!
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Hi Ingrid and all,
This is a lovely challenge and I enjoyed thinking about it initially and later writing. Sorry, I didn’t record it though. Thanks for the challenge.
Thank you for taking part! I look forward to reading your poem.
Christine Bolton, Poetry for Healing said:
What absolute fun Ingrid! I love this idea. ☺️
Thank you Christine – I am so enjoying the responses to this prompt 😊
Helen Dehner said:
Great challenge Ingrid!! I do a lot of ‘composing while out on (most) daily three mile sprint/walks. Getting ready to head out right now … I would love an ice tea when I return – with something newly created. Cheers!
I’ll have that waiting for you! 😊
Helen Dehner said:
Thank you! My walk produced a stream of thoughts about the music I played today. Walked in the door and typed thoughts out on the good old PC.
I look forward to reading your poem Helen, thank you 😊
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thanks Ingrid this prompted a memory from a few weeks ago. so had to share i do not normall write it this way but the one time i have is linked up. time to go abd soak my aches away before attemptimg some reading. i have to catch up on yesterdays haibuns as well.
Thanks for joining in Rog! I look forward to reading your poem.
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Thank you so much to all who have responded so far: what an absolutely wonderful response! I must leave now as I have children to return to school in the morning, but I’ve left the bar well stocked and will be back to read/listen tomorrow.
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I love your creative prompt Ingrid! It is amazing how poetry helps us remember things. When I think of current oral history, I think of Folk Music of the sixties and the songs that were singable for everyone. Kum Ba Yah, Michael Row the Boat Ashore, If I had a hammer, Cotton Fields, Where have all the Flowers Gone. These were a form of singable oral history for everyone.
I will see what I can do with this one. Thank you
These are all such memorable and beautiful songs, and fine examples of the oral tradition continuing!
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Oh this is NOT my wheelhouse, but I’m playing along, mostly because I love to read/hear it when it’s well done, which I’m sure I’ll encounter here. Thanks, Ingrid.
Thank you Ron. I look forward to reading you!
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Hi Ingrid and all. Posted my poem a while ago and now with the help of my kids, have uploaded the audio too. I think I had called them pests, in a fit of anger, a couple of days ago. I take that back. Temporarily. 😉
Please check the second link as the recording is not working in the first one.
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Abigail Gronway said:
Well, I missed the linkup by 3 hours. But I did indeed respond to the challenge. I wrote a poem more or less in my head, recorded it, and made a video to share. Thank you for this challenge. You’ve gotten me going on creating audio poetry, something I’ve wanted to do for many months now. https://darksideofthemoon583.com/2021/09/02/longing-for-autumn/
Thank you – you can always link to Open Link Night as well 😊
Abigail Gronway said:
Oh, yeah. I was going to submit a different one for that, and I completely forgot. 🙂
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This was a really good prompt. I found the no writing creative process quite difficult, but enjoyably challenging. Unfortunately, I too found my upload met an expired Mr Linky. I seem to get the prompt email at 0830hrs on Thursday morning then it expires around 0200hrs Friday morning. Sadly, if I have a busy Thursday I can’t get to it in time. On this occasion I carried on regardless, so thanks Ingrid and d’verse one again for the cerebral exercise.
Please link up to open link night instead, if you can! Thanks Sean 😊
Richmond Extra said:
This is awsome,💖👍🔥
Thank you 🙏
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Andreas Blaustein said:
This is so true! I think you’re right when you say poetry might have lost peoples love when it became written more than orally made. I try to think a lot about how it sounds it loud when I write poems. Like the rhythm of it
It’s a great way to compose! Thanks for stopping by.