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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?

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A poet recites to the tune of the lyre: Image by Aquilatin from Pixabay

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:

From the Medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
A famous nursery rhyme:

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.

The Challenge

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…