An Example of Classical Oral Poetry
If you are embarking on the adventure of Homer's Odyssey, you must consider: What is classical oral poetry? How do we know that the Odyssey is an example of oral poetry? Did Homer use writing?
The Odyssey, although it may or may not have been orally composed, is generally agreed to derive from a tradition of oral poetry. We know this to be the case because the Odyssey exhibits several traits that are typical of oral poetry. But what are these traits, and what is oral poetry?
Oral poetry is poetry that is both composed and performed without the aid of writing. Within an oral tradition, poems are not composed and then recited; instead, the act of composition takes place during the performance. The poet has to ‘make it up as he goes along.’ Therefore no two performances will ever be precisely the same.
Anyone who has tried to compose a substantial poem using a formal meter knows how difficult it can be, even with the aid of writing. To us, used to painstakingly working out each individual word and phrase, the off-the-cuff oral composition of a poem of many hundreds of lines can seem scarcely credible.
Between 1935 and 1937, the American scholar Milman Parry recorded a series of performances of oral epic poetry by Bosnian singers. He discovered that in order to compose with speed and fluency, the Bosnian singers drew upon a large repertoire of formulaic expressions and stock scenes.