03.07.02, Foley, How to Read an Oral Poem

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Ann Dobyns

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.002


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

Reviewed by:
Ann Dobyns
University of Denver

In his Prologue to How to Read an Oral Poem (HROP), John Miles Foley throws down the gauntlet. Sidestepping theoretical controversies, Foley asks readers to consider oral poetry without preconceptions and prejudices associated with the disputes surrounding oral-formulaic composition. Rather, he seeks to address a new audience, students or the well-educated general reader. This book, he explains, "attempts to speak to the non-specialist in a straightforward, uncomplicated way. Plain talk, plain style, and a cornucopia of examples are its mainstays. If in championing the cause of the nonspecialist this book errs on the side of simplicity and availability, then so be it" (xi). The shift in focus from theory to praxis is a smart move. He asks readers to come to oral poetry with new insights. More than an introduction to oral-formulaic theory, his book is an argument for a different way of reading and indeed hearing oral poetry, one that is compelling, creative, and practical.

While he acknowledges his debt to the Parry and Lord, Foley builds his model of reading on his own theoretical position, formulated during his nearly thirty years of work in the field. He outlines this position clearly in the third chapter "First Word: What is Oral Poetry?" He begins with the premise that the experience of reading oral poems differs from the process of reading written poetry. Oral poems, he argues, differ "in their composition, performance, and reception" (38). To demonstrate these differences and provide a taxonomy that accounts for the diversity of oral poetry, Foley suggests four general categories of oral poetry: oral performance, voiced texts, voices from the past, and written oral poems.

Poems within the category of oral performance are composed as performed; their reception is aural and immediate. Examples include the South Slavic epic or traditional songs of the Maori. Although the largest category, orally performed poems are those least familiar to a western audience, known mainly second hand through documented accounts. Voiced texts are poems written for performance, such as the texts written for poetry slams or sometimes blues songs. The reception of voiced texts is also aural and immediate; the intended audience experiences them as they are performed. Voices from the past is the category Foley gives to what he calls "textual shards of a once-living work of verbal art" (45), works such as Beowulf, the Mahabharata and the Iliad and Odyssey. He places such works within the oral tradition on the basis of accounts of their composition as well as evidence of features identified with oral composition. These texts, he says, are both orally and textually composed and performed, and experienced through the ear and eye. His final category is written oral poems or poetry written to be experienced as oral though read by a literate audience. For a famous but highly controversial example, Foley mentions James Macpherson's Ossianic poetry.

Calling a section of the book a chapter is misleading because Foley avoids the term chapter. Rather, he organizes the book by what might be called separate but interrelated performances, what he calls "words." In the section titled "What the Oral Poets Say," he explains that "words" in oral poetry are units of utterance or speech acts, which may be phrases, scenes, or motifs. And so, he chooses to organize his book, a textual object, in a new way "not through chapters (or book bytes) but rather through thought bites called the First Word, Second Word, and so forth" (20) to compose "a hybrid experience in studying oral poetry" (20-21).

Following the opening sections -- the first describing four performances of oral poetry and the second recounting descriptions of oral poetry given by their performer/composers -- Foley explores new ways of experiencing oral poetry through eight words and a post-script, explorations he calls ruminations (123). The first five words address the four questions his title, How to Read an Oral Poem, raises: What is oral poetry? What is reading? What is an oral poem? And What do we mean by how? After the first, "What is Oral Poetry," the titles of the sections open the explorations. The second word is "Contexts and Reading." The third, fourth, and fifth suggest new ways reading: "Being There: Performance Theory," "Verbal Art on Its Own Terms: Ethnopoetics," and "Traditional Implications: Immanent Art."

As he describes oral poetry, he emphasizes the importance of context -- the performance, audience, poet, music, way of speaking, gesture, costume, visual aid, occasion, ritual, and so forth (60). To "read" such culturally and contextually inscribed performances, he suggests, involves inhabiting that space and in doing so to decode coded messages within their original performative act. Words Three, Four, and Five suggest methods for such decoding. Performance theory involves recognizing and interacting with the encoded markers embedded in the performance -- special codes, figurative language, parallelism, special formulas, appeals to tradition, and disclaimers of performance (85). Ethnopoetics provides a way to recognize the components of the performance on its own terms, identifying the aural markers that comprise the experience of the listener, and reperforming, or transcribing, those markers in coded text. Immanent Art examines the "words" of oral poetry and "seeks to understand the idiomatic implications of these multiform "words" (109). To this end the reader identifies the structures and patterns of the performance then studies them as language, asking how they "summon a larger context via a specialized code" (113). The reader considers the register, the performance arena, and communicative economy (114). In each of these sections, or chapters, Foley offers examples and readings that model the kind of reading he believes will do enrich the hearer's experience of oral poetry.

Having considered his three questions through his "words" about oral poetics, Foley then richly illustrates the methodology he has been exploring. "The Sixth Word: A Poor Reader's Almanac" synthesizes all of the important ideas into a different kind of utterance: 10 proverbs he has written, which we might see as different kinds of "words." Not really summaries, these proverbs ask the reader to reconsider, or ruminate, on the ideas of the first five words. In "The Seventh Word: Reading Some Oral Poems," Foley demonstrates the kind of reading he has been discussing by exploring six oral poetries -- Zuni and Mayan storytelling, North American slam poetry, the south Indian Siri Epic, Homer's Odyssey, and the Song of Roland. The Eighth Word: An Ecology of South Slavic Oral Poetry provides an extended reading of South Slavic oral poetry.

Foley ends with a "Post-Script," in which he considers the timeliness and timelessness of his "new methodology." The Internet, he observes, bears a striking resemblance to oral poetry, an observation that helps us recognize the power of oral poetry and the possibilities of appropriating this electronic resource for new editions of oral poetry. In fact, he has begun this process by providing audio and visual examples of oral poetry on the companion Web site.

What impresses me about HROP is its disarming lucidity. Throughout, despite complex ideas and unfamiliar references, Foley is able to maintain the illusion of "plain talk." It is a brilliant performance, one that asks the reader to participate, reperform, and decode. The units of utterance draw the reader into its rhythm and, by doing so, experience the power of an oral performance, despite the fact that it is written. Even a reader skeptical about the validity of much oral-formulaic theory should find the book a compelling argument for a rich and productive model of reading.

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Ann Dobyns

University of Denver