Revealing the secrets of oral traditions

For the first 50 pages or so, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word by Walter Ong was one of the most boring books I have ever read. Ong insists on notating all his sources within the main text and spends pages outlining the academic history of orality studies before he introduces any of his own thoughts. But I kept plugging away because Bob Holman and Jack McCarthy had both recommended the book, so I had to finish it – even if that meant mindlessly skimming over the next 120 pages.
Then something happened.
Ong’s slow and plodding style suddenly seemed less banal and began to feel more like a military maneuver. He was being so annoyingly thorough at the outset because he was laying the groundwork for an entirely new way of thinking about language. By page 100 I realized that, after reading Ong, I would never think of the written or spoken word in the same way again. The last 70 pages were nothing short of riveting. He was redefining human history according to the ages-long shift from the oral tradition to the dominance of the written and printed word, and how that shift changed human consciousness forever. Okay, Ong, you’re forgiven for being pedantic. With an idea this big, you had to prove, point by point, how all the previous theories have failed to add up.
As a spoken word artist, I felt as though Ong was laying bare the secrets of the oral tradition. The oral poet values repetition in performance because the audience has no access to the “backward scanning” that can occur within a written text. The oral poet values narrative as a mnemonic device to string together long pieces of information, while the page poet prefers lists, which are more economical. The oral poet is feted for the ability to adapt a poem to a specific audience, while the page poet – thanks to the age of romanticism – became more concerned with the originality and purity of their compositions; in other words, the page poet wants to say something new, while the oral poet is more concerned with saying something old in a new way. After all, in a time before most could write, if the oral poet didn’t pass on the old stories in engaging ways, the accumulated wisdom contained within them would be lost.
The most slap-me-upside-the-head revelation I had while reading Ong is that the oral poet never works with just the word. It is always the word plus the poet’s body, plus the time of day, plus the mood of the audience, plus the political climate of the time, plus anything else swirling in the air. Or, as Ong puts it:
Spoken utterance is addressed by a real, living person to another real, living person at a specific time in a real setting which includes always much more than mere words. Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context of words.
Ong spends a lot of time comparing work from the oral tradition – almost all of which was eventually written down (although it’s doubtful that it was ever repeated verbatim from one performance to the next) – to written literature, delineating the distinctions between them. The written word, for instance, creates the idea of linear plot (in the first Greek tragedies), whereas oral epic poetry had always been episodic, filling in the backstory as necessary, through digressions and flashbacks. Linear plots encourage linear thought, whereas episodic plots emphasize lateral thinking, which is necessary for the poet to extemporize a connection between digressions and the main story.
The biggest takeaway from this book is that the oral tradition has a long and distinct history that cannot be judged by the same criteria we use for the literary tradition. The requirements of oral poetry are different. Playing Captain Obvious to a commonly overlooked fact, Ong points out that spoken words are not marks on a page but fleeting blasts of sound:
Oral man is not so likely to think of words as ‘signs’, quiescent visual phenomena. Homer refers to them with the standard epithet ‘winged words’ – which suggests evanescence, power, and freedom: words are constantly moving, but by flight, which is a powerful form of movement, and one lifting the flier free of the ordinary, gross, heavy, ‘objective’ world.

Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word is the sort of book I’ll have to read a second time before I understand its full implications. One thing I can say after the first read is that there’s plenty of readily applicable knowledge for today’s spoken word poet.