(This is part of the conclusion that seeks to distinguish characteristics of oral and written poetry. The essay keeps getting longer. Again, the notes will have vanished.)
The arrival of writing necessarily transformed literature. The oral text has flexible form. Depending on the audience it may be edited for content or style. Even such a scripted spectacle as the circus varies in every performance. However, once performed, it is then fixed form in the experience of the viewer. Furthermore, every spectator’s response is shaped in the social conditions of reception by a tendency to conform to the reactions of the group (just as in a movie theater the viewer is more likely to laugh or gasp or drop a tear in concert with others). For a written text, the contradiction is reversed: the text never changes, but it invites a fresh construction from every reader. New meanings may always be adduced from the code, just as Augustine thought new readings of scripture may be as authentic as old. While a new reading may attempt to supplant an old one, more often it simply joins already existing readings. The poetic text glories in polysemy, whereas other forms of discourse seek simple clarity.
I noted at the outset that the boundary between oral and print cultures is often elusive. Indeed, over four hundred years after the invention of movable type, print culture is not in fact nearly so dominant as one might think. A recent study indicates that the average American now spends about twenty-four minutes a day reading material of all sorts including newspapers, work documents, and the television schedule. On the other hand the average time spent watching television is over four hours, for radio over three. One wonders how enough time can remain for computers and recorded music. People absorb countless narratives through films and television and countless lyrics through song and advertisements. Even the consumption of poetry remains primarily aural if popular music is counted, overwhelmingly aural, if school assignments are not.
Spontaneous oral composition as well as oral performance characterizes the classic oral poetic form first described by Milman Parry and Albert Lord. The poet, whether a Homeric singer or a Pentecostal preacher, draws on a common store of expressions, and these expressions, by their very repetition, are foregrounded as significant. Thus for Homer the process of a warrior’s arming and the attributes of the gods are among the details that embody and transmit the culture while for the Christian these are replaced by tropes of the individual’s rebirth and the Savior’s passion. Oral-formulaic verse is ideally suited for the education of the youth as it systematically emphasizes the lessons most important to the tradition. In this way it is the inverse of post-Romantic poetry which seeks to expose contradictions and ambiguities in idées reçues. Oddly, today’s rap freestylers present a similar case, since the pressing necessity to rapidly invent material leads to the same consistent reemphasis on the values, themes, and characters central to their culture.
There can be no doubt that oral performance adds a new register of signifiers to the poem. For poetry, form is always content, and critics have long explicated the role of rhythms, rhyme, and other sound patterns. Modulation of volume, pitch, and stress has immense expressive potential, as well as offering formal possibilities of patterning (just as rhyme, meter, assonance, and alliteration do on the page). Study of ancient tragedy suggests that aurally oriented audiences were capable of great sophistication in perceiving and following rhythmic pattern and variation. Of course, the experienced silent reader can appreciate the metrical facility of Alexander Pope, for instance, but the equally competent listener very likely responds more subtly, if unconsciously, to sound. The cost of these additional data is the swiftness of the experience of the poetry.
Unlike the written text which the reader may peruse at leisure and reread repeatedly, the performance occurs and then is forever gone. Even if it is captured on film or tape, every theater or concert-goer is aware that the experience of viewing a recording of a live performance is different in quality from attending the performance itself.
The line of what might be called classic American spoken word (which has influenced many other traditions) descends from Whitman through Allen Ginsberg to today’s café stage and reflects these conditions of reception. This long-line declamatory (rather than melic ) style, tends to rely on anaphora (as well as other forms of repetition), delivery emphasizing emotion and featuring broad modulation of tone and volume. Parataxis replaces hypotaxis in the syntax. The poet’s body language and expressive delivery become part of the text. This can result in a seductive, hypnotic, almost enchanting theatrical experience of poetry, but it can also, in less skillful performances, result in gratuitous volume and histrionics on stage, but ennui in the audience.
Many of these characteristics arise out of the requirement that spoken word be transparently lucid. The long line allows the writer freedom in syntax and avoids unnatural and enigmatic structures. Listeners need not suspend understanding, waiting for the conclusion of an elaborate colon, but simply observe the series of paratactic structures one after the other. Actual catalogues are common, as is the repetitive reinforcement that used to be called amplificatio. The signification of strong emotion through high volume is unambiguous. The spoken word poet is more likely to work through narrative than through imagery.
Similarly, the figures of speech the oral poet used in antiquity were traditional. The audience was already familiar with many while others were generated according to strict rules. The work of today’s spoken word poet must still be immediately intelligible, barring subtle or complex metaphorical leaps and fostering cliché (sometimes torrents of cliché). Even innovative figures must be instantly comprehensible.
Whereas traditionally the themes of performed poetry were normative, those evident in today’s reading events tend to represent a specific subculture, one that often defines itself in opposition to the majority culture. The conscious separation from the bourgeoisie (even antagonism) that marked the notion of the avant-garde from its outset in the Romantic era, encourages the sensational (sexual, political, or artistic) and the comic. Difficult as it may be to shock in the twenty-first century, titillation is still readily available. I recall from the very first readings I attended the titters that greeted an approach to obscenity (even when the reference was far from humorous) and the analogous subcultural satisfaction with which the hip audience heard blasphemous or revolutionary sentiments.
Nonetheless, it would erroneous to suppose that either oral or written presentation is inherently superior. If mere multiplication of signifying systems indicated value, we would want to hear only grand opera, that Gesamtkunstwerk that includes poetry, music, theater, movement, art, and costume. Just as a film of Hamlet differs in countless ways from a stage production, and each must be judged by its own standards, oral and written poetry are distinct genres. The artist may be clumsy or adept in either; skill in the one by no means implies equal facility in the other.