“The fact that we have no actively used term or concept which includes both literature and oral performance shows that something has been wrong in the way we have been thinking. ‘Skilled, imaginative verbal performance’ will do, but it is not very economical.” — Walter J. Ong, in a letter to the editors of The New Catholic Encyclopedia.

One of three articles Ong wrote for the 1967 The New Catholic Encyclopedia was “Literature, Written Transmission of,” which was to be paired with an article on oral tradition by Albert Lord. In Ong’s files is a letter to the editors of The New Catholic Encyclopedia in which Ong expresses concern over the proposed title of Lord’s piece, which was “Literature, Oral Transmission of.” Ong wrote the letter out of concern that Lord may not have been aware of the planned titles or, and this is my reading between the lines, concern that the editors were going ahead with the plan despite Lord’s objections (Ong addresses the obvious grouping of “Literature, Oral” and “Literature, Written” by suggesting cross-references).

Off hand (or maybe in hand?), I have nothing to provide fuller context to this letter, but Ong was writing to a fellow Jesuit which would have allowed him liberties he might not otherwise have had with a typical editor. In the letter, Ong notes that the whole notion of “oral literature” runs counter to the core of Lord’s thinking, as well of that of Eric Havelock, Francis P. Magoun, Jess Bessinger, Robert Creed, and others. (Magoun, as I’ve written before, was one of Ong’s Harvard professors and was the first Old English scholar to take up Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s oral-formulaic theory; Bessinger was a Magoun’s teaching assistant when Ong took Old English with Magoun; and Creed is another early Anglo-Saxonist adopter of oral-formulaic theory.)

While the letter dates to 1964 (it could be 1963 or 1965 — I’m at home and forgot to write the date down), as far as I know we still don’t have a good, widely used term that encompasses both oral performance and tradition and literature other than, maybe, “verbal art.” With our most recent visual turn, we’re relying more and more on the “verbal” to indicate both spoken and written modes of communication, but its use and acceptance varies from field to field and person to person.

I imagine that some people reading this are scratching their heads right now wondering what the big deal is. What’s wrong with “oral literature” any way? As Ong points out in his letter, oral literature means “oral writing.” Technically, “literature” means something written by someone who is literate. So, as John Miles Foley explains it in How to Read an Oral Poem (and yes, the title is ironic), “oral literature” technically means “letterless verbal art in letters” or “letterless verbal art composed by a lettered person” (27). While it might seem easy enough for us to just accept our right to modify the definition of literature to include oral tradition, we need to keep in mind what’s at stake if we do so. As Ong explains it, accepting “oral literature” generally involves a lot of “cultural squinting”: all too often we already read oral culture and the media dynamics of oral tradition through the cultural lens and media dynamics of writing and print. To quote Foley again:

How many of us pay serious attention to living performances of folk sermons, rap music, slam poetry, or folktales as verbal art? How often do these forms find their way into the publication network, or into college and university curricula? Given the built-in bias in favor of the technology of writing and printing, is it any wonder that oral poetry is implicitly ranked as a second-class citizen among the verbal arts–if, indeed, it is ranked at all? We have much to learn on that score, many layers of media prejudice to peel away. (27)

And two paragraphs later, Foley continues:

Another reason for our failure to understand the role and importance of oral poetry is the narrowness with which we define the role of verbal art in society. While modern preconceptions turn on aesthetic, formal, literary-critical, poststructuralist, new historicist, and other approved criteria–all of them mainstays of the study of literature in our time–oral poetry has long served a much more extensive list of cultural needs. Across the space of human societies, oral poetic traditions encode what we call history, anthropology, folklore, mythology, law, philosophy, medicine, and numerous other disciplines. Indeed, perhaps conunterintuitively for the modern reader of texts, art and social function often share the limelight. Because oral poetry has always been an essential technology for the transmission and expression of ideas of all kinds, it does not divorce entertainment from instruction, artistic craft from cultural work. […] For such reasons, looking at oral poetry through the lens of literature–our ever-present if usually unnoticed filter–is much like peering through the wrong end of a telescope. Instead of enlarging the object or process on which the instrument is trained, this “backwards” perspective graphically diminishes it. (And yes, the pun on “graphically” is intended.) We are in the habit of understanding poetry as a species of written poetry, not the other way around. (27-28)

What Foley and Ong, and Lord and all the others mentioned above are asking us to do is to recognize our literate- and print-centric consciousness as a constructed consciousness. Whether you’re talking about the oral poetry of a Xhosa imbongi (praise-poet), an eighteenth-century Scottish story-teller, or a contemporary slam poet, to think about oral poetry on its own terms requires a different perspective if not different world view than our print-based perspective gives us.