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What the Oral Poets Say

(in their own “words”)


John Miles Foley


   The essential goal ofHow to Read an Oral Poemis to expose its readership to different ways of composing and “reading” poetry. We seek to become a better audience by broadening the range of possibilities, diversifying the menu of verbal art, and rethinking some of our most basic assumptions about poetic communication. Part of this rethinking will involve nothing less than reshuffling our cognitive categories, a process that can be both exhilarating and unsettling. The common phenomenon of “culture shock” offers a rough analogy. Just as we initially experience both fascination and anxiety on entering or reentering foreign societies and attempting to cope with different sets of rules and demands,so our study of oral poetry is likely to run head-on into conflict with some firmly held beliefs. We may even tend to resist the new perspectives because they undermine entrenched (and unexamined) principles. ButHROPencourages neither a desperate advocacy nor a wholesale abandonment of any particular theories about verbal art -- established or “new.” Rather it calls fora healthy pluralism in approaching oral poetry, and that means genuine openmindedness. We must use what we can of literary, textual approaches while enlarging our interpretive tool-kit to include methods discovered through responsible study of non-literary, non-textual forms. 

   In that spirit I chose to begin the book by opening four windows on oral poetry: scenarios from four continents (Asia, North America, Africa, and Europe) dating from before 600 BCE to the present day. From the perspective afforded by these scenarios, we can see that oral poetry is an international medium, and that it has been and continues to beavital cultural activity from the ancient world on into the twenty-first century. At the same time, these four scenarios collectively demonstrate a striking variety and warn against a monolithic model. Such extraordinary universality of occurrence paired with thoroughgoing variety is the essence of oral poetry.

   Now, for a second step, let’s consult some true experts. In what follows I yield the floor to some actual singers of tales, oral epic bards orguslarifrom the former Yugoslavia. In doing so I seek to start with an “inside” perspective on the art of oral poetry, to complement what will be offered later from an outsider’s perspective. As with any such inquiry, the poets’ observations will apply most accurately and specifically to their own tradition, in this case South Slavic oral epic from the former Yugoslavia. But their remarks will also have at least two further applications. For one, theguslar’s “take” on his own oral poetry will prove illuminating for oral poems from other traditions as well. More generally, and in the end most importantly, theguslar’s working assumptions -- in some ways so fundamentally different from ours as we silently read literary, written poetry in texts -- make an urgent case for examining our own unexamined assumptions. The disparity they highlight indicates that we must begin by reconsidering the most basic premises of verbal art, by asking notwhatbuthowa poem means. 

   Toward that end I present below a digest of South Slavic oral poets’ responses to a very simple question: “What is awordin oral poetry?” The poets who provided answers were interviewed by Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the central Hercegovinian region of Stolac in the former Yugoslavia during the mid-1930’s. They responded directly if (from our point of view) quite surprisingly to this question as it was put to them by Parry’s and Lord’s native assistant Nikola Vujnović.


Mujo Kukuruzović

   The firstguslarto speak here will be Mujo Kukuruzović, a preliterate bard who was 43 years old at the time of his interview on June 11, 1935. He earned his living by farming inherited land and, like his Stolac colleagues, specialized in the Moslem tradition of epic songs, the longer species of songs that evolved under the sponsorship of the Ottoman court and afterwards continued in coffeehouses. Kukuruzovićclaimed a repertoire of 38 epic tales, which he tells Nikola Vujnovićhe learned from 11 different singers. He was proud of his ability to pick up new material, as the following exchange testifies:

MK: So now, brother, you go ahead and find some song I don’t know. Then, brother, read it to me twice and then give me thegusle[the musical instrument used for accompaniment], brother. If I make a mistake, I’ll give you a finger off my hand.

   NV: And with everything just so?

   MK: Just so; I’ll repeat every singlereč.

I intentionally leavereč(plural,reči) untranslated at this point. A quick glance at any standard Serbo-Croatian-English dictionary will turn up the translation “word,” but as we shall see that is hardly the end of the story.

   Somewhat later in the same conversation the interviewer Vujnovićposes the crucial question directly:

   NV: Thisrečin a song, what is it?

   MK: Well, here, it’s this -- “miserable captive” (“sužanj nevoljnik”), as they say, orthis -- “OgrašćićAlija” [proper name], or, as they say, “He was crying out in the ice-cold prison” (“Pocmilijo u lednu zindanu”).

   NV: Is this areč?

   MK: This is areč.

It seems that aword in a songis something quite different from what we mean by the everyday term “word,” and Kukuruzovićgoes on to be quite explicit about that difference:

   NV: Let’s consider this: “Mustajbey of the Lika was drinking wine” (“Vino pije lički Mustajbeže”). Is this a singlereč?

   MK: Yes.

   NV: But how? It can’t beone: “Mustajbey of the Lika was drinking wine.”

   MK: In writing it can’t be one.

   NV: There are fourrečihere.

   MK: It can’t be one in writing. But here, let’s say we’re at my house and I pick up  thegusle-- “Mustajbey of the Lika was drinking wine” -- that’s a singlerečon the guslefor me.

   NV: And the secondreč?

   MK: And the secondreč-- “At Ribnik in a drinking tavern” (“Na Ribniku u pjanoj  mehani”) -- there.

   NV: And the thirdreč?

   MK: Eh, here it is: “Around him thirty chieftains, / All the comrades beamed at one   another” (“Oko njega trides’ agalara, / Sve je sijo jaran do jarana”).

   NV: Aha, good.

   Let’s step back a moment and assess just what Kukuruzovićis telling his interviewer. For theguslararečin a song is clearly not the same thing as a textual word,defined like those you’re reading now by the convention of white space on either side. Nor is it a lexical word certified by inclusion in a dictionary, nor some abstraction defined in linguistic terms. For Kukuruzovića word in oral poetry is a unit of utterance, an irreducible atom of performance, a speech-act. It may be as short as a phrase but no shorter, as his examples of “miserable captive” and the hero’s name “OgrašćićAlija” testify. Or it may be a whole line in length, as in the verse “Mustajbey of the Lika was drinking wine.” Or a singlerečmay even be some multiple of a line, such as the couplet “Around him thirty chieftains, / All the comrades beamed at one another.” Were we to listen to the whole of his conversation with Vujnović, we would learn that Kukuruzovićalso thinks of scenes and motifs -- such as traveling to a destination, arming the hero, marshalling troops, and the like -- as singlereči. As a first approximation, then, theguslar’s words are larger, more extensive units than ours. He simply uses bigger words.

   Bigger, yes, but not just any size at all. A closer look at his examples reveals thateach one answers another requirement;each is a sound-byte, a distinct and integral unit of expression within theguslar’s special way of speaking. That is, whether phrases, lines, multiple lines, or scenes, theserečifunction like whole integers -- rather than fractions -- in a verbal mathematics. The line-long examples have exactly ten syllables, matching the decasyllabic meter of the heroic epic, and the phrases always occupy some regular subdivision of the line, either four or six syllables long. The scenes and motifs, with their narrative rather than metrical boundaries, are also whole units and not fractions; partial journeys or arming scenes have no usefulness or meaning for poet or audience. The structural logic of this special language is plain to hear and to see. Just as we cannot subdivide any of our words and maintain its meaning (“bird” is more than the sum of its individual sounds, and none of them can be deleted without losing the whole), so theguslarcannot afford to dismember any of hisreči.

   What is more, thesephrases, lines, and scenes aretraditional. That is, they are not created by any oneguslarbut transmitted from one bard to the next over time, learned like any other kind of language. To that extent all such sound-bytes are discrete and recurrent units with lives of their own outside the confines of any particular song or performance. To put it plainly,rečifor Kukuruzovićare the “bigger words” that constitute his shared epic vocabulary, the phrases and narrative patterns through which he and other singers tell their tales, the idiomatic expressions that convey their poetic tradition. He uses “our words” to respond to most of the questions posed by Vujnović, or to bargain at the market, or to converse with谈话friends. But for performing epic he switches the code -- only the “bigger words” will do.

   And herein lies the danger for us textually conditioned readers as we face the challenge of South Slavic oral epic. If we insist on reducing the singer’srečito our words, if we “murder to dissect,” we will blunt a finely honed instrument of expression that has long served as the prescribed channel for communication. Imposing our assumptions will prevent truly fluent communication, since in effect we will be misreading or mistranslating the poem. Culture shock or not, we must make the effort to hear theguslar’s performances in their original language. We must be willing to acknowledge the difference that the preliterate singer Kukuruzovićhimself acknowledges in reference to “Mustajbey of the Lika was drinking wine,” a whole decasyllabic verse. It can’t be a single word in writing, he admits, but it remains a singlerečon theguslefor him.


Salko Morić

   Anotherguslarfrom roughly the same geographical region makes precisely the same point. Salko Morić, also 43 years old when he was interviewed on June 9, 1935 near his home village of Rotimlje on the border between the Mostar and Stolac areas, freely admitted his ignorance of what a poetic line (stih) might be. Yet he readily usedstihoviin composing oral epic and was able to distinguish perceptively among various species of words. His exchange with Vujnović, which proceeds out of their discussion of the feasibility of “word-for-word” (reč za reč) re-performance, is intriguing:

NV: But let’s say. . . tell us a single word, so I can see what it is. What’s a word so I can hear it? For example, “He/she was drinking wine” (“Pije vino”) -- is that areč?

   SM: Yes.

   NV: This is also areč?

   SM: Yes.

   NV: So then is “Salko,” “Salko,” is that areč?

   SM: Yes.

   NV: It too?

   SM: Uh-huh.

   NV: But what would this be? -- “At Udbina in a drinking tavern / Sat the agas, they   were drinking wine one after another” (“NahUdbini u pjanoj mehani / Sjede age, redom piju vino”). What’s that?

   SM: “All together they were drinking wine one after another” (“Svi ukupno redompiju vino”).

   NV: So you’re saying it’s areč, then?

   SM: It’s also areč, yes.

   Vujnovićstarts the exchange by asking the singer whether “He/she was drinking wine,” an extremely common phrase shared among manyguslariover centuries and repeated often, is a single word. Morić, echoing Kukuruzovićin the earlier excerpt, affirms that it is. So far, so expectable: the phrase occupies a regular subdivision of the epic line and thus answers the definition of arečas a unified sound-byte-- two words in everyday speech (“Pije vino”), but only one within the special language of South Slavic oral epic. Then, however, the conversation takes another turn, as Vujnovićasks whether “Salko,” his interviewee’s first or given name, is also a word. Yes, he’s told, although we should note that the target has shifted: the implied context is now everyday communication rather than the epic way of speaking. On these grounds“Salko”of course qualifies asa unit of utterance, an atom of speech. Once again we have a preliterate singer making a sophisticated distinction between two varieties or registers of language.

   Finally, Vujnovićposes what for us must stand as his most interesting question. He recites two common lines from the epic and asks Morićwhether this entire couplet -- fully two decasyllables and ten of our words in the original language -- is also a singlereč. Morićresponds in a fascinating way. Rather than simply confirm or deny that the two poetic lines do in fact amount to a single “word” or speech-act, he goes a step further, remaking Vujnović’s couplet into a single decasyllable and roughly equivalent “word” of his own. This affirmation is more striking than a simple “yes” could ever be. Morićis memorably illustrating the rule-governed but plastic nature of his poetic language by remaking one “bigger word” into another. In doing so he’s following the same guidelines for poetic composition employed by otherguslari, but in the present case what results is a different phrase at half the length of the original. What better proof could we obtain of the singer’s fluency in the special language ofreči?


Ibro Bašić

The same fluency is shared by a thirdguslarfrom the Stolac region, Ibro Bašić, who was 70 years old when Vujnovićinterviewed him at considerable length on June 7, 1935. About halfway through a conversation that lasted more than two hours, Vujnovićposed the familiar question and elicited an enlightening response:

   NV: But what is areč? What is areč? Tell me.

   IB: An utterance.

   NV: An utterance?

   IB: Yes, an utterance; that’s areč, just like when I say to you now, “Is that a book,Nikola?” “Is that a coffeepot, Nikola?” There you go, that’s areč.

   NV: What is, let’s say, a singlerečin a song? Tell me a singlerečfrom a song.

   IB: This is one, like this, let’s say; this is areč: “Mujo of Kladuša arose early, / At the top of the slender, well-built tower” (“Podranijo od Kladuše Mujo, / Na vrh   tanke načinjene kule”).

   NV: But these are poetic lines (stihovi).

   IB: Eh, yes, that’s how it goes with us; it’s otherwise with you, but that’s how it’s said with us.

   NV: Aha!

   Bašićbegins explainingrečby offering a synonym,besjeda, which I translate here as “utterance.” In using the termbesjeda, which various lexicons gloss as “speech,” “oration,” or even “sermon,” the singer is stressing at least two aspects of the epic “word”: its oral nature and its force as a speech-act. He’s telling us that arečis spoken and has power. All well and good, and thus far he echoes the remarks of Kukuruzovićand Morić. But now look at his first set of examples. Instead of the phrases and lines cited by the otherguslari, Bašićoffers two rather ordinary questions as illustrations -- “Is that a book, Nikola?” and “Is that a coffeepot, Nikola?” While such examples may initially seem irrelevant or confusing, note that they share some basic features with poeticreči. Both the questions and the lines of poetry arecomplete and idiomatic units. They depend for their meaning onhigher-level wholesthat are greater than the sum of their parts, and both kinds of utterances stand tolose their effectiveness as phrases if we choose to fracture the wholes in favor of focusing on the parts. Indeed, Bašić’s analogy shows that he is a fine linguist; when it comes to words versus “words,” he knows what he’s talking about. Just as Morićrecognized both “He/she was drinking wine” and “Salko” asreči, so Bašićcompares the “bigger words” of epic storytelling to “bigger words” in everyday conversation, characterizing them both as “utterances.” His comparison reveals a great deal about how theguslarcomposes oral poetry and just as much about how it means.

   When Vujnovićgoes on to ask specifically about a singlerečin a song, the singer responds with the sort of “bigger word” we’ve come to expect:multiple lines of poetry. The interviewer then attempts to force his hand by commenting -- correctly, from our point of view -- that “Mujo of Kladuša arose early, / At the top of the slender, well-built tower” is not a single word but rather two lines of poetry (stihovi). And once again the preliterate singer shows more linguistic savvy than many professional scholars by making an even-handed and ...


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