M.A. Cultural Studies

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Oral Tradition 9/2 (1994): 330-370

Ethnopoetics, Oral-Formulaic Theory, and Editing Texts
Dell Hymes John Miles Foley (1992) has opened up a consideration of the connections between oral-formulaic theory and work that has come to be called “ethnopoetics.” This is much to be desired, for until recently the two have seemed to occupy different worlds, yet a general view of oral poetry requires both. Foley focuses on a major thrust of folklore today, the interaction between performance and tradition. Here I want to focus on two older concerns, the structure of texts and manuscript sources. Constraints within and among lines Oral-formulaic theory and ethnopoetics are both concerned with composition in the course of performance, and with constraints that must be met in doing so. In the epics and other poetry studied in terms of oralformulaic theory, the constraint is a metrical line, commonly a sung metrical line. In oral narratives the constraint is commonly a relation among lines.1 Sung epic poetry is famous for oral formulae, which have been taken as enabling a narrator to meet the constraint of the metrical line in the midst of performing. (I realize that there is more to oral formulae than that). The narratives with which I have worked, not having metrical lines, do not have the same performance constraint. One does sometimes find evidence of fulfilling the constraint of a patterned sequence in an ad hoc way. Among Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, formulae seem to have two roles. Prayers and exhortations at ceremonies may be full of them, not to meet formal constraint, but to invoke tradition. Narratives employ them at major junctures, such as openings and closings, and there are classes of words to be expected as markers. All these could be said to be required by a genre. There are also words expectable for characteristic actions in the course of a type of scene or story. The choice, position, and frequency of these words is particular to a 1

ETHNOPOETICS, ORAL THEORY, EDITING TEXTS

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When constraint is internal to the line, we do not hesitate to speak of poetry. In the oral narratives of many Native American peoples and many speakers of English, perhaps universally, there is a constraint external to the line. It has to do with relations among lines that count as “verses.” A “verse” is usually easily recognized in speech. It is marked by one of the main intonational contours of the language. Such verses form sequences, and do so in terms of a small set of alternatives. There appear to be two fundamental principles. The usual (unmarked) alternatives may be sequences of two or four. Many Native American communities (such as those of the Kwakiutl, Takelma, Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo) make use of such sequences. Many others (such as those of the lower Columbia and Willamette Rivers), and many speakers of American English, so far as is known, connect verses in sequences of three and five.2 Narrators are not restricted to just these alternatives. Some command both principles, and may adopt one or the other for a particular story or situation, or part of a story, or level of organization (cf. Hymes 1990-94, 1993b, 1994b). If organization in lines is a general definition of poetry, then these narratives are poetry. In one kind of poetry what counts first of all is a relation within the line, a relation among syllables, stresses, alliterations, tones, conventional feet. In another kind what counts first of all are relations among lines (more properly, verses) themselves. If the first kind is metrical, the second kind can be called “measured.” It is sometimes called “measured verse,” and its analysis, “verse analysis.”3 Such analysis depends upon three principles. One is that just discussed. It implies that narratives transcribed and published as prose paragraphs are in fact organized in lines. The second principle is one Roman Jakobson considered basic to poetry, and called equivalence (1960). Sequences however...
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