The Western world has long considered literacy as a mark of civilization. Therefore, written texts, as proof of literacy are placed in a higher regard than non-written texts, which are often transmitted orally. Orally transmitted texts are an inferior alternative to written texts. In other words, a culture’s high regard for orally transmitted texts is presumptuously considered as proof of illiteracy.
The existence of this Eurocentric mindset is supported by the definition of “orature” in the Oxford English Dictionary, a British document that proclaims itself to be “the last word on words for over a century”–a source of absolute authority in regard to the Western interpretation of the English language. It defines orature as “[a] body of poetry, tales, etc., preserved through oral transmission as part of a particular culture, esp. a preliterate one.” The word, “preliterate” is problematic, implying the spoken language will ultimately be dominated by the written language. It is not hard to see that the inferiority of the written langauage over the spoken language is only a myth, when orature plays a consistent and essential role in modern literature of the West.
What is Orature?
It is necessary to look at the origin of the term, “orature” before delving into its role in modern literature. The term, orature, is coined by Pio Zirimu, a Ugandan linguist. According to the website of The World Oral Literature Project, established by the University of Cambridge in collaboration with Yale University, Zirimu did so in avoidance of an oxymoron, which is “oral literature”. Ngūgī wa Thiong’o elaborates upon the problematic nature of the oxymoron describing orally transmitted texts in his book, Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. He states that “[t]he problem lay[s] in the English language.” By “the problem”, he refers to the Eurocentric notion of “the equation between orality and illiteracy,” which debases the African-rooted oral traditions. He continues to support his argument with the examples of the Kenyan language of Gīkūyū and the Lakes Plain dialect of Kīrīra: in both languages, the word for the concept of “literature” does not distinguish whether it is transmitted orally or with written words. It is English that puts “orate” and “literate” on to a false binary. He sums up his argument by stating that, “[w]riting and orality are natural allies not antagonists, so also orature and literature.” Indeed, there are a few works of literature, whose written dimension and spoken dimension can be manipulated into working in tandem to enrich the texts. These texts in no ways belong to a more primitive culture or time–exemplified by significant works in the Western hemisphere, from Things Fall Apart by the African postcolonialist writer Chinua Achebe to Spirituals by the prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance Langston Hughes to If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso by the American modernist poet Gertrude Stein.
Things Fall Apart
Published in 1958 in England, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is set in officially pre-colonial Nigeria in the 1890’s. The novel examines the negotiation between the British commercial and religious influence and the indigenous Igbo culture, centering around the character of Onkwoko. One of the ways the presence of Igbo culture is established in this English work is through the orality embedded in the text. The novel displays feature of the Igbo storytelling tradition that the written words alone cannot fully embody.
In his article, “Rhythm and Narrative Method in Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’”, B. Eugene McCarthy examines the linguistic patterns and rhythm in the novel, focusing on several paragraphs at different points of the narrative. One of his examples is the first two paragraphs, an introduction to the protagonist, Onkokwo, and how he defeats Amalinze the Cat. McCarthy points out several characteristics in the paragraph that establish orality harkening back to the African oral traditions. One of these characteristics is repetition. This use of repetitions in is an embodiment of orality, harkening back to an oral tradition. According to McCarthy, repetition is “a technique of the traditional oral storyteller, sitting talking to a group of listeners” (244). The written novel sets out to imitate an orally transmitted story that is meant to be listened to. In other words, the passage cannot be fully engaged through written words, but also through orality. To examine the orality in the passage is to consider the text to be read aloud, instead of being read on the page–meant for listeners, not readers. To a listener, repetitions serve as a kind mnemonic device. Since the audience cannot reference to the previous content, as David Crystal explains in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, “[s]peech is time-bound” (291), the oral text has to balance the progressing of the story with self-referencing to keep the audience engaged. This is achieved through the repetition of words, meanings and sentence patterns.
In two short paragraphs, the name, “Onkokwo” is repeated four times while “Amalinze the Cat” or “the Cat” is repeated five times. This is to simply remind the audience the words. In the examples of such repetitions, the repeated words are proper nouns–names of characters: “Onkokwo” and “the Cat”, which are very specific and important information to the understanding of the story. Repetitions of the exact words are therefore used to help the audience memorize them.
Moreover, meanings are repeated with the use of synonyms. For instance, the beginning sentences of the novel are “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements” (Achebe 1). Although the fact that Onkokwo is “well known” is established in the first sentence, Achebe starts the next sentence with the phrase, “[h]is fame,” repeating the piece of information. This helps condense characters into characteristics so they are easily grasped by the listeners. It is done with a technique observed by McCarthy, “[Achebe] proceeds by […] accumulating detail and elaborating: ‘well known’ advances to ‘fame’ and to ‘honour’” (245). In using synonyms to describe Onkokwo, Achebe reminds the listeners of Onkokwo’s respectability, which plays a major role in the entire story, while expanding upon it to develop his character.
McCarthy observes that there is not only repetition in words and meanings, but parallels in the sentence patterns as well, arguing the most sentences in these paragraphs open with a subject followed by a verb. Based on this argument, the repetition in meaning operates in tandem with that in the sentence pattern. For example, “He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights” (Achebe 1). The intention of constructing a pattern is apparent–the word order is determined by the importance of the piece of information the word carries. The first and the most important word is a subject, which is the name of or a pronoun for a character. In the example, since the former sentence is about the Cat, the second sentence has to stress on the Cat as well, in order to follow the pattern of repeated meanings. However, the main action in this piece of information is “to throw” –threw, to which the Cat is the object. Therefore, the passive voice is used in the latter sentence to emphasize the Cat by putting him earlier in the sentence. This may make the phrase, “[i]t was” seem redundant. However, “[i]t was” actually strengthens the following clause by borrowing from the previous sentence in meaning, emphasizing the fact that the Cat is named “because his back would never touch the earth,” and yet he is defeated by Onkokwo. Therefore, the phrase actually provides logical coherence while grammatically allowing the Cat to comes before the subject of the verb. This repetition in sentence patterns makes the way the storyteller divulges information predictable, therefore, easy to follow for the listeners. Along with the repetition of meanings, the repeated sentence patterns help listeners understand and memorize the story as it progresses.
The repetition in sentence patterns also help construct a certain rhythm that runs through the story.The rhythm is analyzed as followed by McCarthy: “It was this/ man that Okon/kwo threw/ in a fight/ which the old/ men agreed/ was one/ of the fierc/est since the found/er of their town/ engaged a spir/it of the wild/ for sev/en days/ and sev/en nights.” (247) Other than helping memorization, the rhythm carries an African cadence that is a statement in itself. Although McCarthy attempts to illustrate the rhythm by breaking up the passage with strokes, the rhythm is not of syllables, which can be visually shown on paper, but of stresses of the words, which exists only in the spoken dimension of language. Therefore, the rhythm calls for oral expression–it is a manifestation of orality.
Through the use of repetition, which leads to the feature of rhythm, examinable through the written words, in words, meanings and sentence patterns, Achebe captures the Igbo oral storytelling tradition through orality of the text. The passage from Things Fall Apart illustrates that writing and orality can work together in service of the story, one of the negotiation between the imperial and the indigenous. While the presence of the imperial culture is established through the imperial written language of English, the indigenous culture is also present through Igbo features of orality–the story is not complete without either one.
Listen to the passage read aloud to get a sense of the rhythm:
While Chinua Achebe uses orality to adds to the Igbo presence in his novel, which delves into issues of postcolonialism, Western writers also use orality to convey their messages, though their works are not usually branded as orature, as it is often used to refer to works of a “preliterate culture”. Like Achebe, Langston Hughes uses orality to articulate a kind of African experience. However, Hughes expresses the African experience only found the West– the African-American experience, encompassing the collective history of slavery.
In his poem, Spirituals, he clearly bases the work upon the African-American oral tradition of singing Christian songs, which is deeply rooted in the history of slavery. In his article, “‘I, Too, Sing America’: Jazz and Blues Techniques and Effects in Some of Langston Hughes’s Selected Poems”, Lionel Davidas argues the poem not only thematically centers on an African-American oral tradition, but also carries a kind of musicality distinctive to the African-rooted genre of jazz and blues on top of that of spirituals. Davidas first points to the use of the words, “sing” and “song” which permeates the poem. He claims that, it “is a very clear use of repetition and alliteration, where the sibilant letter “s” is often resumed to suggest in the listener/reader the hissing sounds of a Negro spiritual crooned by the speaker’s ‘black mother’” (269-270). Although the second part of the claim is unsound due to the fact that there is no evidence in the poem of what the spiritual sung by the speaker’s mother sounds like, the sound effect created by the repetition and alliteration is apparent, together with the repeated use of the word, “strong” (Hughes, Line 3). The constant hissing sounds may not be similar to “the mother’s” spiritual, but it can be argued that they sound like cymbals when used gently and consistently, as it does in jazz music.
Davidas also argues the line breaks in Spirituals creates the jazz-like rhythm to the poem. Since line breaks are used to indicate pauses when a poem is performed orally, line breaks show the rhythm when it is orally performed. The construction of rhythm relies on pauses–the short moments of silence interrupting a series of sounds, which is an example of orality of the poem. Davidas takes the first stanza of three lines, which describes the geographical setting for the poem, as an overture in jazz music. In the same vein of thought, the indented exclamation, “Sing, O Lord Jesus!” (Line 4) is interpreted as an improvisation that marks the change in rhythm and tone from the previous stanza and the start of a new one. Following the line is another indented line. While it indicates another change in rhythm and tone, Davidas further explains the indentation as “Hughes’s adaptation of the call and response technique so prevalent in jazzpoetry.” (270) To elaborate upon that, while “Sing, O Lord Jesus!” and “Song is a strong thing.” (Hughes Line 5) are of two very different sentence patterns, both sentences consist of five syllables each. Also, the latter line serves as an explanation for the action in the former line, in imitation of the call and response technique in music, in which two distinct musical phrases are played in conjunction, with the latter as a response to the former. Hughes brings the final stanza back to the left margins, indicating yet another change in rhythm and tone, which marks the start of what could be the finale. The three changes in rhythm structure the poem like a piece of jazz music with an overture, an improvisational verse and a finale. With the use of the call and response technique, the conscious intent to imitate jazz music in form is even more apparent.
The poem’s imitation of jazz music in structure through line breaks and indentation, which indicates pauses and change of tone is an embodiment of orality. Though line breaks and indentation are features of the written poem, the pauses and changes of tone can only fully achieve their functions to imitate jazz music when expressed orally. Music is an expression of sound. Therefore, to imitate music of whatever genre can only be done in the audial dimension. For the imitation the poem is done through language, it can only be fully achieved in the spoken dimension of language–through orality.
The oral performance of the poem’s jazz-like quality is essential to conveying the meaning of the poem, the piece is reliant on orality as much as the written words. As Davidas puts it, since jazz, blues and spirituals have historically helped African-Americans to cope with adversity, namely slavery, “’Spirituals’ […] enable[s] Hughes to reconsider the function and nature of the Negro spirituals,” (270) through its form and words which focuses on the hardship of African-Americans in the time of slavery, and captures this distinct collective experience in its entirety–the hardship and the music that helped cope with it.
Though not traditionally branded as orature, Spirituals is observed to be reliant on the spoken dimension of the language to achieve its full articulation in the African American experience and history. Characteristics, namely rhythm and sounds, though discernible through written words, can only be fully experienced through listening. Therefore, the poem encompasses a certain orality that informs the writing, exemplifying the fact that orature and literature are not mutually exclusive.
If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso
If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso by Gertrude Stein is another fitting example of how the presence of orality can enrich a text. In response to Pablo Picasso’s portrait of her, Stein composed If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso, capturing the aesthetics with written text and orality.
In his article, “Now Not Now: Gertrude Stein Speaks”, Brian Reed compares Stein’s poems on paper to the works being read aloud by Stein herself. Among the examples is the poem, If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso. Reed argues that, in writing, the poem displays a binary tension that does not exist in the oral performance. Reed first points to the mixed form of the poem, which is a seemingly uneven combination of prose and poetry. While some lines are extremely short phrases, words even, such as “Now.” (Stein Line 5), they are intermittently interrupted by sections of lines that reach the right margin and continue onto the next line–a characteristic of prose. Reed argues that this layout forms a tension on the page, with “words unfurl in orderly fashion on a plane—much like pigment applied to a canvas” (107). It is clear that this poem operates in a visual dimension to help resemble a cubist Picasso painting with the use of repeated fragments.
To listen to Stein reading the poem:
On the other hand, the recording of Stein reading the poem “comes across as a much more heterogeneous composition, consisting of sequential sections that obey distinct formal logics and proceed according to disparate rhythms.” (107), according to Reed. The prose sections in the poem follow the rhythm pattern of chiasmus that sounds coherent with the rest of the poem, but does not look so. One of his Reed’s instances is the first stanza, for which he provides the annotated transcript: “if I told him [A] would he like it [B] / would he like it [B] if I told him [A] / would he like it [A] / would Napoleon [B] / would Napoleon [B] / would / would he like it [A] / if Napoleon [A] / if I told him [B] / if I told him [B] / if Napoleon [A]” with the forward slashes standing for short pauses (107-108). Reed also observes that Stein makes the rhythmic pattern clear with intonation, as indicates in the following transcript of one of the prose sections: “and as he / and as he / and he / he is / and as he is / and as he is / and he is / he is / and as he / and he / and as he is,” (110) with the bolding of the text representing the stress.
Speaking of the rhythmic pattern, Reed claims that while the visual presentation of the poem resembles a painting of Picasso, the oral presentation resembles Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians and John Adams’s Phrygian Gates, which are percussion-based musical compositions in the 70’s.
With this comparison, Reed puts down the orality of the poem by claiming it does not contribute–it even takes away from the poem that is meant to capture Picasso’s visual artworks in writing. “Listeners are barred from skipping around or pondering the whole of its design simultaneously,” Reed says of the oral performance of the poem. After this criticism, he reasserts Stein’s skilled artistry in the poem, which he has been trying to prove with this article, by claiming that the orality of the poem is not meant to serve as a kind of imitation of Picasso’s works, but solely exists for Stein’s self-indulgence. He believes that “[o]rality is associated with empty didacticism and rote repetition. Implicitly and by contrast, visuality […]is connected with modernity.” (111) He argues that Stein uses a time-bound medium to accentuate her modernist aesthetic, basing the argument upon an interview Stein done in 1934. In short, Reed claims the poem’s orality is secondary to its written words.
Reed, like Oxford English Dictionary, buys into the myth of teleology, which implies orality is somehow less “progressive” than writing. However, If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso is in fact a work of both writing and orality, without one overshadowing the other.
Based upon Reed’s analysis of the rhythm pattern of chiasmus, it can be argued that the oral performance is too imitating Picasso’s cubism. Although Reed dismisses the oral performance as “heterogeneous,” compared to the apparent attempt to embody cubism in written words with fragmentation, chiasmus is a kind of fragmentation. Reed himself can see that the first stanza consists of two sets of sounds, labeled A and B. Stein’s repeated use and pairing of A and B is similar to the repeated use and combination of geometric shapes in a cubist painting. The fact that it sounds coherent only makes sense, not deviating from the fragmentary writing. Despite the use of fragments in cubism, a cubist painting is ultimately one piece of artwork in its entirety when presented. Therefore, the visual presentation of the text allows the readers to technically “work their way back” to observe the fragments which have been combined into one single work, as the visual presentation is not time-bound like the oral presentation. On the other hand, the oral presentation of the poem operates upon the assumption that the fragments of sounds heard belong to a larger entity as we have internalized the limit of speech, which is that it is time-bound and cannot give information in its entirety at once. In spite of sounding coherent to our ears, which have been conditioned, the oral presentation is still fragmentary, which further Stein’s attempt to capture Picasso’s aesthetic with a poem.
Another feature of the orality of the poem is the intonation Stein thinks the poem calls for, as performed in the recording. Though her intonation is indeed coincidentally similar to musical compositions written after her death, it has a rhythmic pattern that is created to fit Stein’s aesthetics, not anyone else’s. It is created with another use of repeated sounds, while it is not a repetition of words or phrases, but rather the repetition of stresses. This is again similar to the aesthetics of cubism. The different stresses also help adds a layer of musicality to the poem–an alternation of gentleness and strength to the poem, resembling a painting with different paint stroke, which cannot be embodied with mere written words.
Though the importance of its orality has been dismissed, If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso operates in both the written and the spoken dimensions of the English language, again proving orature and literature are not mutually exclusive.
There is no doubt that teleology that the written language will ultimately dominate the spoken language is a mere myth–in everyday life, we are still constantly using both. However, when it comes to the idea of “literature”, the European cultures we have taken to be the norm often place the written words in a higher regard than spoken words. However, through examining these works that are originated in the West and have long been considered as legitimate literature, prove that writing and orality often go hand in hand without dominating one or the other.
Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.
Thiongʼo, Ngũgĩ Wa. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “Spirituals” Poetry Nook n.p. n.d. Web. 09 May 2016.
Stein, Gertrude. “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.” Gertrude Stein, “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” (first published in Vanity Fair in 1924) University of Pennsylvania., n.d. Web. 09 May 2016.
Davidas, Lionel. “‘I, Too, Sing America’: Jazz and Blues Techniques And Effects In Some Of Langston Hughes’s Selected Poems.” Dialectical Anthropology 26.3/4 (2001): 267-272. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 May 2016.
Reed, Brian. “Now Not Now: Gertrude Stein Speaks.” English Studies in Canada 33.4 (2007): 103-113. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 May 2016.
McCarthy, B. Eugene. “Rhythm and Narrative Method in Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’”. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 18.3 (1985): 243–256. Web.
“World Oral Literature Project : About.” World Oral Literature Project. University of Cambridge, n.d. Web. 22 May 2016.
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