Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance, and Social Context

By Ruth Finnegan | Go to book overview

Concluding comment

I have no general theoretical conclusion to present as conclusion to this book. The aim has been to provide a short guide to the study of oral poetry and its controversies, and not to set up a model of my own. Nevertheless there are some remarks to make briefly in this concluding comment.

First, a main point in this discussion has been the denial of a clear-cut differentiation between oral and written literature. Throughout the book I have rejected the suggestion that there is something peculiar to 'oral poetry' which radically distinguishes it from written poetry in nature, composition, style, social context, or function. This may seem a very negative conclusion. It may also appear perverse that, while rejecting the concept of 'oral poetry' as an entirely separate category, I should nonetheless have chosen to write a book about it: and then spent much of it explaining away my title.

But the position is not totally self-contradictory or negative. The rejection of errors — or what seem to me errors — can have its uses; and dubious generalisations about 'oral poetry' have long held sway. To bring some doubts into the open is essential as part of the search after truth and also to combat the idea, still prevalent, that there is some deep and fundamental chasm between those of us who are 'modern', industrial and literate and the supposedly far-different world of non-literate, 'traditional' or 'developing' peoples. Getting rid of this particular model of literature — and of society — will help us, I believe, to understand the continued strength of oral poetry in a world which (for that matter) still contains much illiteracy, and also to recognise its appearance even in the most highly 'literate' and industrial settings as a normal and valued manifestation of human artistic expression and activity.

And then, the suggestion that the oral/written distinction, so far as it exists, is more like a continuum (or perhaps a complex set of continuums) than a sharp break between two separate categories does not mean that it is foolish to concentrate on one end of this continuum rather than the other. In practice, poetry which falls towards the oral end has often been neglected in studies of literature, and a comparative book primarily devoted to the topic is certainly overdue. It is not a contradiction to focus on this aspect, while at the same time insisting that there is no sharp and absolute break between oral and written forms of poetry.

-272-

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Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance, and Social Context
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • To David *
  • Oral Poetry - Its Nature, Significance and Social Context *
  • Contents v
  • Plates *
  • Preface to the Midland Edition *
  • Corrigenda *
  • Preface to the First Edition *
  • Acknowledgements *
  • 1 - Introductory i
  • 2 - Some Approaches to the Study of Oral Poetry 30
  • 3 - Composition 52
  • 4 - Style and Performance 88
  • 5 - Transmission, Distribution and Publication 134
  • 6 - Poets and Their Positions 170
  • 7 - Audience, Context and Function *
  • 8 - Poetry and Society 244
  • Concluding Comment 272
  • References 276
  • Index 289
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