Poetry is common to human societies throughout time and space

“It is found all over the world, past and present, from the meditative personal poetry of recent Eskimo or Maori poets, to mediaeval European and Chinese ballads, or the orally composed epics of pre-classical Greek in the first millenium B.C.” ~Ruth Finnegan, Oral Poetry, 1977

 SOURCE (for most information on this page): Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992 / 1977.

FORMS Complex and variegated (many styles)

Circulates primarily by Oral means (rather than written)

Style understood according to  (always relative–to be discovered)                    

* Many overlaps with written poetry *

Distinguishing Features (what makes something "poetry" -- blurred & negotiable sometimes)

Heightened language, metaphorical expression, musical form or accompaniment, structural repetitiveness, prosodic features (meter, alliteration), parallelism

Done by: context or setting, mode of delivery, audience’s action, musical attributes, style, and atomosphere of play rather than reality (set apart from real life), interactive

 “The whole delimitation of what is to count as ‘poetry’ necessarily depends not on one strictly verbal definition but on a series of factors to do with style, form, setting and local classification, not all of which are likely to coincide.”  ~Ruth Finnegan    

Continuum between oral and written poetry




“There is much to learn from concentration on the oral side of poetry. In particular, the element of performance, or oral presentation, is of such obvious and leading significance in oral poetry that, paradoxically, it raises the question whether this element is not also of more real importance in the literature we classify as ‘written’ than we often realise.”

“Is there not an auditory ring in most poetry? Is reading aloud, declaiming aloud, not in practice an important part of our culture? How many people only appreciate poetry through the eye? Is ‘literature’ not something more than a visually apprehended text? I suggest that something can be learned about written by considering the ‘oral performance’ element in oral poetry.”

“To ignore the existence of this huge wealth of oral poetry throughout the world in the present as well as the past, is to miss one of the great sources and products of man’s imaginative and reflecting and dramatic faculties – of those things which mark him out as a human and a social animal.”                          

                                                             ~Ruth Finnegan, 1977

See also Verbal Art