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Getting It Ong

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Jul. 31st, 2010 | 01:21 pm


For the first 50 pages or so, Orality & Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word was one of the most boring books I have ever read. Walter Ong insists on notating all his sources in the text, and spends paragraphs outlining the academic history of orality studies before he introduces any of his own thoughts. But I kept plugging away. Bob Holman and Jack McCarthy both recommend the book. It was something I had to finish, even if that meant mindlessly skimming my eyes over the words of the next 120 pages.

Then something happened. Ong's slow and plodding style seemed less banal and more like a military maneuver. He was being so damn thorough because he was laying the groundwork for something monumental. By page 100, I realized that after reading Ong I would never think of the written or spoken word in the same way again. The last 70 pages were riveting. He was redefining all of human history according to the ages-long shift from the oral tradition to the dominance of the written and printed word, and how that shift changed human consciousness forever. Okay, Ong, you're forgiven for being pedantic. With an idea this big, you've got to make sure all the details are aligned.

As a spoken word poet, I felt like the secrets of the oral tradition were being laid bare. The oral poet values redundancy in performance, because his audience has no access to the "backward scanning" that can occur with a text. The oral poet values narrative as a mnemonic device to string together long pieces of information, while the page poet prefers lists. The oral poet was feted for his ability to adapt his poem to his audience, the page poet – through the Age of Romanticism – became more concerned with the originality and purity of his words; in other words, the page poet wants to say something new, while the oral poet is more concerned with saying something old in a new way. After all, in a world before writing, if the oral poet doesn't pass on the old sayings, they vanish.

The most slap-me-upside-the-head revelation I had while reading Ong is that the oral poet never works with just the word. It is always the word plus his body, plus the time of day, plus the mood of the audience, plus the political climate of his time, plus anything else swirling in the air. Or as Ong puts it:

Spoken utterance is addressed by a real, living person to another real, living person at a specific time in a real setting which includes always much more than mere words. Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context of words.
 
Ong spends a lot of time comparing work from the oral tradition – almost all of which is poetry that was finally written down (although it's doubtful that it was ever repeated verbatim from one performance to the next) – to written literature, and the effects they show of a shift in human consciousness. The written word, for instance, creates the idea of linear plot in the first Greek tragedies, whereas oral epic poetry had been episodic, filling in the back story as necessary through digressions and flashbacks. Linear plots encouraged linear thought, while episodic plots emphasized the lateral thinking necessary for the poet to extemporize a connection from his digression back to his main story.

The biggest takeaway from this book is that the oral tradition has a long and storied history, which can't be judged by the same standards we use for the written word. The oral requirements are different. It's hard to imagine, but in a primary oral culture words themselves were not marks on a page but fleeting blasts of sound.

Oral man is not so likely to think of words as 'signs', quiescent visual phenomena. Homer refers to them with the standard epithet 'winged words' – which suggests evanescence, power, and freedom: words are constantly moving, but by flight, which is a powerful form of movement, and one lifting the flier free of the ordinary, gross, heavy, 'objective' world.

Orality & Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word is the sort of book I'll have to read a second time before I understand all its implications. One thing I can say after the first read is that there's plenty of readily applicable tips and tricks for today's spoken word poet, which Ong has extracted from his study of the oral tradition. Thanks, Ong. Nice work.

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