I recently returned from a trip to Greece, which has me thinking about Homer.
Years ago I was astonished but convinced by the argument that the Iliad was not originally written, but was composed orally. Part of the evidence was gathered by Albert Lord, who journeyed through the Balkans and found men singing long traditional narratives in taverns. (Singer of Tales, 1960.) These bards were keepers of historical memory. A good bit of the content of the Balkan songs, as of Anglo-Saxon verse and the Iliad, is the memory of old battles and praise of the ancestors’ honor. What’s more, they didn’t simply recite memorized pieces—they varied a song from performance to performance.
As individuals we sometimes remember through verse. How many days in November? Does S come after U? Many of us will quickly run through Thirty days hath September, or the ABC song. Even when normal memory is lost—when someone has suffered neurological damage—a person may be able to remember sentences set to a tune.
Oral composition is more than passive remembering. Verse forms enable the very skilled bard to compose, to improvise as he recites. (The bard in the Balkans was a he.) Actors in a Shakespeare play will sometimes be able to fill out a blank-verse line that they’ve partly forgotten. I’ve had, and maybe you’ve had, the experience of making up words to a folk song as I went along, or a line to a popular song I don’t remember. If you ever sing the blues (literally), while you are repeating your first line (Went to the grocer’s, didn’t have my bag/Went to the grocer’s, didn’t have my bag) you can think what your concluding line will be. (I’m sorry to say the ending feeling like a hag leaps to my mind.)
On the flight back from Greece to the U.S., I had no window, but I could follow the course of the flight on a map displayed on a screen in front of me. We headed north from Athens and in a very little time we were over Serbia, Romania, Hungary. So many countries close together (at least in the jet age), countries that have known much suffering and war, and recently. And I recalled that during the Bosnian War, I was horrified to realize that the tavern songs Lord heard memorialized the battles between Serbs and Muslims hundreds of years ago, especially the battle of Kosovo. Poetry may have inflamed the ferocity of that war.