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Folkloristic Perspectives on Why Poets and Audiences Like Shared Formulas

Jonathan Ready

Indiana University

Modern-day oral poets often make use of formulas. An individual poet uses formulas that no one else uses (Beissinger 1991: 106) and uses formulas that other poets use too (Smith 1991: 26–27). Either way, when a poet performs, he relies on more or less the same pool of formulas he relied on the last time he performed. Tradition-oriented audience members come to expect that they will hear certain phrases and runs of lines from their local poets. We should assume that the same conditions obtained when oral poets performed Homeric epic. Two questions interest me: What do poets get out of repeatedly using the same formulas, and what do audiences get out of hearing poets repeatedly use the same formulas? By looking to folkloristic research on these matters, I seek to shed light on the Homeric poet’s use of formulas.

In their 1929 essay “Die Folklore al seine besondere Form des Schaffens,” Peter Bogatyrëv and Roman Jakobson argued that “formulaic language and adherence to convention … protect an oral text, by anticipation, from the censorship that awaits all incorrect recitals” (Saussy 2016: 51), but for the most part early scholarship stressed how formulas enabled fluent composition in performance (Parry 1987: 317). Eventually, investigators came to see the “serious condescension” in imputing solely a utilitarian purpose to a formula (Tyler 2006: 121). Homerists contributed to this shift. For instance, John Miles Foley’s model of traditional referentiality holds that “idiomatic responsibility—and not merely the demands of prosody—is the real force behind the consistency and recurrent nature of the performance language” (1996: np).

Concentrating on the formulas that poets share with one another, this paper continues to look beyond compositional utility. I trace how the use of shared material, such as shared formulas, creates a sense of belonging for both performer and audience. I thereby build on the folklorist Dorothy Noyes’s observation: “folkloristic examination of community found it to be more an effect than a cause of folk performance” (2012: 25).

I start with the practitioners. Oral poets join artists from a range of media in doing what others do because it provides them with a feeling of belonging. I cite scholarship on African performers of epic (Biebuyck 1976: 21; Diop 1995: 240; Okpewho 2014: 56–57), Australian Aboriginal musicians (McDonald 1997: 58, 60), and a singer of kalevalaic epic from Viena Karelia (Frog 2011: 54).

I then turn to why audiences like hearing what they have heard before. Because they like feeling that they belong to a group, audience members like shared material that makes them feel that they belong to a group. The presentation of shared material can achieve this end in two ways. First, when audience members know not only what the performer will do next—how, for instance, the performer will complete a phrase or episode because they have heard that phrase or episode many times—but also that the other audience members possess the same knowledge, a sense of connection emerges. Here I attend to work on Malay oral tradition (Derks 1994: 611) and Irish folksongs (Glassie 2006: 415­–16). Second, shared material can be aimed at a specific group or understandable only to a specific group. Hearing it makes clued-in audience members feel like they are part of a group. Here I look to research on Mandinka oral epic (Innes 1990: 105–7), praise poetry in Borgu (Moraes Farias 1999), hainteny in Madagascar (Haring 1992: 101, 112), and storytelling in Northern Ireland (Cashman 2008: 252).

These observations illuminate the Homeric poets’ use of shared formulas. The presentation of material held in common provided these artists with a sense of belonging to a group, and experiencing the familiar provided audience members a sense of belonging to a group. Shared material aided those endeavoring to connect, to fashion a cohort. That capability contributed to its popularity.

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New Approaches to the Homeric Formula

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