Rhyme And Reason


In the world of early writing, there are many stories that it is believed were only written down after they had already spent years in existence as orally transmitted pieces, passed from generation to generation through special keepers of the lore. All of these are in some form of verse, that is they have a regular rhythm, a specific meter and, where we know enough about the language, we usually find elements of rhyme, alliteration and the other markers of poetry. It is assumed by those who write about such material that the verse form was adopted for oral transmission because it was “easier to learn” and this theory they happily put forward with such regularity that it has become an unchallenged “truth”.

On my current tour I am performing an excerpt from the “Kalevala”, a massive saga from Finland which is all in trochaic tetrameter, a 4 footed meter with eight syllables per line, four of which are stressed. If that all sounds a bit complicated then you only have to think of Dr. Seuss: “I do not like green eggs and ham / I do not like them Sam I am” which is also in trochaic tetrameter. Doesn’t sound half as intellectual and posh now does it? Although I am working from a translation, the translator chose to render the English version in the original meter. It is a fine piece of poetry and the excerpt I am performing, “The Brewing Of Beer” is about fifteen minutes long. As with much narrative verse (poems that tell a story rather than just bang on about how beautiful something is), there are parts that repeat and many parts that almost repeat but are just slightly different. There are also lines, and whole sections (the Kalevala doesn’t actually have “verses” as such, just “Runes” which are like chapters) in which the conflicting requirements of story and meter fill the resulting lines with tongue twisters and grammatical gymnastics. I can assure you that it is in no way easy to learn. If you want to hear some of it recited then come to the one of the gigs on the Nectar Of The Gods tour ( http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk/giglist.shtml ).

This is not the first large chunk of verse I have tackled and the learning part is hell every time. With a prose story I can get the basic gist, make sure I have the names correct and be fairly confident of making a decent fist of improvising my way through a telling of it after about three reads through, six if it is especially long and convoluted. With verse I have to read it time and time again, pick it apart, read and repeat each line until I can do it without looking. Move on to the next line and do the same. Go back and do both lines together until I have got it right, then do the same procedure all over again with the next line. It takes days. I record it and play it to myself while I do the washing up and before I go to sleep. I have to practice reciting it every day whilst on tour, running it through in the car between gigs, making sure it has not slipped and will roll cleanly from my brain to my tongue when required. After performing it I can feel that my brain has been working, my head feels exhausted much the same way as my legs used to feel after a cross country run. Every single word has to be exact or it breaks the poetry. Those writers have no idea!

If it’s not easier to learn, what is the purpose of the verse? The recitation of the verses was often a group activity, the skald or bard memorised the piece in its entirety and lead the recitation, the listeners familiar with the work and free to join in. Like singing along with a pop song that has been on heavy rotation, you find you know some of the words but you couldn’t keep going for more than a line or two if the song was taken away, hence the specialist leading. However, any change would provoke outrage: “You’re doing it wrong!” They may not know how it is supposed to go but they know it is not like that! Should the bard pass on prematurely the verses can be reconstructed from the partial memories of the people, the meter and rhyme narrowing down the possibilities for any one lost word.


Communal knowledge coupled with the exactitude of verse protects the tribe or nations history from being altered. A verse, once learnt, must remain the same and that is how oral transmission keeps the lore, the truths of the tribe, for hundreds and even thousands of years. Those early writings of ancient stories were not in verse to make it easier to learn, repetition works just as well whether it rhymes or not, but to make it harder to change.

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