Oral poetry as an expression of the… – Information Centre – Research & Innovation


Are you creative? It would be surprising if you were not: it is human nature to find new ways of looking at things, even if we are not all gifted in the arts. EU-funded research into oral poetry has concluded that the mechanisms driving verbal creativity are universal – although the novelties it shapes are culturally dependent.


© Sergey Nivens #115914848, source:stock.adobe.com 2020

‘Creativity is of the utmost importance for humankind because it is our ability to do things in a novel way that helps us find solutions to our problems and move forward,’ says Sarali Gintsburg at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. Her EU-funded research project ORFORCREA focused on manifestations of creativity in verbal art as varied as the sung poetry of the Jbala region in Morocco and the Basque country’s tradition of improvised verse.

‘I was able to demonstrate that the general cognitive patterns and mechanisms behind verbal creativity are the same,’ she explains. ‘They are universal, although the particular images that are then associated with any given scenario are conditioned by context.’

Unlike many other studies in the field, Gintsburg’s research focuses on living traditions, she points out. This enabled her, in particular, to back up a number of assumptions that earlier researchers had based on transcripts from extinct oral traditions. ‘For instance, I demonstrated empirically that, indeed, use of spatial and temporal markers can be utilised as proof that the poet retrieves images from his or her memory and then matches those images with words,’ Gintsburg adds.

Working with living material also helped her to demonstrate the importance of considering more than just the text. Many other aspects of a performance – such as the poet’s gestures, or any accompanying music – are potentially significant.

ORFORCREA provided Gintsburg with an opportunity to draw more attention to the importance of working with oral traditions in general. ‘It’s not outdated material best disregarded and forgotten,’ she adds.

Written text and even transcripts are no equivalent, she explains: ‘The way we talk in day-to-day communication is completely different from the way we write.’ Big changes in the language occur when a purely oral culture transitions towards literacy, with speakers who have newly acquired the skill of literacy gradually using different structures, Gintsburg says.

Rhyme and reason

Pinpointing novelty is, however, no easy task, the researcher concedes. ‘Human language is always creative, but it is very difficult to define what’s traditional and what’s new,’ she notes.

Divergence from the stock phrases, clichés and idiomatic expressions typical of any language is easier to observe at times when the language is changing. Poetry, she adds, provides a useful sample in that its vocabulary is far narrower than everyday language and it is constrained by strict limitations – rhyme, rhythm and meter, for instance.

An ode to uniqueness

‘Every language per se is a kind of solution, because every language is actually a representation of our ability to find a way to express ourselves,” says Gintsburg. Different descriptions of reality are, for example, reflected in the fact that some languages are gendered while others are not, or in the variety of tense structures. Concepts that one language encapsulates in a single word may well take a whole sentence to express in another, she notes.

In this sense, the verbal creativity a person might display builds on a legacy of collective creativity, conveying a fresh view of an aspect of reality by means of a framework that in itself reflects a specific take on the world. With oral transitions and minority languages under threat, ‘cultures are rapidly forfeiting their uniqueness’, Gintsburg observes. ‘When everything is replaced by something very mainstream, something very general, we lose this vast stock of problem-solution data.’

ORFORCREA was backed by a grant from the European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme which enabled Gintsburg to conduct this research at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society. Her research at the Institute will continue after project end in September 2019.

Gintsburg now intends to study the new material collected as part of her work in ORFORCREA, notably during a field trip to the island of Socotra where, she says, an ancient language with a rich poetic tradition has just begun to transition away from a purely oral culture.

Gintsburg is also co-editing a special edition of a journal published by her university and continuing her exploration of literacy in general: it’s not a binary case of ‘illiterate oral’ and ‘literate’, she emphasises. ‘Literacy is a kind of continuum. I think that’s very important.’

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