The Social And Cultural Background Of Oral Poetry

Oral Poetry

Oral poetry is defined as poetry composed and shared without the involvement of writing. But this definition can be hard to maintain; sometimes, the relationships between written and spoken literary works is quite complicated in many societies. For instance, some people define it as poetry that is performed live, even though it may be a written piece whereas in other cultural groups, poetry, and song, often overlap, or are identical.

Etymologically, the word oral means “to do with the mouth.” However, there are some cultures where the mouth is not involved in the performance of oral poetry. Consider, for instance, some African societies where talking drums are the primary tool of performing and passing on poetry. Considering this, we can say oral poetry cannot survive and flourish outside the boundaries of oral cultures.

Many people confuse oral poetry with oral literature. The later are broad fields that encompass linguistics, which is in no way poetic. Hence, oral literature tries to sieve out oral poetry as a literary form that conforms to metrical rules. It does so too for some other non-poetic oral literature in Western culture like speeches, storytelling, and similar structures.

The study of oral poetry today was influenced by the oral-formulaic theory. Developed by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, proved that phrases could help poets make up verses. Based on this, Oral poetry is, in fact, memorized verbatim. Note, however, that the precise wording changes from performer to performer. For this reason, many memorized poems have been written to preserve its meaning and text. The most popular memorized oral poetry appears in the form of nursery rhymes, ballads, and skaldic verses from the medieval Scandinavia.

Oral poetry and society

Although oral poetry is studied in all parts of the world, the most prominent studies involve African cultures, in which case, it is perceived as a medium of expression. It takes the form of a collective activity that is as old as humanity itself. It has been used in funerals, child naming, and many other activities in the communities. We can, therefore, associate oral poetry with cultural preservation because it involves the uses of language and idioms well known to the whole community. The written form does not bring out this collective activity, which has led to the loss of many valuable cultures.

It is not only in Africa, where literature is practiced in society. The only difference is that when focusing on Africanism, the element of social and cultural context, especially in oral literature, generally becomes dominant. There are pieces of evidence of long histories carrying poetic works from small hunting groups of the Kalahari to the pastoral groups that have since become prouder, in South Sudan and East African. In these Kingdoms, court poetry and poets nourished because they showed how people’s lives intertwined with nature.

Before the introduction of writing as a means of communication in Africa ( as influenced by western civilization), the only means of communication was spoken word. That is why most of oral tradition/oral communication is associated with Africanism. This is a way of succeeding in the history, culture, and religious beliefs of society to the next generation. Wilson (2013), wrote in an online article that “ for the African people, oral tradition is linked to their way of life. Most African societies place great worth in oral tradition because it is a primary means of conveying culture”.

The written alphabet is a very recent invention in African societies. That is why one African Scholar, Mbiti, as cited by Wilson, says, “…they could not keep records. Thus, oral communication was established as a way of passing down information..”. Based on this, much of the evidence of the past lives of African people is contained in oral traditions. Oral poetry was part of a religious chanting that were used to appease the spirits or chase away evil souls. No wonder, some people assume that Africa has no history because it lacks written evidence. However, word-of-mouth has served humanity for thousands of years.

The case of Yoruba people of West Africa

The Yoruba people respect poetry to great length, not only as a mode of entertainment and relaxation but as means of tradition propagation. Depending on the genre, poetry is used to preserve historical events as well as the people’s way of life. They define poems through styles such as the Ijara (chants for hunters), esa (chants for masquerades), ekun iyawo ( farewell song for brides), and oriki (poems that praise).

If you consider oriki, for instance, it is a genre that tells the roots of a person. They also described how powerful their forefathers were and the vastness of their wealth. There are orikis for every class of people; from kings to warriors, rich to poor, all aimed at telling the culture of the society. You will also find orikis describing nature, like birds, animate objects, and other animals. In short, poetry is used by the Yoruba use oral poetry as a means to preserve their history.

Consider the following Yoruba poem:

He who puts goods inside canoe like the white men,

The late comer who became the ruler,

The son of Olowopiti, who fought to capture the canoes,

He who has wealth to become the companion of white men,

The son of Ojajuni,

The father of the son of Motoro Land

The son of who wraps the child in the velvet,

The strong that thrills amidst women,

The son of who pampers concubines as though he has no woman

Greetings to you.

This Oriki describes a brave man Ijale, who shares business dealings with the white man. It is the poem; the life of Ijale is described in detail quoting his ancestors and how to wealthy they were. It brings out some cultural change where the white man comes into the picture.


Cultural identity is one of the significant issues affecting the modern generation. With many communities interrelating and sharing some cultural values, it has become a bit hard for some to trace their roots. Oral poetry, without a doubt, plays a significant role in establishing these roots and restoring people to their history. In South Africa, for instance, oral culture has well embraced a way of preserving history and culture. With the performances witnessed today, one can conclude that oral poetry has its history as far as human civilization and beyond.

The question of social identity, amidst the confusion of diversity, has always been challenging. People have ever tried to relate where they come from with what they do now, even though some communities show a close relation to others in this regard. The only best way to know who oral poetry is through oral culture, in whichOral Poetry, holds a central stage.


1098 Words


Jan 20, 2020


3 Pages

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