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By Niyi Osundare

Now let us ask: is oral culture so devoid of rational capacity and other properties of human intellect; (hardly any comfort in this regard, in Mr. Ong’s condescending casuistry: oh oral folks can think; problem is they cannot think formally, deductively); is the oral noetic system so situation-bound that it is incapable of anticipating, foreshadowing, imagining beyond the here-and- now; is the oral process so “operational” that it is devoid of the “categorical” (p. 52); is the “savage” mind so bound to the concrete and physical that it is incapable of probing the realm of the abstract and invisible…?

I grew up in an oral culture in which people are fully aware of the integrity of the mind and its infinite possibilities. The Yoruba differentiate between òkàwé (those who read books) and òkanú (those who read the inside, that is, who plumb the possibilities of the mind). Inú (inside), a highly polysemic, poly­dimensional Yoruba concept, is the seat of thought, imagination, perception, and apprehension, the original habitation of nous that is so deep, so individuating, so cerebral without losing its visceral coordinates and possibilities. It is the seat of làákàyè without which all thinking, all rationality, is simply impossible. Ìwé (book), is regarded as a powerful object full of knowledge and useful facts. But it cannot by itself confer wisdom/perception without the agency of Inú. In other words, the Yoruba distinguish between learning and lore, acquired competence and innate cognition. The really accomplished person is one who is able to combine Inú’s wisdom and noetic profundity with ìwé’s knowledge/learning

Oorality is not that childhood state which humanity must outgrow or risk the stigma of being diagnosed with a chronic form of arrested development. It is not something waiting to be thrown away like a used ticket. There is certainly something dangerous in a linearist, one-track mentality which

Indeed, it is the fertility, the infinitely flexible capability of inú and its ọgbọ́n that make the human being an amazingly creative person, and society an organism that keeps inventing and re-inventing itself. And I have seen ọgbọ́n inú at work on different occasions and in different circumstances: the witty barb of the satire, the bawdy boisterousness of the ballad, the wrenching accuracy of the well-appointed proverb, the healing, restorative power of the babaláwo or dibia, the tact, diplomacy, and legendary patience of the jurisprudence of elders at the settlement of communal disputes, and also the perverted calculation and cunning of creating, imagining culture which values the power and potential of literacy without for once losing sight of the fact that the human mind came before the book, the spoken word before the written symbol, and that the relationship between these sets is that of mutual enrichment, not of exclusive replacement or Manichean antagonism.

When Ong reduces most oral poetic expressions to formulaic coinages, what credit does he leave for the spontaneity of oral cultures? When all communication is so “situational”, what do we say about the flights of fancy that produced the great epics? When all claim to deductive reasoning is denied, how does the “expert” explain those proverbs, aphorisms, riddles, mind games, and witticisms so prevalent in oral cultures. When Ong declares so pontifically: “There is no way to refute the world of primary orality. All you can do is walk away from it into literacy” (p. 53), are we bound to honour this invitation to a one-track, mono-directional trip to a land without re-flections, without shadows? Is the break between the two so clear-cut, so mutually exclusive?

BEYOND THE PRISON OF PRINT

The transition from oral to scribal culture glides on a bridge which facilitates a forward leap without foreclosing a backward glance. It is an additive rather than replacive process. For in the grey zone between the two lie acres of ideational, noetic, epistemological, and stylistic possibilities; in their mutual reside a mode and method which provide human culture a root on which to stand and wings with which to fly. We cannot fail to appreciate the manifold benefits of the technology of writing: the permanence it has bestowed on our fleeting thoughts; the numerous ways its visual essence has enabled our cognitive capability and analytical power; its rigorous discipline and frugal selectiveness; its capacity for record-keeping, memory and recallability; its relative triumph over the tyranny of time and space; its liberating, individuating potential…

However, powerful and useful as writing has come to be, it still remains a secondary mode of communication. The human voice clearly out-sounds the written symbol. No other means of communication invented by the human being has succeeded in supplanting the primacy of the spoken word. Perhaps in no other literary genre is the spoken word more crucial than poetry, that verbal artform designed to mean by sounding, and to sound by meaning. All poetry pays direct or indirect homage to the human voice, all poetry minus, perhaps, concrete poetry which in its own case, prefers being “uttered” by the eye. A poem on paper is a prisoner in a neat and friendly prison, a bottled djinn foaming in its glass encasement, pushing against the cork, rearing for an exit. A poem in print is a promissory note: awaiting full realization by the human voice.

A good poem soon outgrows its enforced habitation, steps beyond the flat silence of the paper confinement, and walks straight into the universe of sound and sense through the tunnel of the larynx and the throbbing highway of the human mouth. The voice came before the verse, the song before the sonnet, the Muse before the music. Every successful poem affects hauntingly, alluringly. But how can a poem affect without the magic of its sound? How can the poem mean without affecting? The griot, the bard, the troubadour, the towncrier all came before the scribal versifier, the village square before the closet. Tellurian and nomadic, these minstrels sowed their words in the wind. Those words fluttered into pigeons. The pigeons bore their tidings through the portals of every ear. Poems without their sound are like masquerades without their costume. What is left of the aura without is awe?

Poetry is not only one of the earliest and most universal of humanity’s inventions; it is also one of its defining achievements, faithful ally and enabler of song and music, those two great accomplishments that have been very close to the core of human civilization. Nothing accomplishes poetry’s lifeflow more effectively than the traffic between mouth and ear, whose vital freight is the word and sound which lends wing to its flight. This is why each time we commit poetry to the page, what we actually do is reduce (in its most literal sense) it to writing, invent flat, intangible signs and symbols for phonemes which come out of the mouth, warm with human breath.

For to speak is to intrude upon the universe, to cause a stir in the airwaves, to displace silence with particles of sound and rhythm. To speak, to talk, is to carry out a biological act with a vast social consequence. The “phenomenology of sound” (Ong p. 73) engages the major part of the human body, with the diaphragm and the lungs providing the articulatory energy, the vocal cords serving as the sound-box, the mouth the amplifier, while the body functions as the resonance cavity. The spoken word “makes waves”, creates “vibes”, shakes and rattles the body. It is at once cerebral and visceral, physiological and physical; it is transitive in its tangibility and urgent in its pragmatic immediacy. When the Yoruba say:

Ojú lọ̀rọ́ wà

Sún mọ́ mi kí ngbọ́rọ̀ ẹnù rẹ

(The word resides in the face

Move closer so I can hear the words of your mouth)

they refer to those gestures, nuances, and facial movements by which the speaker registers their meaning and transmits the message. For in physical communication, the body is a dictionary; the face a thesaurus of hints and silent symbols. An important part of linguistic/communicative competence is the ability to read the face and hear its cadence, because ẹni to gb’ójú ló gb’édè (the person who can read the face is the one who understands language).

For to speak is to intrude upon the universe, to cause a stir in the airwaves, to displace silence with particles of sound and rhythm. To speak, to talk, is to carry out a biological act with a vast social consequence. The “phenomenology of sound” (Ong p. 73) engages the major part of the human body, with the diaphragm and the lungs providing the articulatory energy

Poetry thrives best when it flows unhampered in that channel between the mouth and the ear, when both speaker and hearer can savour the words, toss them up and down, check them for weight and size. Nothing in a poem on paper can adequately capture the fluidity of sound, the cadence and caprice of the voice, the modulations and inflections which endow words with the majestic magic of music. Every language has its own music, but in different tempos and varying timbres. In those languages where that music is latent or somewhat suppressed, poetry has a way of bringing it out and investing it with a suppleness and vibrancy which may surprise the ears of even its native speakers.

Poetry is consistently partial to music, constantly harking back to that primordial bond between the mouth and the ear. For instance, the Yoruba word for poet is akéwì (one who utters, chants poetry). Despite almost two centuries of scribal experience, Yoruba remains fervently faithful to the oral virtuosity of poetry. A hardly surprising phenomenon, considering the very nature of the language — and its speakers. A syllable- isochronic, intricately tonal language, the union of consonant and vowel is musical conspiracy; the issue which results from the union is a musical event. Sounding is meaning. Meaning is sounding. It is a language brimming with ideophones, those linguistic formations in which idea (“ideo”) and sound (“phone) are so frequently fused that the drama of the communicative event is a function both of the right choice of word and the right choice of sound (Ọṣundare 2002). Ideophones endow Yoruba language with a valuable phono-semantic possibility which facilitates a ceaseless generation of new sounds for new ideas. In the suggestiveness of the sound is anchored the burden of the meaning. Let’s take a look at this piece of ewì èébú (poetry of abuse):

‘Shrine to Wisdom’ an installation by Victor Ekpuk

Fetí si mi kí o gbọ’yì araà rẹ

Olójú bẹ́úbẹ́ú bí ojú eku ẹmọ́

Abète jànànràn bí etí ẹṣin Ànáyè

Kàkà kó ṣiṣẹ́ rẹ̀ a sùn fọnfọn

 

Listen to me and see your worth

You with eyes like those of a rodent

You whose lips droop like the ears of the horse of Anaye

Instead of working he sleeps like a log

 

“Bẹ́úbẹ́ú”, “jànànràn”, and “fọnfọn” (which are, of course, absolutely untranslatable because, as ideophones, they are so intricately bound up with the sound system of the source language), serve as the quiver for the satirical arrows of this poem. The thrust of the attack is in the humour secreted in the sounding of the highlighted words, and that sounding is a function of their tone distribution: high tone throughout in bẹ́úbẹ́ú, low tone in jànànràn, middle tone in fọnfọn. The phonological peculiarities of these words contribute significantly to the prosodic identity of the whole poem. Needless to say, poems of this kind, which abound in Yoruba, can only thrive by oral communication. Chirographic, typographic, and electronic media may come in handy in their preservation and wider dissemination, but their soul and sense reside in the oral medium.

The Yoruba frequently engage in tonal wordplays, tonal games involving tonal counterpoint, and other pastimes of oral virtuosity:

  1. Òjò bátábàtàbátá palábàtá

(Rain free-falling beat owner of the hut)

  1. Ọ̀sírìgì sirigí sirigí sirigí

Ọ̀sírìgì sirigì sirigì sirigì

(No possible translation)

iii.           Ẹbámi gbọ́ndò yí gbẹ

Jamgbala jùgbúlú jùgbúlú jùgbú Jamgbala

 (Help drain this stream dry

(No possible translation)

Without any doubt, the three pieces above constitute a veritable nightmare for the translator: some are partially translatable; others defy translingual rendering. But the problem of translatability is a mere hint of the even more intractable problem of media transposability. In other words, what kind of function, what kind of existence, do these lines, these words, assume on a written or printed page, deprived of the playful gymnastics of the human tongue? In (i) we come to a meeting point of ideophone and onomatopoeia: bá, tá both encode, through sounding, the action of the falling rain, while at the same time ideophonically suggesting the frantic movement caused by the action. Also significant is the deep-structural (and phenomenological) contrast between bátábàtàbátá of which is meant to protect the alábà (hut owner) against the former The drama of the whole line is located in the cumulative repetition of the two syllables bá and tá; the music of the line lives in that repetition. The music of (ii) is even more complex, more intriguing. The meaning and function of these lines are to be found not in their constituent words as lexemes, but in the tonal counterpoint (Olatunji 1984) demonstrated by the contrast between the predominantly (especially terminal) high tone in the first line and the predominantly low tone of the second. Piece (iii) contains two lines one of which is made up of words with identifiable semantic signification, while the other complements it with its sounding/musical function. These are just minor instances of the processes at work in a typical Yoruba poem. Music is never a side item in a Yoruba poetic menu; it is the main course complete with its scintillating zest and flavour.

In several other instances, the sounding of a word assumes a more grave, more critical dimension. This is particularly so in poems with a sacred or metaphysical import, poems and songs in which words are not only “bearers” of the message, but also an intrinsic part of that message and its eventual delivery. In no other field of Yoruba poetry is this more prevalent than those belonging to the incantatory sub-genre. Here, the human being employing the agency of the word, attempts to plead with, appeal to, beg, cajole, persuade, and, at times, command the supernatural powers to grant a request, satisfy a wish, or honour a pledge. The prayer (that is, the one doing the praying) assumes the attributes of an attorney before a judge. The dominant features here are persistence, aggregative repetition, fidelity to detail, and other locutionary techniques designed to achieve persuasion and consent. Here the efficacy of the word depends upon the accuracy of its sounding. The way to the intended recipient’s mind is their ear. Thus, in these poems words enter into peculiar alliances, broken up, relexicalized, and sent on new semantic errands, empowered by a unique phono- semantic logic:

Ewé ọdán ló ní kó dán fún mi

Ewé ẹ̀là ló ní k’ọ́nà mí là

Mojá’wé gbégbé k’ó mi má gbé mi Iọ

Mojá’wé tẹ̀tẹ̀ kó mi má tẹ̀mí rì

Mojá’wé awọ́yọyọ èrò lẹ́yìn mi

(It is ọdán leaf that says all should be well for me

It is ẹ̀là leaf that says my path be clear

I pluck gbégbé leaf so no stream can carry me away

I pluck tẹ̀tẹ̀ leaf so no stream can drown me

I pluck awọ́yọyọ leaf; I will have a multitude of followers).

 

As must be obvious from the English rendering of these lines, at work here is a supra-logical phenomenon in which words are constructed to conjure, not merely to mean. At the surface structural level, the relationship is phono-syntactic:

ọdán (noun)        dán (verb)

ẹ̀là (noun)            là (verb)

gbégbé (noun)   gbé (verb)

tẹ̀tẹ̀ (noun)          tẹ̀ (verb)

Ojú lọ̀rọ́ wà

Sún mọ́ mi kí ngbọ́rọ̀ ẹnù rẹ

(The word resides in the face

Move closer so I can hear the words of your mouth)

In each case, the noun to the left has its last syllable replicated later in the sentence as a verb. The cognate verbs retain the same sound and tone as it did in the parent word.* There is a certain complementarity about these formations, a certain sameness of sounding which harbours an affective metaphysic of agreement and compliance. The magic desired by the utterance of the words is secreted in the magi of their sound and sounding. The efficacy of that magic is a function of the accuracy of the uttering. Among the Yoruba, the aesthetics of sounding is regarded as humanity’s blessing from the gift of the tongue. But it is a beauty which goes beyond the external protocols of mere verbalization. It is a sound investment, an article of faith in the energy certain words are believed to possess, and how the human tongue can get them to release some of that energy. The spoken word calls people, things, phenomena, into existence; it can make abstract things concrete, and concrete things abstract. It can make things be and un-be. Words are sacred, fragile; hence the saying

Ẹyin I ọ́rọ̀                            The word is an egg

Tó bá ti fọ́                          When broken

Kò ṣeé kó jọ                       It cannot be made whole again

When the Yoruba say Òrìṣà I’ẹnu, àkúnlẹ̀bọ, (The mouth is a god, one worshipped on bended knees), they are paying homage to the potency of the Spoken Word, its protean possibilities, its capricious functionality, its ability to make things happen (or unhappen) through the agency of the human voice and the will that propels its power of utterance.

It is the fertility, the infinitely flexible capability of inú and its ọgbọ́n that make the human being an amazingly creative person, and society an organism that keeps inventing and re-inventing itself. And I have seen ọgbọ́n inú at work on different occasions and in different circumstances: the witty barb of the satire, the bawdy boisterousness of the ballad, the wrenching accuracy of the well-appointed proverb

Contrary to what some scholars would have us believe, orality is not that childhood state which humanity must outgrow or risk the stigma of being diagnosed with a chronic form of arrested development. It is not something waiting to be thrown away like a used ticket. There is certainly something dangerous in a linearist, one-track mentality which maps human progress in a horizontal oral-chirographic-typographic-electronic axis, a chronological determinism that makes little or no allowance for that backward glance without which a forward leap is near-impossible. At any rate, the clear fact is that humanity cannot completely outgrow its orality, since that orality is one of the defining features of its humanness. In no other human undertaking is the persistence, the un-killability, of orality more evident than the literary arts.

Fourth part of the series of excerpts from the essay: ‘Poetry and The Human Voice’, being the text of the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) Laureate’s lecture, delivered by Professor Niyi Osundare, at the Annual Forum of NNOM Laureates, Abuja, December 7, 2022. TO BE CONTINUED…

 

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