Why orality matters to me

From the moment I first experienced it, I have been in love with live poetry. Live poetry lives in the human voice, it’s an intimate exchange. It’s the realm of orality, rather than literature: the voice rather than the page. The spoken word is ephemeral, temporal, evanescent – it’s there then it’s gone, it is a passing moment. Every live poem becomes a unique, unrepeatable act, that binds together the audience and poet in a shared moment in time.

I think there are many reasons I’m in love with orality. To begin with, when I first encountered poets gathered in a pub on a Tuesday night when I was 19, it just felt like a welcome relief from studying literature by reading. It was dynamic and unpredictable. Then, when I started performing myself, it was the instant positive feedback from the audience that got me hooked. It was impossible to feel like you hadn’t made an impact. But the longer I have stayed with it, the more I have come to see orality as a radically inclusive cultural forum.

In most societies, oral transmission included everyone in the dissemination of history, myths, and cultural knowledge; while literacy for most of that time was reserved to the elite[1]. But being beyond the gatekeepers of knowledge, orality also harboured secrets; it was a safe-house of unseen, unacknowledged histories. Like the older dependent women who had exceeded their useful roles in society by no longer being able to work or bear children; they re-created themselves as ‘Mother Goose’, as fairy godmothers, as fireside story-keepers, and thus reclaimed a position of power in the face of complete marginalisation[2]. When I read fairytales and I notice the ways women have passed on their experience subversively through tales that were thought to be only fit for children, I admire the power of orality.

An old woman is telling some children a story which they appear to be disturbed by.
An old woman is telling some children a story which they appear to be disturbed by. Engraving by H.C. Shenton after T. Stothard. Source: Wikimedia. CC BY 4.0

When I look back through my own ancestry of dirt-poor Scottish and Irish migrants, in whose working-class value system education was seen as a luxury not worth wasting on women (wives, childbearers, housekeepers), I start to feel how vulnerable we all are to the circumstances that shape our lives. And I start to feel how valuable those oral traditions are. I’m a long way removed from those illiterate women who told their tales to the Brothers Grimm, whose culture and power and literature all lived in their memories and in their voices. But generationally, I don’t feel far enough removed from it to be entirely safe. I feel a responsibility to treasure oral traditions and keep those secrets alive.

Want more? Check out my re-tellings of ‘Rapunzel‘, ‘Sleeping Beauty‘, and reviving Rapunzel for women of our time.

You can hear more in my SlamCraft talk this weekend at Storyfest, Sydney. Tickets here.


[1] In 1820, only 12% of the people in the world could read and write; today that’s more or less reversed. Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina (2018), “Literacy”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy [Online Resource]

[2] Marina Warner. From the beast to the blonde: On fairy tales and their tellers. Random House, 1995.

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