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  • Recent Scholarship in Oral Theory and Ethnopoetics
  • William Bernard McCarthy
Writing the Oral Tradition: Oral Poetics and Literate Culture in Medieval England. By Mark C. Amodio. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004. Pp. xvii + 298, acknowledgments, abbreviations, preface, notes, bibliography, index.)
New Directions in Oral Theory. Ed. Mark C. Amodio. (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005. Pp. x + 341, acknowledgments, abbreviations, bibliography, "About the Contributors.")
Now I Know Only So Far: Essays in Ethnopoetics. By Dell Hymes. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. Pp. xi + 512, introduction, 3 appendixes, notes, references, source acknowledgments, index.)
Dynamics of Tradition: Perspectives on Oral Poetry and Folk Belief. By Lotte Tarkka. (Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2003. Pp. 390, "Anna-Leena Siikala: Publications 1970-2002," contributors, acknowledgments, tabula gratulatoria.)

For some forty years now, ethnopoetics and oral theory have dominated discussion of oral and oral-derived poetry. Although some researchers initially thought of these approaches as passing fads, each has moved ever further into the academy, regularly and boldly claiming new ground and showing itself in ever more refined dress. This review will survey four relatively recent contributions to these sister fields. Although the volumes differ from one another in many ways, they are united by their common interest in textualization, performance, politics, the use of written texts in the absence of oral/aural resources, and the issue of artistry.

Dell Hymes adopts as the title of his book a phrase from the Clackamas storyteller Victoria Howard, who would sometimes end a story, "Now I know only this far." By using the phrase as his title, Hymes seems to be saying, "This is where I am now. This is what I have learned in over a half century of studying Native American storytelling, and how far I have developed the analytic tools that I use. But clearly, there is more to be learned, more room for development." It is a clever, modest title for a landmark book.

The work is divided into four parts. Part 1, the prologue, lays out the themes of the book, most significantly the issues of competence, creativity, and artistry on the part of the Native American narrators of myths. Reminding us that myths are good to think with, Hymes also distances himself somewhat from performance-oriented scholars: "To say that stories exist only in performance is to say that between performances narrators do not think" (p. 11). Part 2, entitled "Overview" and comprised of four chapters, is perhaps the richest section of the book. The crucial chapter 3 is Hymes's apologia, a survey of his work framed as a response to what others have said of him. Here he evaluates several ways of putting a story down on the page, outlines his own method, and shows what it can do that others cannot. He calls his method "verse analysis," and its chief advantage, he explains, is that it preserves the sense of story with "its arousal and satisfying of expectations" (p. 37), a phrase that comes from the foreword to Kenneth Burke's The Philosophy of Literary Form (Louisiana State University Press, 1941). Verse analysis unwinds the story according to the rhythms that the storyteller has artfully exploited. Hymes is at pains in this chapter to show his respect for Dennis Tedlock, as well as to indicate the difference in emphasis between Tedlock's work and his own. "It might be a fair summary to say that Dennis is concerned most of all with the moment of performance," [End Page 360] Hymes writes, "and I am much concerned with the competence that informs it" (p. 36). Hymes's interest in competence brings out the aesthetic element of the narrative. The kind of information on which Hymes focuses can sometimes be presented simultaneously with the kind of information on which Tedlock focuses, but not in every case.

In chapter 3, Hymes also lays out his own method of analyzing a story into constitutive elements. He allows that, from the rhetorical point of view, narrative elements may figure simultaneously in more than one structure, and consequently even his method requires that the scholar make choices among possible alternatives. He discusses the patterns of two and four...


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