Mate Major

Orality, Literacy and the Language of Poetry

Faculty Mentor: Sydney Mitsunaga-Whitten, Comparative Studies in Literature & Culture Department

Major: Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture

Funding: Ford Research Mentor's Endowment


The meaning of poetry is as contentious a question as it is unanswerable. Any conscientious poetics will blushingly acknowledge its own lack of verisimilitude to “the real thing,” and will be no more than an autophagic intellectual exercise, should it fail to do so. The inaccessibility of poetic meaning becomes, paradoxically, less bothersome the greater the poem’s historicity. This is owed to the veil of historicity that blurs our vision the farther we get from our own incomprehensible surroundings. Reasonable narratives begin to emerge from dust and ashes, and the world takes on a consistency that is unknown to our lived experience. It is this myopia that limited the poetic possibility of the Homeric epics for centuries. Whether the creation of a single genius, a collection of a master editor, or the product of a centuries-old oral tradition, the poems were viewed as objective, teleological products of their environment. Every theory and responsible investigation into the meaning of Homeric poetry has something valuable to offer, but we must be careful to avoid prescriptive, deterministic schematizations that stifle the carefully crafted breath encoded into the poem. The offer of the poems themselves, as poems , can only be accepted if we consider their true nature as such: they are works of poetry, with all the vertiginous beauty and complexity this whirlpool of a term involves. The question is therefore simple: What is the value of “understanding” the Ancient Greek experience of poetry, if we hardly understand our own?

Watch my research presentation below.

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