Oral Poetry/Songs - English Oral Literature Notes

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  • An oral poem or a song is a composition in verse form expressing ideas and thoughts verbally.
  • An oral poem can be sung, recited or chanted.

Types of Songs/Oral Poems


  • These are songs performed when a baby is born or sung to encourage a woman in labour.

Child Naming

  • Songs sung during naming of newborns. Such names are given in several ways:
    • after an important event.
    • Location where the child is born.
    • According to season.
    • After the father of the husband, mother etc.
    • from recurrent dreams.
    • Inheriting names of important people.
    • Praise names.


  • Songs sung to comfort a baby to sleep. Lullabies also
    • educate on social values and culture,
    • tell more about the social organization of the people, their food and work,
    • have simple and repetitive words,
    • are sung softly and slowly,
    • have a rocking rhythm.

Children’s Songs and Games

  • Songs performed by children during their playtime. They keep children busy and entertain them.


  • These are songs sung during the season or ceremony of circumcision to encourage the initiates and ridicule the cowards. They are usually full of obscenities in the direct use of sexual language or talk about relationship between men and women.

Courtship Songs

  • Songs sung by those in love to express emotions of happiness, praise lovers and express romance. Sometimes they are sung by jilted lovers to express sadness or deal with marital problems or unrequited love.


  • These are songs performed during marriage ceremonies. They are often sung to praise the bride and groom. They also express the sorrow of leaving home and parting with friends. Some of the marriage songs warm about the problems of living among strangers or in-laws. Some advise on how to cope with married life. These songs also may be sung as farewell to the bride’s beloved siblings and parents.
  • They may tend to scorn but generally, they are happy songs.

Work Songs

  • Work songs are sung as accompaniment to some chores like pounding, ploughing etc. They are sung in unison to make strenuous work more bearable. They also sung to discourage laziness and extol the value of working hard.
  • Some work songs are specific, like hunting songs, fishing songs etc.


  • These are songs sung during religious activities like worship, sacrifice etc. They include hymns, praise and lamentations that make reference to supernatural beings.

Political/Patriotic Songs

  • They are performed during public holiday and political rallies. They are usually sung to create political awareness, promote propaganda, conformity or to protest against injustice and oppression. But mostly they are sung to praise good leaders and satirize bad ones.

War Songs

  • These are songs sung or performed during war. They are meant to inspire warriors to fight bravery. They are also sung to honour heroes and glorify the achievement of war.

Beer Party Songs

  • These are songs sung by drinkers together with brewers at a drinking party. They are sung by revellers to express enjoyment, praise the brewers and satirize the lazy or the poor.

Dirges/Funeral Songs

  • These are songs sung during funerals or memorial ceremonies usually accompanied, in some communities, with loud wailings and sobs. They are sung to mourn the dead, share grief with the bereaved and console the relatives of the dead. Dirges are sometimes sung to satirize the benefactors of the deceased’s wealth.

Characteristics of Songs

  1. They have repetitive segments—songs would have a refrain or chorus to emphasize the mood and create rhythm.
  2. They have direct address of the audience for immediacy of expression.
  3. They carry direct translation of original language for local flavour or authenticity.
  4. Many songs have rhetorical questions to involve the audience and provoke them to think about issues the songs raise.
  5. Songs are populated by idiophones and onomatopoeia to echo local sounds and make them interesting.
  6. Songs are full of exaggerations or hyperbole to create comic or satirical effects.
  7. Songs carry striking imagery, like metaphors and similes to create mental images in the mind of the audience.
  8. Songs have antiphon or call and response mode. Many songs are sung in a way that the soloist call and the choir or group respond, or one person calls and another responds.
  9. Many songs are elastic and flexible; which means they can be stretched during performance to accommodate the time given or shortened on demand. Some songs can be modified to suit disparate situations like the famous Mwana wa mbeli song.
  10. Some songs depend on the tone and texture of the voice of the performer to establish mood and even meaning. The same song can be sad and at another context happy or even spiritual depending on how it is sung and on tone.

Styles in Oral Poetry

When discussing styles in oral poetry, we base on the following aspects

The Pattern of the Poem

  • The pattern of the poem refers to the structure and layout. How many stanzas does the poem or song have an d how many lines per stanza?


  • Diction refers to the choice of words used in a song. When composing a song, the poet must choose words carefully, by using poetic licence, so as to make sure there is rhythm in the song as well as the message. 


  • Imagery refers to figures of speech like Metaphor, simile and symbolism that create mental images in the mind of the audience.
  • Metaphor refers to direct comparison of qualities of two things by referring to one thing using another. E.g. Your father is a lion.
  • Simile refers to direct comparison of the qualities of two things using words like, like and as e.g. She is as fat as a pig.
  • Symbolism refers to using objects in a song that have a metaphorical sense or extended meaning and runs throughout the song. E.g. A song that talks about a snake but the snake in the song represents a corrupt leader in a given society.


  • Satire is the use of mocking language in a song which in essence creates humour. The subject in the song may be mocked and ridiculed by the persona as being like an elephant that is scared of fighting a hare, or describing the physical features of the subject in a ridiculous manner e.g. his head has the shape of a mango fruit, his hands resemble long sticks and his stomach, like a tube of toothpaste.
  • Humour is any use of language that is funny or creates comic relief. Humour can be serious or light.
  • Sarcasm is another tool that helps creates satire and humour at the same time. Sarcasm is saying something to someone while you mean the opposite of what you say in order to hurt his feeling and create humour. For instance, one can tell a very short man, a pigmy, ”My girlfriend loves tall men; I am afraid of you because you are going to make her fall in love with you.” Of course what he means is that she will not even notice him because he is a short man.
  • Any song that has sarcastic statements can be said to have a sarcastic or satirical tone.


  • Irony occurs when events in a song or a story goes contrary to the expectations of the audience or reader. Like in a situation where the child in a family is the breadwinner and his parents depend on him for everything. This would be contrary to our expectations that parents provide for their families and children.
  • Situational Irony occurs in situations where events go contrary to expectations or the outcome is not expected as in the example above.
  • Dramatic Irony occurs in plays mostly where the audience know something that surprisingly some the characters in the play do not know. For instance if character A steals goods from character B, and later character B, unaware of who the thief is, goes to seek help from character A in searching for the goods when clearly the audience is aware who stole the goods.
  • Verbal Irony occurs when someone says something while doing the opposite of what he says. E.g.” I am coming,” when he is going away. Verbal Irony is different from sarcasm because it is not meant to hurt the feelings of the addressee.


  • Suspense involve withholding information from the reader or audience as a performer or narrator to arouse their curiosity and enhance their concentration, or even the dilemma situations in a song where no conclusive ending is present to make the audience second guess on the controversial situation presented.


  • Occurs when a song borrows a pattern from another famous song; or makes reference to a famous historical situation. A song can be sung in the same structure say a famous song like Hallelujah was structured or borrow words from famous songs such as Desiderata. That would be use of allusion.


  • Rhyme is the repetition of syllables or end sounds of lines in a song to create rhythm. The last sounds the song below carry a rhyme scheme. 
    e.g .

    She went away
    and saw life
    Running the say
    she was a wife
    with the pay
  • Sometimes songs have internal rhyme in lines as shown below

    He said, he was made
    They said, they made


  • Alliteration involves repetition of the initial consonant sound in lines of a poem or song as shown below, usually to create musicality or rhythm in the song.

    Peter paid their pending salaries


  • Assonance involves repetition of the vowel sounds in lines of a song or poem usually to create musicality or rhythm in the poem as shown below.

    She sits around silent and sickly


  • This is the repetition of consonant sounds in lines of a song located either in the middle or at the end of words as shown below to create musicality or rhythm in the poem.

    He sat straight and let pets met around him

Idiophones and Onomatopoeia

  • Idiophones are local or non-English words that describe sounds like tuff! And onomatopoeia are English words that describe sounds like scratch, that are used in songs to create originality of experience and to make the songs more enjoyable and interesting.

How to Analyse an Oral Poem/Song

Analysing a song involves the following:


  1. Establish the type of the song. That is if it is a dirge, a lullaby, a patriotic songs etc.
  2. Paraphrase the song. Paraphrasing a song is writing the verses in the song in prose and in your own words without changing the intended meaning.
  3. Identify the voice or persona in the song. It is important you establish how many voices are there and who is the person speaking or persona.
  4. Identify the subject matter or the themes in the oral poem or the message that we derive from the poem. Find out what the persona is trying to say.
  5. Identify the structure of the song by looking at the pattern of words, lines and stanzas. How many lines per stanza and how many stanzas in the poem?
  6. Identify styles that the poet employed to convey the message and create rhythm.
  7. Look at the diction, the economy of words in the poem and how the diction best captures the mood, tone and attitudes in relation to the message in the song.
  8. Think about the performance of the poem or song and answer these questions:
    • Who would best perform the song?
    • What kind of an audience would be suitable for the song?
    • What would be the best occasion for the performance of the song?
    • Which accompaniments and paralinguistic features/non verbal cues would suit the song?
    • Which mode of performance (recitation, chant, choral, solo, etc) would best fit the song?


Consider the song below and answer questions that follow.

Mama really loves chicken

Mama throws down the pot pwa!
Like a scared dog
She runs after our cat
It runs swiftly swaying and swerving
She emerges in the court

Mama throws aside her clothes fwa!
She is a mad cow
Shouting, she giggles and laughs
It had eaten the chicken stew
Mama kills all its young ones


  1. Identify six styles used in the song above and give their effectiveness on the poem.

Question 2

Read the song below and answer questions that follow.

Shaka Honours Muzilikazi

The hills echoed with the laughter of the Zulu army.
At the southernmost point the army rested,
Shaka addressed them:”My brothers, our journey is now pointless.
Everywhere we go we find only those who acknowledge our authority,
Zulu power no longer issues from conquest
But from a bond of an all-embracing nationhood,
We must turn back to our homes.
Perhaps in the north Soshangane and his lot need a lesson.”

At Bulawayo they sang and danced for the returning army.
Shaka was still eager to consolidate the nation’s boundaries.
He said to his war councillors,” Our easy life
Shall soon undermine our fighting spirit
I want you Muzilikazi, to head to the north
And there establish peace among the quarrelling nations
And subdue the troublesome people of Ranisi
Who have caused endless wars among friendly nations,
You shall seize from them the loot of cattle
And return it to its original owners.”
The king spoke to Muzilikazi with great warmth and friendliness,
He said:”I give you my own axe, Muzilikazi,
So that when you pass the ruins of your native country
You raise it and pray for guidance of your ancestors.
I give you this so that wherever you are
You may know I shall always honour those who are our heroes.”

Muzilikazi of Mashoba was moved by this act,
He said, his eyes wet with tears;
“My lord, I do not know what great things I have done,
What great heroism I have displayed,
That I should deserve a gift most coveted by all heroes of Zululand?
Long ago you sheltered me when I was orphaned
And now you honour me.”

  1. What kind of an oral poem do you think this is?
    • Epic; because it is narrated and it is about renown figures such as Shaka Zulu.
    • Historical poem because people like Muzilikazi who are subjects in the poem are historical figures.
    • Narrative poem because it narrates to us the story of Shaka Zulu honouring Muzilikazi.
    • Legendary/heroic/ode/praise/war song because it celebrates the heroic deeds of the Zulu army and its leaders Shaka and Muzilikazi.
  2. Briefly describe the culture of the Zulu as reflected in the poem.
    • Nationalist/patriotic—they have a strong kinship bond, “Zulu power...issues from an allembracing nationhood.”
    • Warlike/warriors e.g. “the hills echoed with the laughter of the Zulu army”
    • Pastoralists/kept cattle e.g. “You shall seize from them all the loot of cattle.”
    • They are religious e.g. they have a traditional religion in which ancestors are revered/they practise ancestor-worship; pray for guidance from your ancestors.”
    • They have a sense of justice; returned cattle to original owners.
    • They are artistic e.g. their art includes song and dances, “At Bulawayo they sang and danced for the returning army.”
    • They recognise and honour heroism e.g. “Shall always honour those who are our brave heroes.”
    • Peace lovers e.g. Shaka Zulu tells Muzilikazi to establish peace in the north.
  3. Identify and explain two images from the poem.
    • “The hills echoed with the laughter of the Zulu army” this describe how happy the Zulu were for victory in war.
    • “Our easy life shall soon undermine our fighting spirit”: meaning that if we relax or concentrate too much on celebrating our victory we might become complacent or lose our power in war.
    • “..The ruins of your native country” describe how Mzilikazi’s native country has been ravaged by war.
    • “his eyes wet with tears: gives a visual picture to describe the extent to which Mzilikazi was moved by the way Shaka honoured him.
    • Battle axe: power or authority symbol.
    • An all-embracing nationhood: a symbol of unity.
  4. What do you learn about Shaka’s character from this poem?
    • Authoritative/dictatorial: the way he addresses his army and his councillors. For example to Muzilikazi, “I want you Muzilikazi, to head to the north.”
    • Power-hungry: “Zulu power no longer issues from conquest”
    • He is just: he gives Muzilikazi an axe as an illustration of his readiness to honour those who exhibit courage.
    • Cunning/Manipulative/tactical/wise/intelligent/; the gesture of giving Muzilikazi the axe is just a cunning way of getting him to undertake the difficult mission on which he sends him.
    • Friendly/Warm: He spoke to Muzilikazi with great warmth and friendliness.
    • An orator; the way he talks is creative and seductive e.g. “Our easy life shall soon undermine our fighting spirit.”
    • Ambitious: the way he cautions against complacency and then sends Muzilikazi on another mission.
    • Warlike: even when they have won the war, he still looks for opportunities to fight.
    • Charismatic: the army and the councillors obey him, for example, Muzilikazi is moved to tears when Shaka gives his axe, yet the main reason for the axe is to persuade Muzilikazi to subdue the troublesome people of Ranisi.
    • Patriotic—He solicits for “an all embracing nationhood” and tells the army, “We must get back to our homes.”
    • Peace-loving: “establish peace among the quarrelling nations”
    • Religious: tells Muzilikazi to pray.
    • Kind/Caring; took Muzilikazi in as an orphan and cared for him.
  5. State and explain a proverb which could be used to warn/caution the people of Ranisi.
    • You reap what you sow. They terrorized friendly nations, now they will experience similar/worse terror from Shaka’s warriors.
    • Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.
    • Those that live by the sword perish by the sword.
    • Every dog has its day.

Question 3

Read the oral poem below and answer the questions that follow.

The poor man knows not how to eat with the rich man.
When they eat fish, he eats the head.

Invite a poor man and he rushes in
Licking his lips and upsetting the plates.

The poor man has no manners, he comes along
With the blood of lice under his nails
The face of the poor man is lined
From hunger and thirst in his belly

Poverty is no state for any mortal man
It makes him a beast to be fed on grass

Poverty is unjust. If it befalls on a man
Though he is nobly born, he has no power with God.

  1. What evidence is there to show that this is an oral poem? Identify and illustrate such features.
    • Repetition e.g. the poor man/ poverty
    • hyperbole/ exaggeration e.g. “it makes him a beast to be fed on grass”
    • striking characterization e.g. the poor man cast in extreme terms.
  2. Describe a probable situation in which such a poem could be performed.
    • A beer party where cheap local brew is consumed by poor people.
    • A traditional baraza where the conduct of a poor man is being castigated or ridiculed.
  3. If you were to do a solo performance of this oral poem, what elements would you emphasize?
    • Dramatisation e.g. eating the fish clumsily/ rushing in and licking one’s lips/upsetting the plates on a table/paint finger nails (blood of lice) walk on all fours to impersonate a beasts being fed on grass.
    • Facial expressions e.g. to show hunger and thirst.
    • Tonal variation e.g. vary one’s pitch to put special emphasis on words ‘poverty is unjust’.
  4. What does the phrase “..with the blood of lice under his nails” reveal about the poor man?
    • The poor man lives in unsanitary or unhygienic conditions.
  5. Describe with illustrations the tone of this poem.
    • Compassionate: talks about the injustices of poverty towards the poor
    • contemptuous/critical/satirical the poor man is described in contemptuous terms e.g. rushes in licking his lips, upsetting plates etc.
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