Courtesy of Milman Parry Library Collection of Oral Literature, Harvard University

Milman Parry (1902–1935) lived a romantic and extremely productive life until he died as a result of a gun accident. In 1933 Parry, then an assistant professor of classics at Harvard, began studying studying oral poetry in Yugoslavia, along with his student Albert Lord (who in 1960 published the influential Singer of Tales, a study of oral poetry). Parry learned not only that oral poets can recite immense amounts of poetry—even poems as long as Homer’s epics—but also that they improvise by using stock phrases, lines and groups of lines. Once Parry’s work became widely known in the 1970s, scholars began finding abundant evidence that the Homeric poems were stitched together using units larger than the word. For example, Achilles is often called “swift-footed,” even when he is sitting down; and the phrase “wily Odysseus” occurs more than 70 times. These stock phrases helped the poet recite myths in the conventional Greek dactylic hexameter (a dactyl is a poetic foot consisting of a long syllable followed by two short syllables—as in the word “sympathy”—and hexameter is a poetic line of six feet). Parry demonstrated how numerous diverse stories in an oral tradition could be melded into oral epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey.