Three forms of expression were prominent in Maori and Polynesian oral literature, namely, narrative prose, poetry, and genealogical recital. The extreme development of genealogical recital characterised Maori literature. It seems to have fulfilled several functions in the telling of tradition. It provided a kind of time scale which embraced the whole of Maori myth, tradition, and history, from the remote past to the present, and it connected the gods and heroes of legend with men. The quoting of appropriate genealogical lines linked the narrator of a tale with the characters whose exploits he described, and made explicit his right to speak of them. In the cosmogonic genealogies, to be described later, genealogical recital is revealed as a true literary form. What appears at first sight to be a mere listing of names is in fact a cryptic account of the evolution of the universe.
Maori poetry, in contrast to our own, was always sung or chanted, and it was distinguished from prose by musical rhythms rather than by purely linguistic devices. The lack of conscious use of rhyme or assonance and the shifting nature of word stress in the language sometimes makes it difficult to tell whether a written text represents prose or poetry. Only when it is sung or chanted will the metre become apparent and the lines be indicated by features of the music. Stylistically, however, the language of poetry tends to differ from prose. Extensive use of synonyms or contrastive opposites, and repetition of key words, are typical features of poetic diction. Archaic words are common, including many which have lost any specific meaning and acquired a religious mystique. Abbreviated, sometimes cryptic utterances and the use of certain grammatical constructions not found in prose are also common.
The great bulk of Maori legendary material is found in the form of prose narrative. Some of this appears to have been esoteric and sacred, but many of the legends were well-known stories repeated for entertainment during the long winter nights. Nevertheless, they should not be regarded simply as fairy tales to be enjoyed only as stories. The Maui myth, for example, was important not only as entertainment but also because it embodied the beliefs of the people concerning such things as the origin of fire, of death, and of the land in which they lived. The ritual chants concerning firemaking, fishing, death, and so on made reference to Maui and derived their power from such reference.