To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, May 23, 2011

Jerome Rothenberg & Dennis Tedlock: On Ethnopoetics, Two Early Definitions

Jerome Rothenberg

(1) A comparative approach to poetry and related arts, with a characteristic but not exclusive emphasis on stateless, low-technology cultures and on oral and nonliterate [nonliteral] forms of verbal expression. (2) The poetry and ideas about poetry in the cultures so observed or studied. (3) A movement or tendency in contemporary poetry, literature, and social science (anthropology in particular) devoted to such interests.

The history of such an ethnopoetics covers at least the last 200 years, during which time it has functioned as a questioning of the culturally bounded poetics and poetry of "high European culture." While the designation "ethnopoetics" is a much later coinage, the interrogation has been carried forward in sometimes separated, sometimes interlocking discourses among philosophers, scholars, poets, and artists. It is clearly linked with impulses toward primitivism in both romanticism and modernism and with avant-garde tendencies to explore new and alternative forms of poetry and to subvert normative views of traditional values and the claims of "civilization" to hegemony over other forms of culture. Yet for all its avant-gardism, the principal ethnopoetic concern has been with classical, even hieratic forms, with fully realized, often long preserved traditions.

The emergence in the later 20th century of ethnopoetics as both a poetry movement and a field of scholarly study was the culmination of projects that arose within modernism itself. In that sense, ethnopoetics clearly paralleled the ethnoaesthetic concerns in the visual and performative arts with their well-documented influence on the form and content of contemporary art both in the West and in third-world cultures under European domination. In turn, the growing restiveness of the Western avant-garde allowed a contemporary viewing of culturally distant forms that revealed both those that resembled familiar Western forms and others drawn from previously unrecognized areas of visual and verbal art. The interests of poets — both formal and ideological — were accompanied or bolstered by scholarly investigations of the contexts and linguistic properties of the traditional works, including the nature of oral poetics and the particularities of translation from oral sources.

Like much modern and postmodern poetry and art, these investigations involved a necessarily intermedial point of view, calling genre boundaries into question.

[From J.R., entry on "ethnopoetics" in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1993]

Dennis Tedlock

Ethnopoetics is a decentered poetics, an attempt to hear and read the poetries of distant others, outside the Western tradition as we know it now. To have any hope of getting outside we must set aside any notion we may have that these poetries will necessarily come from a distant time, or from present-day peoples who are somehow living in the past, or that they will necessarily resemble Homer, or that they will be less complex than Western or metropolitan poetries, or that they will have been produced in some kind of isolation from other languages or cultures. Ethnopoetics does not merely contrast the poetics of "ethnics" with just plain poetics, but implies that any poetics is always an ethnopoetics. Our main interest will indeed be the poetries of people who are ethnically distant from ourselves, but it is precisely by the effort to reach into distances that we bring our own ethnicity, and the poetics that goes with it, into fuller consciousness. Ethnopoetics originated among poets with an interest in anthropology and linguistics and among anthropologists and linguists with an interest in poetry, such as David Antin, Stanley Diamond, Dell Hymes, Jerome Rothenberg, Gary Snyder, Nathaniel Tarn (E. Michael Mendelson), and myself. The emphasis has been on performances in which the speaking, chanting, or singing voice gives shape to proverbs, riddles, curses, laments, praises, prayers, prophecies, public announcements, and narratives. Practitioners of ethnopoetics treat the relationship between performances and texts as a field for experimentation. Texts that were taken down in the era of handwritten dictation and published as prose are reformatted and/or retranslated in order to reveal their poetic features. In the case of sound recordings, transcripts and translations serve not only as listening guides but also as scripts or scores for further performances. An ethnopoetic score not only takes account of the words but silences, changes in loudness and tone of voice, the production of sound effects, and the use of gestures and props. Whatever a score may encompass, the notion of a definitive text has no place in ethnopoetics. Linguists and folklorists tend to narrow their attention to the normative side of performance, recognizing only such features as can be accounted for by general rules. Ethnopoetics remains open to the creative side of performance, valuing features that may be rare or even unique to a particular artist or occasion.

NOTE.  Fuller archived versions of Alcheringa, the first journal of ethnopoetics, edited by me and Dennis Tedlock from 1970 to 1980, can now be found at the Jacket 2 site and in abbreviated form through the Duration Press site, a remarkable and valued gift in either instance. (J.R.)

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