Ethnopoetics

ethnopoetic texts influenced the translation, study, and making of poetry by writers associated with ethnopo-etics, as well as some associated with the black mountain school and beat poetry; more recent trends toward multiculturalism, poetry in performance, and cross-cultural poetics reflect the influence of ethnopo-etics. During the 1970s the journal Alcheringa/Ethnopo-etics balanced translations of traditional world poetry and contemporary creative work by poets, including David antin, George economou, Robert kelly, George Quasha, Rothenberg, Armand schwerner, and Gary snyder, some of whom were earlier associated with the short-lived deep image school. Anthropologists and linguists involved included coeditor Dennis Tedlock, Stanley Diamond, Dell Hymes, and Nathaniel tarn.

The marginalization of traditional world poetries prior to ethnopoetics can be partially attributed to the poverty of available translations. An ethnopoetic translation requires more than mastery of the language. From the scholarly side, ethnopoetics emphasizes the necessity of acquiring deep knowledge of the cultures and performance context of the poetry; in retranslating the 16th-century Mayan Popol Vuh, for example, Tedlock not only learned the Quiche Maya language and collaborated with contemporary Mayans but apprenticed himself to an indigenous spiritual leader. Ethnopoetics scholars developed influential methods of transcription and total translation that aim to carry over the qualities of oral performance to the printed page, thereby improving translations on the formal level as well. By making the artfulness of traditional poetries more apparent on the page, this innovation influenced contemporary poets.

Two classic examples of the innovation inspired by ethnopoetics are Fast Speaking Woman (1975) by Anne waldman and the tablets (1968, 1989, 1999) by Schwerner. Waldman's book of poems uses techniques of repetition and parallelism learned from the work of an oral poet, Maria Sabina. Ethnopoetics allows Wald-man to craft poems that convey an appropriately chantlike power not possible using either traditional English prosody (rhyme and meter) or the looser, speech-oriented patterns of free verse (see prosody and free verse). Schwerner's The Tablets appears, at first glance, to be an English translation of a recovered ancient text; in fact, Schwerner has created a poetic fiction, conjuring up both the original and the "translation," complete with footnotes, indecipherable passages, and an imagined scholar/translator. As ethnopoetics enriches our understanding of traditional poetries in formal, philosophical, and spiritual terms, it alters received ideas about the Western canon and privileged literary forms, thereby enlarging the domain of poetry. Moving beyond a canon centered on the "classics," writers influenced by ethnopoetics study, absorb, and are influenced by a wider range of sources, including Aztec, Mayan, Zuni, Navajo, Egyptian, Yoruban, Ashanti, Indian, Tibetan, and other poetries.

Ethnopoetic scholarship may involve analysis, translation, or transcription of texts gained from living traditional poets, singers, and storytellers, or it may take up previously collected ethnographic texts and retranslate them to expose their aesthetic and culturally informative dimensions. Some of the most valuable ethnopoetic texts have entailed collaboration between formally trained scholars and traditional artists. Finding the Center (1978) presents an exemplary collection of poetic narratives performed by Walter Sanchez and Andrew Peynetsa, two traditional Zuni tellers from New Mexico; Tedlock produced the book by making an audio recording, translating, then transcribing the pieces for performance. The result is a book that allows one to read the works and feel nearly present in the performances. Also from the American Southwest, Yaqui Deer Songs, Maso Bwikam: A Native American Poetry (1987) is a remarkable collaboration between scholar Larry Evers and singer Felipe S. Molina. It presents cycles of traditional songs in bilingual format, which one may read along with an audio cassette of the singing. Most powerful, however, is the way it conveys the sense of how the performers and native audience think of this art by contextualizing the songs with interviews and conversations between Yaqui singers and participants in the deer song performances.

As motto for ethnopoetics in all its facets, the first words of Rothenberg's first anthology—"Primitive means Complex"—serve as a simple measure of its continued influence. Valuing marginalized art—the so-called primitive, preliterate, tribal, or uncivilized— ethnopoetics anticipates multiculturalism. As an exploration of oral poetry and traditions, it resonates with the recent reemergence of performance poetry. The intense, interdisciplinary collaborations of ethnopoetics in its first phase have subsided, but a conversation between poetry and the new interpretive anthropology began with the advent of the journal XCP: Cross-cultural Poetics in 1997. In the work of individual poets, ethnopoetic concerns continue to be reflected, as when, for instance, Clayton eshleman delves into the prehistoric imagination in Hotel Cro-Magnon (1989), Cecilia Vicuña remembers lost threads of the Quechua in Unravelling Words and the Weaving of Water (1992), Snyder imagines his place in North America through Asian art in Mountains and Rivers without End (1996), Nathaniel mackey converses with the Dogon in School of Udhra (1993), Simon ortiz calls up the trickster in postindustrial America in Woven Stone (1992), and Edward Kamau brathwaite forges a poetic Nation Language embodying the African nommo in Middle Passage (1993). Whether captivated by the oral artfulness or some other feature brought to light by ethnopoetics, 20th-century poets working in this domain continue to share an excitement for the way it expands the vision of the possible for poetry.

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