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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.