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Ethnopoetics is a poetic movement and subfield in linguistics, and anthropology. It was coined as a term by Jerome Rothenberg in collaboration with George Quasha in 1968, when Quasha asked Rothenberg to create a term using 'ethnos' and 'poetics' on the model of 'ethnomusicology' for inclusion in his Stony Brook Magazine, where Rothenberg then became Ethnopoetics Editor. The idea of ethnopoetics is based on two interrelated concepts:

on one hand, it refers to non-Western poetry, often that of indigenous people (although it could apply to the study of all-kind/source folk poetry), and on the other hand, it is poetry showing such influence and written in manner to manifest the qualities of indigeneousity; ethnopoetics also refers to the study within the field of linguistics of poetic structures particular to specific culture.

These two base ideas and, further, two uses of the term were connected through the work of the poets Jerome Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock, who co-edited the journal Alcheringa. Tedlock himself defines ethnopoetics as "a decentered poetics, an attempt to hear and read the poetries of distant others, outside the Western tradition as we know it now." [1]


Ethnopoetics as an aesthetic movement

Jerome Rothenberg is known for his poetry, essays, and anthology Technicians of the Sacred (1968). Other writers and poets who made significant or representative contributions to the field include Henry Munn, Antonin Artaud, Tristan Tzara, Gary Snyder, William Bright, and Kathleen Stewart.

Ethnopoetics within linguistics and folkloristics

Within the fields of linguistics, folkloristics, and anthropology, ethnopoetics is a particular method of analyzing the linguistic use and structure in oral literature such as: poetry, myths, prose narrative, folk tales, ceremonial speech and other forms of extended utterances in stylized registers; it is description in a way that pays attention to poetic structures within speech. The development of ethnopoetics as a separate subfield of study was largely pioneered from the middle of the 20th century by anthropologists and linguists such as Dell Hymes and Dennis Tedlock.

Depending on viewpoint, ethnopoetics can be seen as a subfield either of ethnology, anthropology, folkloristics, stylistics, linguistics, or literature. Because of its subject and methodology ethnopoetics is also an important field within translation studies.

Ethnopoetics made its entrée in the early 1980s with high-profile works such as Dell Hymes’ In Vain I Tried To Tell You (1982) or Dennis Tedlock’s The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation (1983) and gathered admiration in a wide interdisciplinary field of anthropologists, folklorists and linguists. Tedlock and Hymes both added volume and sophistication to ethnopoetic analysis, Tedlock with his Finding The Center (1999) and Hymes with Now I Know Only So Much (2003). Both Tedlock and Hymes used ethnopoetic analysis to do justice to the artistic richness of Native American verbal art. In Tedlock’s case, the method served the purpose of rendering the features of spoken artistry visual; for Hymes, it was a method for reviving defunct oral traditions by turning written versions of folk stories in to re-oralizable ones. Hymes and Tedlock have disagreed on analytic detail but not on the fundamental issues and approach.

Hymes’ ethnopoetics revolves around a conception of narratives as primarily organized in terms of formal and aesthetic – ‘poetic’ – patterns, not in terms of content or thematic patterns. Narrative is therefore to be seen as a form of action, of performance, and the meanings it generates are effects of performance. Narratives, seen from this perspective, are organized in lines and in groups of lines (verses, stanzas), and the organization of lines in narratives is a kind of implicit patterning that creates narrative effect: emphasis and insistence, narrative-thematic divisions and so on. Content, in other words, is an effect of the formal organization of a narrative: what there is to be told emerges out of how it is being told. The metric that can be distinguished in narratives is linguistic, but also cultural (indexical) and therefore semantic. This is an old anthropological view – the connections with Whorf are obvious – and it is influenced by Roman Jakobson’s (1960) poetic-aesthetic conception of language structure.

Jakobson’s influence becomes clear when we look at how Hymes defines the relations between lines: "The relations between lines and groups of lines are based on the general principle of poetic organization called equivalence" and "[e]quivalence may involve any feature of language" [1]: prosodic aspects such as stress, pauses, pitch and intonation, syntactic aspects such as similarity or parallelism in grammatical structure, morpho-grammatical aspects such as similarity in verb tense or aspect, phonetic aspects such as alliteration and rhyme and lexico-syntactic aspects such as the use of certain particles or discourse markers. Units thus identified then combine into larger ones, verses and stanzas, and again equivalence is the formal principle that identifies such units: a transition from one unit to another can be marked by a shift in intonation or prosody, a change in the dominant particles used for marking lines, a change in verb tense, a lexical change and so forth.

According to Hymes and others, these structuring patterns in narrative display a cultural (indexical) logic. They reveal, thus, a form of emic organization which allows analysts to follow the narrator’s traces in organizing relevance, epistemic and affective stance, desired effects and so forth. Thus, the analysis of these implicit – indexical – patterns in narratives helps us distinguish more 'meaning' in narrative, because like 'grammar/style' and 'content', ethnopoetic patterns form a distinct layer of meaningful signs in narratives. This theme, that ethnopoetic patterning is a distinct pool of meanings, is what allows Hymes, Tedlock and others to claim that ethnopoetics offers opportunities for reconstructing ‘defunct’ narratives, reinstate their functions, recapture the performance dynamics that guided their original production, and so on.

Folk poetries by region


  1. ^ (Hymes 1996: 166)
  • Hymes, Dell H. (1981). "In vain I tried to tell you": Essays in Native American ethnopoetics. Studies in Native American literature (No. 1); University of Pennsylvania publications in conduct and communication. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-7806-2 (hbk); ISBN 0-8122-1117-0 (pbk); ISBN 0-585-17266-8 (electronic bk.).
  • Hymes, Dell H. (2003). Now I know only so far: Essays in ethnopoetics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-2407-9 (hbk); ISBN 0-8032-7335-5 (pbk).
  • Tedlock, Dennis. (1972). Finding the center: Narrative poetry of the Zuñi Indians. New York, Dial Press.
  • Tedlock, Dennis. (1983). The spoken word and the work of interpretation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-7880-1 (hbk.); ISBN 0-8122-1143-X (pbk.).
  • Tedlock, Dennis. (1999). Finding the center: The art of the Zuni storyteller (2nd. ed.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-4439-8 (hbk.); ISBN 0-8032-9440-9 (pbk.)

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