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Jerome Rothenberg

The Words of the Tribe: on the Ethnopoetics of Jerome Rothenberg


Western pride has relegated the poetry of people without writing systems to a great ethnographic limbo, depriving itself of a rich source of one that Rothenberg can't stop nurturing.

According to French poet and linguist Henri Meschonnic, all hegemonic languages exist as such because they all invoke a great poem. This relationship between the survival of a language and the development of a culture can be evidenced in examples such as the Homeric poems and the Greek culture/philosophy (The Iliad and The Odyssey), or the Torah in Hebrew. And what happens with “minor” languages, politically speaking? To those that, let's say, there was no Homer or Virgil? According to poet, anthropologist and anthologist Jerome Rothenberg (born in New York City in 1931), the Western parameters of what a poem is exclude many examples of productions of the spirit that are catalogued by researchers as “traditional songs,” but tend not be classified as a “poem.”

But writing is a relatively recent invention in the history of humanity, and the fact that writing didn’t exist in a given society does not mean that poetry didn’t exist. In one of his seminal anthologies, Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of poetries from Africa, America, Asia & Oceania, Rothenberg writes:

There are no half-formed languages, no underdeveloped or inferior languages. Everywhere a development has taken place into structures of great complexity. People who have failed to achieve the wheel will not have failed to invent and develop a highly wrought grammar.

This grammar should not be understood in a solely linguistic sense, but rather as a structure of magical thought that determines the political conditions of the people, whereby the relations with divine and profane levels are administered. Song, dance, dreams and other forms of expression form part of that “grammar” which constitutes the spirit of each group of people, and which Rothenberg has studied in a synchronic and generous manner through the concept of “ethnopoetics.”

“Ethnopoetics” doesn’t want to conceptually segregate poems or songs of groups of people without writing; on the contrary, it is both a theoretical and spiritual tool to provide the same placement, study and rigor to a fertility song of the Navajo people as to poem by Artaud. In the words of Rothenberg, ethnopoetics “refers to an attempt to investigate on a transcultural sale the range of possible poetries that had not only been imagined but put into practice by other human beings.”

In the 1960s, Rothenberg galopped between the poetic vanguards of the United States––from the Beat generation with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, to the Black Mountain College poets, including Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, while also studying anthropology. Ethnopoetics as a practice is inseparable from its endeavor for translation –– Rothenberg has performed wonderful exercises with poems by Federico García Lorca and Octavio Paz, to name a few cases in Spanish –– and his periodic anthologies have been read as major collages where poets-singers who never wrote a line converge with the vanguards of the 20th Century.


While traditional ethnology saw the peoples’ songs and rites without writing as “savage” or “primitive,” Rothenberg has focused on collecting them “through translation” to “overcome the feeling of helplessness of addressing the poetry of the world.” This attempt has led to him editing numerous anthologies, including Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas (1972); America a Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present (1973), credited with George Quasha; and Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward An Ethnopoetics (1983), co-edited with his wife, anthropologist Diane Rothenberg, as well as the blog (frequently updated up until now), Poems and Poetics.

If the poet’s famous mission, in the words of Mallarmé, is to “endow a purer meaning to the words of the tribe,” then Rothenberg’s work — both his writing and his translations — can be seen as a massive effort to understand and connect in a direct and personal manner with the words of a tribe composed of all the peoples of the world. Ethnopoetics allows one to think of poetry not as an anthropologic curiosity of different groups of people, but as part of the shared spirit shared by everyone. Rothenberg is something like a linguistic shaman, someone who is able to present a poem or traditional song with a rigorous ethnographic investigation, to later execute it live — his performances are legendary — as if it were a ceremony.

The encyclopedic quality of his anthological and poetical work makes him a type of medium which, in the rising of a transcultural in discourse, but profoundly racist in practice 21st Century, makes Rothenberg a fascinating reference point to think of humanity as a heterogenous set of beings who sing, regardless if they live in a rural environment or in the nightmare of modern cities, they come back to words— written or sung — to inhabit the world.

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