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KARL KROEBER American Ethnopoetics: A New Critical Dimension Ethnopoetics is the study of pre-literate societies' modes of discourse , the formal complexity ofwhich requires that they be understood as literature. In the twenty years of its existence ethnopoetics has demonstrated that material collected by linguists, folklorists, and anthropologists inattentive to aesthetic components or functions reveals —when carefully analyzed—patterns of superb literary artistry. Because the central focus of this discipline is work oral in its original form, ethnopoetic critics do not ignore the uniqueness of individual performances. But these critics assume that the artistry of any single performance is made possible by the existence of definable literary traditions . The art of a single work, as with Western European literature, simultaneously embodies and modifies an aesthetic system. Ethnopoetics thus radically opposes modern celebrants of "primitive" art, artists such as Picasso and critics such as Roger Fry, who have praised aboriginal creations as accordant with Modernist aesthetics while implicitly or explicitly denying the capability of "primitives" to create significant artistic traditions. As in linguistics, which operates on the assumption that no language can be identified as "primitive," the fundamental presupposition of ethnopoetics is that there is no such thing as "primitive art." The importance of ethnopoetic ambitions to recover artistic system is perhaps best illustrated by Western European civilization's supreme ethnopoetic texts, The Iliad and The Odyssey. The most famous work of classical scholarship in this century is Milman Parry's study of Homeric formulae, which first appeared more than half a century ago. Parry's Arizona Quarterly Volume 45 Number 2, Summer 1989 Copyright © 1989 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 004-1610 Karl Kroeber claim was that the fixed epithets in the Homeric epics were ornamental, not functional. But in a brilliant new book, The Traditional Phrase in Homer: Two Studies in Form, Meaning and Interpretation, Richard Sacks demonstrates that these epithets are significantly functional in a fashion which not only reverses the direction of Parry's thought, but also provides a model for ethnopoetic research in all cultures—particularly those native to the new world.' At the cost of ignoring Sacks' impressive contributions to classical studies, therefore, I'll focus on the broader implication of his work. Sacks' method is to examine both the distributions and the contexts of all uses of a particular epithet—such as "fleet-footed Achilles"—to distinguish both repeated patterns ofapplication, and violations ofsuch patterns. Through such systematic contrasts the existence of either significant regularities or anomalies can be highlighted. These features can then be tested for their adherence to or deviation from important features of characterization, plot, or thematic development, such connections or separations providing insight into the functioning of philosophic/mythological/ideological traditions which constitute the socio-cultural contexts that enable the work to come into being. An example of the method is provided by the very first word of The Iliad, announcing its subject as the mynis of Achilles, usually translated as anger or wrath. Of the sixteen occurrences in the poem of the word mynis, however, twelve refer to anger of gods. The four remaining instances all apply to Achilles: the first word of the opening line of the poem; in Book Nine when the Greeks beg him unsuccessfully to rejoin in fight against the triumphing Trojans; and twice in Book Nineteen when his immortal mother Thetis finally persuades Achilles to abandon his mynis and return to the battle, a return leading directly to the death of Hector, which in turn foretells the downfall ofTroy. Plainly a better translation of The Iliad's first word would be something like "divine anger." Homer's epic begins, then, by emphasizing its protagonist's semi-divine nature, an orienting emphasis that would be radically altered were a more usual word for human anger—xolos, say—used to inaugurate the epic that begins the Western literary tradition. Those unfamiliar with classical scholarship need to remember that when we raise questions about Homeric Greek, we have very little evidential material other than the two epics. The corpus from which a Homeric scholar works, therefore, is not greatly different than that surviving from many traditional Native American cultures—larger American Ethnopoetics than some, smaller than...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-13
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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