oral tradition

From Oceania with love

Parnell Dempster, 'Down to Drink,' c1949, Pastel on paper, 586mm x 764mm, The Curtin University Art Collection, The Herbert Mayer Collection of Carrolup Artwork.

Although we can debate the historicization of literary modernism, particularly by attending to its formal rather than authorial delineations, it is less contestable to suggest that it had a prominent position in the cultural life of the 1930s. This was, of course, the decade of Pound’s Cantos, Beckett’s Murphy, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and Stein in America. Perhaps this canonized imperative declined somewhat in subsequent decades, but arguably it is not until the 1960s that we see modernism’s replacement in high culture; hence, Charles Olson’s letter to Bob Creeley about his generation being “postmodern.” The 1960s, of course, sees the flowering of a whole raft of poetries, not least among them ethnopoetics, with Jerome Rothenberg’s seminal Technicians of the Sacred being published in 1969. But what of the prehistory of the field of ethnopoetics?

Australian Aboriginal songpoetry

A selection

Uluru in Australia’s Northern Territory.

A history of Australian Aboriginal songpoetry in English is a shadow project. Of course it exists as a thing in and of itself. But in translation, as it so often is, songpoetry can be considered symptomatic of an Anglophone poetry project. This is not to suggest there is no exchange between the country of the songs and the poetry context into which they are translated. It is surely a work of collaboration.

'Burd Ellen,' performed by Ruth Perry

Ruth Perry, at right.

Ruth Perry of MIT has written a chapter for a volume being edited by Ellen Pollak, A Cultural History of Women in the Age of Enlightenment, to be published by Berg/Palgrave. This work will be part of an illustrated, six-volume Cultural History of Women being assembled with a general audience in mind. Ruth Perry's topic is Anna Gordon Brown, whose repertoire of English ballads was the first to be tapped and written down by antiquarians and literary scholars in the eighteenth century, at a time when scholars feared that the oral tradition was in danger of disappearing forever. It turns out that Ruth Perry, aside from being an eminent scholar of the ballad tradition in English, is a talented ballad singer herself. As of today, PennSound has added to its "Classics" page a studio recording of Perry performing “Burd Ellen,” generally deemed to be one of the most beautiful of Brown's ballads.

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