Ethnopoetics, as a focused movement, took shape under the tutelage of Jerome Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock as an attempt, Tedlock has said, "to hear and read the poetries of distant others, outside the Western tradition as we know it now." Although it can be said that long before Rothenberg coined the term "ethnopoetics" in 1968, a curiosity for the poetic forms of non-western and unindustrialized cultures has existed for centuries.
An early twentieth-century interest of modernist artists, poets and scholars in "primitivist" art forms was essentially a challenge to the commonly held values of the Western art tradition and a desire to explore forms outside the boundaries of "high European culture." As we now know it, ethnopoetics emphasizes not only the written word but also how it can be illuminated through oral performance (spoken, sung, or chanted) and what a distant culture's forms can teach us (and our poetics) linguistically.
However, lest the movement's mission be misunderstood, Tedlock has gone on to say, "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. . . . It is precisely by the effort to reach into distances that we bring our own ethnicity . . . into fuller consciousness."
Before Rothenberg's integral anthology, Technicians of the Sacred (1968), some European poets (Tristan Tzara, Benjamin Peret, Antonin Artaud) had begun to explore oral poetics in Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas, not to mention Ezra Pound's concentration on the poetries of China. In the contemporary scene, Ethnopoetics' major figures include Rothenberg, Tedlock, Gary Snyder, Stanley Diamond, and others.
For more information, visit UbuWeb: Ethnopoetics, a web site curated by Rothenberg, and read "Ethnopoetics at the Millennium: A Talk for the Modern Language Association," a speech given by Rothenberg in 1994.