For the White poets who would be Indian Essays and Criticism

Wendy Rose


The first impression a person might have after reading Wendy Rose’s “For the White poets who would be Indian,” might be that Rose has a dislike (or worse) for all white poets who write about Indians. But this is not true. In an interview with Laura Coltelli (1985), Rose says that she has “no difficulty with people taking on an Indian persona and trying to imagine through their work what it would be like . . . to be a man or a woman in Indian society. Fine. As long as it’s really clear that that’s what it is—an act of imagination.” What troubles Rose and what prompted her to write this poem are the people “who say that they have some special gift to be able to really see how Indians think, how Indians feel.” It is a matter of integrity, says Rose.

Rose and fellow poet Geary Hobson have coined the phrase white shamanism to refer to the practice of white poets (as well as other cultural workers) who delve into Native American myths and native literary forms, taking the liberty to retranslate them according to their own literary styles (although they may have little or no knowledge of the culture or the language) and then claiming a profound understanding of the native culture to the point of claiming shamanistic or mystical powers. One such poet, Jerome Rothenberg (to whom Rose wrote the poem “Comment on Ethnopoetics and Literacy”) is considered one of the organizers of the poetic movement called ethnopoetics. Understanding Rothenberg’s philosophy as well as his reasons for organizing the ethnopoetics movement, gives the reader a better appreciation for the sentiments behind Rose’s poem “For the White poets who would be Indian.”

The ethnopoetics movement lasted from the late 1960s through 1980. Ethnopoetics, according to Peter O’Leary in a review of a book written by Nathaniel Tarn (another influential poet in the ethnopoetics movement), is described as follows:

[Ethnopoetics is] a brand of American surrealism that combined poetry with anthropology by incorporating the belief that the poet, either through vocal effects that echo those of the proto-poetic shaman, or verbal and visual effects that are the latter-day remnants of those vocal effects, can retrieve or restore something of sacred reality through his or her poetry.

Meredith James, in a book review for World Literature Today, states that “ethnopoetics uses literary techniques to capture the vitality, complexity, humor, and artistry of traditionally oral works.” Ethnopoets believe that old translations of Native American songs (poems) and myths are outdated. The old translations were done mostly by linguists, anthropologists, and missionaries who had no flare for poetics. “Ethnopoetics,” says James, “adds poetic devices such as rhyme, meter, and structure” to the older translations. If done carefully, James states, ethnopoetics could offer a more realistic rep- resentation of the native cultures and their literary forms.

Unfortunately, not all translations are done carefully. And in this context, James reinforces Rose’s concern for lack of integrity on the part of the poet. James adds that when the translations are not careful, “ethnopoetics creates a text that misrepresents the content and meaning of the original work, so that the stories are not so much the subject but instead the tool of ethnopoetics, telling the reader more about the translator than about the story.” In order to understand this better, there is a need to look a little deeper, first, into ethnopoetics; and then into what people within the Native culture are asking for in terms of integrity. In reference to the first step, this essay will take a closer look at Rothenberg’s stated definitions of and aims for ethnopoetics.

In the fall of 1970, Rothenberg published the first issue of Alcheringa, a journal devoted to ethnopoetics. In that issue, he printed a “Statement of Intention.” Three of the intentions of the journal were: 1) to offer a place “to provide a ground for experiments in the translation of tribal/oral poetry”; 2) “to assist the free development of ethnic self-awareness among young Indians”; 3) “to combat cultural genocide in all its manifestations.” The first intention was easily provided by the publication of the journal. The second, however, seems a bit pretentious in that Rothenberg appears to be stating that it is through a re-interpretation of Native poetics (namely ethnopoetics) that the “young Indians” would develop their ethnic self-awareness. According to James, as stated above, careless translation actually provides a misrepresentation of the original work. So poor ethnopoetics could lead the “young Indians” in the wrong direction from what their own ancestors had intended. Also, according to James, the so-called translator of these ancient poems becomes the focus of attention, while the story (or poem) fades somewhat into the background. Rothenberg confirms this in his “Pre-Face to a Symposium on Ethnopoetics” by emphasizing the ethnopoet’s role as the shaman. The ethnopoet “performs alone . . . because his presence is considered crucial . . . [he] is needed for the validation of a certain kind of experience important to the group . . . [his madness] flows out to whole companies of shamans, to whole societies of human beings: it heals the sickness of the body but more than that: the sickness of the soul.”

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