BUREAU OF PUBLIC SECRETS


 

 

THE POETRY OF PRE-LITERATE PEOPLES

An unpublished anthology gathered by Kenneth Rexroth (ca. 1975)


 

Editorial Note
Introduction
1. The Far North 
2. The American Indian
3. Central and South America
4. Africa
5. The South Seas
6. Asia
7. Australia

 

 


 

Editorial Note



Kenneth Rexroth had been very interested in preliterate peoples and their poetry and songs since his childhood. His autobiography has a moving account of his time spent with an old Potawatomi Indian who worked as a gardener and handyman for his grandmother in Indiana around 1910. Some of his earliest poems are clearly influenced by preliterate songs, and even incorporate passages from them. In 1956 he wrote an appreciative article, American Indian Songs, with numerous examples of translations from the great ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore.

Sometime during the late 1960s and early 1970s he put together a selection of texts for a book to be titled The Poetry of Pre-Literate Peoples. He apparently had a prospective publisher, and the "Other Books by Kenneth Rexroth" page in some of his books from around that time lists him as editor of "An Anthology of Pre-Literate Poetry," so it sounds like he was definitely expecting it to happen.

Unfortunately, the project was never completed. Perhaps the prospective publisher ended up declining it. Or perhaps Rexroth himself concluded that at that stage of his life (he was already around 70 and had some health issues) he had too many other projects in the works to want to spend the time to do the research and annotations that would be necessary to bring this one to conclusion. He may also have felt that such a book was becoming somewhat redundant. Many of the translations he had selected had been included in the recent anthology edited by Willard Trask: The Unwritten Song: Poetry of the Primitive and Traditional Peoples of the World (2 vols: 1966-1967), and he had also noticed the flurry of new translations being published or inspired by Jerome Rothenberg in his Technicians of the Sacred (1968; revised and expanded edition: 1985) and in his "ethno-poetics" journal, Alcheringa.

Whatever the reason, what remains is a box of papers located at the library of the State University of New York at Buffalo (along with dozens of boxes of other Rexroth papers). It consists of a batch of typed double-spaced pages: approximately 350 numbered pages + 130 pages of interleaved notes (or more often: questions that would need to be researched in order to write such notes) plus a second identical batch that includes handwritten corrections by Rexroth plus occasional handwritten comments or queries by someone else who Rexroth presumably asked to review the draft.

Leaving aside the duplications and the interleaved pages, the significant material reproduced here consists of translations of preliterate songs from numerous sources (350 pages) + an Introduction by Rexroth (13 pages) + an untitled note (3 pages) apparently addressed to the prospective publisher in which Rexroth outlines the nature of the project and notes the numerous questions still to be resolved. He admits that he does not know the answers to many of those questions and would have to research them himself or ask appropriate specialists about them.

These pages are reproduced here with the permission of Bradford Morrow, Literary Executor of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust. For the most part I have transcribed them just as they appear in the manuscript, without any changes except for corrections of obvious typos. In a few instances I have noticed slight stylistic differences between the version of a song in the draft and in the original publication from which Rexroth transcribed it, or from a reprinting of it that he noted in another anthology (most frequently in Paul Radin's Primitive Man as Philosopher), but I have usually followed the manuscript, assuming the Rexroth may have intended to modify the translation. Readers should bear in mind that this is just an unfinished draft. If the book had been published, Rexroth probably would have revised and perhaps expanded his Introduction, and he certainly would have added notes to clarify some of the obscurities in the songs. But even in this unfinished form, I think it's a wonderful collection. I've greatly enjoyed getting to know these works and getting a better understanding of why Rexroth was enthusiastic enough to take the trouble to gather them together.

—Ken Knabb
July 2024


 


Kenneth Rexroth's The Poetry of Pre-Literate Peoples is the manuscript of an unpublished anthology (ca. 1975). The Introduction and other editorial material by Rexroth in it are copyright 2024 and reproduced here with permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust. The sources of each of the translations are specified at the bottom of the webpage where they appear. These translations were originally published between 1875 and 1972. The books and journals in which they originally appeared are virtually all long out of print, and many of them are in the public domain. I have reproduced them here as a noncommercial public service. If any of them are still copyrighted and the copyright owner has any objections, please notify me and I will remove them from this site.


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