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Primitive Poetry: Rituals and Shamans

Primitive poetry is a set of textualities that allows a closer knowledge of the verbal practices that were carried out in cultures that, in many cases, have not had access to writing. It can also be called tribal, archaic, or "wild". These practices of these cultures are called poetry under the premise that there is poetry where there is an intense use of language: an intense charge of meaning given through rhythms, images, and structures. This poetry is called "wild" because it uses practices in languages ​​and tribal, oral or marginalized societies by the progress of capitalist society. Most of them come to the present time recomposed from the work of ethnographers and anthropologists. Western societies have almost abandoned the notion and practice of rites, thus losing any form or social technology aimed at reaching or contacting the unverifiable, with what is external or unknown, empirically non-existent but present.

Figure 1: La Danse. André Derain. 1906.

Jerome Rothemberg in Techniques of the Sacred explains that rites are an essential supportive context for poetic practices in these other societies. One of the images most associated with wild poetry is that of syllabic chants: syllables, hums, interjections, and asemantic sounds, that is, constructions that do not reach the level of the word and that do not have a translatable meaning and infinite repetitions. That image has been vulgarized by mass culture as a trait of backwardness; however, this type of non-discursive song or poem is important both in the constitution of basic poetic gestures (rhythmic, vocal) and in many cultures: the anthologists of this type of poems or verbal practices usually point out that without being dominant or majority, this type of song appears in almost all the tribal societies that are studied (Rothemberg, 1985; p.8). An example might be the Poem of the Comanche Culture of the United States;

Ya hi yu niva hu

hi yu niva hi yu niva hu

ya hi yu niva hi na he ne na

hi ya hi nahi ni na

hi yu niva hu

hi yu niva hi yu niva hu

ya hi yu niva hi ya he ne na

In the book The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 by James Mooney it is analyzed and explained as a poem/dance/song used to bring peace. It is called The Father's Dance or Dance with Joined Hands. This poem was sung at daylight, when the first rays of the sun shone in the east, after the dancers had been dancing all night. The introductory part is a suggestion to start the rite, and it refers to the sun's rays, the moon, and the color yellow. Instead of focusing on meaning, this poem focuses on musicality, it is of the lullaby order, with a sweet, soothing effect (Mooney, 1991, p. 1047).

Figure 2: Pape mo'e. Paul Gaugin. 1893.

These types of poems have, first of all, a musical dimension; null visual dimension and a structural notion linked to an idea of ​​infinity by using the repetition of the same sequence as the main pattern. This type of repetition has a core link with the idea of ​​territorial production, the creation of differentiated territories and environments. Invoking the rain, a divinity, or trying to connect with the spirits of the dead are part of a remote cultural memory, and are basically actions that are tried to be activated through rituals. A ritual is a set of actions (which may involve singing, recitation, dance, music, a certain theatricality, the ingestion of substances, sacrifices of various kinds, etc.) carried out for their symbolic value, based on some belief already be it religious, political or community traditions.

It is necessary to differentiate between a ritual and an action that has been repeated for a long time but that can be a simple custom, with no other vocation. The rites are sets of actions that are related to beliefs and that try to put into operation a logic different from the current one, therefore, they are special actions that create and depend on special contexts, different from the ordinary ones, even when they can be practiced at random daily. A ritual is a procedure that is arranged to try to connect with something unverifiable, invisible, external. Repetition, emptied language produces a differentiated space. The “poem” thus delimits, and operates on space rather than as discourse.

Ernesto Cardenal in Anthology of Primitive Poetry explains about the shaman Maria Sabina. She was born in 1894 and died in 1985. Throughout her life, she became a national and international celebrity, after her traditional knowledge of the ceremonial and curative use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which she called "holy children". She descends from ancestors who mastered the art of healing by singing balm and language, as well as traditional medicine and botany (Cardenal, 1979; p. 28). In the songs of María Sabina, a different use of anaphora and parallelism can be observed, that is, of the hypnotic repetition that is characteristic of much archaic poetry: the shaman introduces images and affirmations that disrupt each other (some are “realistic”, and others hallucinated, such as “mother green”) and a totalization at the same time, has a curative vocation, projecting a unitive image.

Figure 3: Maria Sabina. Nicolás Rosenfeld. 2022.

I am a woman who cries, she says

I am a crazy woman, she says

I am a woman who makes thunder, she says

I am a woman who makes sounds, says

I am a spirit woman, she says

I am a woman who cries, she says


Mother who has life

Mother who rocks, says

Mother of breeze

Mother of dew says

Mother to stop

Mother who stands up, says

Mother of milk

Green mother says

Fresh mother

In short, the asemantic poetry of ancestral cultures is revealed as part of a technical-ritual framework of vast possibilities and resonances, and as a central feature of any conception of poetry: the transit or tangent towards action, out of the discursive, towards an extra-verbal commotion. Wild poetics responds by exhibiting a palette of poetic procedures in situations that reveal the possible plot between poems and forms of life. It deals with poetics of the moment, of the present, the unity of everything that exists, and ritualization. The hospitality towards the unknown, the subversion of the subjective instance as the only organizer of the world and of the poems, and the power of a different language, which, even so, has much to say.

Bibliographical References

Cardenal, E. (1979). Antología de poesía primitiva. Madrid. Alianza Editorial.

Mooney, J. (1991). The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. United States of America. Bison Book edition by the University of Nebraska Press. Rothemberg, J. (1985). Technicians of the sacred. United States of America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Antonella Cosentino

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