Academic journal article Bilingual Review


Academic journal article Bilingual Review


Article excerpt

The idea of ancient American poets and poetry may sound strange to some ears. In the United States we are usually taught that American poetry is an extension of English poetry, in Canada French poetry is often included, and in

Latin America schools teach the Spanish and Portuguese traditions. Yet there were rich traditions of poetry on this continent long before the first European colonists arrived. The ancient Mayas and Nahuas recorded their literature, culture, and history using indigenous writing systems, and the Incas recorded theirs on knotted strings called quipus. The Maya and Nahua screenfold books and the Inca quipus were almost all destroyed in the first years of the Conquest. When these old recording systems were forbidden by the conquerors, many people in each of these cultures quickly learned to write their own languages in the European alphabet and used it to record their own cultures for their own uses. Much of the oldest American literature has come down to us from these early Native books and manuscripts, written in alphabetic Nahuatl (Aztec), Maya, and Quechua (Inca). Among the literature they contain is a body of poetry by ancient Amerindians in the original languages and biographies of some of the poets.

The Flower Songs of Nezahualcoyotl (Nahua-Aztec), the Songs of Dzitbalche (Yucatec Maya), and the Sacred Hymns of Pachacuti (Inca) are all roughly contemporary in their dates of composition, around 1440, though the manuscripts containing them were written over a century later.

Most of these poems were meant to be accompanied by music, which makes them "lyric" poetry in the original sense of the word. Pachacuti's hymns were sung. Hungry Coyote's flower songs were recited over a drum cadence. Some of the Dzitbalche "dances" were surely sung, while others appear to have been spoken. Whether they are poems or songs or both is ultimately a hollow question, since no true line exists between poetry and song.

By the same token, no true line exists between oral and written literature. The very fact that language is based on words means that it cannot stray too far from the oral and must return to it. While the Mayas were the only Amerindian group to develop a complete writing system to record their literature, most pre-Conquest cultures had highly sophisticated mnemonic aids and traditions of memorization. The Nahuas used pictographs and ideographs; the Incas used the complex knots of the quipu. Many of the northern Amerindians likewise used symbols to record their history and culture, such as the Lenape's Walam Olum, both pictographic Algonquin chronicle and historical epic poetry. Melody, meter, and rhyme are of course universal mnemonic devices for poetry and song. The embedding of poems and songs into ceremonies also served to preserve them intact.

We know much about the lives of these poets because they were also prominent leaders, and Amerindian historians recorded detailed chronicles and biographies of their leading families. The civilizations of the Nahuas, Mayas, and Incas were all aristocratic. Nezahualcoyotl and Pachacuti were both kings during cultural peaks of their civilizations, so we know copious details about their lives. …

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