Sunday, January 2, 2011

Poetic Fieldnotes

Fieldnotes are one of the many integral methods to ethnographic work in anthropology and other disciplines that attempt to gauge and explain an activity or event from the perspective of the notetaker/ethnographer. During a methods class, I was instructed to go out and take fieldnotes within the Baltimore community. Long story short, when I attempted to describe a tangible object, the outcome of the description looked somewhat similar to the simple sentences kindergartners write except my vocabulary was much more expansive. This can be partly attributed to the overwhelming pressure to write down as much as possible as fast as possible before the object moved out of sight or before something more important came along. Yet for the most part, this action of simply listing the colors, shapes, and patterns of objects were futile in providing an accurate description and portrayal of the described object. The perfect ethnographic description of something allows for the ethnographer to reread his/her notes time and time again while retaining a vivid understanding and feel of that item (especially after months have passed from the initial notetaking). A vivid understanding of anything entails that all senses are activated and utilized to better preserve the item in its entirety. And who better to orchestrate the perfect description of an event or activity than a poet?

True poets have the glorious ability to describe a cultural ritual like 'Washing Day' by painting a picture of the chores performed by the women and detailing the emotional and physical atmosphere. The most significant aspect of this poem is Anna Barbauld's portrayal of women, how they are treated on this unique day, and their role within the kinship system during this particular period in time. Learning and perfecting the art of prose is to gain enlightenment of the observed culture. I argue that poets were the first cultural anthropologists and still are. There are few people in the world who can articulate and arrange details in such a readable and recognizable form. Poetry should be taken seriously as a form of writing fieldnotes. While my knowledge of poetry is limited to British literature, I should not be dismissed as someone has not given this idea much thought. Think about it...
The Muses are turned gossips; they have lost
The buskin'd step, and clear high-sounding phrase,
Language of gods. Come, then, domestic Muse,
In slip-shod measure loosely prattling on
Of farm or orchard, pleasant curds and cream,
Or drowning flies, or shoe lost in the mire
By little whimpering boy, with rueful face;
Come, Muse, and sing the dreaded Washing-Day.

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