Gesturing to the past: the case for an ethnography of Melanesian poetics

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The driving theme of this article is the loss of poetics in the language of the Vula‘a people of southeastern Papua New Guinea, in particular the relationship between language loss and knowledge loss—the type of knowledge that connects people to ancestors and is central to a group’s identity. Drawing on examples from my fieldwork, I argue for the value of an ethnography of poetic language and for rethinking approaches to the study of Indigenous languages beyond instances when endangerment is imminent. My approach is influenced by Martin Heidegger and sits comfortably with recent theoretical perspectives that draw on the work of Edward S Casey (1996) and Tim Ingold (2000). Poetic language is not only prevalent in immediately recognizable genres; it also plays a significant role in many other oral traditions as well as in day-to-day life. Consequently, there is a pressing need to pay attention to disappearing poetic forms if we are to comprehend past and present lifeworlds. To this end, we should not be distracted by models that would reduce language to types of expression or to component parts. After presenting examples from my own research, I explore the work of other Melanesian ethnographers to reveal the relationship between poetic language, place, and Indigenous ways of knowing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)97-122
Number of pages26
JournalThe Contemporary Pacific: A Journal of Island Affairs
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Melanesia
  • oral tradition
  • poetics
  • ethnography
  • phenomenology
  • knowledge


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