Ways of Knowing
The Aesthetics of Boasian Poetry
This essay surveys one of the less explored Boasian legacies: the significant body of over 1,000 poems written by the three major Boasian anthropologists Margaret Mead, Ruth Fulton Benedict, and Edward Sapir. Over 380 of these poems were published, some of them in renowned magazines such as ‘Poetry’, ‘The Dial’, ‘The Measure’, ‘The Nation’, and ‘The New Republic’. Focusing on what I call their “ethnographic poems”—poems that engage with subjects and issues they encountered in their ethnographic work—I draw on two understandings of the word “aesthetics” (as the Baumgartian “science of sensuous cognition” and as the philosophy of art and beauty) to probe what ethical, political, and epistemological differences it makes whether one writes about other cultures in verse or scientific prose. The essay offers close readings of one poem by each: Mead’s “Monuments Rejected” (1925), Benedict’s “In Parables” (1926), and Sapir’s “Zuni” (1926).