Rothenberg Poetry University
Heuristic Maps For The Mastery of Poetry
Jerome Rothenberg is a genius. With the aid of his able collaborators, he has mapped out a heuristic path for the study of poetry and toward a unifying theory of poetics. With the reissue of Symposium of The Whole and the 3rd edition of Technicians of The Sacred from University of California Press comes a reminder of his range and diligence. Similar to Kenneth Rexroth’s didactic intent, Rothenberg’s scholarship undercuts the institutional hegemony by reaffirming the roots of a native experience.
In his introduction to the November 13, 2017 event at City Lights Books in San Francisco celebrating the new edition of Technicians of the Sacred, Jack Foley states “Rothenberg’s book shifted the focus—displayed the possibility of another center, even multiple centers. Language was an issue here too but it was in the service of a primary drive towards rediscovery and reclamation.”
Rothenberg’s concept of ethnopoetics works as a brilliant counter to the dominant literary regime of tight ass Brits and their Yankee counterparts. Literature doesn’t have a leg to stand on if it doesn’t acknowledge the deep origins of its practice and an understanding of the poem’s ritual use. Ethnopoetics challenges poets and students of poetry (often the same) to become de facto ethnographers if only by being informed of the discipline.
In examining an older pre-literate poetry, Rothenberg’s anthologies, Technicians of the Sacred, in collaboration with George Quasha (1968) and Shaking The Pumpkin (1972), allow the curious reader a view into a ritualistic sense of language that, enacted by call and response, reveals a balance between the sacred and the profane. As well, ethnopoetics reintroduces and reaffirms the ecstatic in the practice of poetry–the return to ecstasy and the inspiration of its insights, an actual breathing in as an embodiment of being however momentary or fleeting. The poem is realized and exists off the page in the form of the author who has performed the feat, this sleight of language, by whatever means necessary in enabling a specific cultural significance.
The heart of the matter is succinctly revealed by a passage from Mercea Eliade’s Shamanism, as quoted in he Symposium Of The Whole:
“Poetic creation still remains an act of perfect spiritual freedom. Poetry remakes and prolongs language; every poetic language begins by being a secret language, that is, the creating of a personal universe, of a completely closed world. The purest poetic act seems to recreate language from an inner experience that, like the ecstasy or the religious inspiration of ‘primitives’ reveals the essence of things.”
As a proposal for a heuristic curriculum and syllabus, the Rothenberg anthologies and the ancillary collections and compilations can serve as the basis for the study of a wide-ranging worldview poetics. Ethnopoetics in its encompassing gaze broadens the field, and allows for every notion of expression, from chants to drumming to sign language as well as the more modern extra lyrical appropriations of language ubiquity.
Following the publication of Shaking the Pumpkin, came a studied overview, again co-edited with George Quasha, to add perspective to poetry’s agency, America, A Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present, (1973). In 1977 Rothenberg published a reading of his own linguistic roots as The Big Jewish Book later titled Exiled in the Word. Rothenberg’s prodigious polymathic works of scholarship would easily fill a three foot shelf; in fact, counting publications of his own original works as well as those in collaboration with others, most of the bookshelf would be his.
A Symposium of The Whole, compiled with anthropologist Diane Rothenberg, published in 1983 and reissued in 2013, is an erudite sampler with commentary and orientation by the editors, and sets out an itinerary for the intrepid reader to follow by highlighting nodes of scholarship and focal points to ancillary information and approaches to poetry by providing a range of discourse from Vico to Marx to Graves to Malanowski to Barthes, among many others. As a platform to review the art of poetry, Symposium is a potpourri of sources each with its own fascinating vector offering diverse readings of the poetic past and present whose effect, according to the authors, is that of “a changed paradigm of what poetry was or now could come to be.” Each excerpt and essay is a compass point indicating a direction of further discovery and scholarship.
In the late nineties Rothenberg and co-editor Pierre Joris compiled and annotated two ambitious anthologies of modern and postmodern poetry, Poems for The Millennium, Volume One, from Fin de Siecle to Negritude (1995), and Poems for The Millennium, Volume Two, from Postwar to Millennium (1998). These anthologies are as comprehensive as they are controversial. Their range and inclusiveness can make them a little unwieldy and at times uneven but their intent, to provide a cross-section of worldwide poetic practice, is admirably utilitarian. As of 2015, the Poems for The Millennium series numbered five volumes, all but the last, published by the University of California Press.
The third volume in the Millennium series with commentary by Rothenberg and his collaborator, Jeffrey C. Robinson, is a step back from the intense modernist and post modern trends of the 20th century to examine the foundations of these developments in Romantic and Post-Romantic literary traditions. The series continues with a perspective from a largely non-Indo-European culture influenced by its ancient sense of place, North Africa. The fourth volume, compiled by Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour, presents a wide-ranging anthology of the written and oral literatures of the Maghreb, including the influential Arabo-Berber and Jewish literary culture which flourished in Spain between the ninth and fifteenth centuries.
Volume Five of Poems For The Millennium,Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Assemblage of Outside & Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present, with commentaries by Rothenberg and John Bloomberg-Rissman, was published by Black Widow Press in 2015. Always attuned to the peripheries and the eccentricities of poetic creation, Rothenberg presents an array of outlier verse and happenstance as verse, returning in part to the idea of the poem found in nature or as an emanation of surroundings and where the reality of poetry is truly fantastic.
Anthologies, particularly those of contemporary poets, are burdened with problems of cronyism and difficult or unsavory political choices for the editors. Sadly the intent of the included poems tends to get lost in the shuffle and ranking. Often the introduction and contributors’ notes are the most interesting reading in many contemporary poetry anthologies. The editor’s introduction usually justifies the poet’s inclusion in the anthology by granting a lineage and provenance that will place their esthetic within the parameters of the anthology’s focus. As well, it is a preamble ramble as to the worthiness of the poets included, providing an overview that can never be too general or pinned down.
Perhaps the poetry anthology in print has outlived its utility. Some have even suggested an online Directory of American Poets (known as DOAP—rhymes with soap) as an alternative, consisting primarily of vital statistics: year and place of birth, year of death, if applicable, marital status, and abridged curriculum vitae that names the published works along with year of publication and publisher, education and, more and more, the academic institutions at which they teach or have taught, with links to blogs, publishers’ websites, shopping sites, and social media pages where the pathologically curious can find more stats and links to online publications, reviews, and critical attention. The only purpose a print edition serves besides trumpeting exclusivity in the guise of being representative is in the teaching arena such as the classroom and the writing workshop so that everyone can be on the same page. Unfortunately most anthologies of contemporary poetry represent the entrenched coterie collections of corporate post modern wannabe Duchampian conceptualists whose sole purpose is to function as the social registers of poseurs.
In contrast, the Poems For The Millennium series presents a wonderland of world poetry that can’t fail to entice any lapsed comparative literature major. These are anthologies for the truly curious, the dedicated seekers. A fearless reader can trek through the poetry continents and cultures of non-Western or Eurocentric bias and marvel at the commonality of the art and its history, ancient and contemporary. In Rothenberg’s anthologies the scope and breadth of the poetry universe is righteously cataloged. Each of the poets cited is a neuronal cell in a vast web of poetic consciousness. The diverse assortment of information and poetries provided can be daunting yet for the truly curious the proposed curriculum of this heuristic university, guided by the informed commentary of the editors, can lead on a path to greater understanding and appreciation of the art of poetry.
At the heart of the Millennium series are the first two volumes and their focus on modernism and post modern developments in the art of poetry. Volume I, from fin de siècle to négritude, with its significant attention to the francophone writers of the early 20th century, provides a choice of forbearers organized in categories and galleries as clusters of associated poets clumped into school or groups. Rothenberg wisely includes manifestoes among the selection of authors as defining of trends. The art of the manifesto reflects the fact that the 20th century was the beginning of the age of manifestos. And of self-branded schools. As such, representative schools of international scope signify a multicultural literary approach by examining the work of contributors of diverse trends. Modernism contributes to the understanding of the increasing complexity of existence, the granularity of the quotidian, the fractality of the moment. That complexity is evident in the breadth and diversity of sources and erudition of the commentaries, a hallmark of Rothenberg anthologies.
When we congratulate ourselves on contemporary innovations in the art of poetry, be it minimalism or conceptualism or any other latter day ism, it is instructive to leaf through the pages of this first volume to find the footprints of the foundational poets of the so-called modern age. Though the pump may have been primed by the likes of Blake, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire, the excitement and anticipation of the promise of the new century at the cusp of the millennium is found in the works of Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Cendrars, the redefining esthetics of Duchamp, and the upheaval brought about by Dada and surrealism.
It is significant that the importance of Mallarmé as a source of modernism and the introduction of chance to the making of literature is highlighted by the inclusion of Un coup de dés in its radical entirety as prescient for the future for the poem on the page. Furthermore, the international propagation of a surrealist esthetic allowed for the emergence and acceptance of worldwide art solidarity, particularly the anti-colonial négritude movement arising from the work of such French intellectuals and poets as Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas.
Ezra Pound’s idea of an inclusive world anthology is largely realized in this first volume of the Millennium series with a range of more than just a couple of semesters (or quarters) worth of study. Simply following the suggested threads proposed by the array of poets and the accompanying learned commentary is enough to furnish a solid education in modern poetry or, if nothing else, where to go to find it. And it is from this compiled energy that the present emerges.
Volume II, from Postwar to Millennium, gathers many poets familiar to readers of contemporary poetry. Again the featuring of manifestos makes for fascinating reading from the likes of Nicanor Para, Edward Sanders, Amiri Bakara, Paul Celan, and Sujata Bhatt among many others. Also the grouping throughout of poets in affiliated coteries, schools, and movements such as the Vienna Group, The Tammuzi Poets, Cobra, Neo-Avanguardia, The Misty Poets (Chinese), and of course The Beats emphasizes the vortices of an associated poetics that are often spontaneous cohesions of like minded individuals or elitist doctrinaire cohorts. The sheer complexity and richness of these overlapping associations reveals a breadth of literature that for the local reader works to vanquish a dominant Anglocentric bias.
Of course, the anthologies are not entirely free of bias as their primary audience is the reader in that particular imperialist lingua franca, English. In many ways these anthologies are a gift, a balm, a release from the constraints of the dominant Anglo glot. They pull, in many cases, yank (pun intended), the reader from a provincial complacency to confront the reality of a world poetry and a world of poetry. And while the effort to diligently catalog an international representation of poetry and poetics is beyond admirable, it is at the editors own doorsteps that a perceived bias and glaring omission raises the question of political choices.
A knowledgeable selection depends on finding the diverse poetries representing trends yet it would also be instructive to include the mavericks and independents who defy categorization and whose full resonance has yet to be realized or who, like Whitman and Dickinson, are pure products, unique in their poetic actualization. Not that the outliers and peripheral poetry geniuses have been entirely overlooked, but there is a big “however.”
In particularly the metric for inclusion in Volume II seems to fall along political lines, especially in the selection of American poets whose exegetical utility is solely to satisfy an academic criterion. In hindsight perhaps, the editors would have been wise to emphasize a Pacific Rim grouping that would include not only Gary Snyder but Lew Welch, Joanne Kyger, and Philip Whalen who are undoubtedly significant influences. Yet Whalen, a remarkably innovative American poet, and Kyger, whose work is representative of unique cross cultural influences, do not make the cut. And while Frank O’Hara is included, one of the most frankly lyrical poets of the first generation of New York poets, James Schuyler, is mysteriously absent The second generation of the so-called New York School also suffer from questionable exclusion. Ann Waldman, Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley grace the pages of Volume II with representative poems, but what about Ron Padgett (whose excellent translations from the French make Volume I a joy to read). Where is Bill Berkson, the definitive aesthetician of the group, or Joseph Ceravolo, the outlier genius, and Maureen Owen, a vastly underrated poet of remarkable talent? Yet a special niche is carved out for a coterie of pretentious poseurs and quasi academics whose political influence far outshines their poetic achievement. Certainly the radical innovations of a Clark Coolidge have to be acknowledged but why not the incisive erudition and sly wit of David Bromige? Also left out of the mix is the fantastic Anselm Hollo (except for his translations in Volume I), Charles Simic, and Andrei Codrescu, the East European ESL School. Where are Tom Clark and Charles Bukowski? Or Steve Carey? Where, as well, are the French Canadian poets? How well are the Mexican poets represented? The list of inadvertent omissions (the editors should at least have the benefit of the doubt) is rather long and could easily make up the table of contents for Volume VI of the Millennium series.
The task of an anthologist is unenviable. Fishing in the sea of poetry there will always be the ones that got away. It may seem contradictory to recommend these two anthologies in particular while pointing out their omissions. However, despite the obvious caveats, there is no doubt that Volume I and II of the Millennium series are valuable tools for the study of contemporary poetry and trends in 20th century literature.
In 2000, to further expand the bandwidth of the study of the written word, Rothenberg published, with Steven Clay, A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections About the Book & Writing. The esotericism and exoticism of book arts is a parallel and fascinating study. This volume provides a supplemental course that neatly ties in to a curriculum of poetics.
The print revolution has made the page the source and the resting place of poetry. Once the poem has been printed it becomes a cultural commodity, an artifact, and a disposable one at that. Within those limits language has struggled seeking accommodation in its approximation of conscious existence and has depended on innovative approaches of the printer’s and bookmaker’s art. What was once carved in stone, scratched on sheepskin, cut into wood, and finally set in cold steel within the confines of sheaves of paper functioning as a record of evolving mind sets, providing a map that eventually became a map for the sake of being a map, and with which inveterate topographers and experimenters used to break out of the literary squirrel cage and turn the product back on itself is the art of the book. Once the page became a thing in itself rather than medium for the recording of something else, the possibilities were unlimited. Yet to see that evolution in literary arts it is necessary to view the practice from its very beginnings. Or at least get an idea of what has preceded contemporary efforts and perhaps find a relative connection between then and now. This particular volume, as an example, speaks to the vast and polymathic curriculum that Rothenberg’s anthologies provide.
Through his various anthologies Rothenberg has suggested a curriculum and a method for an acquisition of a familiarity of the subject of poetics and a unifying vision of the art of poetry. Their didactic intent is presented as necessary for the grasp of a world view poetics. Unearthing the foundations of modern and postmodern literature becomes an archeological dig. Rothenberg makes available the tools for such an excavation, the essentials for an overview and understanding of origins and how they relate to the present.
To further compliment the Millennium series, intrepid poetry scholars might include the Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson anthology of Japanese poetry, The Country of Eight Islands, as well as the Columbia University Press two volume set of Chinese poetry edited by Burton Watson and Jonathan Chaves as part of their curriculum. Serious consideration should also be given to Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, the Padgett/Shapiro Anthology of New York Poets, and Ron Silliman’s In The American Tree.
When one’s conception of poets and poetry is exposed to radically different means and cultures then that notion can realign itself to an equally valid and unique point of view. Beyond that, hairs are for splitting. Poetry is for no one and everyone.
Submitted to the Membership for consideration by the Parole Officer, 9/4/2018
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