Jerome Rothenberg. Poetics & Polemics 1980-2005. essays and interviews. Co-edited with Steven Clay. University of Alabama Press. 2008.
Jerome Rothenberg’s commitment to literary and ritual traditions is both conflictual and creative. One the one hand, his scores of literary anthologies, which he calls “manifesto-anthologies” (influenced by the groundbreaking book The New American Poetry of 1960), have been published with regularity over the past forty years. Each book indicates his desire to break up conventional and neatly-packaged historical eras that usually come down to us as textbook summaries of entire bodies of thought. He does this in what he considers one of his central tasks as a poet—to gather, edit, and comment on arrangements of poems into “Galleries,” “Books,” “Preludes” and “Manifestos” in order to show us the still-unknown multitudes of cultural poetic forms (ritual, theatrical, musical and scientific) which do not typically qualify as poems for us. For Rothenberg, a poem is a work of writing more comprehensive than our specialized, compartmentalized ideas about a work of art: it something that gives us, in compact form, information and insight on the endeavors and emotions of entire societies. On the other hand, Rothenberg views the collection, editing, and presentation of historical authors as a revolutionary act—which means bridging the distances separating languages, by translating into English many passionate & expressive forms specific to single groups and places (even nations) and counteracting the deteriorating effects of time with the invocation of the creative act—foundational acts (as ever-repeatable dramas) that serve as origins. This is a revolution of relations: showing the reader how a sequence of poems/poetic texts reflects a continuum of practices that are akin as well as kind to one another.
These two new volumes continue his own personal traditions while playing his grand game of mind expansion and historical reframing: the anthology (co-edited with poet and Romantic scholar Jeffrey C. Robinson of the University of Colorado) is a refreshment of poets who define our sense of the Romantic: Goethe, Shelley, Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Hugo and Nerval. Included with these poets are sections of Asian poets, Outsider poets, poets questioning and redramatising the creation of the world or its loss of divinity, and aesthetic/political manifestos. The editors’ choices from famous poets aren’t based at all on the “canon” of key texts; they have searched through the full collections of the author’s writings in order to find more experimental forms; the kind of writing that, in the twentieth century, moved from a kind of marginal, discredited status to the center of serious critical and intellectual study. While there are expected excerpts from major authors, like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” there are also examples from diaries, daily journals and notes, poems suppressed or unpublished by their authors, and the kind of poems that reflect the noisy, violent, sexually explicit, ridiculously fantastic and hallucinatory side of romanticism. As a presentation of Romantic literature, Rothenberg and Robinson’s unique itinerary through the nineteenth century serves as a kind of pre-face (or “book of origins”) to the modernist and postmodernist poetry that appeared in the first two volumes of Poems for the Millenium (published in 1995 and 1998), in which the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, from Dada and Surrealism to Concrete and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, are covered.
Rothenberg’s new volume of essays covers twenty-five years of his critical and editorial writing after 1980. As he says in an interview: “The impulses of what we do as poets and artists go back to ancient sources in religion and ritual.” If the poets he promotes take their “impulses” from these sources, we can see that his collaborations with other editors have enabled a kind of unique synthesis of the radical dimension of western poetry in the first two “big” Poems for the Millennium books of modern/postmodern poetry with his own life-long project in worldwide ethnopoetics and comparative religion. Poetics & Polemics features many public lectures and essays that explain these two central activities: to present to English readers the works of other cultures’ poetic ritual, storytelling and comedic arts, and to rethink the kind of knowledge readers gain through poetry by creating collections of enormous scope and variety. As he states in an interview: “What Pierre Joris and I valued most in the poetry of our time had been almost systematically omitted from, or marginalized in, the anthologies and literary histories then current. The mix of poetry and poetics was something we worked to bring out—and the sense of poetry being the center of a program, a proposition or a set of propositions working in the public sphere.”
Given the broad disclosures in his Poetics & Polemics, readers will better understand Rothenberg’s bent for the startlingly unfamiliar and noncanonical side of Romanticism, one that embraces tribal, athiest, street-level and antinomian inflections. Since the 1950s, academic romanticism has been walled in by ideas such as “the man of feeling,” “romantic suicide”, “the fatal woman”, and “the metaphysical quester”; and then, when pushed through the 1970s meatgrinder of theory, further dehydrated by supplementarity, substitution, metaphysical closure, paradoxical foldings and force-fields of textuality and ideology. While we still have a hangover from those earlier times in our notion of “the outsider”, Rothenberg remains a critical editor suspicious of such ideas, since it is on the outside of literature where “the bulk of poetry is written—or spoken & memorized—or where works of language are created that do what poetry does but without a claim to being poetry as such.” Rothenberg’s anthologies are critically important for readers today because they strain incessantly against what an anthology is typically designed to produce: a compact closure of an era, identity, locale or spirit within an editorial framework of cold analysis and partiality. Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson’s romanticism is instead as anxious for the twentieth century as George Lucas’ last three Star Wars films were anxious for what happened before them in our history, but took place after them in their history. In poetry-land this means the first two volumes of Poems for the Millennium: “from Fin-de-Siècle to Negritude” and “From Postwar to Millenium”. The patchwork rattletrap Millennium Falcon is once again on a new mercenary voyage from outworld to outworld, harrassing the Dark Empire with it cargo of exotic spices and glimmers of vast occulted traditions. Buy this book. Read the poems. Skim through these brief interludes, and watch the stars blur like retinal burns every time you turn the page. Listen closely enough, and after each little excerpt newly unearthed from the archives of this or that iconic or neglected figure, you may almost hear: “Punch it, Chewie!!”