Seven Words for Jerome Rothenberg
by Peter Middleton
Modernus—“meaning ‘of today’ as opposed to ‘of yesterday’—what is over, finished, or historically surpassed—first came into use in the course of the fifth century AD at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire” (Osborne, 9).
Rothenberg and Quasha’s brilliant anthology America a Prophecy (1974), proposes a new way of reading poetry, through a transitive poetics that insists that poems realize themselves not through solo reading nor through the intercontexualizations of biography, schools of poetry, or even aesthetic positions; only when poems are read as contributions to collective enquiry, political challenge, and the subscription of sacred powers, can they reach their potential. Instead of presenting this work as a chronologically ordered history of authors, modes, movements, or regional florescences, the editors employ the temporal logic of modernity to explain their lines of assembly: “Poetry over the past hundred years has not only changed radically, it has transformed our idea of what poetry is or ever has been. In this century, especially since World War II, conscious experimentation has shown us the great range of language possibilities at our disposal.” Poems from the entire period of invasion, settlement and contemporary American imperium, alongside some that survive from earlier indigenous cultures of writing and performance, are issued with the time-cards of a modernist rhetoric of time and history. Innovations displayed by this radically changing poetry help mark a temporal break with the past, and in addition transform that past, so that the Popol Vuh or a Dakota “winter-count” becomes evidence of those immanent possibilities made visible by the experiments of contemporary avant-garde writers. Conscious experiment, which sounds very like the work of natural scientists, the most authoritative producers of knowledge in our society, innovates and therefore produces the surplus of possibilities necessary for political freedom and change, by avoiding the relentless search for novelty that requires constant disposal of past fashions and the past itself to sustain the cultures of capitalist modernity. The question will be how we (and who are we and how do we know ourselves to be such a collective?) dispose of these possibilities. Modernist faith leads to a strong claim for poetry’s inherent modernization: “We believe that poetry “evolves,” not in quality or aesthetic merit, but in awareness of its role and the resources at its disposal” (XXXII). Putting “evolves” in scare quotes indicates that this Darwinian reference is metaphoric, yet it does suggest that the underlying model is one of a species poem whose variegated individual instances adapt themselves better and better to the environment, in what is actually an unDarwinian process of improvement, although very much the logic of modernism, constantly overcoming itself, constantly moving beyond the failing present and its quickly outmoded forms.
This is the survival not of the fittest but the most prophetic poems: “A special concern for the interplay of myth and history runs through the whole of American literature. Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman saw the poet’s function in part as revealing the visionary meaning of our lives in relation to the time and place in which we live. …We have taken this American emphasis on the relationship of myth and history, of poetry and life, as the central meaning of a ‘prophetic’ native tradition” (XXXIV). Modernist art could be called prophetic, since it always strives to anticipate the future that will emerge from its restless present, if one is willing to accept its prognostications and its temporal insights on its own terms, or perhaps because one believes that the prophetic somehow overmasters modernism’s temporal fragmentation. Why do the editors talk up national identity as the achievement of the prophetic poetics of America at the very time that national identity was so fractured by Vietnam, Watergate, and the emergence of new social movements? It would be too easy to say that they hope that poets might offer the revolutionary therapy the country’s traumas need. How have we moved from the logic of modernism, through prophecy, with all its connotations of religious tradition, to nationalism? One possible answer is that this conjunction is needed to reclaim for poetry a significance it has lost to narrative over the period since Blake, a transfer of hegemony that is now so entrenched it is rarely questioned. Narrative alone, according to Paul Ricoeur, can reconcile phenomenological time with cosmological time, the time of experience with the time of science and matter, and is the superglue of identity. It provides individual and national self-representation whereby a person is able to present a coherent identity through the offering of narratives to others, and these same narratives also enable a person to understand and even reshape themselves, to some extent, however limited. Narrative, we might say, can be prophetic because individuals and nations forge their inner togetherness with it: “Individual and community are constituted in their identity by taking up narratives that become for them their actual history” (Ricoeur, 247).
Ethnos—“Gk, nation, people, caste, tribe; prob. akin to Gk Ýthos custom—more at ETHICAL” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1971).
Rothenberg and Quasha link modernity, prophecy, and national identity because they want poetry’s power to emulate narrative’s temporal proficiencies to be recognized, a link that is also apparent in Rothenberg’s concept of ethnopoetics. Ethnopoetics is one of Rothenberg’s most successful performance pieces, for as he wrote in “Je Est un Autre” in American Anthropologist, this was “not ethnopoetics as a course of study–however much we wanted it–but as a course of action” (524) and therefore neither an intellectual sub-discipline of ethnography (a parallel to ethnobotany perhaps) nor an institution (no society to join). A survey of the ethnographical databases will reveal almost nothing on the topic. At the end of Time and Narrative, Ricoeur admits a doubt about the grant of an exclusive franchise to narrative as the representation of temporality, and asks whether other genres can “speak of what is most rebellious when it comes to representation” (272)–this is what ethnopoetics does in its challenge to the imperialism of Western culture by recognizing the “world of others” both within and without the self through an ethnopoetics that would be “first and last, the work of poets” (“Je est,” 524). Yet the naming of this poetics presents a curious tension. Rothenberg’s definition here, as elsewhere, outlines a “more ethical” poetic stance rather than a poetics of national or tribal identity, and yet does not appear to be tempted to drop the “n” and become an ethopoetics. Doing so would obviously risk another form of universalizing if a categorical or functional ethics were dominant, yet Rothenberg’s more Levinassian ethics of otherness would seem resistant to any such monolithically Westernizing dominance. What makes the “n” in ethnos so compelling to him?
Homi Bhaba argues that locality is an experience that depends on temporality rather than history: “We need another time of writing that will be able to inscribe the ambivalent and chiasmatic intersections of time and place that constitute the problematic ‘modern’ experience of the Western nation” (141), because, he goes on to say, “the representation of the nation [is] a temporal process” (142). This insistence on the importance of temporality for a lived relation to nationalities unsuprisingly leads him to concur silently with Ricoeur in the assumption that nationality demands narrative and he goes on to argue that a people are given a collective identity by the narratives of nationhood as a doubling, or what he calls a “double-time” as if repeating and transposing Ricoeur’s problematic of cosmological and phenomenological time. When Bhaba argues that the nation needs repeated performative acts of narration based on the “scraps, patches and rags of daily life” turned into prophetic signs of national identity, to sustain itself, we can extrapolate to the poetics of a daily renewed engagement with the conditions of a possible life. What the anthology editors celebrate as American prophetic exceptionalism, manifest in a lineage of American poetry whose extent is only now becoming evident, Bhaba would recognize as typifying the way in which modern national identities are generally constructed by textual practices of narrative.
Rothenberg’s ethno-practice takes him in a different direction because although he too wants to find a means for poetry to work with time as effectively as fictional narrative is claimed to do, and is as much a child of the diaspora as Bhaba, he is too rebellious towards dominant modes of representation to trust referentiality so much. He would look to the intimations of another mode of working suggested by Robert Duncan, whose great poem, “Tribal Memories: Passages 1,” placed near the start of America a Prophecy, proposes a poetics of diaspora, and whose essay I want to conclude by suggesting that although such reservations about both the term and the poetic practice are valid for some texts, that Rothenberg has managed to mark out a possible poetic practice that extends beyond either the New American Poetry or Language Poetry, although it has elements of both (and it is not surprising that he can be found in Butterick’s revision of Allen’s anthology and in Messerli’s anthology, and even in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E). Not because he achieves some bridging synthesis however, but because he shows that it might be possible to imagine a poetic practice that is performative but does not need the authority of a first person to speak and so can imagine a poem that is not a history of its negotiation with the subjectivity of authorship, and yet can go outside any supposedly constraining condition of a language known in the terms of philosophy, linguistics and literary theory.
Take “The Suicide of Dada.” Dada flourished with the flouting, the emulation, the mimesis of ritual, deliberately using costumes, sounds, and texts that were just allusive enough to religious ritual to make their violations of aesthetic convention appear deeply transgressive, and yet like rituals for an unknown faith. Rothenberg’s poem is replete with ritual elements, with invocations, repetition, chanting, and sonic elements designed to make consciousness more ready for lasting impressions, woven together with comedy, irreverence, and silliness. To read it is to imagine a performance that would make sense of the highly irregular anti-prosodic lines, and the unexpected voices, shifts of scene, and tone. To read it is to try and imagine the ritual of which this is an attenuated and imperfect imitation, perhaps a spiritualist seance, since it begins “the man I would address as father is at last/ my son’s age, as the light advances/ through the century…” (24), as if a Dada father would materialize if only the ceremony were intense and accurate enough.
Fucking ay—“Fucking ay right I did” (Chapman, 153).
In his Gematria, Rothenberg’s poems are formed by numerological copulae, unexpected conjunctions generated by the number of the words of the title in the list of words. The letter A copulates with another letter, a whole word of letters, to produce these gnomic pieces that seem always on the verge of both mystery and banality. In this volume the sexual energy of affirmation that the slang phrase emphasizes, is less explicit than in much else of Rothenberg’s work. His well known poem “Cokboy” for example, revels in the display of penis and vagina, of shit and phallic fantasies, letting the letters of the words cok, coke, cocaine, cock, cook, and cow, fuck away and produce an event to shock any system of reverential historicism. The poet-performer is possessed by his ancestors, is mistaken for a cowboy, an Indian, feels that the poem itself may be a counter semantics that is some Kabbalistic ritual that will deconstruct its attempts to produce meaning. If the Jewish grandfather finds all the letters going backwards in the English of America, does this mean that the letters of this poem will all start doing the same, being swallowed by the cultural memory of his Judaic heritage, going backwards, z fucking a?
Erotic transgression enables Cokboy to outwit “the designers of a failed poetics” (That Dada Strain, 26), and overcome the knowledge that is power in America, by “lighting the Marriage of America/ in kabbalistic time” (Poland/1931, 150). It would be tempting to read this as a late version of Bataille, whose “notion of transgression in eroticism is elaborated through an intimate dialogue with, and subversion of, the Hegelian notion of absolute knowledge,” (Guerlac, 157) except that the transgressiveness of this sexuality is doubtful. This is not perversion or a shift of position from the hegemonically phallic to some other less marginal position, but more a marginalized identity made potent by the possession of a comically large phallus. Phallic ethnicity’s pretensions are both ridiculed and affirmed in this comedy of family history.
Paleosol—“unusually carbonaceous ancient soils…the organic matter very probably represents remnants of microbial mats that developed on the soil surface between 2.6 and 2.7 billion years ago...Although terrestrial bacterial communities in the Archaean soil were predicted by some previous researchers, this is (to our knowledge) the first study presenting several lines of evidence for an extensive development of microbial mats on the soil surface in the Archaean” (Watanabe, 574).
A head-note in America a Prophecy explains that “a concern with first things continues into twentieth-century poetry, incorporating new visions from physical science and anthropology, as well as older myths know to European man” (19). As the quotation above from Nature indicates, this is still very much the case in science today, and part of the temporalizing of knowledge through an insistent modernization that works by finding earlier and more foundational grounds for knowledge. Rothenberg’s poetry and poetics is well aware of these paleosols, and knows how to make similar claims for the roots of contemporary poetry in the archaic, in tribal times or early visions. Archaizing helps legitimize the rituals, just as the parody of erotic transgression helps resist the interpellation of institutionalized belief. The result is a poetics of ritual that is not a ritualized poetics.
* * *
To sum up: the wouwura of Rothenberg’s ethnos is a fucking ay rite of modernus, bavarder the paleosol of poetry.
I would like to thank Josh Cohen and Nadia Valman for the opportunity to present an earlier version of this material to their Jewish Textualities seminar, and the Poetry/Rare Books Collection at the State University of Buffalo for their assistance in finding material.
Antin, David. Talking at the Boundaries. New York: New Directions, 1976.
Chapman, Robert L.. The Macmillan Dictionary of American Slang. London: Macmillan, 1995.
Crapanzano, Vincent. Hermes Dilemma and Hamlet’s Desire: On the Epistemology of Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1992.
Joris, Pierre. Joy! Praise! A festschrift for Jerome Rothenberg on the Occasion of His Sixtieth Birthday. Annandale: Ta’Wil Books and Documents, 1991.
Middleton, Peter. “The Transitive Poetics of Jerome Rothenberg’s Transnational Anthologies.” West Coast Line, 2000.
Munn, Nancy. The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1992.
Osborne, Peter. The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde. London: Verso, 1995.
Rothenberg, Jerome. “‘Je Est un Autre’: Ethnopoetics and the Poet as Other,” American Anthropologist 96(3), 1994, 523–524.
–––––. Poland/1931. New York: New Directions, 1974.
–––––. That Dada Strain. New York: New Directions, 1983.
Rothenberg, Jerome and Robert Creeley. “Jerome Rothenberg and Robert Creeley: An Exchange–Deep Image and Mode.” Kulchur 6:2, 1962, 25–42.
Rothenberg, Jerome and George Quasha. America a Prophecy. A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present. New York: Random House, 1974.
Watanabe, Yumiko, Jacques E.J.Martini, and Hiroshi Ohmoto. “Geochemical Evidence for Terrestrial Ecosystems 2.6 Billion Years Ago.” Nature 408, 30 November 2000, 574–578.