Editorial: Archive as Adventure by Robert Archambeau
A year or two before the first volume of Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’ seminal anthology Poems for the Millennium appeared in 1995, I was sitting in a seminar room at the University of Notre Dame, wondering what John Matthias was going to say about the three books he’d arrayed on the table in front of him. “What does one do with something like this?” he said, hefting an enormous reference book that listed the names and addresses of thousands of American poets. “I suppose you could drop it on something that needed flattening.”
Here was poetry unsorted and unmapped, explained Matthias, here was a gathering of poets about whom no editorial choices had been made. “This isn’t much better,” he said, picking up the second book, nearly as large. It was the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. An anthology that tried to be all things to all people all the time, he explained, ended up being nothing much at all. One could root around in it for individual poems, but the book itself made no statement. As bland as a committee-authored document from the federal budget department, and about as informative when it came to the state of poetry.
The third book still lay on the table, rather old and conspicuously thinner. Squinting a little from where I sat, I could just make out the title: Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English, edited by Yvor Winters and Ken Fields. “Then there’s the opposite extreme,” Matthias said, brandishing the book, which was slimmer than the novels I’d been reading on the train ride out from Chicago to South Bend. “Here’s what Winters thought of as the real tradition, pared down to this little gathering.” Matthias, I knew, was no Wintersian–he was one of Winters’ renegade students–and his own taste in poetry was among the most catholic of anyone I’d met. But he’d used Winters’ narrow little book effectively to make his point: anthologists need to make principled choices if their books are going to have anything to say about poetry, its past or its future.
At first glance, you might think the two volumes of Poems for the Millennium fall into the same formless category as the Norton Anthology. Together they add up to a similar page count, and their presence on a bookshelf is far more imposing. But after you steel yourself for a long swim, dive into the anthology, and surface at the far shore, you emerge with a clear sense of the organizing principle–one could even say the mission–of Rothenberg and Joris’ great editorial project. The principle, in a word, is awakening: awakening to the possibilities of language, of experiment, of what Mallarmé called the “freed word.” Awakening, above all, to the usable pasts of modernist and postmodernist innovation.
In their introduction to the second volume, Rothenberg and Joris lament the dark days following the second world war. It was as a time in which the poetic energy of the prewar years had been drained away by the institutionalization of a tamed and truncated version of modernism. These years witnessed “an ascendant literary ‘modernism’–hostile to experiment and reduced in consequence to a vapid, often stuffy middle-ground approximation.” There was a willful forgetting of the openness of modernism, and a turn to “a fixed notion of poetry and poem, which might be improved upon but was never questioned at the root.” The task of poets coming of age in the fifties and sixties, argue Rothenberg and Joris, was to find what had been lost, to revive the electrical energy of the force that had crackled through poetry at the beginning of the century. They call the fulfillment of this task “the second great awakening of poetry,” and the second volume of their anthology is an archive of that awakening.
In our own time the discourse about poetry, if not poetry itself, seems to have suffered through a taming and truncation of possibilities similar to the one Rothenberg and Joris saw in the years after World War II. I don’t think we’re about to see anyone offering as narrow a version of poetry as Winters offered in his little anthology. But the easy division of poetry into mainstream and otherstream, into Iowa school and Buffalo school, into confession and langpo, has become stifling. The two party version of poetry is about as satisfying and representative as the two party version of politics. In this context, Rothenberg and Joris’ archive of poetry’s two great awakenings in the last century has a special importance. In its pages lie the usable pasts of a third great awakening of poetry.
The current issue seeks to celebrate the Rothenberg/Joris collaboration. No one else could have assembled the work they have assembled, and no one else could have performed so well the alchemy that converts archive to adventure.