Introduction to Jerome Rothenberg, September 28, 1998, reading at the Kelly Writers House, with Pierre Joris, from their anthology Poems for the Millenium

Alan Filreis

(c) Alan Filreis; no copying or quoting without permission from the author

Jerome Rothenberg had declared himself a poet a few years before midcentury. At the very mid-point, 1950 itself, he was a student-with David Antin and others, at CCNY, which had been, since the 1920s, a haven for the intellectual left. What he found mos t thrilling then was (to quote him) "the language of those poets who could lead me into acts of othering." Stein, Joyce, Cummings, Dali, the Dadaists, Williams and Pound with Whitman carried in their wake.

Delmore Schwartz - I almost said but Delmore Schwartz -- was his first poetry teacher. So at mid-century he was looking at what had become of modernism. What was left of the so-called modernist revolution was lines like these by W.D. Snodgrass:

The green catalpa tree has turned 
All white; the cherry blossoms once more.  
Recalling how he learned to resist this version of the modernist legacy for an audience at the "American Poetry of the 1950s" conference at the University of Maine a few years ago, Rothenberg said he liked to quote Antin reacting to this kind of mid-centu ry verse. Antin had said of Snodgrass: "The comparison of this updated version of A shropshire Lad...and the poetry of the cantos and the Waste Land seemed so abberrant as to verge on the pathological." The thing was to deny that this was the real modernist legacy after all. But it was the fifties, and would take lots of work. Especially if one's goal was to be a poetic internationalist not in the cold-war sense of demonstrating American aesthetic originality in places that otherwise might fall to the communists.

But, rather, to do what in the 1950s and early 1960s was extremely difficult-to assert, as Rothenberg did, that "there are no half-formed languages, no underdeveloped or inferior languages." At Michigan, for a year of graduate study and what Jerry has called "draft evasion" (this was the time of Korea), he found himself the lone defender of Walt Whitman. He wanted what he called "the rebirth or reawakening of a radical modernism that was not only rooted in the U.S. (out of Whitman) but had gone still further elsewhere." Since then, over time, he has become the poet, critic, teacher, anthologist, translator, activist, archivist, assembler, organizer, and editor who has done as much as anyone of his generation to make a radical modernism available to readers, including - crucially - other writers.

He has done this with energy and inventiveness for many, many years. Something like 52 books of poetry, and - crucial to us tonight - something like NINE major assemblages of traditional and contemporary poetry in various combinations. (Notice I didn't s ay "anthologies"-with Rothenberg you don't quite know what an anthology is, if it's anything other than a collaborative editorial mediation of archaic and primitive poetries with the new-or the new in an implicit frame made by ethnopoetics, internationali sm, or ritualisms.) Among the many remarkable books of poems, one notes the first, White Sun Black Sun (1960), a great initial escape from midcentury modernism. And the amazing Seneca Journal of 1978-a book that I think absolutely every living young person who liked poetry r ead when it came out. And Vienna Blood (1980), and New Selected Poems (1986). More recently, Seedings and other poems (1996). To list the anthologies-just titles-does convey how extraordinarily well Rothenberg has reached a goal he and Joris articulate in their introduction to volume 1 of Poems for the Millenium, to wit: broaden cultural terrain, directed by a sense of an ancient and continuing subterranian tradition with the poetic impulse at its center-all inside an ongoing if shifting connection to related political and social movements.

1. Ritual (1966)

2. A big Jewish book (78)

3. Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe & Oceania (67 and revised, 85)

4. Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditiona poetry of the Indian North Americas (72, 86, 91)

5. America a Prophecy: A New Reading of American poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Prsent (73)

6. Revolution of the word: A new Gathering of American Avant-Garde Poetry, 1914-1945 (74, 96)

7. Ethnopoetries (76)

8. Symposium of the Whole, with Diane Rothenberg, 84

9. two volumes of an little unambitious anthology modestly called Poems for the Millenium (95, 97)

Please help me welcome to the Writers House, again, Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg.


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