Friday, 22 July 2011

POETRY: Jerome Rothenberg's White Sun, Black Sun (1960) - the lost poetry debut of the greatest anthologist of the century

Performance-poet, translator, editor, and arguably the most important anthology-creator of the 20th century, Jerome Rothenberg was born in 1931 in Brooklyn NY, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. Whilst serving in the U.S. army, stationed in Germany after World War II, Rothenberg was effectively witness to a moment of cultural collapse comparable to that which provoked the Dadaists’ radical experiments with poetry, theatre, and related arts, from 1916 onwards. As his poem “The History of Dada as My Muse” – and indeed the entire collection That Dada Strain (1980) – attests, Rothenberg views Dada as a manifestation of some universal impulse to dismantle cultural forms, questioning their ideological assumptions, rather than as an expression of dissent that channelled its energies into artistic expression and thereby (paradoxically) affirmed bourgeois values.

Rothenberg’s first publication was New Young German Poets (1959) for New Directions, a collection of translations that effectively introduced American readers to an emergent avant-garde who were ‘part of the generation that’s come of age over the ruins of Hitler’s psychotic Reich’ and were ‘opposing the inherited dead world with a modern, visionary language’. Here, we have the crux of Rothenberg’s subsequent work: a belief that ‘visionary language’, wherever found, will bring about cultural renewal, as well as a sense that there is a connection between Progress and genocide, parallels to which he later perceived in America’s mistreatment of tribal peoples.

New Young German Poets was followed by a book of Rothenberg’s own poetry, White Sun Black Sun (1960), in many respects resembling the work of Paul Celan, with its stark images collocating death, destruction, and torture without quite arriving at any of these, nor distinguishing between emotive metaphors and actual events, so that each poem hovers between nightmare and collective memory. Among the eyes and blades of Rothenberg’s personal symbolism (hinting at the pain of being a witness), the recurrence of colours, especially white and red and black, defamiliarizes the psychical fall-out of the Nazi atrocities without limiting itself to them. Until the late-1960s, Rothenberg’s vision swings between two extremes: as abstract and distant as newsprint in one line, to contrast the visceral, bloody, immanent reality of the next. Never primarily a Holocaust writer, though, Rothenberg considered poetry an exploration of the unconscious, and looked outward to other cultures, or to the past, for poetic practices convergent with the function of religion to bring about re-integration of the human (and even “other-than-human”) community. Below is an excerpt from “Words” (lines 16 – 31):

the sudden
movement of our lips
with breath itself
a language.
Also a language
rising from the earth
or footsteps
like a dance
our words a dance
of breath of
images the single
image of a sun
burning inside us
as we speak

“Words” can be read as a statement of Jerome Rothenberg’s core-beliefs about poetry prior to Ethnopoetics, and in spite of its tendency to abstraction (atypical for Rothenberg during this period, when he had declared himself a “Deep Image” poet), “Words” exemplifies Rothenberg’s commitment to re-oralizing poetry and conveying the “presence” of language. To carve the poem up into several discrete statements would be to ignore the form as an extension of content. For Rothenberg, ‘our words [are] a dance / of breath of / images the single / image of a sun / burning inside us / as we speak’ (lines 26 – 31). Evidently, the poet wishes us to perceive the fluid movement, or procession, of ideas throughout the entire poem, hence there is no sharp separation between words and images, poetry and dance: they are all syntactically connected, encouraging readers or listeners to apprehend their complex dynamic inter-relation, without the poem disintegrating into a mass of fragments.

To this end, Rothenberg introduced the concept of the “deep image” in 1960, a term first used in his Poems from the Floating World magazine, which presented ‘international poets outside the New Critical framework.’ The Deep Image school of poets was one of the major movements of the 1960s, bringing Jungian theories of the subconscious to the tenets of Imagism(e), which Ezra Pound had launched in 1912. In the words of Paul Christensen, Deep Image poets assume that ‘order lay in the depths of the mind, where individuality vanished into primitive holism’. Deep Image poetry is relevant here as a precursor to Ethnopoetics, which would differentiate itself from this mid-century American manifestation of primitivism by involving poets and anthropologists. Ethnopoetics would also focus on the orality of tribal and indigenous (formerly “primitive”) poetries, and the poetics extant in situ, rather than applying exogenous concepts and forms.

In 1964, Rothenberg and other Deep Image poets began performing the songs and chants of various cultures at a series of readings dedicated to ‘primitive & archaic’ poetry, held at the Poets Hardware Theater in New York. By taking shamanism as a model for poetic practice from the mid-1960s onwards, Rothenberg demonstrates that poets may still be healers, if only in the limited sense that they articulate collective anxieties at times of cultural crisis.

By the time Rothenberg formally instigated the Ethnopoetics project in 1968, he intended to address the violence of the mid-20th century (reflected in his early poetry) with a new creative principal: the model of the poet as shaman, visionary, and healer. This use of the shaman is the most thoroughly scrutinized aspect of Rothenberg’s poetry, the poetry of Ethnopoetics, and indeed it is one of the major topoi of 1960s and 1970s American poetry. Nonetheless, I intend to consider some extensions of (what is loosely termed) “shamanic practice” so as to sidestep the usual conclusions of criticism dwelling on the identification of avant-garde poets with these healers / madmen / seers. In Rothenberg’s poems “Cokboy” from Poland / 1931 (1974), various selections from A Seneca Journal (1978) and “Yaqui 1982” from That Dada Strain (1983), the cross-cultural visions and hybrid rituals suggest strategies for overcoming the limitations of normative conceptions of history, as well as cultural identity, rather than nostalgically invoking a figure from the past.

Rothenberg acknowledges that for centuries American and Western European poets have been looking to tribal and indigenous peoples to understand their own culture (resulting in various “primitivisms”) but his own approach, after Dadaism, entails a more creative cross-breeding of cultural traditions. A specific culture’s “poetry” (as Rothenberg conceives it) is not a monolithic canon of texts that progressively accretes layers whilst retaining a solid core of classics, but instead a living corpus comprised by innumerable performances (of oral poetries) and readings (of literal ones).

[This essay splices together the openings of Chapters 1 & 3 of the author's doctoral dissertation]

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