Jerome Rothenberg: The real revolution is tragic

Left to right: Bruce Andrews and Sally Silvers performing in honor of Jerome Rothenberg's eightieth birthday on December 9, 2011; Jerome Rothenberg; the jacket of "White Sun Black Sun" published by Hawk's Well Press, 1960.

What follows is the text of a talk presented in honor of Jerome Rothenberg on the occasion of his 80th birthday, at an event held at CUNY Graduate Center in New York, on December 9, 2011.

If you were looking one way for new Americans in 1960, they would of course be found in Allen’s The New American Poetry.  But there was another way.  Jerome Rothenberg’s first book, New Young German Poets, published by City Lights in 1959, introduced American readers to a postfascist antifascist avant-garde that successfully “oppose[ed] the inherited dead world with a modern visionary language,” crucially among them, Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. Jerry’s translations 51 years ago of Celan’s “Night of the Word” and of Bachmann’s “Psalm”  offer themselves to us now as illuminating discernible influences on the poems of Jerry’s own first published book of poems, the Hawk’s Well Press White Sun Black Sun (1960). It’s not just Bachmann’s “Psalm” but Rothenberg’s first poems too that (in her words as Jerry rendered them) are inscribed “in the afterbirth of our terror.” “Seeing Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, San Francisco 1959,” a White Sun Black Sun poem, figures the speaker as Jerry’s very first burning babe: “I am the child in the furnace.” And: “We love and we die in dark rooms.”  This was a real new American poetry if we were able to discern its specific cold-war-era Euro-American context, its remnant derivation from a modernism that had had its language robbed, its mother tongue cut off in its mouth — drawn from a Celanesque long fifteen-year night of the word, 1945 to 1960, at the dawn after which American poetry too must itself show “the scar of time / open[ed] up” — to quote Jerry’s Celan as a direct anticipation of what I take to be Jerry’s greatest contribution: that in unsuccessful societies, it becomes impossible for language to change commensurately, and a common language breaks down, and we no longer understand each other. “This breakdown,” he later writes, “is first articulated by a poet,” by “the poet see[ing] the breakdown in communication as a condition of health, as an opening-up of a closed world.”  Or as Jerry’s Jandl gets to lament in a much later poem about European fascism and artists: “Ka Ka the only music left us.” 

So why embrace modernism in particular in 1960?  Not primarily because “supreme Yiddish surrealist vaudeville” can and would become in the 1960s and early 1970s one of the efficacious heretical counter-styles, though certainly in Poland 1931 such a mode helped carry the message — but because modernism after 1945 becomes a way of reckoning specifically with “the anti-modernism of the Nazi genocide of European intellectuals” (“Vienna Blood”) and so, as Jerry quotes Dennis Tedlock, “To tell these words is to happen the beginning again.”  Or, through dada or alternatively through ancient sacred technicians, to enact “reversals in the history of language.”  In Jerry’s “Holy Words of Tristan Tzara” we read that “logic is a complication – logic is always wrong!” but then at the same time we are reminded of the question: “How can a moral person live in an immoral world?” — a question, posed as such, in which the immorality is described in a language long and widely accepted as making sense; and we come to know that it is a question posed not by Tzara or Jandl or Schwitters, but by Mordecai Anielewicz, that barely postadolescent burning babe.  Auschwitz, Jerry has written, is “an enormity that had robbed language of the power to meaningfully respond, had thus created a crisis of expression, for which a poetics must be devised if we were to rise, again, beyond the level of the scream or of a silence more terrible than any scream.”  

So if you put together Jerome Rothenberg's very first impulses toward archaic materials, manifested in White Sun Black Sun and New Young German Poets as (after total destruction) “telling words as a way of happening the beginning again” — as new burning-babe baby words (DA DA – KA KA) post-scream; and merge that tendency with the “supreme Yiddish surrealist vaudeville” as a means of Oral Torah, where “stabilization of the text would hinder and destroy the infintely moving, unfolding element within it” — that is to say, if you put those two tendencies together, you get the remarkable convergence of modernism and radicalism — of Euro-modernism and American radicalism — that we celebrate tonight.

The real revolution is tragic. “The Real Revolution is Tragic.”  It’s the title of a poem in that very first book, White Sun Black Sun.  On the night of the poem, the poet “face[s]…my secret America,” asking: “Why are the eyes of it burning”?  Here was, and is, the new American poet calling for “the real revolution” of the word “in the days without hope, in the years that are falling.”

I think I understand Emma Bee Bernstein

Emma Bee Bernstein’s work on display at the Janet Kurnatowski gallery. Left photo by Tom Winchester.

I was thirty-three years old when Emma was born. I had been friends with her parents, Charles and Susan, for more than five years.

When Emma got to be about three or four we became friends in our own right. We simply liked each other a lot. I had never had children of my own / so that undoubtedly played some part. But the reality is that I felt some kind of kinship between us that went beyond any of the available clichés / even those of friendship.

When I would go to their apartment at 464 Amsterdam Avenue for a visit / perhaps prior to having dinner there / perhaps just to occupy and to enjoy a part of the afternoon / Emma would invariably (and as soon as it were possible (ok / before (before) it were really decently possible (socially speaking))) take my left hand in her right hand and lead me into her small bedroom.

And that (then) is what it was all about. Emma had her own space / but it was Emma’s space. Already / by the age of three / Emma had contrived a room of her own — and she may well have been conscious of having (done) that (of owning that) before she began showing it to me (I don’t know).

The walls were a matte white color / not at all bright / and there was room also for a small chest of three or four drawers. Already / in that tiny room / were all of those things that Emma would become (really (really) really become). From my first visit onwards the walls were covered with images cut from magazines. I don’t know where she got those pictures / but she got a lot of them. Most of them were of people — it didn’t seem to matter whether they were well known or not / but it was tacitly apparent that it certainly did (did (that it certainly did)) matter to Emma what they looked like / and what they were wearing / and (although their organization on the wall defied easy categorization) also (I think) how they went together. I have a sense of wildness / not only of the collage as a whole / but of the individual pieces of image that fed into that collage and came out of it as something else — the parts created the whole so that it could transform the parts / and in that way there was a unity of form and material that was unassailable. It was easy to tell that this organization of her most intimate physical space constituted a large portion of her confidence.

Emma’s confidence was her identity. I don’t mean to suggest / or to try to convince you / that that was all that there was to her — but I believe that it was that confidence that made all other aspects of her personality (all other aspects of what she was) cohere. And I will say that it was completely formed / and completely in evidence / from the time during which I first knew her.

The collage of images on the walls changed considerably from visit to visit — I can’t say in what way / I hadn’t trained myself to see that — but I could see that different parts of the space were covered / that some pieces of paper had been unstuck and others stuck. In this sense it would probably be more accurate to speak of a montage (the motion supplied by the viewer’s eyes / the looking) than of a collage — the latter term seems adequate to something that someone makes on a smallish piece of paper / but Emma’s project was so manifestly much larger than that. I couldn’t (for that matter) determine how such a small person had gotten those pictures all the way up toward the top of the walls — some seem in recollection to have been growing up from the walls and onto the ceiling / making of it the bottom of the fish tank one would be in when lying in bed. If we accept this suggestion that the considerable changes in lexicon over time made of the work more a montage than a collage / we can see the project as having been akin to the making of a film / but one (certainly) in which the people (the persons) were foregrounded as both actors (and / in that way / over time) as the actions also. People were the actions that occupied her mind / and the space beyond her mind that was also her mind. 

It was hard not to see that space / more-or-less-white and more full of than cluttered with images / as the inside of the skull in which Emma lived (in which she had chosen to live / and which she had made to live within). So that she herself was the mind in the skull of her room (a room of her own). It is tempting to think what it might have been like for her to be in bed and to be going to sleep in that room / to be going to sleep inside the extensive precincts of her own mind — and where else? / where else indeed? / except that in her case that mind was so made to be seen (seen (so made to be seen)) / and except that in her case that mind was so made to be lived within. I doubt that Emma ever experienced the kind of tranquility before repose that I’ve suggested — she was far too active (always) for that / she was that always active mind. I doubt very much that she experienced the difference between dream and waking that gives the rest of us occasional pause — if your mind is always external to yourself / something that you live in (in (that you live in (in))) / then it doesn’t much matter what goes on in it as long as it is productive of the active generation and continuous regeneration of that space in which that mind has chosen to reside (in which that mind has chosen to live that life).

And / in the back on the right / pushed almost against the foot of the bed / and itself white (or once white) as well — the small chest of drawers. The home of Emma’s wardrobe / the exoskeleton of its being / that other (analogous) way in which the mind manifested the mind to itself. The fact that wardrobe-within-seeing-mind shared space with images-of-things (of people (people (of people))) seen also within (and spilling into) that space — here also was already the work that she would always make — people / in-clothing / in-space / seen (and pictured) in the seeing mind / as (as) mind (as mind seeing mind). What she saw she saw always face-to-face.


When her brother Felix got a little older I more than once settled down to a game of chess with him when I got there / but it never lasted beyond a few moves — Emma needed to have her world seen / and (perhaps) to have it be seen that her mind and her world were in no way (and in no part) separate (or separable). Again / the tugs on the hand / giving way quickly to laughter mixed with willing acquiescence — her mood was always impossible to refuse. How would you say no to someone who is saying to you — Come with me / I want to show you my mind / I love it / and I know you will too? How would you say no to an artist (who is saying all of that to you)? / especially with you yourself being some sort of one of them too?


Emma seemed most always to be a pure immanence of enthusiasm.


When Emma was perhaps nine or ten / my lover and I visited Charles and Susan / and Emma and Felix / where they had rented an upstate house for some part of their summer vacation. When we arrived Emma was playing part of the time in-and-around an inflatable wading pool. As soon as we had alighted from our car / before we had sat down in the yard with our hosts / midway through greetings — Emma took me by the hand and led me into the house (entirely strange to me) / and up to the second floor / to see the current version of where-she-lived. Here there were a few toys in place of the collaged walls / but for some reason (was there a reason?) the usual had to be repeated even though if in its present incarnation it couldn’t offer much more than the form of what we usually experienced. Perhaps to Emma it was the form of the occasion that mattered (most) / but somehow I don’t think that that’s quite it — it seems more likely to me that in the absence of the absolute-unity-of-form-with-content that this experience offered her at home (and me) / she would accept (in this instance) a formal reminder that that other experience was available (that it could (could (that it could)) be had / again).

Alan Davies in 1990, around the time he first met Emma Bee Bernstein (© Laurie Leber).

We stayed overnight / had a good dinner together / lots of friendship and talk. And after a great breakfast at the local diner (with its Ollie North T-shirts for sale) we left for home.


Charles has from-time-to-time-over-the-years reminded me of something that happened at a poetry reading that I gave at the Ear Inn. Emma was perhaps five or six at the time. After I had given my reading Emma turned to Charles and said — I think I understand Alan Davies.

She evidently said this in seeming earnestness / and it was doubtless in response to what I had just read. So it was a considered and a serious response.

Perhaps it offers (at least) a clue to our friendship / begun already a couple of years earlier. She did (did (she did)) understand me / and I did (did (I did)) understand her.


The last time I saw Emma was at a Segue reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in the winter of 2008. I was co-curating the series for a couple of months / and standing in the back of the room / when Charles approached me and said — There’s Emma … with some of her friends … Why don’t you go and say hi to her? — at the same time pointing out the several people sitting around a table near the stage. I felt under just enough additional pressure with needing to make sure the reading went moderately smoothly / that I didn’t take his suggestion. While introducing one of the two readers / I saw Emma sitting quietly with her friends / and had time only to note that she looked as though she were charged-with-energy / while at the same time I saw that there was darkness around her eyes.


It is usually the birth of a child that begins to put parents-who-so-choose in the role of the stage mother and/or the stage father. In this case / the opposite of that has happened — it is the death of Emma that has motivated Charles and Susan to do everything within their power to promote the artistic works that Emma produced within her relatively short life.


I don’t remember (the adolescent) Emma ever being still / at rest. Normally we think of even a moving object as moving between two points / at each of which there is some form of stillness — we know that the perpetual motion machine is a fancy and not a reality / we’ve been taught to expect even the-universe-as-a-whole to slow down. Counter that / we’re told that children are the greatest athletes / and with that comes the expectation of at least considerable (considerable) motion. But Emma never (never) stopped — I never saw her not-moving.

Here there is a realization that contains the kernel of a contradiction — the still photographer slows down completely (completely) what it is she captures (captures) on her film / and even objects in motion (Muybridge) are stilled so that they can be apprehended (apprehended) as such. This plausibly-unexpected shift in Emma’s being (in Emma’s being Emma to Emma) is punctuated by the fact that for a good many of her photographs it was she who sat (who “sat”) for herself.


A collage or a montage would differ from other kinds of sensible statement in the sense that (or in the extent to which) it is composed of pieces that have been intentionally (and intently) prefigured for that purpose. In this way it would resemble (it might most resemble) those of the plastic arts the making of which is preceded by the making of the-materials-of-which. Most artists work with materials which they bring to hand for that purpose / but they do not for the most part actually make those individual things which are then to be the materials of their constructions — Emma’s constructions made it seem that she did.

It seems probable to me that having this as the origin of her senses of the ways of making things / would then influence Emma in the way that she went about making her photographs. And it is certain that this way of prefiguring her most immediate world about her (the room where she lived (as a child)) would then devolve into her ways of presenting her photographs to the world — in such a way that the photographs become the elements of the collage/montage / and a wall is found (somewhere) for their mingling and elucidation.

Emma Bee Bernstein, Senior thesis show, installation shot, University of Chicago, June 2007.


We all have ways of externalizing what we are where we live. We bring home to our own hole in the coral those things that make us feel at (at (that make us feel at)) home. For me those things are mostly books and CDs and clothing. For most of us they are objects that we get elsewhere and transport to where we live. This is an indication of the extent to which we are not bounded by our bodies / the extent to which we not only live but are (are (not only live but are)) beyond our constantly-changing skin.

What has been unique in Emma’s case is not only the extent to which she was aware of this as a child / not only the extent to which as a child she participated in this externalization-of-self (this externalization as (as) self) — but the fact that her choice of imagery-as-extension-of-self prefigured her career as an artist. The images were images of humans / and in this way too we could already see the intensity of vision (of self (self) of self-vision) / of self-visioning / that marked her attention to the emotional details of her life. This particular sort of externalization is reflective — it shows the visioner seeing back at herself (as a self / as a choice of selves) / and that too is unique — the self that is externalized (as living (living) as living-place (space)) is the self looking back (in guises) at the self that is externalizing itself / there / where it (most) lives. 


Now / Emma is not here.

At times like these it is by managing our grief that we live. Otherwise.

Is it worth mentioning that / at-times-like-these / are endless?

* * *

The notes that follow were made with specific reference to a show of Emma Bee Bernstein’s portraits / at the Janet Kurnatowski gallery / in Greenpoint / in the spring of 2011 / curated by Phong Bui and Linnea Kniaz.

The photographs were not titled by Emma. Titles were added by her family / for the purpose of identification.

I’m getting really fond of the room in spite of the wall-paper. Perhaps because of the wall-paper.

— Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1899)

Emma photographed herself and friends of her own age / women in their early twenties. The women are not smiling — this does not mean that the atmosphere is one of dour contemplation — but something is being asserted that is staid and solid — it is that they are who they are / that that is that / and that nothing will change that (except change-itself?). Most of the photographs are frontal / some showing the subject in a landscape or room / some from the waist up (none closer). The subject is always alone — even when the portrait is of two women / they are alone. [ at right: Self-portrait with yellow wall (2007)]

Except for you (of course) / you the viewer.

Are you / then / the subject?

Frequently the costume of the subject (a dress or a nightgown) blends in (in some marked deliberate way) with the background. In “Self-portrait with yellow wall” Emma wears a dress with a paisley print that features yellow — even the cigarette hanging from her hand has been made yellow by the preponderance of yellow light — her golden shoes reflect yellow. Emma herself is backed into a vibrant yellow corner.

(from left): Jill against the brown door (2006), Marianna and floral wallpaper (2006), and Antonia in clown suit (2006).

Flowered dresses frequently find themselves in a-yard-of-flowers. Marianna wears a flowered gown against flowered wallpaper. Jill wears brown when photographed against a brown door. Antonia wears a blue clown suit (which manages to look not-at-all-clownish) in a blue room. Anat wears a dress with autumnal colors / when seen against a groundscape of fallen leaves / and a background that also somehow contrives to be largely brown.

This kind of placement makes a number of statements. The figure is a figure in a ground of which it is naturally (if not exactly seamlessly) a part. The figure is as-if-produced-by-the-ground against which it is seen. In nature / this kind of coloring-matching-its-surroundings is known as camouflage — and that is (in part) what it has to be seen as here — the women / while posing / to be photographed / are at-the-same-time hiding (they are blending in) — and this structure (a motif) is a contrivance of the photographer herself / of Emma. [at left: Anat, Autumn reflection (2006)]

There is a striking photograph entitled “Self-portrait in red rose dress in green garden” / in which Emma becomes a red blossom among blossoming plants.

Self-portrait in red rose dress in green garden (2007)

The general mood is staid / a mood that sometimes verges on the solemn. No one told these subjects to “Say cheese.” They are addressing us / where we are. Where are we?

The fact that some of the women are photographed wearing nightgowns or bathrobes lends a momentary instance-of-the-casual to what is being photographed / to what-is-being-shown. But this is deceptive — none of the photographs appear to have been taken impromptu / everyone is busy being very-much-who-they-are (who-they-are-seen-to-be (who-they-are-made-to-be-seen-to-be)). This means that each instance of each individual is an instance of integrity (of meaning-meaning-itself).

What we choose to put with what / is a statement about who we are. Emma knew this / as she placed her friends in land- and room-scapes that she knew would help define them.

Those photographed do not (in this sense) stand out — they are very much a-part-of-the-photographic-rectangle / they do not stand out from it — the plane is relatively flat. In this / the photographs resemble snapshots / a-thing-taken-on-the-run.

But this lives in-a-kind-of-tension with the certainty we have that each photo has been posed.

What does it mean that the photographic images have been staged / contrived / that they are not in-that-sense candid? Candor is what we look for from another person / one of those things we most value in someone. But here what-is-candid is not the photograph-as-object — what stands in (instead) for candor / is the solidity of the subjects / their outward-staring-look / and the feeling that it-is-that which they are about-to-speak (such that it is that about-to (about-to) that is candid / in these instances).

There is a kind of sadness about the-stillness-of-the-perceptions / the-women-perceiving-out-to-the-photographer / the-view-(and-the-viewer)-perceiving-in-to-the-women. The looker-at-a-wall-mounted-photograph stands (roughly) in-the-space-the-photographer-inhabited — in that way / the view (the viewer) obliterates the photographer / makes her be out-of-the-way / so that the-view-(the-viewer)-can-essay-(assay)-the-view. This is particularly-the-case when the subject of the photograph is a (another) human subject / on some levels an equal to the viewer. So that then there are three of us — the photographer most absent / because not seen (not-there) — the subject of the photograph / absent as-living-body / but still seen — and the viewer / present / but absent insofar as not being a part of that permanent-instance-of-the-once-photographed. Is anything really there / after all?

This kind of mirroring / is mirrored in some of the photos. “Jill with Art Nouveau print and mirror” [(2007), shown at right] shows Jill in an easy chair / wrapped in a green towel / with a mirror on her lap (she is looking at it) / and with an Art Nouveau poster wrapped in plastic occupying-the-lower-left-part-of-the-frame — there is a-window-streaming-full-of-light behind-and-above her. The poster is of a young woman / which Jill then mirrors — at the same time we know that she is undergoing-a-kind-of-mirroring in the open lens (that word leaps-to-mind) of the mirror into which she gazes.  Where / in this instance / are we? — in a more uncommon relationship to the photograph than otherwise / not only because of the presence of the mirror / but because it is a source of light / and (in-that-way) can be seen to see / because light is the-substance-of-seeing (it makes seeing possible — it makes the-taking-of-photographs possible — it mediates between us (the viewer) and the-thing-seen (in this case a photograph (its subject seen because of-light — the-taking-of-it made possible by light — the viewing of it likewise))).

There are mirrors in other of the photographs. It is hard to say which mimics which / the mirror the photograph? / or the photograph the mirror? I suppose the answer to that question inevitably takes us into the realm of narrative. [We might mention the book Girldrive / co-made with her friend Nona Willis Aronowitz / and for which Emma made photographs of many women. The book is about young feminism.]

There is a photograph taken by a window (a-kind-of-absent-(or-potential)-mirror) [at left: Jill with glass (2006)].

And there is a photograph / “Gabi and Antonia on couch” / in which a large heavily-framed painted portrait (wall-hung) divides the two sitters / each of whom leans-away-from the painting in-a-different-direction / so that the painting separates them / while (at-the-same-time) the two brown-haired-women wear identical nightgowns / and share the same posture although in-mirror-image. It is interesting that the-top-half-or-so-of-the-painting is not included in the photograph / but there is still enough (just-enough) to let us know that it is a painting of a person. The women’s clothing and their posture twins the two sitters — the painting separates them / holding them apart. Is this a statement about the meaning (the function) of art? If it is / it says that in-some-way art divides the person / but that in-doing-so it still leaves her intact as divided instance of that-one-self. Perhaps art splits us off from our self / while (at-the-same-time) bringing us face to face with (with (face to face with)) that-self — but the question then remains / is the-self-to-which-it-returns-us the whole self (before the confrontation of the-work-of-art) / or the divided self (after that confrontation)?

Gabi and Antonia on couch (2006).

Emma also made some strained self-portraits / all featuring partial nudity. In one Emma reclines in a contorted posture — she has just added the fourth lipsticked-kiss to her own leg / which has been bent toward her mouth — but these kisses look like nothing-so-much-as-wounds.

Self-portrait licking knee (2006-2007).

In one / lying down on the floor / Emma has written I WANT U across the lower part of her naked ribcage — her posture / and the-look-on-her-face / says that-isn’t-so. And in another / also lying-down-on-the-floor / the word HUSBAND has been written on a piece of paper that hides her breasts — she has a cigarette in her mouth. In both of these photographs her skirt has been pushed up / exposing part of her pantied crotch above knee-high-socks — the sign feels like a weight / an insolent burden.

These photographs / and there are others that are not-unlike-them / resonate with the one called “Self-portrait crouching with plaster wall.” Emma crouches / her bodice is partly exposed to the viewer / as are her black-nylon-clad legs / she has a long cigarillo between her lips / and her arms are bent behind her back. We are looking down on her — she is looking up to (?) / at / us. It is the classic posture of the submissive — further / it is a photograph of a submissive who does not speak (because-of / and signified-by / the cigarillo-between-her-lips). She looks up / mascara or other makeup lending a look of fear to her demeanor — a red band binds her hair. Reaching out from-each-side-of-her-head there are patches of wall-damage that look like either the molting antlers of an elk or moose / or the frayed wings of an angel. [at right: Self-portrait crouching with plaster wall (2006)]

In a way / the desperation expressed in these particular photographs makes them the most hopeful. In the feminist context that Emma espoused (in the way that she lived / in the things that she made) / they represent that point of rupture with what-is-otherwise-culturally-acceptable / but what to Emma was so manifestly unacceptable — they enact a scream (of rage / not terror) / and out-of-that-scream (if anything exact can be articulated there) / the word NO!

In the overall context of Emma’s work / the photographs of two-women-shown-together are reassuring — and the fact that the photographs which are not self-portraits are of her friends / reminds us that friendship is to be valued / that it stands for something-in-this-world (regardless the social and psychological ambience).

The rawness of some of the self-portraits is also offset by (balanced-by) such a photograph as “Self-portrait in pink bathrobe” / where her right arm resting-on-a-rod-holding-pure-white-fringed-towels becomes the wing of an angel / about to take flight.

from left: Self-portrait in pink bathroom (2006), Marianna with chandelier (2006).

Or / “Marianna with chandelier” shows the subject looking-up-at and reaching-toward a bright chandelier that takes up slightly more than the top half of the photo — clearly (and I mean that literally) / she is about to transcend (if not to ascend) / and the-fact-that-she-is-about-to-transcend is made more manifest by the fact that-we-know-not-from-what(-from-what).

The photographs leave me feeling taken-aback — backed into the wall behind me / which I am not aware of as-image / but that never-the-less prevents me from being other-than-where-I-am (e.g. (alternatively) out-there).

Five people have entered the gallery — they’re moving slowly about / and talking — but it is the young women in the photographs on the-gallery-walls that are alive (alive (that are alive)).

Why is this?

It is because they have come here to be (and to-remain) who-they-are. While those few people in the gallery (myself included) are temporary phenomena (at most)

And what does it mean / later / now / that these photographs / that these women / are all-together (in-this-room)? It is a kind of litany really / a statement about friendship that is slow-and-steadied / numerous instances of that one thing (a-young-woman’s-way-of-looking-(of-appearing)-when-being- in-the-world).

The photographs / in-the-room / communicate with-one-another. The subjects / the young women / look outward / at us / and do not communicate (with-each-other) — but (still) there is perhaps something being whispered from-photo-to-photo / and that something has-something-to-do-with-the-meaning-of-life / with why we value it / with what it might (it might) be for.

Seeing the photographs grouped on the walls / the relative strength or weakness of the figure relative to (with) the ground / varies. These variations represent (they stand-in-for) the range of emotions that the women are being said to feel — and / the range of their-relative-nearness-to-or-distance-from-the-world. It is not that they (the women) are in-or-out-of-focus — it is (rather) they that are focusing (they are the-focusing) / and (in-this- way) they focus us (in-and-relative-to-that-world (their-world) and (as conscious viewers) to our-own-world (the one we inhabit / as viewers / viewing)).

The focal point of Emma’s camera is a woman’s face. Her body. Her being.

Photographer / photographed — face to face.

9Feb10 / 25Apr11

Unanimism and the crowd

Early modern social lyric

Joseph Pennell, drawing of Cambria steel works, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1917. Image from the Library of Congress.

Published in 1905, when Jules Romains was twenty years old, “Poetry and Unanimous Feelings”[1] launches one of his dominant themes: “unanimous,” or, as will be seen, “unanimistic” feelings. He will expand on the theme (theme-assemblage, really) over a lifetime, in poems, novels, plays, essays. To name, today, his articulation of the social and the aesthetic is a bit like trying to name a constellation’s mythological shape. The terms composing the constellation come from various discourses and have distinctly differentiated meanings and references: the crowd, sociality, the social, class, lumpen, group, mass, multitude, people, folk, gathering, audience, community, public, commune.… Connections between them can be made into more than one configuration. To favor one or even two would be to risk missing the fabled synonymy unifying them all. Is that Monoceros the unicorn in the sky there? A shape does emerge out of this heterogeneity when the terms are juxtaposed by one opposing phrase: nineteenth-century individual lyrical expression. Romains’s “doctrine” (as detractors called it) intended to unzip “the individual” into the social relations that compose it.

Crowds against death!

I repeat, it’s time.[2]

Romains considered a momentous twentieth-century discovery to be that society constitutes the individual through collectivities — a discovery on the order of nature to that of the eighteenth century.[3] Evidently, Romains likes to make lucid statements out of generalities (centuries); to continue in this spirit, his premise in this respect is a neoclassical one, that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The whole in fact is so much greater than its parts that Romains coined a word for it, unanimism, and unanimism is optimistic about a quality perceived in group behavior, unanimity. Every group acquires, consciously or not, a contingent but determinate identity which he calls its specific unanim.

It will be a group of profound things welding together at once, a crescendo of ideas, each spontaneous and all of them moving in the same direction, like the spectacular rise of smoke that city factories deploy at the same hour.[4]

But unlike Imagisme, Unanimisme suggests that a whole is expressible not through particulars (the natural object is not quite the adequate symbol, as Pound said it was; ideas are not “in” things, as Williams hoped they were; the universal is not “in” the concrete, as USAmerican particularists — philosophers, poets, theorists, etc. — have variously argued); instead, like an ur-Poundian ideogrammic method, a whole emerges from relations between things, beings, ideas, effects equally.

An early US review characterized Romains’s unanimism as producing “sociological poetry.”[5] More recently, Rosalind Williams conceives of unanimism to be a “poetics of urban systems” of la vie sociale. A “system,” she says, may be comprised of interconnecting (of no longer dichomotized) organic and machinic relations in any environment, such as a street corner that today might consist of electric lights, oil spots, closed-circuit TVs, intersecting roadways, litter, dog poop, crows, storefronts, weeds, automobiles, sewer hole, iPods, and pedestrians. A unanim will show degrees of collective self-consciousness and institutional stability: poetry reading, coffee shop, cultural or political event, company, church, army, city, nation state. Romains writes that “unanims are more unstable, more supple, more capable of metamorphoses, of intermixing, of birth, of death than are our invariable and rigid selves.”[6] The writer’s task is to help create unanims, and group consciousness about existing unanims.

Romains’s booklength poem La vie unanime (1908) creates out of Paris a unanim with an “immortal fluency” its citizens can become aware of and help to articulate:

The city knows its dead are transmissions.
People, tonight, dying in it
simply render, by painful starts
what little they’ve captured of its immortal fluency.

They’ve grasped it as best they could in the knots
of their laryngeal systems; but tonight, they let go.
While they moan, young bodies go electric
with the vibration made by bodies underground.[7]

The dead and the dying are also able to participate in raising collective awareness of the unanimistic vibe.

Unanimism holds a special place in Jean-Michel Rabaté’s argument to historicize globalization through turn-of-the-century imperialisms, the rise of finance capital, and the First World War. Rabaté suggests that unanimism was just as significant to early modernism as was futurism and cubism, and that in French modernist avant-gardes it polarized Apollinaire (for whom the avant-garde must focus solely on the medium of expression) and Romains (for whom the avant-garde also has a role of shocking into awareness). Romains’s widespread influence in European early modernist art, music, and literature is taken up also by Christopher Butler, while still others have examined specific unanimistic effects on texts by Joyce (the “wandering rocks” section in Ulysses), Woolf (The Waves), Pound (who acknowledged Romains’s effort to reinvent Greek epic chorus structure), Toomer (Cane), Waldo Frank (City Block), and Québec poet Jean Aubert Loranger (Les atmosphères), and on paintings by cubists, including Leger and Gleizes, and Italian futurists, including Boccioni (including his technical manifesto) and Carrà, among others. Critics have yet to consider the unanimism at play in other literary texts, such as Melvin B. Tolson’s midcentury Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. Romains’s mythological shape may also be broadly discerned in a constellation of contemporary texts that address social structures and collective identity, such as Renee Gladman’s The Activist, Carla Harryman’s The Gardener of Stars, Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation, Allen Fisher’s “crowd-out” texts, as well as in Teresa Brennan’s theory of the psychic transmission of affects, Hardt and Negri’s “social flesh” of “the multitude,” among numerous other theorists branching off from the group-consciousness-think of Freud and Durkheim (whom Romains called the Descartes of unaninism).[8] In popular culture, the French film Delicatessen (1991) might be said to create an apartment building unanim. One unanimistic technique the film uses is a montage of scenes that repeats a rhythm unwittingly orchestrated by the squeaky bedsprings of a love-making couple: in back-and-forth movements of a worker roller-painting a ceiling, in a cello student practicing scales to a metronome, in a tenant manually pumping a bicycle tire, in a woman beating out carpet dust with a paddle, in fingers’ rapid movements with knitting needles.

A still from Delicatessen (1991)

Paradoxically, Romains wasn’t interested in creating a purely literary school or movement, not least one focused on technological novelty and analogy (to telephone, to radio, to airplane, to machine gun, etc.).[9] By 1911–12, unanimism supporter Georges Duhamel could comment easily that literary schools were being founded every week.[10] While Romains certainly wrote about unanimism as a rallying rubric for French writers of his generation, and was loosely associated with the Abbaye de Créteil group who were experimenting with communal living in order to write and to publish (their first publication was Romains’s La vie unanime), the very nature of unanimism would seem to prevent it becoming a strictly literary endeavour controlled by one platform or by one individual or group. Instead of another manifesto, Romains wanted to articulate all the new forms of social relation in modern city life.[11] In a sense, this included the manifesto itself as a phenomenon. A manifesto, political or aesthetic, is often a performative claim made upon group consciousness (usually a manifesto has more than one signatory). The manifesto is a “crowd” mode of rhetorical address whose goal is to change another crowd-composition to which the status quo has become habituated. Romains takes self-referentially performative aspects of manifesto form and turns them into unanimism’s content: collective identity itself, group formation as such. Romain wanted to create group consciousness and to make others aware of what they were already collectively doing unconsciously, incidentally, expressly.

But to what end, unanims? Unanims must by definition also include socially conservative and reactionary group expressions — those that might emerge from nationalist chauvinism as much as from anti-statism, and so on. The extent to which Romains’s theory and writing could constructively respond to the politics of groups seems limited. Unlike Eliot’s oeuvre — think Prufrock — Romains’s expresses an optimism about socially complex, modern city living. But like Pound (with whom, incidentally, he shares birth and death years, 1885–1972), the crises of the 1930s bring out another side to Romains’s theory. Even as PEN president, Romains’s unanimism racializes European identity as white, in what might be called a spirit of “goodwill racism” (goodwill is key to his conception of unanims as the title of his twenty-seven-volume novel, Les hommes de bonne volonté, makes plain). Without Pound’s enduring emotion in The Cantos of trolling paranoid vituperativeness and literary haughtiness, which repels (and paradoxically shields) his reader from the worst of his text, Romains’s teacherly tone of disarmingly intimate sincerity in the poetry book L’homme blanc (1937) is all the more discomfitting. Aimé Césaire buries (“buries” is his figure) unanimism by noting how in the 1950 French edition of Salsette découvre l’Amérique Romains’s use of a unanimistic technique — that of repeated implication-by-association in order to form a whole — oppresses.[12]

Certainly at other times Romains was aware of the “destructiveness of the crowd,” to use Canetti’s key phrase.[13] During the Great War Romains wrote Europe, a booklength poem lamenting the destructive powers of unanims (army; nation; hero) gone awry — and predictably his response is to appeal to an even larger unanim than that of warring nation-states, indefensible (as Césaire would call it) Europe. The poem’s closing two lines — quoted above — appear groundlessly hopeful in the context of the poem.

To not only articulate a unanim, but talk one down — the witch camps in rural northern Ghana (what are the poets in Ghana doing these days?) — or talk one up — the use of a repeated proceduralism that “unanimizes” a semantic field’s disparate references (something poets in Canada and the US are doing these days) — that is the groundless hope. We are all the martyr Ibrahim Qashoush.



1. Translations mine throughout essay. My translation of Romains’s manifesto appears in the “Manifestos Now!” issue (guest editor Brian Ganter) of The Capilano Review 3, no. 13 (Winter 2011): 46–48. Romains’s “Les sentiments unanimes et la poésie” first appeared in Le Penseur 4 (April 1905): 121–24. Reprinted in Claude Martin’s Correspondance: André Gide — Jules Romains (Paris: Flammarion, 1976), 152–54, and in Bonner Mitchell’s critical edition of selected French manifestos, Les manifestes littéraires de la belle époque, 1866–1914: Anthologie critique (Paris: Seghers, 1966), 81–86.

2. Jules Romains, Europe, 2nd ed. (Paris: NRF, 1919), 85.

3. Romains is cited in Rosalind Williams, “Jules Romains, Unanimisme, and the Poetics of Urban Systems,” in Literature and Technology, Research in Technology Studies, vol. 5, ed. Mark L. Greenberg and Lance Schachterle (London: Associated University Presses, 1992), 193–94.

4. Jules Romains, “L’unanimisme et Paul Adam,” Revue littéraire de Paris et de Champagne 2, no. 42 (September 1906): 284.

5. Allan Antliff details the influence of Romains’s “sociological poetry” on the Modern School movement in the U.S., in “Interpellating Modernity: Cubism and ‘La vie unanime’ in America,” in American Modernism Across the Arts, ed. Jay Bochner and Justin D. Edwards (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 53–72.

6. Jules Romains, “La chevelure inextricable,” in Revue littéraire de Paris et de Champagne 2, no. 43 (October 1906), 352–53.

7. Jules Romains, La vie unanime (Paris: Mercure de France, 1913), 231–32.

8. Jean-Michael Rabaté, 1913: The Cradle of Modernism (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007); Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: Literature, Music, and Painting in Europe, 1900–1916 (Oxford UP, 1994); Renee Gladman, The Activist (San Francisco, CA: Krupskaya, 2003); Carla Harryman, The Gardener of Stars (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2001; Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2007); Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004). For an introduction to poet-artist Allen Fisher on “decoherence and crowd-out,” see the newsletter and supplement for PhillyTalks 19: Allen Fisher and Karen Mac Cormack (17 October 2001), with responses by Marjorie Welish, Matt Hart, Rob Holloway, housed at Slought Foundation Online.

9. Romains’s essay in Mitchell’s Les manifestes littéraires de la belle époque, 1866–1914: Anthologie critique (see note 1) is productively sandwiched between symbolist, futurist, socialist, humanist, “naturist,” classicist, and other manifestos published in France. Unanimisme is absent, however, from Mary Ann Caws’s international anthology even as it is three times the size of Mitchell’s, Manifesto: A Century of Isms (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001). Unanimisme’s absence might speak to its questionable relationship to the idea of literary language as such — and therefore to the polarization between Apollinaire and Romains that Rabaté conceives as structuring French early modernism. “The limitation of Romains’ work, as of a deal of Browning’s,” Pound writes, “is that, having once understood it, one may not need or care to re-read it. This restriction applies also in a wholly different way to [Keats’s] “Endymion” [… and …] applies to all poetry that is not implicit in its own medium, that is, which is not indissolubly bound in with the actual words, word music, the fineness and firmness of the actual writing, as in Villon […].” See Pound, Instigations (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), 74.

10. Georges Duhamel, “Petit tableau des écoles poétiques,” Les Poètes et la Poésie, 1912–1913 (Paris: Mercure de France, 1914), 109–19.

11. Rosalind Williams, see 179n3.

12. Like Pound as well, Romains developed an over-inflated sense of his own social importance: in, for instance, the essays of Seven Mysteries of Europe (1940), he narrates himself into imagined key moments of European history before the Second World War, as advisor to French politicians and as a diplomat of peace. In fact, Romains supported the Munich Pact. Aimé Césaire lambastes Romains’s Salsette découvre l’Amérique in Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham, intr. Robin D. G. Kelley (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 51.

13. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart (Toronto: Collins, 1984), 19.


A walk through texts

(click image or here to be taken to WANDERKAMMER)

Docupoetry and archive desire

Two pages from Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press).

“I can see no reason for calling my work poetry except that there is no other category in which to put it.” — Marianne Moore[1]

In 2000, the poet Jena Osman created a lengthy list of “docupoetry” that included poems such as Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Adrienne Rich’s “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” and William Carlos William’s Paterson, as well as many works less familiar to American readers.[2] Nowadays, such a list could be twice as long — we are in the midst of something of a flourishing of documentary literary forms. Usually “docupoetry” designates poetry that (1) contains quotations from or reproductions of documents or statements not produced by the poet and (2) relates historical narratives, whether macro or micro, human or natural. Clearly, such writing is part of a long tradition; without even going back to Virgil or Lucretius, one can see that the poems of Pope and Dryden had everything to do with documenting (with a very definite point of view).

But the general trend, from the Romantic era onwards, has been towards understanding poetry as an art form that expresses the current thoughts and emotions of the individual, without documenting the past experience of collectivities. As early as 1798, Frederich Schlegel writes, “Romantic poetry embraces everything that is purely poetic, … [O]ne might believe that it exists solely to characterize poetic individuals of all types.” “Romantic poetry” is, in a word, “poetry itself.”[3] In another piece, he declares that “[t]he true object of the art should be, instead of resting in externals, to lead the mind upwards into a more exalted region and a spiritual world.” Thus a poetry of externals, of historical fact, of groups rather than individuals, is a contradiction in terms for the Romantic poet.[4] Coleridge expresses a similar sentiment when he opposes “those events, which in real or imagined History move on in a strait Line” to “the end of all … Poems,” which is to make history “assume to our Understandings a circular motion — the snake with its Tail in its Mouth”[5] — that irritable reaching after facts here transmuted into the mysterious, eternal, and symbolic. The fact that none of this prevented the Romantics from writing poems about history, politics, or biography is beside the point. What is important is that this conception of poetry (and art generally) meshed quite comfortably with the domestication of Romanticism into respectable bourgeois literature in the mid-nineteenth century. As I have argued elsewhere, it is this version of poetry that remained dominant in US culture into the twentieth century.[6]

But the twentieth century also saw the emergence of both the documentary film and of what might properly be termed a documentary poetry — that is, a poem including history by including “business documents and schoolbooks,” as Marianne Moore famously put it. Much of the work of modern poets as diverse as Ezra Pound, Muriel Rukeyser, Archibald MacLeish, Williams, and Moore can be placed in the tradition of this “nonfiction” poetry. Some critics responded to the rise of documentary poetry in the 1930s by reinvoking the putative split between literary and nonliterary documents, between poetry and “reportage.” For instance, one critic in the New York Herald-Tribune books section wrote, of Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, “While it contains some brilliant journalism, and sections of it … are poetry of a high order, the sequence is … overfreighted with document.”[7] Journalism is one thing, poetry quite another; documents belong in the former, but the latter collapses under their weight. The documentary lost some of its luster (as did the left-leaning politics that motivated much of it) in the late 1940s and 1950s; as the New Criticism and academic formalism in poetry became the official styles of the day in the United States, documentary poetry was made to seem a contradiction in terms. Williams’s long poem Paterson was one of the few docupoems produced in the period.[8] In 1951, Hayden Carruth noted its frequent prose passages, particularly their content: “They are documentary — letters, newspaper clippings, medical records, and the like. … But,” he wondered, “[c]an a poem survive in the public mind which contains so much unquotable — that is, unrememberable — material?”[9] Likewise, Randall Jarrell asked, “What has been done to [the excerpts] to make it possible for us to respond to them as art and not as raw reality? to make them part of the poem ‘Paterson’? I can think of no answer except: They have been copied out on the typewriter.”[10] Raw reality is one thing, art, quite another. Implied here is the New Critical assumption that the poem is and ought to be considered as an organic whole, with no undigested elements; moreover, all of it should be the original product of the individual imagination; and it must cohere on the page, quite apart from biography or history. Williams’s documenting of the history of Paterson has no intrinsic bearing on the poem Paterson. For it to be a Poem, according to Jarrell’s and Carruth’s account, there must be no mixing.[11] 

Things are easier for documentary poetry (not to mention film) nowadays than in the 1950s. The documentary impulse in US poetry has become more widespread, and it is difficult to find denunciations of it in print. However, when I queried well-known poets who work with documents, as well as critics who study docupoetry, the consensus was that the dichotomy of poetry versus [documents, journalism, history] persists, albeit more in speech than in writing. For instance, Mark Nowak, author of Coal Mountain Elementary, encounters it “ALWAYS in Q&A’s at readings. The question is usually phrased something like this: ‘So your work is very political, does great political work. But what about the craft of poetry? Do you care about craft?’”[12] — the assumption being that, not only is docupoetry necessarily a poetry of political advocacy, but that such work is de facto artless. Craig Santos Perez, author of the from unincorporated territory series about Guåhan/Guam, receives comments that assume an opposition between poetry writing and history writing: “you should just write a history book because people would actually read it; the poetry makes the historical narrative hard to read; the history drains the poetic energy.”[13] And so on.

From Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press) [click to enlarge].

Similarly, George Szirtes writes in the October 2007 issue of Poetry magazine that “The truths the poem deals with are not evidentiary truths. … They do not lead back to the real life outside the poem: their truths refer to the real life inside the poem”[14] — to which Phil Metres responds at the Poetry Foundation site, “The documentary poem opposes Szirtes’s idea of a closed system, inviting ‘the real life outside the poem’ into it while also offering readers a journey into the poem.”[15] Szirtes claims that Metres mischaracterized his remarks; but later in the same article, Szirtes writes:

The life that moves in poems has enormous sharpness because it has been distilled into such a state that it is no longer possible to distinguish the universal from the particular in it. The real life in poems comes at us with the sudden clear cry of particularity as any phenomenon might, but it does not conduct us into the world of cause and effect, the world of biography. Biography is secondary to history, and history is secondary to those brilliant moments of perception that mere existence makes possible.[16]

As in Schlegel’s day, poetry is the pure essence of experience, not the gross dross of events (whether the event is overcooking a pot roast or participating in a civil rights march). The point of Poetry is to get us away from the world of causality — from the obduracy of the historical documents — into the brilliant, distilled ether of “mere existence.”

Poet Nada Gordon presents a more explicit denunciation of docupoetry, from a rather different angle, in “On Docu-Poetry: A Febrile Meditation,” a February 2009 post on her blog Ululations. She writes that docupoetry is “grasping for mimesis and reportage at the expense of verbal imagination,” and that she “feel[s] in it a kind of shoehorning of didactic social message into poetic forms that have no intrinsic connection to, or maybe add no value to, the often compelling and important narratives that are being conveyed in these pieces. Maybe the added value is entry into the still privileged aura of the category of ‘poetry.’” She sees a mismatch “between the flat reportage of the information and the form of verse itself, whose very lines serve as little spotlights to the lexis and the syntax.” Docupoetry necessarily entails “a kind of deadness of the already decided[,] the foregone conclusion,” Gordon writes. “[W]hen I think about what docu-poetry is not, I think of Keats [who writes with a] form so organic to the content and content so organic to the form that really there is no duality.” Verbal imagination, literary form (writ large), and “aura,” are inherent characteristics of Poetry. Mimesis, didacticism, and “the social” per se, are the proper domain of reportage (and therefore not proper to Poetry). This is because true poetry is written in forms that are “organic,” which is to say “intrinsic” to poetry, which is by definition where one finds verbal imagination, because poetry’s interest is in form. One might be forgiven for reading this line of thought as another instance of Coleridge’s snake with its tail in its mouth — a closed circle that defines itself, and thereby lends poetry its “privileged aura.” Gordon admits that she’s “being categorical, and that’s a problem.” But the fact that a poet of Gordon’s stature would reinscribe these ideas indicates that they still have some purchase in the twenty-first century. Indeed, I suspect that she is writing what others only say or think.

While I have no doubt that Gordon was suffering from a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract as she says in the post (hence “Febrile Meditation”), I also suspect she was experiencing an even more widespread malady as well — one that afflicts us all — the one Jacques Derrida termed “archive fever” (mal d’archive).[17] For Derrida, archive fever denotes the mania to define what’s in and what’s out. “But where does the outside commence? This,” Derrida asserts, “is the question of the archive. There are undoubtedly no others” (8). The job of the archivist is not only to prevent documents from leaving the archive, but, perhaps more importantly, to keep out those that don’t belong there. This is, of course, a political decision that involves repression and destruction, even as it involves preservation. Thus the Gnostic gospels wind up in the rubbish heaps of Nag Hammadi because the keepers of the archive — the archons, those in command (in this case abbots and bishops) — deemed them outside of the canon of biblical texts, and therefore outside of the archive. Or worse, “Aryan” books are published, and “Semitic” books consigned to the flames. Archive fever is thus the arch form of “being categorical.” So for Derrida, it isn’t just a problem — it is the problem. Archive fever “verges on radical evil” — hence the double meaning of the mal of the title (20).

But how to avoid it? Is it even possible? On Derrida’s account, “archive” is a very broad category indeed, and so there are many archives; we could even say that genre is a type of archive (perhaps even the type of the archive). And Gordon nails the problem of the archive when she complains about the “oppressive kind of mawkish ‘poetry framing’” of what she considers properly nonfiction materials, on the grounds that “it just sounds like a lot of interesting information has been LEFT OUT.” For Derrida, archivization is the process of leaving out, via “the disposition of a legitimate hermeneutic authority” (3) — authority to name, classify, anthologize, teach, publish, fund — or not. Archivization in this sense produces the frame “Poetry” (over against “nonfiction” or “reportage,” for instance). Framing is all about leaving out (and in). The frame, the parergon, on Derrida’s reading, functions as a paregoric — it soothes by reassuring that everything is in its place.[18]

But how does such authority become legitimate? If poetry is a valid category because genre is a valid category, then, as Derrida asks elsewhere, “what is the genre of genre?”[19] What category does the category belong to, which gives it its authority? Alas, “the structure of the archive is spectral. It is … a trace always referring to another” — to the king, to the king’s father’s father, or to the trace of the trace of him (84). For this reason, “poetry” does not inhere in any text, nor can any text be unproblematically mimetic. It must appeal outside itself in order to “speak” — must appeal to the arke, conceived of, on the one hand, as origin (in the sense of either the spectral past or the really real thing-in-itself) or, on the other hand, as Law (and by extension, those in a position to define and maintain boundaries — whether it’s the Commerce Department, Microsoft, or The Father per se).

And it is precisely for this reason that would-be docupoets need to heed Gordon’s point about the exclusion of information. If poetry is an archive, then so too is a poem — or any text — and the writer is a kind of archivist. The familiar generic parameters that I have outlined here make this issue an especially important one for those who would include documents in poetry. Which documents? And why not include them at all? Why include these “business documents and schoolbooks” and exclude others? By what authority does the documentary poet (howsoever poetical s/he might be) decide why the front and back covers delimit the book? It seems to me that poetry, precisely because of the generic conventions historically associated with it, forces the docupoet to confront these questions. Otherwise, one produces the very kind of poetry Gordon decries — one that unconsciously represses part of the record without altering our experience of either the record or of repression.

From Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife (Essay Press) [click to enlarge].

As we know, all of us engage in forms of linguistic repression and exclusion (if one says “collector,” one does so by repressing the visually similar and not unrelated word “corrector”).[20] And some documentary poetry makes repression a priority — that is, it attempts to weed out the heterogeneous, the digressive, the transgressive and contradictory in order to tell a predetermined, linear narrative. In other words, there is, as Gordon suggests, plenty of flat, predictable, sententious, boring docupoetry (just as there is plenty of repetitive, precious, pretentious, boring “experimental” lyric).

However, I would submit that by focusing on these issues, a documentary poetry can turn the problem to account. Not only by awareness of the death drive (i.e., the suppression of the Other, not least of all within the archive itself), but also by focusing on — by enjoying — the libidinal energy that drives the poet’s researches in the first place, an energy Derrida terms “archive desire.” Archive desire is the flip side of archive fever.

“Why am I doing this?” One answer is surely that given by British historian and memoirist Carolyn Steedman: “the practice of history in its modern mode is, in one view, just one long exercise of the deep satisfaction of finding things.”[21] Derrida, in speaking of Freud’s writings — and the Freud archive — declares, “These classical and extraordinary works move away from us at great speed, in a continually accelerated fashion. They burrow into the past at a distance more and more comparable to that which separates us from archaeological digs.” (18). As a result, “The archivist produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed” (68). It burrows downwards and opens outward in a million directions, ramifications, racinations. This is precisely the impulse Maria Damon finds in poet and artist Adeena Karasick’s piece “The Wall” (2000), with its “fractured, bubbly, compendiousness.”[22] Damon appreciates its “archival aliveness, its anarchival, rhizomic exuberance” (97) that is “vibrant with both regally official document and semiodetritus” (90). These phrases provide a vibrant, exuberant description of archive desire in action. Archive desire is, in effect, the burning and generative desire to chase the boundaries of the archive itself — whether to catch them or to drive them off. And those boundaries are generic, as well as thematic.[23] In other words, a self-consciously archival or documentary poetry might interrogate itself — cop to its own violence and bad faith — while at the same time owning and reveling in the imaginative desire that drives it. Doing so may mean not simply mixing documentary writing and poetic writing, but instead rejecting the categories “documentary” and “poetry” altogether — or at least, recataloging them.

One possible guide in this process is Walter Benjamin’s innovative writing of historical traces, in such texts as “One-Way Street” and the Arcades Project. The latter, in particular, in terms of the phantasmagoric expansion of documents, observations and ideas about a particular city during a few decades, resembles a sort of nonfiction version of Ulysses, except that it is not as small. That is, the Arcades is not a codex with fixed front and back covers, but an ever-expanding, ever deepening archive that can only cease at the archivist’s death (though even beyond that point, Benjamin scholars and imitators have, in effect, continued to ramify and expand it). As Damon puts it, the Arcades “manages to be both fragmentary and exhaustive: exhaustiveness and excess here imply unfinishability.”[24] There is always another faubourg out beyond the last, always another ruin awaiting discovery below the last. And Benjamin delights in finding (and arranging) them all.

But for Benjamin, unlike Derrida, the destructiveness of archivization can be a vital, revolutionary act — and one that points up the hyperdestructive nature of modernity itself. Not only are most items about and from nineteenth-century Paris excluded from the Arcades, but those that are included are the result of a kind of violence. To write history, for Benjamin, “means to cite history. It belongs to the concept of citation, however, that the historical object in each case is torn from its context.”[25] And, as Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, Benjamin recontextualizes citations in a form that resembles nothing so much as a hypertext.[26] This method of presenting history is at loggerheads with traditional historical narration, which, Benjamin believes, chooses its citation or exhibit only “to reinsert the object into the [narrative] continuum, which it would create anew through empathy” (475). That is, the bourgeois historians of the nineteenth century, like its novelists, created an absorptive reading experience — one that recreated the past through empathy, continuity, and verisimilitude, thereby erasing its tracks, its interested nature. “The history that showed things ‘as they really were’ was the strongest narcotic of the [nineteenth] century” (463). “Materialist historiography,” by contrast, “does not choose its object arbitrarily. It does not fasten on them but rather springs them loose from the order of succession” — thereby forcing the reader to confront her or his received notions about succession and order (475).

Like Derrida, Benjamin would focus on the marginalia, the footnoted event, the overlooked bit of detritus that didn’t make it into the official archive. “I shall purloin no valuables,” Benjamin famously declares. “But the rags, the refuse — these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them” (460). It is only by self-consciously making use of them, engaging in poiesis, that the historian can creatively turn the archive inside out. “The most essential parts of this work … are turned most intensively to the outside”: even a casual riffling through the Arcades will give one a sense of how determinately it is turned to the outside, even while incorporating ever more of it (456). Benjamin’s is a voracious, ex-static, and expanding archive, because “[a] chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.”[27] This is the ne plus ultra of archive desire — an understanding of the receding horizon that is the boundary of the archive, followed by the desire to chase it and to drive it as far as it will go.

By the same token, the longstanding generic dichotomy between poetry and documentary is based not only on a normative conception of poetry, but also on a rather static and reductive notion of documentary. Documentary forms, ever since their rise in the twentieth century, have been accused of being too determined, didactic, manipulative, and as being premised on a rather naive form of mimesis. On this view, documentarians purport to present us with the unvarnished real — an accurate record of the object under consideration — and they are (therefore) rank propagandists. However, as critic Jeff Allred points out, by examining individual documentary texts from the 1930s, we see in fact that there were photographers, writers and filmmakers working in this form who used it not just to “present a reality out there,” but to reflect upon the form itself — to make use of the mediated nature of the document, and to cut against generic expectations.[28] This “documentary modernism” deploys “the ‘document’ as a trace of the real, a ‘resident alien’ in the house of culture whose presence in the text destabilizes relationships between reality and representation, self and other, reader and text.”[29] A text such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men can produce what Allred calls, after Adam Tractenberg, “plausible fictions of the real” — precisely because it is self-conscious of its textuality and thereby relinquishes any dubious claims to be either a direct presentation of the real or even to account for a given object of inquiry. But if “creative nonfiction,” like traditional history-writing, creates a fiction of the real by drawing you in, absorbing you in the verisimilitude of the (true) story (with all the ideological implications of that process), this “documentary modernism” creates it by continuously reminding you of the fictional, constructed nature of even the most seamless or positivist narrative. This approach is familiar in the form of montage in film — that is, the use of the blatant fiction of simultaneity to represent a larger field of action than the single shot can present. Nowadays, the term “poetic documentary” is a common one in film to designate work that relates narratives based on historical particulars, while also foregrounding the filmmaker’s art and calling attention to the medium itself.

From Kaia Sand’s Remember to Wave (Tinfish Press) [click to enlarge].

I am struck by the similarity of this type of documentary and that of much so-called documentary poetry today — if you call it poetry — and if you call it documentary.[30] There is indeed a growing body of work that manages to “spotlight lexis and syntax” in the very process of relating “compelling and important narratives” of biographical and historical events. For instance, here are some twenty-first-century additions to Osman’s list of docupoems, focusing on writing in various experimental/innovative/investigate forms:

Kazim Ali, Bright Felon
Dan Beachy-Quick, Whaler’s Dictionary
Anne Carson, Nox
Allison Cobb, Green-Wood
Stephen Collis, On the Material
Brenda Coultas, A Handmade Museum and The Marvellous Bones of Time
Amy England, Victory and Her Opposites
C. S. Giscombe, Prairie Style
Gabriel Gudding, Rhode Island Notebook
Susan Howe, The Midnight (and others)
Bhanu Kapil, Humanimal
Khaled Mattawa, Tocqueville
Mark Nowak, Shut Up Shut Down and Coal Mountain Elementary
Kathleen Ossip, The Cold War
Jena Osman, The Network
Craig Santos Perez, from unincorporated territory series
M. NourbSe Philp, Zong!
Kristin Prevallet, I, Afterlife
Kaia Sand, Remember to Wave
Susan M. Schultz, Dementia Blog
Eleni Sikelianos, The Book of Jon
Tony Trigilio, Historic Diary
Rachel Zolf, Masque

Needless to say, this list is by no means exhaustive, and one could add to it on a weekly basis.

While all of these texts include representational modes of writing, it is difficult to read them as embodying the naive mimetic rendering of fact that critics have traditionally taken as the “other” of poetry; they go out of their way to call attention to what is included and what is excluded — what is known and what can’t be known — to the seams, gaps, and collapses between and within what the poet has discovered in the record and the poet’s response to those discoveries. Indeed, such responses can become quite nonrepresentational.[31] In these respects, much contemporary docupoetry demands a nonabsorptive reading: to the extent that it tells “the story of history,” it does so with a heavy dose of skepticism of, and creativity toward, the framing of “facts” (particularly official ones) and even narratives per se — especially those that purport to be true. Thus, precisely through exploiting the generic scandal of “documentary poetry,” this body of work produces a perspective, response, and critique that neither a personal, expressive (or purely ludic and aleatory) poetry nor a scholarly historical account could provide. In these senses, the new docupoetry diverges sharply from the institutions of “poetry” — and documentary, too. It uses verse on occasion, often verse that is very linguistically inventive and affecting. But these books don’t stick to that mode, or to any. They may be loosely structured around a particular narrative, but that narrative is interrupted and informed by others that are disparate in scale, time, topic, or style. The archive called poetry often willfully (and painfully) clashes with other archives, in these books. This is poetry in the sense in which Moore means it, in the epigraph to this essay: a noncategory category, the category that contains the cast-off material from other genres; the ever-receding archaic ground of “to make.” What do you make of it? What use can you make of it? Like Benjamin’s literary rag-picking, these “docupoems,” as poems, are always oriented towards the outside.

And I learned from reading them. That is what “to document” originally meant (in both English and Latin): to teach. Ditto for “didactic” (via Greek, this time). The uncomfortable relation between documentation and didacticism would cause the (didactic) conservators of generic integrity to consign both to the nonpoetic rag-heap, to define documentary as indoctrination. They thus narrow not only the meaning of poetry, but also the meaning and methods of teaching. On my reading, this view of both pedagogy and poetics owes more to the spirit of literary anti-leftist reactions of the 1930s to the 1950s (and its post-Reagan revenants) than it does to any inherent or transcendent indwelling nature in a particular configuration of marks on a page. To believe that genres are inherent within texts — that genres are genetic — while losing sight of their meandering historical careers, is to wander into precisely the place that the anti-didactic artistic free agent would avoid — namely, the invisible archive of ideology (or rather, ideology as invisible archive).

From Eleni Sikelianos’s The Book of Jon (City Lights) [click to enlarge].

Coda: The CNP unmanifesto.

Is documentary poetry a subgenre of, or a current within, the larger genre of poetry?

Who cares.

Or: does such writing even need to partake of “the privileged aura of ‘Poetry’” in order to work? “It’s good for what it is, but is it poetry?” could be flipped on its head: “It may or may not be poetry, but is it good for what it is?” — or, better yet, “at what it does.”

It doesn’t follow the generic conventions of creative nonfiction either. The term “lyric essay” would seem to bridge the gap between genres, but the emphasis is still on “essay” — and the term “lyric” is, for many in the poetry world, a rather freighted one. Moreover, as Rob Nixon writes, “‘lyric essay’ sounds a bit too fusty (Wordsworth meets Hazlitt) to breach the battlements of twenty-first-century technologies.”[32]

Rather than simply term these texts poetry because we can think of no other category in which to put them, I hereby unveil another generically undecidable nongenre genre: “Creative Nonpoetry.” Like creative nonfiction, creative nonpoetry defines itself over-against a genre which historically has refused its content, but which it often resembles quite a bit. Creative Nonpoetry borrows and burrows from the traditional conventions of the poetic; or mashes them up; or disclaims them altogether, by turns. It can contain verse, prose, dialogue, pictures.

Anyone who says poets should write a “poetry of witness,” or should document the Real or “the social,” is not talking about creative nonpoetry; nor is the hermetic neo-Symbolist lyricist who insists that art should have nothing to do with “events.”

Creative Nonpoetry is creative because it does not limit itself to either the poetry or the “non” — the writer (the creative nonpoet) may believe it to be “based on a true story”; the writer may take a skeptical stance towards (some of) that material — or declare an unreasoning faith in it. It is nonpoetry in the sense that it decreases the distance between writing history and poetry, while experimenting with the received forms of both (at the same time and by the same token). It lets the purists of both Poetry and Documentary off the hook, while opening up new possibilities for those of us who aren’t invested in genres for genre’s sake. It is a category for writing that does not fit into categories. It gives publishers a (New!) label to put on the back cover and bookstores a place to put strange texts.

In other words, “creative nonpoetry” is a way of describing what actually-existing poetry has become in the US, over the last twenty years or so — an indeterminate space where the histories of genres clash, combine, morph, or dissolve. A space, let us say it, of creative freedom, in which genre becomes an historical tool to employ, reject, or add to — just as “history” is understood as history writing. Indeed, it is not surprising that much of the modern writing that I have mentioned, including the Cantos, Paterson, and Maximus, diverge from the historic conventions of poetry and incorporate those of other genres. And as Carruth points out, such poems often do not attempt to turn documents into verse, but rather let them be, as inassimilable chunks of exogenous discourse. The seams show. Narrative, conceptual, and emotional connections are left to the reader to draw. The narratives don’t necessarily follow a straight line — or only one line; indeed, the lines of verse don’t always follow a straight line. Sometimes, the documents don’t even tell a story, but rather produce lyric and affective responses to the narratives from which they are drawn. These are poems that often don’t look like poems. Or, said another way, much documentary poetry is really mixed-genre (or trans-genre) writing. And this fact is entirely understandable, given the postromantic dichotomy between historical documents and poetry.

It’s not clear to me that any writer who thinks of herself or himself as “experimental” or “innovative” or “investigative” can prescriptively and deductively assume that s/he is writing in a particular genre. If the writer incorporates parts of other texts, then generic mixing and indeterminacy are inevitable. In a perfect world, we could simply stop engaging in the conversation called genre, and just write what we write. As it is, we live in a world of types — whether they purport to be literary or literal (e.g., genre, gender, gene).[33] The best way to collapse boundaries, then, is by chasing — pushing — them farther, to the point at which they become stretched so thin as to become meaningless: this moment is the “creative non” in “creative nonpoetry.” This formal stretching and blurring, rather than any particular content, is the real political promise — and pleasure — of a (non)poetics including documents.



1. From a Paris Review interview, 1961. See the Marianne Moore Reader (Viking 1961), 258.

2. See Al Filreis’s website for the list.

3. Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Schriften, in German History in Documents and Images, ed. Wolfdietrich Rasch, trans. Jonathan Skolnik (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1958), 37–38. Emphasis mine.

4. Source of English translation: The Aesthetic and Miscellaneous Works of Frederick von Schlegel: Comprising Letters on Christian Art, An Essay on Gothic Architecture, Remarks on the Romance-Poetry of the Middle Ages and on Shakspere [sic], On the Limits of the Beautiful, On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians, in German History in Documents and Images, trans. E. J. Millington (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849), 143–46.

5. Letter to Joseph Cottle, March 7, 1815. Collected Letters, ed. Earl Taylor Griggs (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1956-71), vol. 3-4, p. 545.

6. Joseph Harrington, Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern US Poetics (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002). In particular, see chapters 1 and 6.

7. Tim Dayton, Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 119–20.

8. As Al Filreis points out in Counter-Revolution of the Word (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), other “docu-poets” of the late 1940s, such as Norman Rosten and Millen Brand, were effectively blacklisted and their work, ignored, due to their politics in the preceding decade. Because documentary was associated with left-liberal politics, the red-baiting of the period probably had a chilling effect on would-be docupoets.

9. Hayden Carruth, The Nation, August 25, 1951, repr. in William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, ed. Charles Doyle (London: Routledge, 1980), 155–56.

10. Randall Jarrell writing in Partisan Review 18, no. 6 (November–December 1951): 698–700, repr. in Doyle, William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, 239. Emphasis Jarrell’s.

11. There is, of course, more than a little professional self-interest at work amongst the first major wave of poets working in the academy. The academy, like any bureaucracy, thrives on departmentalization and compartmentalization. One must have a niche, a name, and a defined methodology, whether one is professing poetry or mechanical engineering.

12. E-mail to author, 1 June 2011.

13. E-mail to author, 31 May 2011.

14. Szirtes, “Missing Dates/Sleeve Notes,” Poetry 191, no. 1 (2001): 39.

15. Metres, “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy: The Poet as Journalist, Historian, Agitator,” The Poetry Foundation.

16. Szirtes, “Missing Dates/Sleeve Notes,” 40.

17. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Subsequent citations in text.

18. Cf. Derrida, “Economimesis,” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 11, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 3–25.

19. Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” Glyph 7 (1980): 202–13.

20. The positive example of nonfiction writing that Gordon cites, David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, has the advantage of being 704 pages long. Even so, one can be fairly certain that there is something about Darwin, evolution, extinction, or the nineteenth century that the book has left out. By contrast, as David Greethem recounts, “Kallimachos had used the enormous riches of the Alexandrian library to define and describe a meaningful cultural ‘everything’ for his moment and place,” in his attempt not to leave anything out. Kallimachos was thus in a Derridean ‘privileged’ position of ‘archontic power’ … [but] There are no extant copies of the Pinakes, but only citations of it and extracts from it by late writers in later compilations. Kallimachos’s ‘universal’ bibliography of ‘everything’ is reduced to the state of those ‘Extracts’ with which Melville chose to preface Moby-Dick.” And this is the nature of things: something (perforce) is always left out. David Greetham, “‘Who’s In, Who’s Out’: The Cultural Poetics of Archival Exclusion,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 32, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 15.

21. Carolyn Steedman, “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust,” The American Historical Review 106, no. 4 (October 2001). See paragraph 13.

22. Maria Damon, Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), 90. Subsequent citations in text.

23. Hal Foster sees something similar in what he terms “archival [visual] art”: “This work does invite psychoanalytical projections. It can also appear manic — not unlike much archival fiction today (e.g., David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers) — as well as childish. … [W]ith its nonhierarchical spatiality installation art often suggests a scatological universe, and sometimes they thematize it as such. For Freud the anal stage is one of symbolic slippage in which creative definitions and entropic indifferences struggle with one another. So it is sometimes in this art as well.” See Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” in The Archive, ed. Charles Merewether (London: Whitechapel, 2006), 147–48n13.

24. Damon, Postliterary America, 215.

25. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 476. Subsequent citations in text.

26. “But this very gap between expectation and fulfillment replaces sequential exposition and coherent argument with what looks like web-page design, the A file connecting just as readily with K (Dream City) or with Z (the Doll, the Automaton) as with B.” Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 32.

27. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 254.

28. Jeff Allred, American Modernism and Depression Documentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 15.

29. Ibid., 10.

30. Likewise, Perloff detects an affinity between Benjamin’s procedure in the Arcades Project and contemporary poetry generally: “[P]age after page of Benjamin’s astonishing text contains movable passages that can (and do) reappear in altered contexts; the repeated juxtapositions, cuts, links, shifts in register, framing devices, and visual markings conspire to produce a poetic text that is paradigmatic for our own poetics” (Unoriginal Genius, 43).

31. Some works emphasize the gaps as much as, or more than, the narrative — take, for instance, Susan Tichy’s use of quotations re: the Iraq War in Gallowglass or Stacy Szymaszek’s “Heart Island,” which draws on scraps of discourse from and about New York City’s potter’s field.

32. Nixon, “Literature for Real,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 7, 2010.

33. See Jed Rasula’s provocative discussion of genre and race in “Notes on Genre,” in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 102–3.