Commentaries - August 2012
[What follows is Aaron McCollough’s preface to a gathering of three of my earlier books, currently out of print or with a handful of poems preserved in later editions of selected poems. The book – titled A Cruel Nirvana – marks the start of a new publishing venture, SplitLevel Texts, edited by McCollough & Karla Kelsey in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The other announced title in this new series of publications is Alan Gilbert’s The Treatment of Monuments. (J.R.)]
It may seem to us now as if Jerome Rothenberg’s work in Ethnopoetics was a kind of inevitability. As Charles Bernstein has observed, the work has “come to seem more and more prescient for contemporary poetics and literary studies.” There is much more than prophecy afoot here, however. If the work seems prescient, that’s because it helped open the field of possibility for much of what we consider post-colonial discourse, performance theory, etc. In fact, with his earliest work (an anthology, New Young German Poets), Rothenberg was already making “a start” in the sense he and Pierre Joris would associate with all of the post-war writers they gathered in Poems for the Millenium, Volume 2: “the nature of that start was not so much postmodern … as it was post-bomb and post-holocaust.” Rothenberg has been trying to revive overlooked pieces of the human conversation (and succeeding) for his entire career. His work is ever offering alternatives to others. If we feel exhausted by meaningless violence and marketing, Rothenberg shows us wellsprings of meaning and power we missed or just couldn’t see in our exhaustion or disaffection. Bernstein has recently described Rothenberg’s life-project as “a way of recovering from the Second War by refusing to cover over the [domestic] genocide that has allowed a false unity to the idea of American Literature.” But Ethnopoetics and the “Otherings & Variations” twining through Rothenberg’s work are not merely negations. On the contrary, they are offering new connections, new machines for inhabiting a post-bomb, post-holocaust, ever-genocidal human universe, without dogma, yes, but also without cynicism. A cruel Nirvana, indeed.
And so, here is the machine in your hands, the current volume. A Cruel Nirvana both is and is not a new Jerome Rothenberg collection. In other words, almost everything in this collection has been published before. Each of the three major sections (Narratives and Real Theater Pieces, The Notebooks, and Conversations) was originally published individually. Narratives was published in 1977 by Braad Editions (and prior to that in a shorter version by Black Sun Press). Notebooks was published by Membrane Press in 1976, and Conversations was published by Black Sparrow in 1968. All have been out-of-print for many years. The title poem is drawn from A Book of Witness. While this edition’s arrangement of the parts follows a logic that goes beyond reverse chronology of original publication, it’s worth saying that logic isn’t meaningless in itself. So much of Rothenberg’s work has wrestled with the angel of history, or the epistemological regimes of the traditional and the contemporary, it is pleasing enough to see the angel flying in reverse.
The simple, elemental diction of Narrative’s “A Dream Narrative” (“It is dark & I go / It is dark & I don’t go / I go & I don’t go”) indicates a start of the sort mentioned above. A sudden voice emerges from the dark, not exactly bringing light but not not bringing light into the shadow of the wreckage. By the end, Narratives has taken us deeper into that shadow via “Realtheater Pieces,” which detail brutal rituals that blend a “primitive” view of native american practice (reacting perhaps to the sensationalized depiction of Sioux initiation in the 1976 motion picture A Man Called Horse) with the rituals of Christianity (itself a death cult) as well as with more generalized scripted, plotted atrocities that have played themselves out repeatedly in the “modern” era. The ceremonial / total-theater blur that closes Narratives serves as an apt transition “into the darkness of jewish life,” with which the proem of The Notebooks begins. As he notes at the gathering’s end, Rothenberg composed most of The Notebooks as “versified commentaries” on source material he was consulting, sampling, and translating for A Big Jewish Book, which was still in progress at the time. Technicians of the Sacred, essentially the founding document of Rothenbergian ethnopoetics, had been in print for eight years by this point, and Rothenberg had begun his big Jewish project as an “attempt to deal with” European primitive traditions that had not initially made sense in the context of the first anthology. The Notebooks’ sourceworks belong to those “Jewish mystics, thieves, & madmen” Rothenberg identified as his own antecedents, a poetic lineage of shamans, prophets, merkabah storytellers, and nihilist messiahs that champions transformative mythopoetic process (what Ernst Cassirer called a “law of metamorphosis”). Ironically enough, as the epigraph to A Big Jewish Book recalls, The Talmud enjoined us to “MAKE IT NEW” long before Pound did. The Notebooks offer this kind of “jewish poems,” poems that merge “magic, myth, & dream: nature, orgy, love; the female presence the Jewish poets named Shekinah” with “the sinister & dangerous sides of existence” to produce new arrangements of traditional ritual energies. Finally, Conversations works a kind of synthetic trick on the two prior volumes. Where Narratives offers one spare, alienated uttering voice and where The Notebooks abruptly juxtaposes appropriated textual fragments with an individual lyric “writing through,” Conversations balances two spare, alienated voices in a dialogue touching both traditional and contemporary concerns without resolution. In “Conversation Fifteen,” the last poem in the book, one speaker begins by saying “I wanted something to eat,” and the other ends with “(I wanted the vindication of the just).” This is politics of bare life against politics of action. Two different notions of autonomy speaking across as much as to one another, ending in a field of immanence, which is really an opening as much as it is a closing.
In her essay “What is Freedom,” Hannah Arendt makes an observation I always return to with fresh admiration: "all miracles, those performed by men no less than those performed by a divine agent, always must be, namely, interruptions of some natural series of events, of some automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected" (Between Past and Future, 168). Arendt is working out the problem of autonomy in conversation with Enlightenment and Romantic moral thought (especially Kant, Schelling, and Hegel) as much as she delivering a riposte to Heideggerian phenomenology. Of course, Arendt’s autonomous agent is not just any subject. He/She is a political subject (a political-theological subject, really), free only in the “infinite improbability” of performative emergency—the abandonment of the liberal, private domain (and its securities). I read a productive analogy (if not identity) here between the Arendtian political agent and the poet, and it’s in light of that analogy/identity that I read Jerome Rothenberg’s body of work. I’d willfully bend Arendt to say, in poetry (as in politics) not life but the world is at stake. And the relationship between doing politics and doing poetry most approaches identity in Rothenberg’s work, as both require a courage that he has consistently displayed. It is a kind of political (rather than bioethical) miracle when a poet of such prodigious gifts devotes almost his entire self—imagination, if you like, but his whole person, really—to the belief in a communally driven poetry. And, as Rothenberg himself has always stressed (through the idea of “total translation,” especially) poesis, like politics, can only be complex. As such, poetic autonomy exists (when it exists) in a system, always as a challenge to that system but nevertheless imbricated within it.
[From 154 Forties by Jackson Mac Low, to be published by Counterpath, Denver, Colorado, 2012]
FINDING YOUR OWN NAME
Finding your own level of hell with cultural signifiers glowing in
giving a safe suntan both opaque and transpárent-in-a started
of-your-fírst - bánd in a hip commúnity-where áll will be one -
better-than-a-dog with a túrnip-and-a bée in the building collecting
money-for-the-French - overcapacitátion-of-a-secret stár on a
favorite yacht on a ledgelike evening
telling your stories through me
Showing-mé to mé emptying texture from things-from-which-I-
as it clings to a lóng-wooden-táble tagging someone to-spéak-
with two more eyes along its flank as-lócal-as-a-memorial-
overjoyed and meaningless as the sort of political process I try
to shrug off foreshadowed-in-a-book of mémories it came
through the door that was found
in the sky moving-acróss-itself
Delayed by an-impróperly-drawn-cóntract inscribed on a falling
a free-lance composer loves móst to-be-writing-as-he-spéaks
difficult to see - any-resúlts to-talk-about-lífe - próblems to
be free he released
a work for chorus one-hour-lóng and one for sólo voice to fínd
- tíme to bréathe tén - páges a dáy to keep up the pace one
minúte a day two or three hours to copy
two or three seconds of music
To concretize that thinking with nón - Wéstern elements nót
dimensions of time and space a little at first in numerous
currents of time
now the single unrelenting-units-of-our-líves in ábsolute time
but óther courses of time
defy measurement-by-digitalized-únits always shifting
caught up in grand ópera
Japanése musical groups don’t have conductors
Each with a time of their own they produce their beat-by-
of different tíme-frames time-spáce difference breaking down
they-interséct-each-other unlike the gardens-of-Versáilles
meant to be wálked-through and seen-from-different-
víewpoints they mutually reinfórce-one-another spring
summer autumn and wínter
Japanése gardens are the-sun-and-the-móon togéther
The not-twó-entity the spáce here óne overall-strúcture
concretely-bound-togéther spring’s direction is east its
pitch is G
rereading-them-in-a-módern cóntext getting-lóst in
not simply relics-of-the-pást reintegrated-in-the-fúture
strongly pulled toward Wéstern things how-can-that-
assimilating Western rational thínking
Shine the Light Internátional the best of the West and
the East together
the reception after the concert the theories the experi-
ences the caréer
dréad doesn’t-seem-to-have-múch to-dó-with-it just
surprised not very large
lots of electrical óutlets nóne of this is part of our start
to restóre it I’m sórry about it we each have our
níche and are própped-in-it at a wonderful móment
Twó páckages-like-Chrístmas presents Martin-Luther-
Kíng the Pówer-Structure
Panther a wéekend - house the-Fóur – Séasons a
hillock of stone in-the-sáme-bréath
swatting-out-mosquítoes luck or hábit the ending
fire a rainbow the scenery
encased in the clouds with the birds in-the-middle-
dístance a cóal-stove existence-that escápes -
yéars - after-we’re-góne just-a-little-bit-senti-
beside a lake without a náme
New York: 18 –25 February 1995;
1–15 September 1997
THE FOREWORD TO 154 FORTIES BY ANNE TARDOS
I remember asking Jackson, why 154 Forties? Why that number? Why not another? He never gave me a clear answer. Only after his death, while editing Thing of Beauty, did it dawn on me that he might have been referring to Shakespeare’s sonnets, which also number 154. Such a reference would indeed have to have been couched, if that’s what he was doing. And the more I think about the Forties’ format, the number of lines, long ones and short ones, the more I believe my hunch to be correct.
Mac Low wrote the 154 Forties over a period of ten years. He began writing them in 1990, and finished writing the first drafts in 1995, although he continued revising them until 2001. He wrote the first drafts into a notebook. The poems incorporated everything he saw and heard and thought of at the time. When in Europe, he freely included words from languages other than English. (In the few multilingual Forties, he included elements and notational methods from some of my own multilingual poems.) I remember Jackson writing during poetry readings, music and dance concerts, in cars, planes, trains, and boats. The poems’ end notes document the exact time and place of each poem and subsequent revision(s).
Back home, at his computer, he would type up what he had written. In his “Notes to 154 Forties” (below), he describes the prosodic devices he used to indicate reading tempo, stress, and dynamics. Jackson was, after all, a performance poet.
Many of the Forties have appeared in magazines and anthologies. Zasterle Press in the Canary Islands, published 20 Forties, in 1999. A selection of four poems was translated into French, by the translation collective in Royaumont, and published in 2001 by Un bureau sur l’Atlantique as Les Quarantains (Extraits). This is the first time the Forties are collected in their entirety.
The Forties stand as Mac Low’s most important achievement. His encyclopedic knowledge, humor, and boundless imagination, are abundant in these poems. Who can resist a “perpendicular tofu cancellation” or “J. Edgar Hoover Blackmailed Transformational Linguistics,” the title of Forties 126. Each title is composed of the first word(s) of the first stanza and the last word(s) of the last stanza. These titles are a poem within the poem. The musicality of a line like “Toffee clinic alcohol-cadenza lyricism strife megalópia tank” is clear.
Had he not previously worked with systematic chance operations, he might not have been able to write these spontaneous and intuitive works. His transition from chance and deterministic methods to free writing, however, was not abrupt. Between his system-based works of the mid-1950s, Jackson also engaged in various mixes of chance and choice, as in the “Light Poems” and the “Presidents of the United States of America.” Among Jackson’s papers, I came across an unfinished letter in which he discusses the evolution of his poetics: “I don’t believe that poetics should be prescriptive, even though an artist may adopt or develop certain theories to guide her work at various times. I consider such theories to be ‘scaffoldings’ that help the artist make the works, but that may well be discarded and/or modified afterward. Ultimately, they may have little or no truth value (except as analyses) and may only indirectly embody or express ethical or political values.” Later he adds, “I am an empiricist, a pragmatist, and a metaphysical skeptic — in an embracing rather than a rejective sense. Mind and matter are two aspects of the same ‘thing.’ Consciousness may ultimately be explained by material causalities, and material phenomena may be explained by physical causalities.” Mac Low was continually defining and redefining his political, artistic, and philosophical beliefs. He also moved freely between art forms, often drawing and painting words and phrases, making collages and constructions. Exhibits of his visual artworks and lesser-known collages have been shown around the world. They are as complex and multifaceted as his poetry. The Forties, it seems to me, are a deeply engaged exploration of language. The nod to Shakespeare, if my guess is correct, is appropriate and modest. Mac Low never compared his Forties to the sonnets, but he did write 154 of them, perhaps leaving a subtle message for the readers of the future.
New York, 2012
From an interview by Sonnet L’Abbé with Sarah Dowling and me in Canadian Literature 210/211 (Autumn/Winter 2011)
As long as Christian Bök and Darren Wershler remain influential figures in conceptual poetics, would you consider conceptual writing a practice that has its origins "in Canada," perhaps with 'pataphysical roots? Can Canadianist scholars stake that territory?
Charles Bernstein: I can’t prove it, but my impression is that Conceptual Poetry, in the sense of the trademark term, was invented by Bök in his lab, working with two imaginary friends. The mechanism by which he did this is not yet fully understood. The two imaginary friends thought they were in a Toronto bar. The work attributed to poets “south of invention” was likely teletexted from Toronto and then Calgary to the putative authors, unbeknownst to them, who were feasting off the sensation that they were creating original works.
‘ModPo’ sneak preview: Twenty-minute introductory video to free online course on modern and contemporary American poetry
For further information about the course: link. To enroll, click here. ModPo begins on September 10, 2012, and continues for ten weeks. As of the date of this posting, 24,600 were enrolled. Roughly* half live outside North America.
* We have scant data on enrollees. Once the course begins, we will ask participants to fill out a short (obviously optional) survey and hope to learn why so many are taking the course, where they live, etc.
I recently asked my students to engage in a “dialectical journal” activity in our William Carlos Williams class. There are many examples online of what teachers refer to as a “dialectical” or “double entry journal,” in which students use multiple columns on a page to react to specific phrases and passages from a text. The dialectical journal is a popular tool in secondary schools and undergraduate curricula, and ranges from the relatively simple act of gathering reactions to a text to more complex methods of translating reactions into critical assessment and reflection — visual connections, social questions, naming literary techniques, generating a thesis. Essentially, the dialectical journal is a physical template for the kinds of annotating and close reading we do all the time: a kind of spreadsheet to track what different parts of the text are doing, and what kinds of reactions we have to them. What I found in the Williams class, however, is that there is something even more dialogic going on than creating a conversation between readers: the genre of the text seems in some ways to determine the form of the reader’s own writing.
1. Break up into groups of 3. Each person finds a quote in a text you’re reading.
2. Turn your notebook horizontally, copy the quote into your notebook, and draw three vertical lines so that you have four columns in your notebook. The top of the page looks like a version of this:
writer | responder 1 | responder 2 | writer
3. Spend a few minutes responding to your quotation in the first column. End your writing with a question.
4. Pass your notebook to the right. Your classmate will spend a few minutes writing in the second column in response to your quote, response, and question.
5. Pass the notebook to the right again. The next member of your group reads the first and second columns and responds in the third column.
6. Return the notebook to the writer, who then responds in the fourth and last column to everything that’s been written.
In the IWT workshop, we worked with George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” in which Orwell argues:
I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. […] [N]o book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
I chose the last sentence from the above excerpt as my quote. My group members and I filled up four columns with a debate about aesthetic value and political bias: how much are they opposed, and where do they overlap? Is political writing good writing, or are the two qualities different? What is art? Is all writing political? We were using writing techniques derived from Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power, in which you write in response to someone else’s language, so we responded to one another’s specific points as well as tone. The writing that filled up my notebook was both informal/associative and analytical: everything from “I actually think Orwell is full of it” to “‘Age’ can refer both to historical epoch and to the writer’s biography.” We were glib and we were critical, but we pretty much remained on topic. During discussion afterward, we found most people in the group chose similar quotes that spoke to Orwell’s central argument about politics.
In the Williams class, we used the dialectical journal to write about Tristan Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto 1918.” I had originally planned to use it with Pound’s “A Retrospect,” but our conversation had already taken us so deeply into that text that I wanted to tackle something new.
Writing collaboratively, in silence, took us far into the text in a way that discussion can’t. Students reported that they felt much less alienated from the manifesto than they had upon first reading it, and that they had come to appreciate its odd format. Some found it essentially nihilistic, others simply humorous; all agreed the time we spent writing (nearly an hour) gave us entry into the manifesto’s multiple meanings. I had expected that some of this might happen. But what I didn’t expect is that the journal would work so differently with the Tzara than it did with the Orwell. For one thing, there was no overlap in the quotes chosen, which suggests that no one passage dominates the whole as the ‘key’ to reading Tzara’s text. For another, dialogue within groups was more meandering, at times even chaotic, filled with questions and declarations. We sounded Dadaist.
This makes me wonder how the rules of genre carried over into our notebooks. Orwell’s piece is classic essay genre: discursive and wandering, but aimed at a single point of argument. Tzara’s piece follows the rules of the manifesto genre, one might even say more so: it repudiates logic, offering caricature and irony where other modernist writers of manifestoes (like Pound) are perhaps more essayistic even as their language is polemical.
In a way, Tzara’s manifesto is also a meta-manifesto that uses its form to comment on the genre itself. My quote from Tzara was the last four words of this passage:
I write a manifesto and I want nothing, yet I say certain things, and in principle I am against manifestoes, as I am also against principles (half-pints to measure the moral value of every phrase too too convenient; approximation was invented by the impressionists). I write this manifesto to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking one fresh gulp of air; I am against action; for continuous contradiction, for affirmation too, I am neither for nor against and I do not explain because I hate common sense.
Janet Lyon writes in Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern that Tzara’s manifesto is a kind of “exfoliation of the manifesto form,” one that uses the manifesto genre to teach us something. She writes:
The manifesto is a pedagogical vehicle, he implies: it teaches us fundamentals, little abcs and big abcs. It is a form marking the contours of rage, and it deploys the verbal accoutrements of rage — shouting and swearing and fulminating. It is a testament of “proofs,” marshaling arguments and conquering disbelief in the name of proof. (41)
The dialectical journal is its own kind of genre, perhaps one that mimics the genre of its source texts. If Tzara’s manifesto is pedagogical, we were its students, and with the dialectical journal we wrote into and through the lesson. (Jameson, dialectic, and genre theory would seem to be the next step in this discussion.)