A singular sacred by George Quasha

a short 80th-birthday homage to Jerome Rothenberg

Maybe a secret of poetry is that its most disturbing power is something we never quite see or hear or make sense of, but which is invisibly transmitted from the bones of the poet to bones of the receiver. When I think back over the nearly five decades of knowing Jerry Rothenberg I register a kind of gradual infiltration of my bodymind system, beginning when I was about 20 and a student at NYU and starting to attend readings at Le Métro Café on 2nd Avenue. Confused at first by what I was hearing in the readings, I had to wonder whether for instance Jackson Mac Low performed in magical mumbo-jumbo—after all it spooked the cops who came to give tickets to Moe, the owner, for offering entertainment without a cabaret license. If the cops weren’t entertained, neither was I at first. But over time the voices of Jackson and Jerry and Paul Blackburn and David Antin and Harold Dicker and Armand Schwerner and Allen Ginsberg accumulated in my cells and soon reached critical mass where I would no longer be me as I had thought I was me. And involuntarily giving up being that unconnected me I could begin to experience an actual power in the poems read, even at their most jarring. I saw that quality first in Paul, Jerry and David, each in very different ways. Over time I got to know a Jerry Rothenberg perhaps only fully available in collaboration. An aspect of the greatness of the poet Rothenberg is also a secret of the Jerry who understands working with as one of the gates to poetic nature itself.

The powerful and even exotic complexity of his many anthologies is an imprint of his poetic mind, a hungry, adventuring, relentless, playful, loving, generous, inquiring mind that wants to dance at all the weddings at once—and they are intense poetic acts stretched out wide and embracing. He rescues poetries and invents yet another world for them. I remember a certain mental startle response in seeing the Pre-face and excerpted texts of Technician of the Sacred in 1967 which I got to publish in Stony Brook Magazine and which fed my wish to see new kinds of poetics come into being. I invited him to be an editor of this poetics he was inventing and to name it, and that became of course his ethnopoetics. The Stony Brook editorial board also included Antin, Robert Duncan, Nicanor Parra, Hugh Kenner, Lawrence Alloway, and others, and in various ways they all indirectly became teachers for me. This process went into high gear a few years later when Jerry generously invited me to join him in editing America a Prophecy, a project of rereading American poetry from pre-Colombian times to the present. There I witnessed a kind of textual magic that comes of Jerry’s wide focus and special gift to attract poetries others can’t quite see, even to raise them from the dead Lazarus-like— a magnetism that gets excited in library special collections and causes poems to crawl out of crevices. This gave an entirely new meaning to collage as revived poetic elements sticking together in revelatory constellations.

I also witnessed an emerging further meaning of the sacred. Jerry’s personal tentativeness with spiritual matters channels, with ever more cumulative force, into a poetics of the sacred. And this transformational process reveals a further nature of both the sacred and the poetic. The sacred becomes a celebratory yet intrinsically discriminating and self-regulating life path, an integration of realized and self-renewing language. This sense of the sacred is not about belief but is instead a way beyond belief that intensifies life awareness. The sacred as the event of singularity, an unprecedented point in languaged living, non-separate from all life.

Jerry’s anthologies join his voluminous poetic work as accumulators of power, perhaps in the literal sense that Joseph Beuys intended where the art work carries an actual charge and holds it like a battery. Intrinsic to that work is the understanding that poetry itself is pre-literary no matter how much cultural force it acquires, and there is a sense in which Jerry’s work is a restoration of power to poetry, and for that reason sacred. Its inter-nation-ism displays a principle of felt coherence where nation implies a social integrity seemingly lost in our political entities on any scale. Perhaps Jerry and Diane felt that kind of pull when they went to live among the Seneca. The nostalgia for the sacred as a homing instinct where desire focuses in the present. It bespeaks a politics not based on ideology as such but on the pull of self-true configuration, itself one of the gifts of poetry—especially the poetry Jerry makes and also the kind he gathers. Maybe the energy we are now feeling in the Occupy Movement is such a self-organized criticality consistent with the bone-to-bone transmission of the poetic sacred. If so, we have to add yet another hyphen to Rothenberg’s highly hyphenated complex identity, ending in American poet as prophet.  

Barrytown, New York
December 9, 2011

Presesented at Jerome Rothenberg at 80: A Celebration, Dec. 9, 2011 CUNY Graduate Center