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.”