Commentaries - September 2012

From 'Eye of Witness' (3): The poem as an act of witness

[It was with Heriberto Yépez, first in Ojo del Testimonio (2008) and now, in the process of coediting Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, that I found myself digging into earlier work to come to terms with the idea of witnessing as a basis and prod for my own poetics. With that in mind I have come to a slow understanding of how that idea, still in process, has been central both to my poetics and to that of various others, known and unknown to me. The following are some short excerpts from Eye of Witness, but the body of my work in different genres seems permeated by the concept, and I find myself more willing than ever to stand behind it. While I know that others would come at it quite differently, I read it now as a common thread for all we hope to know. That “all,” I wrote some years ago, includes the world, the present, as it comes and goes. I am a witness to it like everyone else, and all the experiments for me … are steps toward the recovery/discovery of a language for that witnessing. It can never be more clear than that, nor should it. (J.R.)]

Is not everything then possible?

Pastoral Landscape, Asher Brown Durand, 1861
Pastoral Landscape, Asher Brown Durand, 1861

I’ve been reading and pondering Raymond Williams’ book, The City and the Country, written in 1975, but fresh as a daisy today. What first struck me was his search for the original Arcadia, the source of the pastoral—the original harmony of human with nature that inspired all the pastoral poems to come thereafter. Of course, you say, the Garden of Eden! But Williams goes beyond that into the Roman and Greek roots of the form:

For if we look back into literature for significant writing about country life, we are taken many centuries beyond Virgil to the Works and Days of Hesiod, to the ninth century before Christ.

So, there he finds an “epic of husbandry”—the practice of agriculture—and the “long influence of this myth of the Golden Age.” But, here—and this is what struck me—“but for Hesoid, at the beginning of country literature, it is already far in the past.”

Cut from the same tongue (PoemTalk #57)

Gregory Djanikian, "Armenian Pastoral, 1915"


When Gregory Djanikian’s book, So I Will Till the Ground, was published in 2007, it was celebrated at the Kelly Writers House. (Later a Writers House podcast was released to give a sense of the event.) Al Filreis gave an introduction (MP3) as did one of Djanikian’s students, Sam Donsky (MP3). Djanikian read the hilarious “Immigrant Picnic” (MP3), a poem from the part of the book dealing with the life of the poet's family after the genocide left many of his forebears dead and dispersed the rest to places like Alexandria, Egypt, where our poet was born. Most of the book, indeed, deals with the effects many decades later of the Armenian genocide (or “Meds Yeghern,” the great calamity). But the first poems in So I Will Till attempt to represent mass killing. Among them is a poem Djanikian also read that night in 2007: “Armenian Pastoral” (MP3), the poem we discuss in this episode of PoemTalk.

The wisdom of crowds comes to modern poetry

A week before the 10-week ModPo course begins (current enrollment, as of this moment: 28,000 people worldwide) several thousand of those in the course are already talking in a Facebook group and on Twitter. We were discussing a poem by Emily Dickinson. People began saying things about the poem that in all my years of reading and teaching it I hadn't thought of. Then I posted this, above (apologies for the enthusiasm).


Sarah Dowling, Michelle Taransky, and Central California.
Sarah Dowling, Michelle Taransky, and Central California.

Poets Sarah Dowling (until recently of Philadelphia; now of Seattle; originally of Regina, Saskatchewan) and Michelle Taransky (of Philadelphia; originally of Camden, New Jersey) used Google Hangout to visit my William Carlos Williams class last month to talk about their relationship to WCW, modernism, and Spring and All.