Ariel Resnikoff, with Jerome Rothenberg: From an interview

Eleanor Antin: collage, Poland/1931, after Jerome Rothenberg
Eleanor Antin: collage, Poland/1931, after Jerome Rothenberg

[The full interview, conducted by Ariel Resnikoff over a period of several months, is scheduled to appear shortly in The Wolf magazine, number 31, edited by James Byrne & Sandeep Parmar, along with my own "variations" on the poetry of Mikhl Likht, mentioned below. (J.R.)]


Ariel Resnikoff: In the summer of 2013 you and I connected, via Merle Bachman, over a shared interest in the “incomprehensible” poetics of the Yiddish American modernist poet, Mikhl Likht. I had just finished my MA thesis at the University of Oxford, where I had been told I was crazy to write on the relationship between Zukofsky's English verse and Likht’s Yiddish. You, however, believed in my research and even began advising Stephen Ross’s and my translation to English of Likht’s Yiddish long poem, Protsesiyes (Processions). Moreover, you suggested that there was something highly potent in Likht’s poetic legacy that figured into your own work as a poet-critic-translator-anthologist. How did you originally discover Mikhl Likht? Why is his poetics important to you?


Jerome Rothenberg: I invented Mikhl Likht long before I ever heard of him.  That is to say, when I was composing Poland/1931 &, later, A Big Jewish Book, I imagined a poet writing in Yiddish who brought that language & poetry into the world of truly experimental & avant-garde writing. (I hadn't as yet found anyone like that in real life.) At times too I imagined myself as that poet, having a tenuous grip on Yiddish as a first language but still enough to hear & understand in dreams. The discovery of Likht came, not surprisingly, from Merle Bachman’s Yiddishland, & my first reaction was to think that she had somehow invented him & the excerpt she presented there from his Processions.  Once I got over that & got in touch with her, I continued to be intrigued not only by the work itself but what felt to me like a close & probably not an accidental resemblance to Zukofsky’s A & Pound’s Cantos. The scope of his work became even clearer when I heard from you and Stephen about your big translation project and the material you found tying him directly to Zukofsky.  That Processions preceded A & even the more projective & experimental sections of the Cantos made it still more exciting, & its presence alongside those expanded the idea – for me at least – not only of what constituted Yiddish poetry but what constituted American poetry as well.  With each new installment of Processions, the excitement gets still stronger.


AR: I recall you telling me once that Louis Zukofsky’s personality as a poet was completely removed from the world of New York Yiddish culture. Yet it is clear in reading his work that he was deeply concerned with the Yiddish language and literature of his childhood. How do you read Zukofsky’s relationship to Yiddish? How important do you think it is to his poetic project as a whole? Did it surprise you to learn that he was in contact with Likht?


JR: What seems curious to me here is that in the years that I knew Louie – as a considerably younger friend – there was no signaling from him about any special interest in either Jewish or Yiddish matters.  And yet I’m aware, increasingly, that his work has many more such references and sources than were clear to me when I was spending time with him.  For Pound of course Louie served as a kind of courier to the Jewish world, something that comes out painfully – embarrassingly I mean to say – in their ongoing correspondence.  Still, given that we both came out of a Yiddish-speaking childhood, it seems strange to me that it didn’t show up in talking to him, or maybe it did and maybe I’ve chosen to forget it.  I’ve written about this before but thinking about it now, I realize that the time when I was seeing a lot of Louie and Celia was in the early sixties, before I had made my own move into Poland/1931 and “the world of Jewish, mystics, thieves and madmen.”  And I think that at that time both of us were playing down, rather than playing up, our jewishness – an escape from the cruddy side of all of that, if I can say so, and for him, far more than for me, the sense of being in an outsidered generation, which he would express to me in different ways, the Jewish least among them. 

            With all of this he was an extraordinary poet – the most American of Jewish poets, someone called him, and the most Jewish of American poets. In many ways he was the equal of his master (Pound, I mean) and in some ways (dare I say it?) his superior.  (This isn’t, though, a question of assessing one poet as against another.)  I believe anyway that some part of Louie’s despair – or, better put, his desperation – was not so much the neglect so often mentioned in discussions of his work and life, but the feeling of victimization – of being a Jew at a time of widespread and still institutionalized anti-semitism.  Far more than me he must have run the gamut of pre-World War Two institutionalized anti-semitism – a quota Jew at Columbia and a poet hoping to be heard (and failing) in a world where he could think of Pound, say, as perhaps the least anti-semitic of his poet elders.  With Pound, then, he was in close touch with one whom he knew to be a great poet and through whom he could address the “enemy” in familial and open terms – “sonny” to Pound’s “pappa.”  He could also play the enemy himself (under the name of “shagetz” rather than “goy”), could label himself an anti-semite (as he sometimes did, at Pound’s behest), and by so doing, keep the conversation going.

            When I first read Merle’s translations of Likht, I was struck by their similarity to Louie’s most complex work, but it didn’t occur to me that he and Louie might have known each other.  Now that this is becoming clear it seems to me that Likht can be placed alongside Louie and the others as an American “Objectivist,” while writing, in his own kind of isolation, in that other language.


AR: That “playing down” of jewishness you mention, is something that runs through the early work of many Jewish American poets. Why do you think this is? What led you to transition into “the world of Jewish mystics, thieves and madman” we find in Poland/1931?


JR:  I can’t speak for the others of course, but I think that that was true for most of the Jewish poets I knew when I was first getting into poetry.  For myself, from what I can remember, there was a desire not to fall into an ethnic trap that seemed burdened with sentimentalities and a narrowing of the possibilities that were then opening up to us.  I suppose too that there was a lack of models among the poets who came before us or that whatever specifically ethnic poetry I knew (Jewish or otherwise) seemed embarrassingly soft to me.  And this was even more the case when a flood of Jewish-themed family poems began to appear in the 1960s, a debased form of poetry, I thought, for which I would later write Poland/1931 as a kind of antidote or critique, or what David Meltzer would call my “surrealist Jewish vaudeville.”  I felt also, before I got further into it, that anything I wrote was Jewish in itself because I wrote it, much like the In Zikh poets, who also didn’t want to be hemmed in by Jewish themes, though they of course were writing, unlike me, in a specifically Jewish language.  In the same way I shied away from holocaust as a theme, though that & the other horrors of the mid-century were underpinnings to much of what I was then writing.

            My breakthrough came in part – strangely, I think – from a poem by Gertrude Stein, who certainly played down her jewishness (as much as any poet I knew), but on rare occasions let it seep out.  (David Antin had suggested reading The Making of Americans as a shtetl or Jewish immigrant novel, but with the ethnic identity suppressed.)  I was also immersed at the time in the dark fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom I had met on a couple of occasions, and the even darker poetry of Paul Celan, whom I met once and had been the first to translate into English.  And it was also a time when I was finishing Technicians of the Sacred & immersing myself in a range of deep cultures / deep poetries from throughout the world, to which I would add the Jewish as another such culture for which I felt privileged to speak.

            So I found myself thinking, among other things, of what a Jewish entry into the world of experimental modernism might look like and finding it – strangely, as I said before – in Stein.  It was just a few short lines in a longer serial poem, “Dates” in Bee Time Vine, but when I read it, I thought of it immediately as Getrude’s “jewish poem”:


            Pass over

            Pass over

to which I added a final line – “pass water” – and then went back into the full Stein poem and substituted a darker Jewish vocabulary from Singer’s Satan in Goray by a kind of rhyming, word for word substitution, to make in the process a “jewish poem” of my own – the kind of multiphasic, irreverent and knotty “jewish poem” that I wanted and that really got me on the road to Poland/1931 and, still more expansively, A Big Jewish Book, or more narrowly, Khurbn and Gematria.  It also led me to ally with others, both Jews and non-Jews, who were also sharing in that exploration.

AR: I’m curious how this question of a Jewish entry into experimental modernism relates to your interest in the work and character of Tristan Tzara (born Samy Rosenstock, 1896-1963), and in Dada, more generally. “[Y]ou are dead” you write in the third section of Abulafia’s Circles, titled, “The Holy Words of Tristan Tzara”,


& dada life is growing

from your monocle

ignored      exalted

you lead me to my future

making poems together

flames & tongues we write…


Do you see Tzara’s work as functioning within a tradition of secular Jewish experimental art? Do you feel that your own work is in dialogue with his?


JR:  In a conversation the other day a question like this came up – about the presence of Jews in experimental modernism and in Dada more precisely – and it struck me in a flash that except for Tzara and for Janco as his Romanian-Jewish compatriot, none of the core Dadas I could think of were Jews.  I remembered too Hugo Ball’s curious remark about the two little “oriental” men (Tzara and Janco) who showed up at the Cabaret Voltaire before it opened and, twenty years later, the Nazi intertwining of Jews and entartete kunst, with Dada foremost.  Yet Tzara, as far as I know, never comes forward as a Jew, the ethnic mark as hidden as the ethnic name.  And I remember another incident as well, when I was showing Edouard Roditi A Big Jewish Book, Edouard, who had known Tzara in Paris, laughed at how a Jewish shagetz like Tzara would have responded to seeing himself included in a book like that     .

            Nor do I believe that there’s something specifically Jewish in Dada and other extreme avantgardisms, although I can find analogs in (largely) mystical judaism as in other deep cultures.  As for “a tradition of secular Jewish experimental art,” I can’t imagine that that would have meant anything to Tzara – to separate that in some way from experimental art over all.  The milieu in which he wrote was French and European with a strong interest in the remote and “primitive” (African and Oceanian), as it was then being called, or in ethnopoetics as we would later speak of it.  It’s curious too that the racist and anti-semitic connection the Nazis made between “degenerate art” (like Dada) and presumably Jewish conspiracies, would sometimes overstate the Jewish presence in the experimental and international avant-garde, with figures like Tzara cited as arch-conspirators – elders or juniors of Zion corrupting the Aryan West.  In other words precisely what we take and value as the rehabilitative and cleansing power of the historical avant-garde and the “great negative work of destruction” that Tzara proclaimed was what made it the target of Nazis and others who hated it to start with and found it to their advantage to assert a phony Jewish presence as its defining characteristic.

            In another sense Tzara’s late adolescent Dada fury, which I love and still draw from, was no more Jewish at its core than Rimbaud’s a generation or  two earlier.  The only difference of course was in the blood line – a matter of race (of racism, I almost said) pure and simple.