Jerome Rothenberg

Toward an omnipoetics manifesto and the classics reconsidered

With regard to the teaching and promotion of the ancient Mediterranean “classics,” as reported recently in the New York Times and elsewhere, I’m reminded of the following — partly tongue-in-cheek and partly serious — which I published first in Shaking the Pumpkin (1972) and that Javier Taboada and I are including again in our new hemispheric and omnipoetic anthology of the Americas “from origins to present.” The premise behind it, however, is far from frivolous and might be further extended.


For a period of twenty-five years, say, or as long as it takes a new generation to discover where it lives, take the great Greek classics out of the undergraduate curricula, and replace them with the great American classics. Study the Popol Vuh where you now study Homer, and study Homer where you now study the Popol Vuh — as exotic anthropology, etc. If you have a place in your mind for the Greek Anthology (God knows you may not), let it be filled by Tedlock’s 2000 Years of Mayan Literature or the present editor’s Shaking the Pumpkin or this very volume you are reading. Teach courses in religion that begin: “This is the account of how all was in suspense, all calm, in silence; all motionless, still, and the expanse of the sky was empty” — and use this as a norm with which to compare all other religious books, whether Greek or Hebrew. Encourage other poets to translate the Native American classics (a new version for each new generation), but first teach them how to sing. Let young Indian poets (who still can sing or tell-a-story) teach young White poets to do so. Establish chairs in American literature and theology, etc. to be filled by those trained in the oral transmission. Remember, too, that the old singers and narrators are still alive (or that their children and grandchildren are) and that to despise them or leave them in poverty is an outrage against the spirit-of-the land. Call this outrage the sin-against-Homer.
            Teach courses with a rattle and a drum


Along with this, while looking backward and forward, I’m reminded of the following list of aims for our ethnopoetics journal Alcheringa that Dennis Tedlock and I published in 1975 — in much the same spirit:


As the first magazine of the worlds tribal poetries, ALCHERINGA will offer a place where tribal poetry can appear in English translation and can act (in the oldest and newest of poetic traditions) to change mens minds and lives. It will be aiming at the startling and revelatory presentation that has been common to our own avant-gardes. By exploring the full range of mans poetries, we hope


— to enlarge our understanding of what a poem may be

— to provide a ground for experiments in the translation of tribal/oral poetry and a forum for the discussion of the problems and possibilities of translation from widely divergent languages and cultures

— to encourage poets to participate actively in the translation of tribal/oral poetry

— to encourage ethnologists and linguists to do work increasingly ignored by academic publications in their fields, namely to present tribal poetries as values in themselves rather than as ethnographic data

— to initiate cooperative projects along these lines among poets, ethnologists, performers, and others

— to emphasize by example and commentary the relevance of tribal poetry to where-we-are today.


My own aspirations today are more toward an omnipoetics that absorbs much of what we’ve stated here and aims still further and wider — at a poetry and poetics that honors (among others) the aims of Walt Whitman and Robert Duncan as our forerunners and spiritual comrades:


From “Song of Myself”


Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deformd, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.



From “The H.D. Book”


The Symposium of Plato was restricted to a community of Athenians, gathered in the common creation of an arete, an aristocracy of spirit, inspired by the homo Eros, taking its stand against lower or foreign orders, not only of men but of nature itself. The intense yearning, the desire for something else, of which we too have only a dark and doubtful presentiment, remains, but our areté, our ideal of vital being, rises not in our identification in a hierarchy of higher forms but in our identification with the universe. To compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure — all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are. (R.D.)


From which, the opening of an Omnipoetics Manifesto, shared with Javier Taboada in our gathering of the poetries of the Americas now in progress:


1/ Omnipoetics as a rejection of the idea of a canon or of any state of mind or spirit that separates or ranks high and low forms, verse and prose, sound and image, written and oral, voice and gesture, poetry and philosophy, etc.


2/ Omnipoetics as an attempt to create a horizontal corpus of works that can facilitate a mutual communication across borders, to bring the works of all into a continually expanding “symposium of the whole.”


3/ Omnipoetics as the recognition that poetry in its multiple forms and genres is the language art par excellence, the primary art of languaged beings — that poetry in that sense is made by all, not by one. (I. Ducasse)


4/ Omnipoetics as a late attempt (now or never) to tell the tale of the tribe, the living and the dead: the ultimate testimony of our residence on earth. (P. Neruda)


5/ An omnipoetics of the particular and local set beside an omnipoetics of the global and distant, with mutual regard and cojoining.


6/ An omnipoetics of diversity against a false universality and in favor of a true one.


7/ An omnipoetics of resistance, open to the new and transgressive, “always on the move, always changing, morphing, moving through languages, cultures, terrains, times, without stopping.” (P. Joris)              


8/ Omnipoetics as a contemporary attempt to project anew a primal (= complex) consciousness of the whole. As in the Kumeyaay myth of creation: “The great snake absorbed all knowledge, all the arts were inside her. When the fire reached her, she exploded: all knowledge gushed from her, was scattered everywhere.”


Jerome Rothenberg

Javier Taboada



[to be continued]