Jerome Rothenberg: Beyond Babel

An omnipoetics project and the role of translation

Image by Eric Hanson
Image by Eric Hanson

[A talk presented November 16, 2018 as a keynote at “The Fabricant: Symposium on the Figure of the Translator,” University of California, Santa Barbara. Original title: “Toward a Poetry and Poetics of the Americas: A Transnational Assemblage in Progress.”]


In the middle of the journey of my life — or even earlier — it fell to me to make public a conversation that I heard going on in my head and then all around me, and to give it a name and a book (Technicians of the Sacred) that brought together as poetry disparate forms and structures, largely oral, from disparate cultures and languages, much of it never recognized as such. It was also the start, for me, of a lifelong project, that has continued to unfold and transform from the mid-1960s to the present — from ethnopoetics at the start to omnipoetics at the end. By 1967 the book as such was ready, composed of poems and commentaries, selected with an eye and mind on the new forms of poetry and near-poetry developed by our current avant-gardes as guideposts for what could be seen, perhaps for the first time, as the poetry of deep and autochthonous (indigenous) cultures throughout the world. My task, as I saw it here, was to dig for previously hidden or occulted poetry with my sense of the formal and intellectual range of such poetries expanded in line with the poetry and art extensions being practiced by our own avant-gardists.


The word ethnopoetics that I coined for what we were then doing came through George Quasha and his journal Stony Brook, in which I first published excerpts from Technicians of the Sacred, after which Quasha asked me to be a contributing editor and to give a special name to my editorship.  What I hit on of course was ethnopoetics, on the obvious model of academic specializations like ethnomusicology, ethnomedicine, and ethnohistory, but with the proviso that what we were doing was primarily under the curatorship of poets, who I thought of then (as well as now) as probably our own best chroniclers and theoreticians. It was also a way of skirting around the earlier designation of the targeted poetry as “primitive” and led to Dennis Tedlock’s later assertion that “there is no poetics that is not an ethnopoetics” and a further expansion of the ethnopoetic beyond the “primitive” as such. Or my own conclusion from that time: “When it comes to poetry, primitive means complex.”


With Tedlock too — a true cofounder of ethnopoetics — the association between us began as a response on his part to Technicians and to the ethnopoetics section of Stony Brook, but he was already well engrossed in the work of newly and experimentally translating oral narrative that would be a real breakthrough in expanding the range of what poetry was all about. And with Tedlock too came a further connection, to scholars in anthropology and linguistics as well as in poetry and literature. And translation also as a near definitional interest, both as transcreation and what purported to be ultraliteral translation, which may amount to the same thing. (What we were after in effect was a kind of cultural studies that never fully developed.) 


For this, anyway, our principal vehicle was Alcheringa, a publication that we founded in 1971 and subtitled “a first journal of ethnopoetics.” Deliberately also we opened its pages to active poets as principal contributors and to a range of scholars/thinkers/theoreticians/and translators (many translators), to keep the ethnopoetics solidly centered in an exchange with the most experimental of our poet contemporaries and predecessors. In this regard the poets represented directly on our masthead as contributing editors were David Antin, Kofi Awoonor, Simon Ortiz, Gary Snyder, and Nathaniel Tarn, while the scholars and ethnographers were Ulli Beier, Stanley Diamond, Harris Lenowitz, Dell Hymes, and David McAllester. In addition our regular and occasional contributors included poets Anselm Hollo, Jackson Mac Low, W. S. Merwin, Charles Simic, Diane di Prima, Clayton Eshleman, Theodore Enslin, Barbara Einzig, George Quasha, Edouard Glissant, Edward (later Kamau) Brathwaite, Armand Schwerner, Howard Norman, and bpNichol, along with scholars such as Michael Harner, Victor Turner, Allan F. Burns, Richard and Nora Dauenhauer, Barbara Myerhoff, Jill Leslie Furst, Diane Rothenberg, and Barbara Tedlock, to name just a few.


It was the collaboration with all these others — and more — that encouraged me to continue, with a shared desire, a need to explore both the roots of poetry and the ways it manifested newly in the present. There was nothing pre-planned here, but early along I declared in “a personal manifesto,” that one of my intentions as a poet was “to explore the poetic past from the point of view of the present,” and by the same token to review and alter, as needed, our sense of the present as well.  With Technicians, I felt, I had already opened up my view of poetry to forms and contexts otherwise hidden from plain sight, and that gave me leverage to push forward with a sense of anthology as assemblage or what Robert Duncan called rightly “a grand collage.”


For this transnational and transcultural project, moving as it did between cultures and languages, translation of course was a central concern, something I’ll look at shortly as a contribution to the present gathering. And maybe also, to say it in advance, the whole project was, as it were, a massive act of translation, whether or not I was truly suited to pull it off, while open always to collaboration and a work in common.


For me, then, the project up to the present has included eleven large anthologies and assemblages, with a twelfth and probably final one now in progress. The opening volume — Technicians of the Sacred (1968) — was an exploration of what we still spoke of as “primitive and archaic poetry,” and while my approach was consistently secular, the title and contents pointed intentionally to the sources of poetry in practices that crossed over easily into the spiritual and mystical, with shamans and other traditional visionaries presented throughout as poets or protopoets. There are several points that I would like to stress here:


— The work from the start was multicultural and multinational in scope, so that poetry, for all of its differences from place to place and culture to culture, could be read as a universal human activity, “from origins to present.”


— Following from that and from what I and my contemporaries were doing as poets, I was able to open up the range of what we might take as poetry, with an emphasis on performance and ritual, and “erasing the boundaries between the arts” (as Kurt Schwitters famously had it) in search of new configurations.


— As a kind of pseudoacademic or parodically academic gesture, I added commentaries at the end of the work that both explored context and drew comparisons to contemporary, particularly avant-garde or “experimental” poetry and art.


— The publication outside of an academic context, left me a free hand as editor and composer, that would have otherwise been denied me, at a moment when commercial presses (Doubleday Anchor in this instance) were looking — temporarily, to be sure — for an emergent new market in poetry. (The next two revised editions of Technicians, I should add, were both under the imprint of the University of California Press, along with four later assemblages.)


— The absolute necessity of translation and the challenges to find new forms of translation for oral and performative poetry, led in the case of Tedlock and myself, to experiments in what I would come to call “total translation.” (More of this later, with maybe a performance or two, if time allows.)


— I was also moved, in the first revised edition in 1984, to include a few works from the established (literary) tradition that are connected as well to the old lore in so far as it remained a living presence in the air of Europe. The persistence of such connections explains the appearance there of Rabelais, Saint Francis, Blake, and even Shakespeare — as, less surprisingly, that of Homer and Hesiod — along with my sense that the equals of the old “technicians of the sacred” weren’t only to be found at the margins but at the center of our own poetries as generally understood.


By 1984, then, and the first republication of Technicians of the Sacred by the University of California Press, I had already published four additional assemblages — large books and large commercial presses. These allowed me to map and remap areas of poetic activity in many times and places, moving toward new readings, some in places where there had been few readings at all. The first of these, Shaking the Pumpkin in 1971, was a gathering of largely traditional American Indian poetry, which worked from an expanded sense of what could be read as poetry: sung and spoken, verbal and visual, embedded often in a complex range of rituals and other happenings. The sources of course were multilingual and reflected the complexity of language and life in Indigenous North America.  Buoyed by this I joined with George Quasha to compose and publish, in 1974, a highly collaged and highly revisionary anthology of North American poetry and related writings, taking as a title William Blake’s America a Prophecy, and attempting to explore where the title and the predispositions of our time might lead us. I also returned, in 1978, to a transnational or global model, but from a curiously different direction, calling it A Big Jewish Book and subtitling it “Poems and Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to the Present.” With roots in traditional sources that I could freely re-vision, but with an emphasis throughout on diaspora, my intention here was to smash stereotypes, or sometimes to incorporate them, aiming as far as I could for complexity in its global and temporal reach, and for surprise and puzzlement, both for myself and others. The book’s epigraph, echoing Ezra Pound, was a free translation from Talmudic sources, shaped by me and my collaborator on Hebrew and Aramaic, Harris Lenowitz, as follows:


                        Rabbi Eliezer said:

                                                “prayer ‘fixed’?

                                                “his supplication bears no fruit

                        . . . . . . .

                        The question next came up; what

                                                is FIXED?

                        Rabba & Rabbi Yosi answered

                                                “whatever blocks the will

                                                “to MAKE IT NEW


Here too the mix was the religious and mystical with the secular, the divine with the vile, and the dominance of the written over the oral, though all approaches, as Blake would have it, were “necessary for human existence.”


By the 1980s, then, the University of California Press took over as the principal publisher for what I began to think of as “my project” or the project (along with other collaborators), first with the second or revised edition of Technicians of the Sacred in 1984, and almost simultaneously with an anthology, Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics, coedited with Diane Rothenberg, that brought together a wide range of poets and critical thinkers on ethnopoetics and related matters, from the eighteenth century to the almost present. At about that time, with the end of the century and millennium getting near, I began to work with Pierre Joris, to construct an anthology/assemblage of modern and postmodern poetry on an international/transnational scale.  The result was Poems for the Millennium, also presented (in two volumes) as The University of California Book(s) of Modern and Postmodern Poetry. The extra twist here, beyond the globalism, was our deliberate and far-reaching emphasis on experimental modernism, favoring the poetic extremes and assorted avant-gardes, as other gatherings had favored the more conventional center.  Once into this, I followed up, with the Romanticism scholar Jeffrey Robinson as a coequal and absolutely necessary collaborator, on a third volume, The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry, rediscovering an international range of “experimental Romantics,” both canonical and noncanonical, and inclusive of Asian and American poets as well as British and continental European ones. And several years later I was able to open the field of poetry still further in Barbaric Vast and Wild, a collaboration this time with John Bloomberg-Rissman that served as an add-on to Poems for the Millennium and that we subtitled “A Gathering of Outside and Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present.” The works presented here — again transnational in scope — were intended as a mapping of language works outside the normative literary canon (or largely so), so as I listed some of them elsewhere: Egyptian pyramid texts, biblical prophecies, pre-Socratic poet-philosophers, Buddhist wanderers and “divine madmen,” along with poems and related language works from dialects and “nation languages,” thieves’ cants and other argots or vernaculars, working-class and lumpen poetries, popular and newspaper poetry, sermons and rants, glossolalia and glossographia, slogans, graffiti, private writings (journals and diaries) or semi-private (correspondence, blogs, or social-networkings), and the “art of the insan” (Art Brut) that marked the early turning of avant-garde artists and poets to the idea of an “outside” poetry and art. The work as a whole, I then suggested, might be taken as another step toward what I elsewhere called an “omnipoetics” and an “anthology of everything.”


In all of this — it seems obvious to me in the present context — the role of translation is crucial — both as commonly understood and sometimes in more radical or experimental forms. In the early days of ethnopoetics, for example, where so much of the work to be translated was oral and performative, Dennis Tedlock and I explored the possibilities of what I was then calling “total translation.” The challenge here was to account in translation for elements of the oral original beyond the semantic or lexical: sound and gesture and other aspects of voice and performance. In Tedlock’s case the work at hand consisted of spoken narratives he had gather from Zuni Indian speakers, which would otherwise be translated as prose, but here Tedlock’s crucial and highly influential breakthrough was to attend to the fluctuations of the voice and to the pauses or silences, the crucial role of the breath, in all human speech. Both in the transcription of the original Zuni and in his subsequent translation into English, he used a verse-like lineation to account for these: a line break for short pauses/silences and a strophe break for longer ones. He also used capital letters to indicate loudness and italics for softness, along with other indicators of qualities not otherwise evident in the written English versions.


In my version of “total translation,” by contrast, I worked with songs rather than speech, moving from written translations to markedly performative ones.  For this I began in the Summer of 1968 to work simultaneously with two sources of American Indian poetry. Settling down a mile from the Cold Spring settlement of the Allegany (Seneca Nation) Reservation at Steamburg, New York, I was near enough to friends who were traditional songmen to work with them on the translation of sacred and secular song-poems. At the same time the great American ethnomusicologist David McAllester was sending me recordings, transcriptions, literal translations and his own freer reworkings of a series of seventeen “Horse Songs” that had been the property of Frank Mitchell, a Navajo singer and ritualist from Chinle, Arizona (born: 1881, died: 1967).


The big question, which I was immediately aware of with both poetries, was if and how to handle those elements in the original works that weren’t translatable literally. As with most Indian poetry, the voice carried many sounds that weren’t, strictly speaking, “words.” These tended to disappear or be attenuated in standard translations, as if they weren’t really there. But they were there and were at least as important as the words themselves. In both Navajo and Seneca many songs consisted of nothing but those “meaningless” vocables (not free “scat” either — to use the common jazz term —but fixed sounds recurring from performance to performance). Most other songs had both meaningful and nonmeaningful elements, and such songs (McAllester told me for the Navajo) were often spoken of, qua title, by their meaningless burdens. Similar meaningless sounds, Dell Hymes had pointed out for some Kwakiutl songs, might in fact be keys to the songs’ structures: “something usually disregarded, the refrain or so-called ‘nonsense syllables’ … in fact of fundamental importance … both structural clue and microcosm.”


Here, then, I will stop reading from text for a while, and move toward a description and performance of one of the “total translations” from Navajo.


[Describes and performs “Horse Song 13”]


To continue, then, with a further, likely final, work of recovery and discovery, in which translation will again have a central, essential place.


What I’m now composing, along with my coeditor Heriberto Yépez, is a transnational/multilingual anthology or grand collage of the poetry of the Americas, both north and south and drawn from the diversity of languages on the two great continents. We aim to approach the project with the same openness that I and my coauthors were able to exercise in the Millennium series, to see this in some way as a particularized extension of Poems for the Millennium. Too often, the idea of America and American poetry and literature is limited to work written in English within the present boundaries of the United States. While this has been modified in several recent anthologies by the inclusion of some poetry translated from Indigenous North American languages, there has never been a full-blown historical anthology of American poetry or literature viewing north and south together in a larger transnational vision of what “America” has meant in the history of our hemisphere and of the world. Such a vision of another America, deeply rooted in its pre-Conquest past and in the writings of its early European colonizers, comes to us from poets such as the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío, writing circa 1903 of


“our America, which has had poets

from the ancient times of Netzahualcoyotl

… the America of the great Moctezuma, of the Inca,

our America smelling of Christopher Columbus,

our Catholic America, our Spanish America.”


Or from José Martí, while feeling the oppression of Cuba’s stronger neighbor to the north, who wrote: “The pressing need of our America is to show itself as it is, one in spirit and intent, swift conquerors of a suffocating past.” Their Spanish America constitutes a declaration of independence from the other, English America and should be taken as such. But the complexity grows even greater, shaped both by conquest and migration.


For the two of us, one a poet from Mexico and the other from the United States, the idea of a still larger America(s), made up of many independent parts, has been a topic of continuing shared interest. Since there currently exists no single volume of “American” poetry or literature that takes such an expansive view of its subject matter, we find ourselves free to make a new beginning, an experiment through anthologizing to explore what results might follow from a juxtaposition of poets and poetries covering all parts of the Americas and the range of languages within them: European languages such as English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, including creoles and pidgins, as well as a large number of Indigenous languages such as Mapuche, Quechua, Mayan, Mazatec, and Nahuatl, and occasional immigrant languages such as Italian, Yiddish, German, and Chinese. While our sense of “America” along these lines would extend and amplify the European metaphor of the Americas as a “new world,” we also recognize and embrace the reality of two thousand years or more of (native) American Indigenous poetry and writing. It is precisely such complexities and contradictions, even conflicts, that will engage us here.


For me, anyway, this would seem to be a kind of culminating work and one that I feel is necessary as we in America and the greater world pass through a period in which the ideals of diversity and multiculturalism are called into question and attacked at the highest levels of government and state-directed power. For this, translation, in all its forms, is our greatest tool toward a more truly “human poetics” (as David Antin once named it) and the excitement of fullness and diversity in all our lives and works. So, if any of you would like to assist Yépez and me in the current trans-American project, you should know that any input would be welcome in what can or should be a communal work-in-progress.