Jerome Rothenberg: From 'Eye of Witness,' two letters to Robert Duncan, 1960, 1968
(1) Image & Melos: a Letter, 1960, to Robert Duncan
[From New York City]
September 27, 1960
... following with great interest your interchange with Kelly. On the basis of your first letter to reach here (only one I’ve seen, other 2 being described) I feel no real disagreement as to melos, etc., being other vehicles for manifestation of “floating world” (source) within the poem, tho if you define yourself as a poet of “word-magic” primarily, my own direction in these last years has probably been toward “image-magic”— yet it doesn’t seem to me that any of the “powers” are totally to be denied, nor can they where the poem is allowed to happen. Certainly I find image occurring at many points in your work, & can only hope for myself that sound & music do not automatically leave where image enters. In the act of uncovering the poem, in fact, my personal experience has been that the other elements we are said to be slighting are especially insistent; where they don’t assert themselves (emerging concurrently) the image feels unreal and slack — a lightweight, lifeless counterfeit.
But image still appears to me as the thing sought once I am into the poem. Or more precisely the under-world of hidden painful (joyful) forms. As in the Thomas gospel:
When you see your likeness, etc.
Here I have to enter without any of the old certainties: to go out and search for that world, never knowing for sure if what I find is real or dross, except in so far as I can accept the data emerging from the poems—mine and others. In this way the poem creates the reality that then exists for us: a unique (one hopes) and certain thing, that can yet be shared. It is, I think, because of the initial disbelief / skepticism (perhaps despair) that prompts the surrender to the under-world (to find & create forms & images therefrom) that I cannot—as you can, perhaps—really utilize other data—allusory, historical, etc.—in the composition of the poem; & in the presence of other poems I can surrender only where the impact of the search & the resultant world it has created overwhelms me with its presence. So for a while much of your writing in the [Opening of the] Field, etc., was closed to me, largely for the “intrusion” of the tradition you prize so highly—and I too, once I understood the way to the source, to the reality of the poems. But, for myself, as a way of making the poem, I must still come on the source directly, as a head-on confrontation; in other words, I can’t build it up yet through intermediaries, but have to create it new in order to accept it. For this reason, I think, the image becomes for me the prima materia. If I were fixed enough in a tradition (able to write from it, not just in its light) so I might build with blocks of data largely—as I find you doing—then melos, logos, etc. might come first to hand—the image-symbols being there to start with. (This happens in translation.) But it has not yet become, for me, a question of arrangement (I don’t use the word disparagingly) but discovery at every point I meet the poem. Now, where this is really the case (& I find it historically in the poetry of the “deep image,” whether along among 20th Century disbelievers or earlier figures—isolated mystics, etc., figures cut off from the mainstream of dogma), I feel a new power released, nameless for now, a result of that “self-abandonment to that which is not known”. So that I don’t take the “rootlessness” you’ve spoken of in earlier letters as a liability—I don’t assume you mean lack of precedents, history being full of the uprooted—rather it seems to me, once met in its own terms, like the dark voyage Melville described in the great Lee Shore chapter of Moby Dick:
But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, etc.
For, then, this seems to be the great adventure of spirit in our time, & (why not) particularly the burden of the American poet, where the destruction of the old certainties has gone further & strange cultures oppress consciousness with their conflicting demands. In your work I see this answered, partly, by a re-arrangement of older elements—probably not far distant from the new-creations of the deep image poets. In this way I find it stronger and fuller than the early poems of Creeley (before the Door, etc.) where melos, etc., seemed to me to be pursued in isolation from any real sense of deep image, almost as a decoration of the trivial. (Stein seems to me the better example of how far the under-world can be explored without utilization of deep image, & I’m glad for that reason that you mention her.)
(2) From Seneca to English: a Letter, 1968, to Robert Duncan
[Steamburg, New York, to Buffalo, New York]
Steamburg, N.Y. 14783
July 16, 1968
Here we are only 50 miles south of you & having a good summer of it, the project working out better than I’d hoped with a fair possibility not only of seeing the “problems” more clearly but of getting some works of interest into english. Dick Johnny John, the man I’m working with chiefly, is himself a songmaker, which at this point means that he composes almost exclusively in the “secular” area (what they call Woman’s-Dance songs), the verbal part of it being mostly sound-poems, not improvised scat-singing but always a fixed order f sounds; a little boastful too about the almost unlimited variations he can pull from that. I think it’s about the last song-form in which they feel free to do new things, even drawing from the world we have in common, as in the following which has real words & all:
ah-way-on-jay just let it go
has-on-ko-nee we’ll have to
dan-yah-gwa-yay-no heya get out & help
o-dee-gay-es ee-guy the longhaired ones
o-dya-non their song
a-yah-gwah-den-no-deh is what we’ll sing
hey-wah-don that’s what it says
ah-way-on-jay-son just let it go
Indian Beatles a-wan-don we’re turning into INDIAN BEATLES
All the songmakers of the Cold Spring Longhouse Singing Society now have tape recorders & one of them, Avery Jimerson, composes by himself recording the two parts (leader & chorus) onto a single tape, so he can, before the group works with them, get a better idea of where he’s at. (He also has a special large drum of his own carving – not the standard piece of equipment around here – which he uses in working up a song.) They’ve been using tapes too in setting-down some of the ceremonial music, particularly of the older men, but that part of it is all pretty haphazard with a kind of resignation to the fact that the sacred works will sooner or later disappear as men forget them.
Anyway, all that just because it’s what I’m mostly involved with right now & thought you’d sense some kinship in it. I’m to go thru initiation myself (i.e., adoption & naming) at time of the Green Corn in September & have to, before then, decide between two names: hai-wa-no (Keeper-of- High-Words) or hai-wa-wens (Transmitter-of-High-Words), both of which I dig very much. Maybe after that I’ll settle down here & make sound-poems with them.
Being so close we’d like very much to get up to Buffalo within the next couple of weeks; hope it may be possible to drop in on you then. Are you scheduled for a reading or something, which might provide an occasion or date to aim for? Or maybe too you’d like to come down this way, be our guest for a couple of days – Allegany State Park just a short drive away & good for swimming & walking etc. I might also be able to work-in a session of the Singing Society to mark the occasion. Anyway, if you can send us your address or a phone number, that would be helpful.
Otherwise, a copy of the primitive anthology [Technicians of the Sacred] arrived here a week ago, the only sour note being that the printers made a last minute fuckup on Jess’ “Imagine a margin,” about which I’ve already written him a full explanation & got a very kind letter in return. I hope your copy has reached you or will soon, & that some of it may be of use, etc.
Be well & in touch.
Love from all of us
[The first of these letters will appear in Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, scheduled for publication next month from Black Widow Press. I was at that time (1960) immersed in ideas of “deep image” & neo-surrealism, which by the time of the 1968 letter was transforming – for me at least – into ethnopoetics. The pleasure of exchanges with Duncan & others was central to the process as it then unfolded. (J.R.)]