Jerome Rothenberg & John Bloomberg-Rissman: From the pre-Face to 'Barbaric Vast & Wild' ('Poems for the Millennium, Volume 5')

[What follows is a draft of what will be part of the pre-face to Barbaric Vast & Wild, the assemblage of “outside & subterranean poetry” to be published later this year by Black Widow Press the de-facto fifth volume of Poems for the Millennium & the culmination for the moment of a project that began nearly fifty years ago with the original publication of Technicians of the Sacred.  I’m posting it now on Poems and Poetics before I head off for six or seven weeks on the road, to engage in readings & performances in France & Germany, but with the intention of picking up again soon after I return in mid-October.  The over-all project toward an omnipoetics will go on anyway as long as I do, which is about the best that we can hope for in such a doubly bounded life.  (J.R.)]



In 1968 the present co-editor embarked on a series of anthologies/assemblages aimed at the remapping of poetry on a global, historical, and contemporary basis.  The range of works these books have charted include not only poets and poetic genres widely recognized as part of a normative literary canon, but, perhaps more tellingly, work that may fairly be described as having flourished outside the nexus of poetry or of literature as commonly understood.  The result has been an exploration and opening of forms of poetry and expression long overlooked or dismissed by readers and purveyors of the art.[i] 

            The opening work for this was Technicians of the Sacred, still in print after more than forty years and two distinct editions, which brought together poems and related works from largely tribal-oral cultures on a nearly global scale.  This was followed in short order by a pair of more specifically ethnic (or ethnopoetic) books Shaking the Pumpkin (American Indian poetry) and A Big Jewish Book (“poems & other visions of the Jews from tribal times to the present”) and by a string of books (America a Prophecy in the early 1970s and the first three volumes of Poems for the Millennium in the 1990s and 2000s) that were a rethinking of American and world poetry over a 200-year span.  Aimed at what one of us spoke of as “a rewriting of the poetic past from the point of view of the present,” each of these large books brought forward, alongside recognizably canonical work, newly developed ideas of ethnopoetics and what we are here calling outside and subterranean poetry.

            As what we hope will be a culminating volume in this progression of books, the two present editors have assembled a wide-ranging gathering of poems and related language works, whose outside/outsider positions, in our judgment, challenge some of the boundaries where poetry has been or where it may be practiced, as well as the form and substance of the poetry itself.[ii]  It also extends the time frame of the preceding volumes in Poems for the Millennium, hoping to show that, in all places and times, what the dominant culture has taken as poetry has only been part of the story.

            It is our underlying contention in fact that poetry in our time and for many years before has come to be viewed, rightly or wrongly, as the outside/outsider art par excellence, an art whose very practice flies in the face of what we are expected to hold near and dearest.  The poet under those conditions resembles not only the shamans of our primal and archaic pasts and presents, but the traditional clowns as well, whose sacred and disruptive art like that of our secular avant-gardists would call the culture’s deepest truisms into question.[iii]



At the same time that Technicians of the Sacred was published, the other co-editor was just getting into poetry. The timing, however fortuitous, was perfect.  He never lived in a world without some access to the history of the outside and subterranean and was lucky enough to come of age as a poet with all the concomitant possibilities that were then emerging in Technicians of the Sacred and elsewhere.  For him, then, poetry has always been the whole world poetry, in all its manifestations: written, oral, performative, genre-busting; a challenge to the status quo of the (internal and external) power relations affecting all aspects of human life on earth, which have, as far as he’s concerned, always needed challenging.  Since those power relations manifest in ways that now threaten the very existence of all life (e.g., global warming, the ongoing “sixth great extinction”, “total subsumption”, etc)[iv] for him it is necessary still to keep forcing the margins, to keep open the road to the Palace of Wisdom, as William Blake called it, a road, it only becomes more obvious as time passes, that is a road we sorely need.[v]

            While there is always a danger that the terms we use may prove to be less elastic or forgiving than we intend them, the two key words in this instance “outside/outsider” and “subterranean” name two approaches, sometimes overlapping, to the kind of material with which we’ve been dealing.  Of these two, “outside” rhyming with “outsider” focuses on the societal position of the poet or the group and their separation from the normative world and/or the dominant culture, sometimes forced by religion and state, sometimes by a deliberate act of self-imposed exile, sometimes by psychological or physical circumstance.[vi]  As such the term itself goes back to its use as an equivalent to what the French artist Jean Dubuffet had called art brut for the art and poetry of the insane,[vii] but also to what was singled out otherwise as “folk” and “naïve” poetry and art over a wide range of genres.  Included as well in our view of the possible outside are poems and related language works from dialects and “nation languages” (K. Brathwaite), 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), women’s work where long suppressed and /or undervalued,[viii] and so on.

            As the second defining term for our work, the “subterranean” marks another if related field for poetry that often falls between ideas of “outside” and “inside.”  A clear extension of Technicians of the Sacred into the historical or post-“primitive” subterranean, our work under this rubric draws extensively on the writings of mystics and heretics (among others) or what Gary Snyder famously called “the great Subculture” “schools of thought and practice,” as he saw them, “[that] were usually suppressed, or diluted and made harmless, in whatever society they appeared.”[ix]  The range of work here, deriving from practices outside of poetry and often outside of society, is enormous and its exploration now opens poetic forms and modes of thought previously closed to us: a poetics of the open as against the closed, the free against the fettered, the transgressive and forbidden against the settled. Its shibboleths are terms like “free verse” and “open form”; the Dada cry “to liberate the creative forces from the tutelage of the advocates of power” (R. Huelsenbeck); the assertion by William Blake that “poetry fetter’d, fetters the human race.” As such it also binds us to the political and moral renegades and “outriders” (A.Waldman), whose work has come undiminished from the last century into our own.[x]

. . . . . . . 



We view all of these works those presented here and those still to be brought forward as fertile grounds for the creation of new forms and occasions, like the “creative chaos of liminality” described years ago by Victor Turner.  It is our hope too that their presence here will move us closer to the realization of the full potential of poetry in all times and places and will reinforce our sense of how poetry broadly defined like Dada as “a state of mind” (T. Tzara), a form of languaging and thinking appears in the real lives of people and peoples everywhere.[xi]

            It is in that sense that the recovery of the outside and subterranean should be viewed as part of a still larger project, what we’re tempted to speak of here as an omnipoetics and the ultimate assemblage toward which we’re heading as an anthology of everything.  That we will never get there is also certain[xii] and we remain aware, as with every previous attempt, of how much and how many we can’t manage to include.  With some such sense of limitations we were determined that this gathering would not turn into an anthology of contemporary “outsider” poets where the claim to outsideness is as widespread as it is, that it would be no more than an attempt to create a map or collage of possible outsides filled with their own near certainties and contradictions.  Nor can it be limited to the naïve or untrained poets and artists who loom so large in other approaches to outsiderness.  We have accordingly not hesitated to include a small but significant number of poets who in the course of time have attained and kept an unquestionably inside status: Dante, Blake, Hölderlin, Dickinson, among the more notable.  For this and much else we have tried to make our position clear in the accompanying commentaries.

            We have also chosen as our title a phrase defining poetry from the Enlightenment philosopher and writer Denis Diderot as a way to stress its disruptive and ultimately expansive nature, calling the civic order the civilized order into question even while sharing in it.  If that much was a guideline for us and it was there was a still larger sense in which we viewed the assemblage as a whole as itself an experiment, to discover by juxtaposition the possible relationship (as both harmony and discord) of poetries from a diverse range of times and cultures/subcultures and from a spread of social levels in those cultures where such terms apply.  It became in that sense our version of what

Robert Duncan had spoken of as a “grand collage” within each poem and, again, as “a poetry of all poetries.”[xiii]

            Along some such lines and as a mark of continuity with our own works, we have also drawn from time to time on commentaries from our previous writings in Technicians of the Sacred and elsewhere.  Working together here, we are tempted to think of the work of poetry over-all as a work in common, shared with a larger world in which every languaged being can play a role, while at the same time it calls a number of the “inside” assumptions into question.  Toward that end we hope that this book may lead to others, new configurations and special views as valid as our own.  In saying this we see the new century and millennium as a continuing field for poetry & the work of the outside as a reminder of the greater work at hand. 




August 2014


[The end notes that follow are part of the collaging game that John Bloomberg-Rissman and I have been playing throughout, and should be read as such.]

[i] “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.” (Robert Duncan, from “Rites of Participation”)


[ii] One may ask why the desire for such an extension of the field? Among a number of possible answers: “We wanted to stay human!” (Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art). Or William Carlos Williams in an often cited directive: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” 


[iii] Or transposing Wittgenstgein’s words about philosophy to a similar reconsideration of poetry: “[Poetry], as we use the word, is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert on us.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Blue Book, 27)


[iv] “When they think their land is getting spoiled, the white people speak of ‘pollution.’ In our language, when sickness spreads relentlessly through the forest, we say that xawara [epidemic fumes] have seized it and that it becomes ghost. … If the epidemic continues] the forest will become dark and cold and will remain so forever. … Then the waters will gradually cover the entire earth … just as it happened at the beginning of time.” (Davi Kopenawa, The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman)


[v] “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” (W. Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven & Hell)


[vi] it is through the ECLIPSEs “darkness”of my life & work you see, one is presenting oneself hidden in plain site/sight/cite through these works
“in Other words” the streets the stones the grass one walks on is one finds there the writing of one's way
the feeling of being so outside that is hopeless, “total eclipse”

 “suicidal” “psychotic depression” “chronic substance abuse” etc  through all that
is as a poem of mine says
“To go through darkness until all that remains is LIGHT”
to find this writing this Way this being in the stones and as Petra Backonja wrote (paraphrase poorly) to do what  Gerard de Nerval in AURELIA says is impossible: to find the way of writing so that the stones themselves speak (David-Baptiste Chirot, in a private communication)


[vii] “A work of art is only of interest, in my opinion, when it is an immediate and direct projection of what is happening in the depth of a person’s being. … It is my belief that only in this ‘Art Brut’ can we find the natural and normal processes of artistic creation in their pure and elementary state.” (Jean Dubuffet, from ”Prospectus et tous écrits suivants,” 1967)


[viii] “Why ... was I born a woman, to be scorned by men in words and deeds? I ask myself this question in solitude. ... Your unfairness in not writing to me has caused me much suffering, that there could be no greater suffering. ... You yourself said there was no goal I could not achieve. But now that nothing has turned out as it should have, my joy has given way to sorrow. ... For they jeer at me throughout the city, the women mock me.” (Isotta Nogarola [1418-1466], Italian humanist and intellectual, from a 1437 letter to the philosopher Guarino da Verona)


[ix] “Peasant witchcraft in Europe, Tantrism in Bengal, Quakers in England, Tachikawa-ryu in Japan, Ch’an (Zen) in China. These are all outcroppings of the Great Subculture which runs underground all through history. This is the tradition that runs without break from Paleo-Siberian Shamanism and Magdelenian cave-painting; through megaliths and Mysteries, astronomers, ritualists, alchemists and Albigensains; Gnostics and vagantes, right down to Golden Gate Park.” (G. Snyder, Earth House Hold)                                                                                                                     


[x] “Poetry is a rival government always in opposition to its cruder replicas.” (William Carlos Williams)  Or Anne Waldman on the figure of “the outrider” as a still more engaged subterranean force or presence: “The Outrider holds a premise of imaginative consciousness. The Outrider rides the edge parallel to the mainstream, is the shadow to the mainstream, is the consciousness or soul of the mainstream whether it recognizes its existence or not. It cannot be co-opted, it cannot be bought. Or rides through the chaos, maintaining a stance of ‘negative capability’, but also does not give up that projective drive, or its original identity that demands that it intervene on the culture. This is not about being an Outsider. The Outrider might be an outlaw, but not an outsider. Rather, the outrider is a kind of shaman, the true spiritual ‘insider’. The shaman travels to zones of light and shadow. The shaman travels to edges of madness and death and comes back to tell the stories.” (From the essay “Premises of Consciousness: Notes on Howl”)  And John Bloomberg-Rissman: “I don’t want to be anybody’s legislator / unacknowledged or otherwise / I just want to look ‘em in the eye and say ‘yo!’”


[xi] “Dada is a state of mind. That is why it transforms itself according to races and events. Dada applies itself to everything, and yet it is nothing, it is the point where the yes and the no and all the opposites meet, not solemnly in the castles of human philosophies, but very simply at street corners, like dogs and grasshoppers.” (T. Tzara, “Lecture on Dada” [1922], tr. Robert Motherwell)


[xii] “ … when its graph will expand with unparalleled volume and regularity, we may hope that the mysteries which really are not will give way to the great Mystery. I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak. It is in quest of this Surreality that I am going, certain not to find it but too unmindful of my death not to calculate to some slight degree the joys of its possession.” (A. Breton, in Manifesto of Surrealism)


[xiii] In the grand collage signs flash green against blue, black against white, red against yellow. Enlarged pupils of the emerging doctrine attend the hidden teacher of the increasing sound.

      And all the signs rime.

                                                Robert Duncan, Bending the Bow

Or again: “In the poem this very lighted room is dark, and the dark alight with love’s intentions. It is striving to come into existence … a poetry of all poetries, grand collage, I name It, having only the immediate event of words to speak for it. In the room we, aware or unaware, are the event of ourselves in It.”