In Memoriam: Jerome Rothenberg (1931–2024)

How do you begin to describe the many lives of Jerry Rothenberg, who passed away on Sunday at the age of ninety-two? His output as poet alone, or translator, or editor, or anthologist would be enough to secure his reputation for the ages, and yet he excelled in all those areas and more with equal brilliance, fervor, and prescience. 

The poetry world we inhabit has been shaped over and over again by Rothenberg's vision, which comprehensively traces an evolution in Western poetics from Romanticism through Modernism to the present, while also inviting a diverse array of marginalized voices to take an equal place at the table. Who else could find profound commonalities that transcended time and space, or trace mercurial ideas into the most obscure corners of expression? Who else could subvert the anthology's colonial trappings, creating cherished collections — Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, [Europe], & OceaniaShaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas; and A Big Jewish Book: Poems & Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to the Present; among others — that envision a pluralistic and egalitarian, almost utopian, worldview entire generations before the literary mainstream caught up with him?

The Rothenberg family broke the news on Sunday night with the following note:

After a lifetime spent passionately discovering new poetic possibilities, Jerry passed away on April 21, 2024, at the home he shared with Diane Rothenberg, his wife and collaborator of 71 years. 

Until the end of his life, he remained actively engaged as a poet, anthologist and performer — and as a devoted friend to his global community. 

His final projects will come out in 2024, including a massive "omnipoetics" anthology of the Americas co-authored with Javier Taboada; a new studio project with bassist Mark Dresser; and the first performance of "Abraham Abulafia visits the Pope: A fragment of a Steinian opera," conceived and planned with composer Charlie Morrow. 

Al Filreis offered this remembrance on behalf of the UPenn community: "Here at the Writers House our hearts go out to Diane and Matthew and all of Jerry's many, many friends. Jerry and Diane visited KWH a number of times over the years. We were blessed by his poetry and his overall poeticness." He concluded, "[Rothenberg] always felt — and said — that poetry should be learned 'where poetry actually happens.' And he of course made it happen in whatever space he joined." Charles Bernstein offered a more succinct tribute: "Infinite sadness to get this news, infinite happiness for Jerry’s life, work, lifelong friendship." 

Jacket2 and PennSound editor Michael Hennessey wrote: “I was lucky to meet Jerry during his time as a KWH Fellow in 2008 and to see him again here in Cincinnati in 2011 and Ann Arbor in 2013, and I would be hard pressed to think of a poet with a more magnetic presence in a live setting. He'd have you doubled over with laughter one minute, wiping tears from your eyes the next, and enraptured throughout — indeed, I never saw him read without entering into an almost transcendent state, suffused with a sense of wellbeing and calm. I had always hoped to see him read again, to get back to that place of preternatural poetic calm, but sadly it appears that I'll no longer have the chance.” 

As always, in times of profound loss, it's natural to turn back to the work itself, where a beloved author lives eternally. PennSound's Jerry Rothenberg author page is an excellent place to do exactly that, with well over 350 individual tracks taken from dozens of events spanning more than half a century. These include readings, interviews, panel discussions and talks, albums, performances, podcasts, films, and more. Here at Jacket2, Rothenberg’s commentary series "Poems and Poetics" has been running since our launch in 2011. A reflection from Amish Trivedi, Rothenberg's friend and editorial assistant, can be found here. And don't forget about our Reissues section, where you can browse the complete runs of the groundbreaking journals Rothenberg edited, Alcheringa (1970–1980, co-edited with Dennis Tedlock) and New Wilderness Letter (1977–1984).

In a year full of unfathomable losses, Jerry Rothenberg's departure is deeply felt by all. It truly feels like the end of an era. We join with his family, friends, and fans worldwide in celebrating the life and work of this singular talent.