Peter Quartermain: 'Incompletable Text,' a view of Jerome Rothenberg’s 'Eye of Witness' (Part two)

[Part One of the Quartermain essay can be found here on Poems and Poetics.  His complete view of Eye of Witness will appear early in 2015 in the twentieth issue of Lou Rowan’s Golden Handcuff’s Review, a major repository of poetry & poetics moving from one century & millennium to another.]

There is indeed a politics in this, the politics of a “work intended – above all – to question and disrupt the power of dominant European discourse” (169); it underlies the whole of Eye of Witness and is a well-spring, and the rhetoric, embodying as it does Rothenberg’s persistent late twentieth-century Romanticism, is persuasive. In October 1961 he commented on “the poetic image struggling with the darkness. The image rescued from the lie of the unthreatened. Not as a literary prescription, for writing better poems or nurturing the language, but from an impasse in the soul, in which the protective ‘reality’ & false emblems of the inherited past have drawn a blank” (59).  Thus Eye of Witness is a purpose-driven book which eschews, utterly, the literary: it is driven by a sense of loss closely linked to its sense of the incomplete. It is that sense of the incomplete that propels the symposium of the whole, a symposium from which, ideally, nothing can be omitted. Such expansive inclusiveness is very close to Whitman’s resolve, in “Eidólons,”  to “put first” the ever-mutable range of human activity in its entirety:

Of every human life,

(The units gather’d, posted, not a thought, emotion, deed left out,)

The whole or large or small summ’d, added up,

In its eidólon.


Whitman, another constant in this book: his encyclopaedism informs the whole of Rothenberg’s activity.

So if one of Rothenberg’s aims is, as he says, to “open up to voices other than our own,” then it’s essential that those voices not be separated out, compartmentalized off  from the welter of human speech and art and music, essential that we read this book as a single work, whether that work be composition, compilation, or performance, albeit a work in progress and in process. Rothenberg’s poetics demands a mingling of his voice with others – “my own words interlaced (collaged) with theirs” (391) – in an encompassing never-definitive text, unindexed and unclassifiable, always tentative, always of the moment. We are invited to view the book as a continuum, all of a piece, even while discontinuities remain and are preserved and even emphasized, and tentativeness persists. The book thus out of deep need challenges not only empty conventions and emotional and social-political habits, but also long-held and seemingly ineradicable assumptions. Those assumptions are based on a syntax and ways of seeing which determine that the world can be understood, and that such understanding can be certain and true; which is to say, immutable. But incompleteness has its own necessities.

Eye of Witness
challenges deeply-inscribed patterns of belief, and works to undo those “monotheistic habits of thought” which Pound called “the curse of our time.”[1] Such motives, I need hardly add, carry their own dangers, for purpose-driven writing, like thesis-driven poetry, drifts rapidly into monotone. It fosters listless reading and is not to current taste. That’s the risk, but Eye of Witness successfully counters it through playing, or rather, plying a centrifugal move against a centripetal, an outward move against an inward, each folded with, against, and into the other. This is as true of the prose as it is of the poetry – and there is indeed a lot of prose here, over 200 pages of essays, letters, manifestos; much of the work reaches out to other cultures, other voices, other realms “which only a colonialist ideology could have blinded us into labelling ‘primitive’ or ‘savage” (Shaking, xxi) – the archaic, the ancient, the autochthonic. At the same time many of the individual poems (the Lorca poems, say, or the Goya), though they none of them behave like a conventional lyric, are tightly focussed; they push inward, the move is centripetal. For instance, there’s the quite extraordinary and lovely charge of the repeat in these lines from “The Wedding” (214-215), the opening poem of his early book, Poland / 1931:


thy underwear alive with roots o poland

poland poland poland poland poland

how thy bells wrapped in their flowers toll


There’s comedy here, but there is also great affection, and the poem is, in its psalmodic and liturgical rhythms and vocabulary, its management of long vowels and repetitions, a ritual or ceremonial lamentation whose power arises from its mildly surreal comedic elements. Whoever the speaker might be, male or female, that speaker is individual (but not by that solitary); the voice might be reflective, directing its monologue to the self; it preserves its private elements, it moves inward. The voice is personal, and its ironies largely gesture outward, as do the “poland poland” repetitions (they appear several times) especially if voiced in something approaching a cry (as Rothenberg does, in some performances). In this poem such ironies are primarily social, suggestive more of the comedy of manners than of any romantic lyric. The poem, then, calls to and invokes a more-or-less definable and familiar group, nicely balancing the life of private feeling with an implied public and social order.

In their deployment of repetition the lines I quote have discernible kinship with such radically different work as Frank Mitchell’s horse songs or Richard Johnny John’s songs. Here’s “A Song About A Dead Person – Or Was It A Mole?” (325), John’s poem-song written with (rather than by) Rothenberg. Citing Haroldo de Campos he calls this process “transcreation” (137): outsidering the work lest we think we “understand” it. I quote the poem in full:



g thru the big earth


                                                                                                                     I went thru this b


                                                          I was going thru the big earth


                                                            I went thru this big earth


                                                                                                  I was going thru the big ea


I went thru this big earth







It might be tempting to skip, but the song warrants close attention: Three blank lines of silence between the final four lines of upper-case chant; seven lines of rather bald let’s-call-it-prose narrative somewhat irregularly and unevenly marching thru the block of uppercase, its claim not always completed, and indeed, without clear beginning – in medias res, then. With its two (or more) voices – and one if not both of them emphatically out loud – the song’s ritual and ceremonial elements are much more prominent than they are in “The Wedding,” and they beckon the group. The song almost irresistibly calls for performance, moving towards the shared speech of chorus. It also moves toward simultaneity, not just of voices in chorus but lines spoken/voiced together in simultaneous overlap, a public act which affirms an identity in, for, and of the group; a shift towards communitas in which that isolate “I” of the fourteenth (otherwise silent) line is perhaps subsumed into the group-voice of line fifteen, but equally perhaps absorbed into and thus constructing, well, constructing what? Maybe it reflects what Rothenberg calls “self-othering,” wherein “there are many ‘others’ in me” (161). Where does the “big earth” come into all this? How do we account for it? I run into difficulties here because my own habits, my own cultural baggage, get in the way – my own cultural baggage rests uneasily when matters are not explained – but the poem folds one culture into another with that in medias res and that ply of narrative and chant and refuses accounting. The lines fold ear into eye into ear in quite complex play, story into chant, single voice into multiple voices, and that repeated “thru the big earth” – with its variants, and the shifts in the verb -- gestures towards, even invokes, an apperception beyond words, an apperception of a physical world and, yes, to western eyes an imagined experience.

The physicality of the world thus sung is crucial, in much the same way as Rothenberg’s conjuration and invocation of the body and the life of the senses (not always pleasant, not always celebration) are central to his more conventional poetry. This poem, with its foldings, is in what Velimir Khlebnikov might have called a “beyondsense language.” Rothenberg, quoting that phrase of Khlebnikov’s in his 1990 talk on “The Poetics of the Sacred” (169), sounded a principal theme, constant throughout his poetics, that we must return to, recover, an understanding of language (and hence meaning) as motivated rather than arbitrary. This is what we have lost. An essential step in such recovery is to move outside our language, step outside our cultural norms, which all get in the way. We must somehow find a means to see our language as Other. For the last century or more, or at the very least since the publication of Ogden and Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning in 1923 and Leonard Bloomfield’s Language in 1933, it has been fashionable to believe that meaning is entirely a social construct: Bloomfield’s pronouncement that “the connection of linguistic forms with their mean­ings is wholly arbitrary”[2] has more or less the status of gospel. Any sound, in this view, can be attached to any referent, and the meaning of any given word is necessarily a matter of social convention. So, if there is nothing in a word per se that reveals its ineluctable meaning, then our perceptions are filtered by and through language, itself an inevitable and unavoidable screen between us and the world: language mediates; it hides the world from us. And there’s a price attached, for such a view takes us at least one remove from the world of direct feeling and direct apperception, and the world in its very reality is hidden.

The alternative view is that a sign really does designate what it signifies, that words actually do mean what they say; it sees language as unmediated, what linguists call motivated. In this view, our experience of the world and the things in it is immediate. Words say what they mean, and the essential connection between words and things not only provides or confirms an essential and sympathetic concordance between humankind and the world of what might be called nature, but in addition makes language itself a significant agent of discovery and the word itself a thing, contemplation and investigation of which opens the hidden world to view. Whence Ferdinand de Saussure’s dictum that in symbol “there is the rudiment of a natural bond between the signifier and the signified,” and his work on anagrammatic composition as the basis of poetic texts.[3] In Michel Foucault’s account (in Chapter Two of The Order of Things), words “once had an absolute, primary, initial relation to the world,” and a sign once really did designate what it signifies, much as might those repeats of “poland” and yohoheyheyeyheyhahyeyeyhahhah (the lower-case or upper case bringing eye to bear on ear. Rothenberg’s somewhat puzzled first response to Jackson Mac Low’s “aleatory / chance experiments,” that “something real & important was taking place” (158), points to the possibility that a “natural bond” between words and the real can be restored, Mac Low opening up even in a tentative way the world of the hidden, obscured as it is by habit and belief. The motivated and the arbitrary are not, of course, mutually exclusive; they can exist side by side in a single practice, and even in a single utterance, but it is our daily habit to linger with the arbitrary. Most English poets, at least since Blake and Wordsworth but also before, write as if the words they use were indissolubly linked to things, and were things in their very nature. The poem is a means by which to discover / recover that bond; it is sound, along with its rhythm, that gets you out of the arbitrary and into the motivated.

In a 1976 note, on Tristan Tzara, Rothenberg described ethnopoetics as “a positive work of recovery & return to the lost basis of human poesis” (141); he had elaborated  that sense of loss fifteen years earlier, in October 1961, writing about “deep image”:


The world as it existed for the first man still exists. It taunts us & breaks into our dreams. The poet dares to face it without hope & to create from pure desire, from pure love. The world as it existed before man. The primal world, not yet hardened into the mold of law, but a new law to be imposed on it in the daily encounter. A return to the beginning. A struggle to shape the world . . .Poetry as a total & desperate act (59).


That’s not far from Jack Spicer’s desire, in After Lorca, to “make poems out of real objects . . . a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper . . . . make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.” But, perhaps unlike Spicer, Rothenberg does not succumb to a sense of loss but seeks in its place to assert and rediscover hope in a language which has a “true” connection to the “real,” however that real might be construed, imagined, imaginary.

So primal is a favourite Rothenberg word, and you have to pay attention to what the words say: “As a way of making the poem I must still come on the source directly, as a head-on confrontation, . . . I can’t build it up yet through intermediaries, but have to create it new in order to accept it” (56).  But that’s an impossible dream, and it derives as much from the Romantic poets as it does from Pound’s make it new. Writing about Picasso, Gertrude Stein talked of the difference between “things, things seen, and things known,” and thought “things” were unknowable, even unperceivable. Wordsworth sought to restore the immediacy of language and thought the language of ordinary men would rescue poetry from the artificiality of literary convention. It would thus open up the hidden real. Rothenberg’s determination to escape “the protective ‘reality’ & false emblems of the inherited past” (59) and open up the hidden real leads to the great range of his sources; his strategy is encyclopaedic: the sum total cumulative mass of all human (and other?) discourse might possibly add up to an unmediated relation with the real. Ostranenie: each strange voice, each step, however incomplete, into another culture, makes it possible to step, no matter how briefly, outside one’s own language and culture. So almost the last poem in the book, dated 30 August 2011, (it is followed by a coda) closes with:


the book of witness

opens      all the words we have

are theirs & lead us

eyeless whispering

the years themselves

a miracle

over against a world of pain. (575)


[NOTE. Peter Quartermain taught contemporary poetry and poetics at the University of British Columbia for over thirty years, retiring in 1999. He was the first Mountjoy Fellow at the University of Durham, UK, in 1990, was Resident Fellow at the Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio Study and Conference Centre, Bellagio, Como, Italy in 1997, and was awarded a Killam Research Prize at the University of British Columbia in 1997. He has written or edited numerous articles and several books, including Basil Bunting: Poet of the North (1990) and Disjunctive Poetics (1992); with the English poet Richard Caddel he edited Other: British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 (1999), and, with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (1999).]

[1] Ezra Pound, "Studies in Contemporary Mentality . . . XIX.--? Versus Camouflage," New Age 22.11 (10 January 1918): 209.

[2] Leonard Bloomfield. Language (New York: Holt, 1933), 145.

[3] Ferdinand de Saussure.  Course in General Linguistics. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, ed.; Wade Baskin, trans. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), 68. For his work on anagrams see Jean Starobinski. Words Upon Words. Olivia Emmet, trans. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.