'Symposium of the Whole' to be reissued: An announcement & preface

[In advance of  the expanded third edition of Technicians of the Sacred on which I’m now working, University of California Press is planning to reissue the long out-of-print Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics, edited by Diane Rothenberg & me in 1983.  In Symposium, as a kind of natural companion volume to Technicians, we’ve followed the idea of an ethnopoetics from predecessors such as Vico, Blake, Thoreau, & Tzara to more recent essays & manifestos by poets & social thinkers such as Olson, Eliade, Snyder, Turner, & Baraka.  The themes range widely,  from the divergence of oral & written cultures to the shaman as proto-poet & the reemergence of suppressed & rejected forms & images: the goddess, the trickster, & the “human universe” among others.  The book’s three ethnographic sections (“Workings,” “Meanings” & “Doings”) demonstrate how various poetries are structured & composed, how they reflect meaning & worldview, & how they are performed in cultures where all art may be thought of as art-in-motion.  “The cumulative effect,” as the book’s old cover has it, “is a new reading of the poetic past and present, in the editors’ words ‘a changed paradigm of what poetry was or now could come to be.’” 


What follows here is the opening of the Pre-face to the 1983 edition. (J.R.)]


When the industrial West began to discover – and plunder – “new” and “old” worlds beyond its boundaries, an extraordinary countermovement came into being in the West itself.  Alongside the official ideologies that shoved European man to the apex of the human pyramid, there were some thinkers and artists who found ways of doing and knowing among other peoples as complex as any in Europe and often virtually erased from European consciousness. Cultures described as “primitive” and “savage” – a stage below “barbarian” – were simultaneously the models for political and social experiments, religious and visionary revivals, and forms of art and poetry so different from European norms as to seem revolutionary from a later Western perspective.  It was almost, looking back at it, as if every radical innovation in the West were revealing a counterpart – or series of counterparts – somewhere in the traditional worlds the West was savaging.


The present gathering will center on the poetics of the matter and will map, from the perspective of the editors, a discourse on poetics (really a range of such discourses) that has been a vital aspect of twentieth-century poetry and art – with precedents going back two centuries and more. The poetics in question, which we will speak of as an “ethnopoetics,” reemerged after World War II (with its rampant and murderous racism) and the dislocations of the European colonial system during the postwar period.  Whenever it has appeared—and some version of it may be as old as human consciousness itself – it has taken the form of what the anthropologist Stanley Diamond, in a recently renewed “critique of civilization,” calls “the search for the primitive” or, more precisely, the “attempt to define a primary human potential.” The search as such is by no means confined to the “modern” world (though our concern with it will be just there) but is felt as well, say, in the words of ancient Heraclites often cited by Charles Olson: “Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar.” And it is present too in the thought of those the West had cast as ultimate “primitives,” as when the Delaware Indians tell us in their Walum Olum:


in the beginning of the world

all men had knowledge cheerfully

all had leisure

all thoughts were pleasant


at that time all creatures were friends . . .


The past is what it is – or was – but it is also something we discover and create through a desire to know what it is to be human, anywhere.

Some of the results of that search and its attendant yearnings are obvious by now – so much so that a principal defense against their power to transform us involves an attack on a primitivism debased by the attackers and abstracted thereby from its revolutionary potential.  Such a primitivism is not in any case the stance of this collection.  Nor is our interest directed backward toward a past viewed with feelings of decontextualized nostalgia.  It is our contention, in fact, that the most experimental and future-directed side of Romantic and modern poetry, both in the Western world and increasingly outside it, has been the most significantly connected with the attempt to define an ethnopoetics.


There is a politics in all of this, and an importance, clearly, beyond the work of poets and artists. The old “primitive” models in particular – of small and integrated, stateless and classless societies – reflect a concern over the last two centuries with new communalistic and anti-authoritarian forms of social life and with alternatives to the environmental disasters accompanying an increasingly abstract relation to what was once a living universe. Our belief in this regard is that a re-viewing of “primitive” ideas of the “sacred” represents an attempt – by poets and others – to preserve and enhance primary human values against a mindless mechanization that has run past any uses it may once have had.  (This, rather than the advocacy of some particular system, seems to us the contribution of the “primitive” to whatever world we may yet hope to bring about.) As a matter of history, we would place the model in question both in the surviving, still rapidly vanishing stateless cultures and in a long subterranean tradition of resistance to the twin authorities of state and organized religion.


What we’re involved with here is a complex redefinition of cultural and intellectual values: a new reading of the poetic past and present which Robert Duncan speaks of as “a symposium of the whole.” In such a new “totality,” he writes, “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.”  If that or some variant thereof is taken as the larger picture, it can provide the context in which to see most clearly the searches and discoveries in what we call “the arts.”  In painting and sculpture, say, the results of those searches are by now so well known that there’s little surprise left in marking the change from Ruskin’s late nineteenth-century comment, “There is no art in the whole of Africa, Asia, and America,” to Picasso’s exclamation on his first sighting of an African sculpture, “It is more beautiful than the Venus de Milo.” Yet the obviousness of the change is itself deceptive. The “human” concerns demanded by the Dada poet Tristan Tzara—for an art that “lives first of all for the functions of dance, religion, music, and work”—remain largely submerged in the “aesthetic”; and it’s a long way too from Picasso’s classicizing admiration of the static art object to the reality of a tribal/oral “art in motion” (Robert Farris Thompson’s term) that brings all our scattered arts together.


This dream of a total art—and of a life made whole—has meant different things and been given different names throughout this century. “lntermedia” was a word for it in its 1960s manifestation – also “total theater” and “happenings” – behind which was the sense of what the nineteenth-century Wagnerian consciousness had called Gesamtkunstwerk and had placed – prefigured – at the imagined beginnings of the human enterprise. The difference in our own time was to smash that imperial and swollen mold, to shift the primary scene from Greece, say, to the barbaric or paleolithic past, or to the larger, often still existing tribal world, and to see in that world (however “outcast and vagabond” it had been made to look) a complexity of act and vision practiced by proto-poets/proto-artists who were true “technicians of the sacred.”  And along with this shift came the invention and revival of specific means: new materials and instruments (plastic and neon, film and tape) alongside old or foreign ones (stones, bones, and skin; drums, didjeridoos, and gamelans); ancient roles and modes of thought that had survived at the Western margins (sacred clowns and dancers, shamanistic ecstasies, old and new works of dream and chance); and a tilt toward ritual, not as “an obsessional concern with repetitive acts” but, as Victor Turner describes it, “an immense orchestration of genres in all available sensory codes: speech, music, singing; the presentation of elaborately worked objects, such as masks; wall-paintings, body-paintings; sculptured forms; complex, many-tiered shrines; costumes; dance forms with complex grammars and vocabularies of bodily movements, gestures, and facial expressions.”


The description, which fits both “them” and “us,” holds equally true in the language arts – as this book will attempt to show – though by the nature of language itself (and the need to translate ourselves in – always – partial forms) the complexity and the interplay of new and old haven’t been as clear there. Taken as a whole, then, the human species presents an extraordinary richness of verbal means – both of languages and poetries – closed to us until now by an unwillingness to think beyond the conventions and boundaries of Western literature. This “literature” as such goes back in its root meaning to an idea of writing—more narrowly and literally, the idea of alphabetic writing (littera, Lat. = letters) as developed in the West.  In poetry, the result has been to exclude or set apart those oral traditions that together account for the greatest human diversity, an exclusion often covered over by a glorification of the oral past. Thus Marshall McLuhan – defining the words “tribal” and “civilized” on the basis of alphabetic literacy alone – can write: “Tribal cultures like those of the Indian and Chinese [!] may be greatly superior to the Western cultures in the range and delicacy of their expressions and perception,” and in the same paragraph: “Tribal cultures cannot entertain the possibility of the individual or of the separate citizen,”

If the recovery of the oral is crucial to the present work, it goes hand in hand with a simultaneous expansion of the idea of writing and the text, wherever and whenever found. To summarize rapidly what we elsewhere present in extended form, the oral recovery involves a poetics deeply rooted in the powers of song and speech, breath and body, as brought forward across time by the living presence of poet-performers, with or without the existence of a visible/literal text. The range of such poetries is the range of human culture itself, and the forms they take (different for each culture) run from wordless songs and mantras to the intricacies (imagistic and symbolic) of multileveled oral narratives; from the stand-up performances of individual shamans and bards to the choreographies of massed dancers and singers, extended sometimes over protracted periods of time. From the side of visual and written language—which may, like the oral, be as old as the species itself—a fully human poetics would include all forms of what

Jacques Derrida calls archécriture (= primal writing): pictographs and hieroglyphs, aboriginal forms of visual and concrete poetry, sand paintings and earth mappings, gestural and sign languages, counting systems and numerologies, divinational signs made by man or read (as a poetics of natural forms) in the tracks of animals or of stars through the night sky.


That practices like these correspond to experimental moves in our own time isn’t needed to justify them, but it indicates why we’re now able to see them and to begin to understand as well the ways they differ from our own work. Other areas in which such correspondences hold true may be more involved with “idea” than “structure,” though the distinction isn’t always easy to maintain. Traditional divination work, for example – the Ifa oracles of Africa, say, or the Chinese I Ching – rests on the recognition of a world revealed moment by moment through processes of chance and synchronicity (i.e., the interrelatedness of simultaneous events), and these processes in turn inform one major segment of our avant-garde.  Similarly, the widespread practice of exploring the “unknown” through the creation of new languages shows a strong sense of the virtual nature of reality (what Senghor speaks of as the traditional surreal) and the linguistic means to get it said. The idea of the surreal – at its most meaningful – also suggests the dream-works so central to other cultures and so long submerged in ours. And from these, or through them, it’s only a short step into a life lived in a state-of-myth (“reality at white heat,” Radin called it) and to the recovery of archetypes (as image and/or symbol) that infuse our own work at its most heated: the animal and trickster side of us; the goddess and the feminine; the sense of “earth as a religious form” and of a living, even human, universe; and the commitment to imaginal geographies and journeys that lead into our own lives and minds. These are as old as the human, maybe older, and they come back to us, transformed, not so much when we shut out the immediate world around us as when we choose to work within it. 


The twentieth century – and with it the attendant modernisms that have characterized our poetry and art – is by now fading out. It has been a long haul and a sometimes real adventure, but the work is in no way complete and some of the major points have still to be hammered home. My own choice has been to write from the side of a modernism that sees itself as challenging limits and changing ways of speaking/thinking/doing that have too long robbed us of the freedom to be human to the full extent of our powers and yearnings. The struggle is immediate and the objects and attitudes to be destroyed or transformed appear on every side of us. But it isn’t a question of our having no sense of history or of the human past – no sense of possibilities besides the most apparent. The clincher, in fact, is the transformation beyond that, of our consciousness of the human in all times and places.