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Poems for the Millenium:
The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry
Edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris
(University of California Press)

Guest Reviewer Jack Foley

Jerome Rothenberg is a distinguished poet and translator who has created a number of fascinating, innovative anthologies: Technicians of the Sacred, Shaking the Pumpkin, A Big Jewish Book, Symposium of the Whole, among others. The latest of these, and in some ways the best, is Poems for the Millennium, which Rothenberg produced in collaboration with poet/translator Pierre Joris. Volume one, "From Fin-de-Siècle to Negritude," appeared in 1995 and won the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award. Volume two, "From Postwar to Millennium," has just appeared. Together, they make an amazing book -- a genuine offering to the twenty-first century. Poems for the Millennium is not reportage from the sidelines. It is itself a significant "modernist & postmodernist" document, not so much an "anthology" as an assemblage of what the editors believe to be the most significant work of the past hundred years.   Vol. 1[ Click to Order Poems for the Millennium: Vol. I (ed. Jerome Rothenberg & Pierre Joris - soft $$) ]

The University of California Press should be congratulated on its courage, intelligence, and taste in publishing this book. Though Poems for the Millennium appears from a university press, it is in no way an "academic" production. "The twentieth century may be known by its push against the boundaries," the authors write in the introduction to volume one: "Where once the definitions were apparent and the frame known, we have now come into the open, have taken up a stance outside the walls. The most interesting works of poetry and art are those that question their own shapes and forms, and by implication the shapes and forms of whatever preceded them. But it is possible for one to become a master of poetry (or even a doctor of poetry) and still be ignorant of all this."

Vol. 2[ Click to Order Poems for the Millennium: Vol. II (ed. Jerome Rothenberg & Pierre Joris - soft $$) ]
To paraphrase a remark by the great French poet Paul Valery (volume one, p. 89), "ignorance" is not Rothenberg and Joris's strong point. Their global perspective (which, they are quick to point out, is by no means all-inclusive) allows the reader to make connections which can be made in no other way. "The stutter is the plot," writes American poet Susan Howe in the second volume, quoting Charles Olson on Melville's Billy Budd. Howe comments: "I hear the stutter as a sounding of uncertainty...what is silenced or not quite silenced." This sense of the strangeness of authentic language (its "stutter") resonates throughout both books. One finds it in the American "language poetry" of the 70's, itself echoed in certain developments in France: in Anne-Marie Abiach's "creation of a new French poetry," for example, or in the group of poets associated with the magazine, Tel Quel. One finds it in the "Neo-Avanguardia" of Italy, where Alfredo Giuliani proposes "to estrange [language] from its semantic properties, tearing away at its syntactic fabric, decomposing its harmony, and reconstructing it in violently synchronic provisional arrangements." The German Bertolt Brecht is famous for his formulation of the "Verfremdung" ("defamiliarization") effect, which, the editors point out, is a "distant cousin to the Russian Futurists' ostranenie ("making strange"): "By what Shklovsky calls a 'semantic shift,' our habitual way of knowing the world (= 'automatism') is disrupted, turned on its head, as 'the poet...wrests the concept from the conceptual set in which it stood and transfers it, with the help of a word or a trope, to another conceptual set.'" The idea is in the Syrian poet, Adonis, as well: "I write in a language [Arabic] that exiles me...The Other is neither past nor future, nor is it a mirror that is capable of returning the I to childhood. Rather it helps to set the poet in motion toward the unknown, toward everything strange." Adonis's statement recalls Paul Celan's reference to "the strange, the abyss" and even Julian Beck's assertion, "everything must be rewritten then." All of these statements are in the book, as is Pound's famous dictum "MAKE IT NEW" (volume one, p. 371). "Making it new," we suddenly realize, necessarily involves "making it strange": the new by the very fact of its newness appears as the "strange." Indeed, in a recent interview, Rothenberg remarked that "the 'making strange' I would take as being a kind of counter proposition of language against that language which we take for granted and that takes us for a ride."

To be sure, the concept of "strangeness" is not exactly the same in all these writers. Poems for the Millennium, with its always helpful, never obtrusive commentaries, allows us to see both connections and disconnections. One is reminded of Wittgenstein's famous failure to find an "essence" to the concept of "games" in Philosophical Investigations:

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. -- And I shall say: 'games' form a family...And we extend our concept...as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.

It is precisely the perception of "the overlapping of many fibres" that is the driving force of this anthology.

According to the O.E.D., the term "avant-garde" (referring to esthetic, not military phenomena) first appears in English in 1910. The term was invented by French journalists in the last decade of the nineteenth century ("les artistes de l'avant-garde"). As such, it is more or less coterminous with the entire twentieth century. Indeed, it is Rothenberg and Joris's contention that the "avant-garde" is precisely what the twentieth century has been about:

A characteristic of modern art (and poetry)...(but this carries into the "postmodern" as well) has been the questioning of art itself as a discrete and bounded category. Some such radical questioning of art and its boundaries defines our sense of an "avant-garde" and of some form of "deconstruction" as a strategy for coping with the inherited (authoritative) past...In an essay on Robert Wilson's "theater of images," Robert Stearns writes (in a configuration we would share with him): "The avant-garde might be characterized as those creators who do not take their environment and its traditions at face value. They separate and view its elements and realign them according to their own needs."

Such a formulation comes very close to identifying the "avant-garde" with the practice of art itself.

Among the issues cited by Rothenberg and Joris as central to the "relentless transformations" of the twentieth century are: "an exploration of new forms of language, consciousness, and social/biological relationships"; "poetry-art intersections in which conventional boundaries between arts break down"; "experiments with dream work and altered forms of consciousness"; "a return to a concept of poetry as a performative genre" ("the new orality," in Father Walter J. Ong's phrase); "language experiments as well as experiments with visual and typographical forms"; "ethnopoetics and related reassessments of the past and of alternative poetries"; a "move toward a new globalism, even nomadism -- an intercultural poetics"; "an ongoing if shifting connection to related political and social movements"; and, last but not least, "a sense of excitement and play ('to work in the excitedness of pure being...to get back that intensity into the language' -- G. Stein)."

In a work like Poems for the Millennium there will necessarily be regrettable omissions. I wish that N.H. Pritchard had been included. On the other hand, Melvin B. Tolson was, and I didn't know his work at all. I wish there had been a place for Jack Spicer, as there is for his close associates Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser. Anne Sexton is included but not Sylvia Plath. ("Taste," said Rothenberg jokingly when I asked him about that.) When the editors quote with approbation John Ashbery's remark, "My idea is to democratize all forms of expression, an idea which comes to me from afar, perhaps from Whitman's Democratic Vistas -- the idea that both the most demotic and the most elegant forms of expression deserve equally to be taken into account," I can't help but wonder whether Rothenberg, Joris and Ashbery believe that the "demotic" lacks "elegance," and, if so, perhaps we might talk about Fred Astaire. The "democracy" idea "which comes to me from afar" has perhaps not fully arrived in Ashbery's consciousness -- as it certainly had in Ashbery's friend and associate, Frank O'Hara, who wrote, "How funny you are today New York / like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime" ("Steps"). But these are quibbles -- and Poems for the Millennium is certainly centered in a democratizing impulse. I had never heard of the wonderful Korean-American artist/poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982), an excerpt from whose book, Dictee, concludes the anthology proper. Note the play here between the French "diseuse" ("female speaker") and the English "disuse" -- reminiscent of Pound's "tin andra, tin eroa, tina theon / What god, man, or hero / Shall I place a tin wreath upon" ("Mauberley"):

Dead words. Dead tongue. From disuse. Buried in
Time's memory. Unemployed. Unspoken. History.
Past. Let the one who is diseuse, one who is mother
who waits nine days and nine nights be found.
Restore memory. Let the one who is diseuse, one
who is daughter restore spring with her each ap-
pearance from beneath the earth.
The ink spills thickest before it runs dry before it
stops writing at all.

Hovering over much of the book are the formidable figures of Charles Olson, whose "La Preface" opens volume two, and, even more, Robert Duncan, whose "Rites of Participation" furnished Rothenberg with the phrase "a symposium of the whole" and whose last poem, "After a Long Illness," is featured prominently at the conclusion. At a time when the concept of the poet as heroic figure as well as the impulse towards "totalization" have been attacked with considerable fierceness, Rothenberg and Joris have not shied away from asserting both these things (though they also assert, "We've welcomed the problematic, even the contradictory, into the poetry brought together here"). Poems for the Millennium is able to transform what might be seen as a century of horrors -- the worst yet -- into a century of resistance, creative energy, and heroic poetry. Volume one is appropriately inscribed with Walt Whitman's words, "For poets to come" and both volumes quote Whitman's "What is the little I have done, except to arouse you?" Where else could we find a poem like this (by Viennese poet Ernst Jandl, in his own mixture of German and English):

CALYPSO

ich was not yet
in brasilien
nach brasilien
wulld ich laik du go

wer de wimen
arr so ander
so quait ander
denn anderwo

ich was not yet
in brasilien
nach brasilien
wulld ich laik du go

als ich anderschdehn
mange lanquidsch
will ich anderschdehn
auch lanquidsch in rioo

ich was not yet
in brasilien
nach brasilien
wulld ich laik du go

wenn de senden
mi across de meer
wai mi not senden wer
ich wulld laik du go

yes yes de senden
mi across de meer
wer ich was not yet
ich laik du go sehr

ich was not yet
in brasilien
yes nach brasilien
wulld ich laik du go

A "nomadic" poetry indeed! In his "Postlude" poem, "Prolegomena to a Poetics," Rothenberg quotes Marina Tsvetayeva's "All poets are Jews." One wants to say, thinking of Pound, thinking of Poems for the Millennium: Make it nu! What's not to like?


Jack Foley's reviews appear weekly in The Alsop Review



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