Monday, June 9, 2008

Revolution of the Word

A New Gathering of American Avant Garde Poetry, 1914-1945

edited by Jerome Rothenberg

Draw a circle. Do it.

An anthology is a circle drawn by its editor or editors, some poets and poems end up in the circle, while others are outside it. The dimensions of the circle, of the anthology itself, are determined by these inclusions and omissions. A good anthology will hopefully spur its readers to investigate what they find inside, to check out a previously unknown writer’s work, or further explore a poetic tradition they had previously given little mind. Or perhaps it will cause the reader to reevaluate the history of a tradition they were already familiar with, such as was my experience with Jerome Rothenberg’s “Revolution of the Word.”

As an American poet in 2008, the concept of an “American” tradition in writing is par for course. That’s nothing new. Of course, this was a concept that an earlier generation of American writers had to struggle with. In his time, Longfellow was respected for his attempt to establish an American idiom, but his “Hiawatha” is now generally perceived as a failed project. The thing is, he didn’t go far enough to develop a truly American ethos of writing, instead he merely grafted European tradition onto the American continent. Instead, one must look to those who generated a truly American voice- to Poe, to Whitman, to Emerson, to Dickinson. Rothenberg asks his readers to look to other American voices, ones who made a considerable impact in the period from 1914 to 1945, but have since been submerged by the middle-brow apologists and academics of the New Criticism. These submerged voices, he argues, have also contributed to our contemporary tradition of American experimental poetry. This American idiom comes from many places, including folk poetry and the blues. It also comes from other countries. Rothenberg tells us to look to Americans like Louis Zukofsky, Gertrude Stein, and Harry Crosby. And to Marcel Duchamp.

Zukofsky? That makes sense. Him and the other “Objectivists” represent a contingent of modernism that grew out of the Pound tradition within its “thinking with the things as they exist,” but is often marginalized in the face of more traditional poets.

Gertrude Stein? Okay, she is now securely canonized, but when Rothenberg first published this anthology in 1974, he was one of the few writers vocally championing the American expatriate. History has definitely proved Rothenberg right there.

Harry Crosby? Here is another expatriate, like Stein and others such as Eugene Jolas and Marsden Hartley. Crosby ran Black Sun Press with his wife while they were living in France. The last book published by Black Sun, it should be noted, was Charles’ Olson’s ‘Y & X’ (more on Olson later!). He provides a link between the experimental traditions of Europe and the States.

But Marcel Duchamp? Isn’t he French?

One circle leads to others – overlapping and bisecting each other, forming constellations of words and lives, all part of a larger apparatus, an Emersonian mechanism of circles within circles. Duchamp haunts this anthology. He asks if the poet can “…make works which are not works of ‘art.’” Duchamp is reacting against the aestheticism of the Symbolists and against the sentiment epitomized by Oscar Wilde’s “all art is quite useless." Duchamp's work points towards Rothenberg’s transcendental vision of a poem’s productivity. Poetry is “…transformative, not only of its present & future, but of its past as well.” Duchamp came to the United States in 1915, where he exerted more than just a theoretical influence - he took an active role editing a number of important journals, including New York Dada, Rongwrong, and Blind Man. Many of the poets in this anthology were frequent contributors to them.

The anthology itself is inconsistent, but its never less than intriguing. There is much to love in the book, including work from HD, Robert Duncan and Jackson Mac Low. And though there are also rough spots, these are some of the most interesting sections of the anthology. While I was unmoved by poets like Eugene Jolas, Mina Loy and Harry Crosby and even some of the work of Kenneth Rexroth, a poet I usually enjoy a great deal, the continuity they provide between the French surrealists and the next generation represented by Donald Allen’s ‘The New American Poetry’ is illuminating. This development is evident in Rexroth’s ‘Fundamental Development with Two Contemporaries,’ which is dedicated to Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton. The first couple sections display a conciseness and knotted disregard towards representation. The language is precise, yet mysterious, scientific yet ambiguous. Check out this early segment: “…pressure of significance/ there exists an a/ there exists an i/ there exists at least one other entity b/ valid/ efficient/ potent…” This is powerful poetry! But later on, Rexroth adopts a more conventional surreal style composed of lushness, disarmed sensuality and juxtaposed imagery which retains a “poetic” quality in the worst sense: “As from the citron kelp untangling in the purple bay/ only brain caryatids return/ hands jeweled with seeds…” What happened here?

I am a great fan of many surrealist writers and texts, and the inspiration these poets take from the surrealists is electrifying and obviously fruitful. It’s just that the efforts fall flat when writers, like Jolas, fail to reconcile the American context, and simply offer imitations on the style. Walter Conrad Arensberg’s selections are some of the strongest in the anthology. I loved his poems like “Ing” and “Axiom.” Rothenberg compared him to Ron Silliman, and I would agree in the most complimentary of senses. Still, I disagree with Arensberg’s exclamation that “DADA is American, DADA is Russian, DADA is Spanish, DADA is Swiss…” No it’s not, it’s French.

The strongest work in the entire collection is that of poets like George Oppen or Zukofsky, who take the French avant garde’s interest in experiment, procedure and the mind itself in startling directions. They write in an American context, whatever that means. And so does Laura (Riding) Jackson, whose poems are elusive and austere, “…taking the numerous path/ That time had greatly narrowed to….” anticipating John Ashbery in his philosophical misdirections. She also offers an interesting theoretical position in some ways opposed to Rothenberg, as she writes against “using poetry to give literary legitimacy to positions that are variations on stock modernistic sophistication…,” while on the other hand she echoes Rothenberg in his insistence that “a turning again to relearn their words is the common need of human beings, now.”

And then there’s Charles Olson. Rothenberg only includes one poem by Olson, ‘The K.’ It is interesting to note that Olson is given the largest number of pages in Allen’s ‘The New American Poetry,’ an earlier anthology that defines the experimental generation immediately following the one presented in ‘Revolution of the Word.’ It was Olson who suggested to Allen to not include the work of older poets connected to the tradition, such as Pound, Williams or Zukofsky. Rothenberg, who was left out of the Allen anthology (perhaps incorrectly), stresses this very continuity. Listen to these lines from the single Olson poem in ‘Revolution of the Word:’ “Full circle: an end to romans, hippocrats, and christians./ There! is a tide in the affairs of men to discern…” Yes! The circle spins! And as it cycles through referents and references, it circulates the hidden streams of continuity.

In addition to the wonderful work of underappreciated poets such as Walter Conrad Arensberg, Kenneth Fearing and Charles Henri Ford, Rothenberg offers selections of those very old guard poets excluded from the Allen anthology, Pound, Williams and even Eliot. And on top of that, he illuminates the openness in all of these poets’ works. Yes, even in Eliot’s. He writes that the “auditory imagination is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word.” Wow, it almost sounds a quote from Olson’s essay on projective verse! There are new ways of seeing within “Revolution of the Word,” and there are also new ways of hearing. Some of the sounds are new, while others only sound new.

But it cycles back to Duchamp, as he alerts to “the insisting of the shop window/ The shop window proof of the existence of the exterior world.”

Listen. Look.

Draw a new circle.

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