To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, March 30, 2009

José Kozer: William Blake on his deathbed

Translation from Spanish by Mark Weiss

Mr. William Blake, no fuss, front and center. Alone. Erect at the carved
gate. Two lions. Seven constellations. The high wind announcing a gale. Open it. Take three steps, gazing downward for a moment. In a moment: centuries have passed. With no conflagration. Now raise your head: two lions. One mane. Note that they’re flesh and bone. Do you recognize the profile of The Reaper? Test it. These certitudes are comforting. Incline your head seven times in each direction. Note the absence now of argument about all certitude. Seven constellations. Do you recognize them? They appear to be the usual ones. Identify them, first to last. Excellent: your memory’s intact, Mr. Blake. One step forward. Spread your legs, plant them firmly, ruah, ruah, the sudden wind could uproot and shatter a mizzenmast. Brace against it. Steady as a rock. William Blake, a percheron’s legs, a stallion, thighs like a team of horses, like oak trees filled with nodules (impenetrable varicose veins). It’s the brute force of the Spirit, is it not? Magnificent. You’ve passed another test with honors. Hurrah for William Blake: you are among the Elect, no joke. By whose command? Have patience, you’ll see. There aren’t many–this Paradise half-empty. An army of copyeditors directing the traffic of the angelic path of the The Word can barely fill three heavenly valleys. And you will get to see the silent ones in the eleventh heaven, those whom the saints call saints, who imagined from the first letter the incandescencies of abstraction. Make yourself at home. Here are three down cushions on which to rest your collossal head. Annointed–really–by a woman’s hands. Attention, soon you will be called to communion. The bundle of poems extracted from you in your lifetime has fed The Lamb already. See him, at rest. He digests. An asterisk of ash marks his forehead. Now contemplate his palms. Bring them close, bring them close transparent to the glance. The inward glance. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever imagined? He now sees that it’s not just the outward glance that doesn’t see. Deeper still, a radiance. The letter chewed by The Lamb a dull splendor. The ash excreted. Gaze at the single speck within the hollow of your hands. A canticle: Uriel. Rahab. Tirzah. The moment has arrived (listen to the trumpets crackle). Tubas. Clarinets. The hour in which (this one last time) to penetrate completely, glans to gonads (a powerful ejaculation), into the woman’s deepest sac. It’s Mrs. Blake, of course. In orchards. Don’t think otherwise. Your earthly wife. Under arbors. The hour to resume your union at the feet of The Mother seems not to have arrived. Have patience. Forward now, across this footbridge. What’s to come is never known. Did you hear that noise? The motu proprio. Primal motion, ejaculation. Tides. Full moons. Deserts. Floods of sand. Sneaking away. God Himself, sneaking away. The furtiveness of The Unattainable. The anterior grain blinding the third eye of the glance. The God of prebends imposes obstacles. Flaws (look, the infinitesimal corpuscle of sand: how it hinders, no one could imagine it). All in all, Mr. Blake, what’s the blinking of a few pages but the inert stammering of ages? A speck anterior to the cleansing water. The last speck of ash preceding hyssop steeped in virgin olive oil misplaced upon your forehead. That forehead now turned away. The hour of summons. Invoke it. Bid him emerge for a moment from his Lurking Place. Will Death be the penultimate play? Are you about to eat a piece of his Face? His Face that shows the way to where? Does it precede the conjoining of bodies? The call to arms. Courage, Blake: beg for it. You ascend by footbridge to be penetrated by true Nothingness, feeling at your side your naked wife, the sacred robe. What more do you want? Here’s the entryway. The antechamber’s to your left. There are two side doors, your final test. Enter. Have you already imagined the Throne? The fleshless nakedness of Abstraction? At last rites become fond of the old bed, it’s cold, shivering embrace the woman (menses of sand, your wife?). And between eyebrows receive the occlusion, flow, revert to the right eye, see it, branch out, the gales, the scattering gales blow between tearduct and iris.

* The blogger format here is slightly off, but the essential presentation of the poem as a solid block of prose affirms the spirit of the original.

[Writes Mark Weiss in a brief biographical note: “The child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Kozer first left Cuba in 1958 to study at NYU. He returned after the revolution but left definitively in 1960, working at menial jobs while completing his education. From 1967 to 1997 he taught at Queens College in New York. After retirement he lived in Spain for two years, after which he and his wife settled in Hallandale, north of Miami, Florida. He has written over 35 books of poetry, published in virtually every Latin American country and in Spain. With Roberto Echavarren and Jacobo Sefamí he edited Medusario: Muestra de la poesía latinoamericana (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1996), a defining anthology of the neobarroco poetry of the 80s and 90s. No buscan reflejarse was the first poetry collection by a living Cuban exile to be published in Cuba since the early 70s. He is considered the foremost Cuban poet of his generation.” William Blake on His Deathbed is drawn from Stet: Selected Poems (2005), edited and translated by Mark Weiss for Junction Press. Weiss has also included Kozer's work in The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry, scheduled for publication in November 2009 by the University of California Press.]

Friday, March 27, 2009

Reconfiguring Romanticism (26): Jeffrey C. Robinson, Spliced Romanticisms

Link words from the famous Romantic Poets to our bardic contemporaries in more-or-less chance correspondences.


This pleasant tale is
What is “there is”
Ghost and jealous mother
A Poet’s death
Fruit ripening in stillness
The peach teaches thuds

(John Keats, Lyn Hejinian)


A man
down by sickness:

Therefore we

(William Wordsworth, Paul Celan)


Spinning still
I let the incense grow cold
giving my body giving
idle since getting up
bedcovers tumbled
neglect / neglect
spinning still
the rapid line of motion
the curtains down in the sun
earth rolling with visible motion
my body emaciated a prisoner
neglected endless staring
sweeping through the darkness
cliffs wheeling by me

(William Wordsworth, Li Ch’ing Chao)


along the silver of a morning raga
this dull and clodded earth
over inner structure of the Human Thing
touch ethereal along the river Rio Grande

(John Keats, Ed Dorn)


light with
kill or cure
no irritable
get real

(John Keats, Anne Waldman)


rivulets and beauty born murmuring
her face / but who is she / who
the hook / moving in water
peeling onions / in glade and bower
I sit with her on this calm heath
a Lady of my own / who is she
something is moving

(William Wordsworth, Lucille Clifton)


trapped in a box of colors
sealed in / rolled round
history a coffin

the touch of

(William Wordsworth, Adonis)


Speak against bonds, my songs,
Deriving thy light from Heaven
--untended watchfire—
Go, my songs, to those who have delicate lust,
The Tricksome Hermes is here.

(William Wordsworth, Ezra Pound)

N.B. Of his "splicings" & related works, Robinson writes: "The splicings derive from having some years ago noted two poetic domains of literary interest and pleasure continually abutting in my mind. So, it started in response to a personal confusion as to where-I-was in the world. But at some point this juxtaposition took on a more representative cast, indicating an actual historical linkage between a romanticism and a modern-/postmodernism, in the spirit of Pierre Reverdy (as noted in Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred, p. 456): 'The more distant and legitimate the relation between the two realities brought together, the stronger the image will be . . . the more emotive power and poetic reality it will possess.'” A scholar & a poet by turns, Robinson is the co-editor & co-author of Poems for the Millennium, volume 3 -- our big romanticism book.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Diane Rothenberg: The Economic Memories of Harry Watt (Part Two)

The Text

When I got a little bigger I worked, I had things to do. I always had things to do. When I got back from school I always had something to do. I started even before I went to school. I used to bring wood in. I had a bunch of sticks and carried them in I piled them higher on my arms when I got bigger.

I carried wood and I carried water, helping my mother by bringing water. I carried water for her for washing and cooking. My dad used to tell me,” Always watch the water pail. If you see it empty, fill it up.” He said, “Always have it full.”

I always worked. For instance, milking cows; we had cows. I went after cows. And in the summer time, I had to go after cows. In the winter they didn’t go out.

But as I grew older, there was more work. Many times when other kids would come along and ask me to go along with them, go fishing or go somewhere, “I can’t go, I’m too busy.” There were times when the kids would help me do something to get it done so I could go with them. Those kids didn’t have the farm like we had. They didn’t have no stock, and they didn’t have to have chores. They had to get wood; we all had to do that. We all knew how to cut wood, how to use an axe. I knew how to use an axe by the time I went to school.

They all burned wood and they had to go out to cut wood. The wood near the houses was just brush and wouldn’t last more than a few days. I went out to cut trees. Maybe they would be so big I had to cut them three times to get them into the wagon. I cut maybe seven, eight trees at that, and that is a good wagon load.

I didn’t have a saw. We didn’t have power saws in those days. But there were hand saws that two men used together. But I went after wood alone with just an axe. I would hitch the horses to the wagon and used to go up the hill to cut wood. I would be wasting wood by cutting it and letting it lay there and rot, so we would cut it and then I would get the logs clear down to the foot of the hill, and then get the horses and load it up. It was work. I don’t think anyone works like that now, today. One thing though, I had to learn to harness the horses and there was a time I couldn’t do it and when I wanted to use the horses, why the old man had to hitch them up.

In my family there was three more boys older than me. They went to school. I had one brother that went to Carlisle, the Indian school. And then another brother that went to Hampton; that’s in Virginia. And the oldest one, he graduated that Quaker school. He graduated the eighth grade. A lot of them graduated from that school from the eighth grade.

But I, I didn’t. I went to the Quaker school and then I got away from there. I ran away from there, after about three years. What happened to me, some time ago I met a Quaker. He had my records, and he said, “Oh, it’s you, Harry watt. You ran away from school.” I said, “Yes, I ran away from school; I didn’t like the idea.” I said, “I had to work all day and after that I was hungry and I was punished for something I didn’t do and I was kept out until I was late. I was late and they didn’t feed me. And I was hungry and I didn’t like that. So I said to myself and four other boys, we got ready and we took off. And I never went back. I was sorry I didn’t go back. Maybe I could have learned a little bit more. But instead I went to work.” I came home and I told them what had happened. Well, my dad wasn’t too much about going to school and I suppose he thought if I went to work, why it would be that much less on his hands. So I went to work.

I was fifteen years old when I went to work. It was about this time of year, in the fall, when I ran away. And just abut that time there was a man going around. He was looking for men to go to work. They were laying railroad tracks down to below our city. Petroleum Center is the name of the little town. They were laying railroad track there going down to Titusville. So I went over there looking for that man. I found that man and he said, “Yeah. How old are you?” “Oh, nineteen.” Yeah, I lied four, five years. He looked at me. “Yup. You big enough. You be ready Monday morning; when we start to go, your pay begins."

Oh, I was all for it. When we got there, you had to work. It wasn’t too hard work, but I worked hard. My job was men’s work and that is everything. I pick up rails and I had to learn how to drive spikes and I didn’t know how to work with my hands with tools and I had to learn. But it didn’t take too long. I knew how to chop with an axe, and use a hammer, and that helped me a lot.

We worked all winter and we lived in a camp. I often thought of that. Just the other day I said, “There’s something I’m hungry for." We used to have at the camp, we used to have a man cook. He used to fry potatoes and bread crumbs and fish, canned fish. He would empty that fish in a great skillet where the potatoes were cut up and add some bread crumbs and cover it and let it fry. He had to turn it over. And the bread got kind of brown, toasted like and everything is brown and the fish got all mixed with the other things. Oh, I used to like that. I looked for that in the morning, for breakfast. You had to eat to work. In a place like that you don’t get fat. You eat all you can; you wear it out. We come back for dinner. But when we had to go out, they had lunches in bags. They generally had a place, a shanty or two shanties, where we put our tools and they had a stove in there.

There was about thirty men from here. We had about three hundred men. I met a boy, he was a Mexican. There was a big store and we used to all go there. They had ice cream and all that and some of that candy. But this guy, he was about my age. He must have been, but I never asked him. He kind of liked me and he would try to talk to me and he couldn’t because he couldn’t talk English. There was a bridge close by there and we used to go to the bridge and just sit down and let our feet hang down. And we’d talk. We tried to learn each other’s language. I talked English and I taught him what to say, the meaning of different things, the names of things in the store. He asked me, “Como se llama?” I got so I could understand too. I could understand his language. I used to know quite a bit, but since that time I lost interest of it and I didn’t see anybody I could talk to. But when I was talking to him, I could almost talk right along. He learned finally.

There were about one hundred Mexicans. And also Italians, pretty near a hundred of them too. And about a hundred Indians. Each group stayed apart and didn’t mix. Oh, they had fights. There was two killings down there. The Mexicans had two or three and the Italians, they had some too. They killed each other inside the groups. In our group, there was two, killed in a fight. One of them was the cook. He was stabbed. The other guy, he was beat up and I think the train run over him.

I worked down there all winter and I got me some nice warm clothes, because I bought them myself. I always wanted some clothes, some warm clothes. I got my own money and when I got back I gave some to my mother. “Oh,” she said, “I’ll keep it for you.”

After I came back from there I had cows and I had young stock and I had a horse. I kept the cows on my father’s land; didn’t have to pay him for it, but he used the milk. My first calf was given to me. My grandmother on my mother’s side gave me one when I was about eight years old. When I first went to school I had a horse, a little horse. I used to ride. The horse got bad after a while, but he lived quite a while. I consider myself a good rider. For a long time I didn’t have a saddle, so I rode bareback. Finally I got an old saddle I bought myself. My father and mother, they saved their money and they worked hard. My father, he never went out to work for day’s wages. He’s working on the farm and what money he got, he went to work for others for a day or so at a time. But he had milk and from the milk he had an income. I remember when he had about thirty cows. We all milked. My mother used to milk, my sisters, my brother, myself. At first I had one cow I used to milk. That one cow, my sisters started in to milk that cow; my brothers started in to milk that cow. It was easy. After a while when you grab the teats, the hand gets strong from milking cows all the time. It’s a lot of exercise. We used to have some hard milkers.

I had some cows. Oh, she was a good cow. I sold that cow and I got horses for it. I sold that cow and two yearlings and I got big horses out of that. They weighed thirty-two hundred pounds, about sixteen hundred pounds apiece. So they were pretty big horses. I worked them horses. I wanted them because if I had big horses I could do this and that. If I had big horses I could go and skin logs, go and haul lumber; I could go and haul wood. So the old man said, “You get yourself horses and a harness, and I’ll buy the wagon.” So one day I went shopping for horses. I bought this heavy pair of horses, made a trade. I got a good price on this cow because it was good. I told the man how much she give and he didn’t quite believe it. So I said, ”You come down in the evening and I’ll show you.” She used to milk two milk pans full of milk in one milking. I sold the cow to a guy named Underwood. He was a farmer and he was a dealer too. You have to watch how you dealed with them guys. I got a good deal. I told him that one of the heifers was coming in and it didn’t come so he told me, “You got me.” So I said, “It’ll still come.”

In those days I stayed home for a while after I came back from working and did a lot of things then. That was the year they started to pick up the track. There used to be a railroad track down to the park and when they got through with it and there was no more lumber, they tore up the tracks. And I worked there. And that was work. We used to pick up the rails and put it on the railroad car. After you got one up there, you give it a good push into the car. I used to get so tired; I slept at noon. There was an old man there I knew well, and wherever he said I should go I went there and I said, “Wake me up about quarter to one.” Then I’d go to sleep. I’d wake up, hurry up and eat, get through and get back to work. To get to work I had to walk several miles. I wasn’t the only one who had to walk. Every day walk down there, work ten hours, walk back. When I got back, eat, sit around a little bit, then go to bed. That job lasted all summer and they shut down after it started to snow.

After that I worked on the railroad. I worked there quite a few years. I can’t describe exactly railroad work. Railroad work is a certain kind of work. When you work on the railroad you don’t do that on the farm. Railroad work is its own work. It’s railroad work. We laid the rails, and then we spiked them. Gauged them, then spiked them. Sometimes we had to put down plates on the ties, and sometimes we put them every other tie. And there was times we had to put them on every tie, that’s around a curve mostly. It’s all heavy work. Sometimes we laid new tracks, sometimes maintenance. Sometimes maybe a broken rail. They get that rail out and put a new piece in there. Or else when just a piece off the end is broke off, then they cut it off, and fit one in there. I’ve done that. I’ve stood on the railroad tracks and just pound, swing that pounder all day long. The first day you get awful tired, just don’t want to get up the next day. It hurts, hurts to move. My back hurt. But two, three days, maybe four days, you feel better. Finally it’s gone. In the morning you wake up, and why, you feel just as good. You might feel a little tighter.

I worked uptown as a carpenter’s helper and mason and I poured concrete and worked around concrete. And I did plastering. And that’s hard work. The first day I thought my neck was broke. Sometimes when I get through with a job, by the next day I’d have another job. I’d heard about them by going around and different men would say, “There’s a job over there.” I’d keep that in mind and when I’d get a chance I’d run over there and, “Sure, come to work tomorrow.” They were building houses quite a bit in Salamanca in 1917, 1918

The old bridge went down in Quaker Bridge in 1917. That year we had a cold, cold winter. We had zero weather for about two weeks continually. One day it was about 35 below. I had a Model A Ford, a roadster, and the starter couldn’t turn over. I had to crank, tup, tup, tup. It got started, warmed up and I went down the road. The people, some had cars, and they were cranking. The ice was four, five, six feet thick, and when it came down the river it hit the bridge. It hit that bridge and the bridge lay on the ice and it carried it to an island down below, down to the point of that island and that’s where it stopped. They got most of that iron. The bridge was built around 1878. The same company built the new one. The old one was wide enough for automobiles, but the iron that laid in there weren’t bolted down and even the boards were not tied down. So when the cars came, the boards would loosen and slide one way and the other and finally they had to fasten them down. And the floor beams began to slide off one way and the other and drop off. With the new bridge we put up, it was all concrete floor so it was solid. So that was my first bridge job. I worked with it until it got through. We finished it about the last of August 1920.

I worked the last day on that, and the next day I had a job over at the Quaker School. I painted the roof. They had a tin roof and they wanted that painted before it got too cold. I went and got a partner for myself and we painted the roof for about two weeks. There was a lot of roof there.

My father told me I should go into farming, but it’s that payday. The railroad, they paid every two weeks, and the farmers they paid once a month. Only a few jobs paid once a week. There used to be a tannery in Salamanca and they paid every week.

In those days, after I came back from the railroad, I had horses. And I got a course from a school for horse trainers. I wrote for instruction and I studied and finally I graduated. I was a horseman, I could train horses, break horses to work. One time I had nine horses. I bought some, I traded some. In those days there were quite a few horse traders. I got into that a bit. I had two teams. My Dad used to use them but he had his own too. He always had his own.

Then I raised young stock. I raised bulls. One time I had four of them and they got to be a good size, about two years old. There was one of them that you just couldn’t hold him in a fence. I was feeding them for meat and I sold them. I had to feed them at night and in the morning before I went to work.

In those days I used to watch the first automobiles came around, when I was eight years old. We used to see a truck come by. We used to hear that coming way down the road. Maybe two cylinders — chug chug, chug chug. And then we’d go down to the road and watch that thing go by. It had high wheels, same size front and back. And the motor was cross ways and it had a crank and a heavy chain in there. It made me think, standing there watching that car go by and I’d think, “Someday I’m going to have one of those. Someday I’m going to learn exactly how that thing runs.” And I stand there and I’d think that, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do that.” Everybody’d say, “Harry Watt can fix that.” I used to have that in mind. Finally I bought a car when I was about seventeen years old. When I was working on the bridge I got pretty good pay. On this bridge here I got about 60 cents an hour while the others were getting about 30 cents, 35 cents. Then when I worked for American Bridge Company I made $1.00 an hour. The railroads were paying around 30 cents, that was good pay. I remember before I went to work, my brother was going to work on the highway, working for a contractor. It was good wages, $2.00 a day.

I was about the only one around here to go into iron work. Later on they did. Before the 1930’s there were some from the other reservations who were iron workers. They were down there putting up a new bridge, just this side of where the Kinzua Dam is now, a railroad Bridge. About four Indians worked there and that’s about all the iron workers there were in them days. I would be the only Indian that worked on iron in some places.

(to be continued: Part Three, The Commentary. Part One appeared earlier in this blog.)

[Originally published in Dialectical Anthropology : Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, edited by Christine Ward Gailey, Gainesville : University Press of Florida, 1992. Copies of her book, Mothers of the Nation, in which this essay also appeared, are still available through Ta’wil Books, Of these & other of her essays, David Antin writes: “To each of these essays Diane Rothenberg brings a tough minded rationality and precision of regard that assumes for the ‘others’ who are the subjects of the essays a similar rationality in the pursuit of their interests as they perceive them. Setting the actors in the specific economic, social and political situations in which their actions are embedded, she shows us with great clarity and perhaps a certain implicit black humor how intelligently they have all played their previously bad hands.” Another essay, "Corn Soup & Fry Bread," was posted here on December 5, 2008, and the first part of "The Economic Memories of Harry Watt" on March 12, 2009.]

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Readings & Launches: Poems for the Millennium and Poetics & Polemics

In line with publication of Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, and the new book of essays, Poetics & Polemics (University of Alabama Press Modern and Contemporary Poetics series), I’ll be engaged in the following east coast launches & readings:

March 29, 8:00 p.m. at the Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery (Between Houston and Bleecker), New York, a launch & reading with Jeffrey Robinson, Charles Bernstein, Bob Holman, Pierre Joris, Cecilia Vicuña, & Anne Waldman.

March 30, 7:00 p.m., a reading & discussion at Harvard University, Barker Center, Thompson Room, with Jeffrey Robinson, William Corbett, Gerrit Lansing, & Keith Waldrop, & a panel discussion with scholars Virginia Jackson & Sonia Hofkosh (Tufts University) joining the readers.

April 2, 7:30 p.m., a launch & reading at St Mark’s Bookshop, New York, with Jeffrey Robinson, Bruce Andrews, Lee Ann Brown, Bob Perelman, & Mark Weiss. The reading itself will be at the Solas Bar, right around the corner from St Mark’s Bookshop, at 232 9th Street, between 3rd & 2nd avenues.

April 3, 2:00 p.m., a reading & panel discussion at CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, between 34th and 35th Streets, Room 9207, with Jeffrey Robinson, Mary Ann Caws, Maureen McLane, & Richard Sieburth.

I’ll also be reading new poems & translations at the Zinc Bar, 82 West 3rd Street, New York, on Sunday, April 5, at 6:30 p.m., with poet & anthropologist Renato Rosaldo.

A Final Note. For those of you for whom this is of interest, there remains a real need for reviews of both of these books, particularly for a discussion of the premeditated contemporaneity of Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, something too often missed if the book isn’t actually seen or read. I am also open to readings like those listed above & the previous ones on the west coast: San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

From The New Delta Interview (Part One): The place of poetry, the place of religion, the place of rhyme

Following a reading at the campus of Louisiana State University in 2004, I sat down with members of the campus community & the staff of the student-run magazine, New Delta Review, for a question-and-answer session. The interview was published in the summer 2005 issue with the title “The Synthesizing Mind,” and the interviewers were identified as Brooke Champagne, Hillary Major, and Mike Walter. Like most other interviews I‘ve done, there was a fair amount of rewriting prior to publication.

Q: So, I’ll start with a very broad question. When you were reading from A Book of Witness, you talked about making the millennial or the century transition, and I would ask you how that relates to the role of the poet. Do you see the role of the poet changing or just continuing on in the same way?

A: For myself, I think I see it continuing. At different times in my life I’ve been more or less optimistic about the role of the poet, and at one time, maybe beginning in the middle of the 1950s and into the early 1960s, there seemed to be a forwarding of poetry; poetry and poets were coming toward the center of the culture and the culture was going to be changing as a result of that. There was a move away from the notion of marginalization toward the notion of a new centering for poetry, but at this point -- today – I have the sense that it hasn’t worked out in those terms. For me — and maybe this is true for some others — poetry was and remains central to my life as an activity and as a way of coming into relationship with the world, of understanding myself in relation to the world. A way of documenting mental experience through language, as that experience relates to actual things going on in the world, some personal and some shared with everybody who’s paying any attention.

We’re a long way now in a process that began two hundred or more years ago, when poets, or those who would be poets, began to take very seriously the idea that poetry — like other forms of thought and sometimes in conjunction with other ways of thinking, scientific, philosophical and so forth — was absolutely essential to change and transformation in the world. Some would say that’s an overblown notion of the poet, but I subscribe to it and will probably continue to subscribe to it until the end.

Q: Feeding off this concept of centering and marginalization, do you have any thoughts on why poetry isn’t valued—I’ll say in our culture, but probably mostly in America—as much as it is all over the world?

A: You think it’s more valued elsewhere.

Q: Right. That may be a leading question.

A: I’m not sure about that. Sometimes, when we feel the undervaluing of poetry where we are, we look elsewhere and imagine that there’s a real valuing there. And I think sometimes that is the case. I’ve traveled into other places to do poetry, and I’ve had my poetry translated into a number of different languages. When there’s a response to poetry in other places, it can be a very strong response. (Sometimes that’s the case here as well.) But poetry as that form of written composition, poetry as we know it … -- I don’t know how far poetry reaches people in other places.

I think there’s a cadre of intellectuals in different countries – thinking people of all sorts – who take poetry as a primary value. One of the things that’s happened here in fact, in the context of literature departments and so forth, is that attention to poetry has been in a process of great reduction. Poetry is no longer central to the curriculum of an English literature program. A little more attention may be paid to it in French literature classes or Spanish literature classes, but increasingly, even in creative writing programs, fiction really overwhelms poetry, and my experience with various literature departments is that forms of popular culture overwhelm both poetry and fiction.

There are places in the non-academic world in which poetry or that which we would think of as poetry is central, but usually in conjunction with forms of religious and ritual practices. I have spent some time during my life paying attention to those practices and have assembled works to illustrate them. Those practices become a paradigm for what poetry might be and how it might function in a culture. A lot of that is in the past, a lot of that is itself threatened, a lot of that is involved with very small cultures where human beings still carry on those practices.

But then it depends on what you value as poetry. Hip-hop poetry has very large audiences here.

Q: I have a question about the religious aspects of your poems. I know that you’re interested in Kabbalah, and in Kabbalah language takes on such power, beyond just the symbolic. The world is created through language; golems can be created through ritual language; language itself carries enormous weight. I’m wondering, based on your background, what you feel the responsibility of the poet is, as the wizard who wields these words, items of immense power?

A: I’m interested in Kabbalah precisely because of its language practices, taking Kabbalah as a kind of generalized term for Jewish mystical traditions which involve certain practices and notably the manipulation of language in ways that resemble forms of poetry and provide insights into forms of poetry that are in practice among us. I’m certainly not involved in the sense of creating a golem or anything like that – what I think Gershom Scholem would call practical Kabbalah. I’ve no intention to practice Kabbalah in that way, nor even as a systematic form of meditative practice. I have not personally pursued systematic forms of meditative practice — whether Buddhist or Jewish or Christian or whatever.

I became at some point almost obsessed with the need to investigate the various ways in which poetry or something that resembles poetry has been made in other times and places. The first book of such exploration or presentation for me was Technicians of the Sacred, which was worldwide in looking at what at the time was still called primitive poetry and later called tribal poetry, traditional poetry, first nation poetry, aboriginal poetry. Technicians of the Sacred was the opening. I followed that with Shaking the Pumpkin, where the idea was to focus specifically on one continent — a big enough space — and there I focused on the North American Indians, with an emphasis again on the traditional, the deep culture as far as I could know it. At that point too, I came to explore ancestral sources of my own in writing poems like Poland/1931. But here I want to make something clear. I really thought of what later came to be called identity poetry (ethnic poetry in that sense) as a rather demeaned form of writing, so in writing Poland/1931 I had to maintain that I was not searching for identity but putting identity into question. In the course of that, first came Poland/1931, and then I thought I’d transform that into an investigation, an assemblage like Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin, that would trace a kind of history of the Jews or the poetry of the Jews. I wanted to be able to write or seem to write from within that large culture, to deal with a culture, a true diaspora that had become international in scope. There’s even some Chinese-Jewish and Indian-Jewish poetry contained within A Big Jewish Book. And again, in the course of doing this exploration, I became aware of and drawn toward forms of language practice in what could roughly be called Kabbalah. That’s my relation to Kabbalah.

Q: Drawing on these traditions, the Kabbalah, the Seneca, how do you balance the particular and the universal and relate to a wider audience? Do you get closer to the truth by narrowing in? Or do you have some way to present the insular traditions in a more broad way so that people can approach them? How do you negotiate?

A: I try to make connections even when dealing with the particular. In the big books, in the assemblages, I presented poems or translations of poems or visualizations of poems in one part of the book. Then I used the back of the book for commentaries, which would sometimes establish a particular context for the work but more often would connect, say, an American Indian tribe or nation to some contemporary European or North American poetry practice — something placed elsewhere on the map of poetry. I think within the particular, there’s a tremendous amount of value, certainly for the people who are themselves the practitioners there, but for us also looking in from the outside.

For the last, oh, two hundred years at least, the important push in poetry as in the other arts has been toward experimentation and the search for new forms, new forms both of composition and of ways of thought and observation (much like science). That calls on poets to be in a perpetual process of invention and reinvention, and in the course of that the possibilities of poetry, what poetry can do, what language can do, are greatly expanded. The other way that is open to us is to look at the particulars of poetries around the world both in time and space, ancient poetries, poetries practiced in very particular places, and again, looking there, the possibilities of poetry are greatly opened up.

There’s a synthesizing mind at work in that process, and of course one ends up comparing things, but in another way, these things exist without need for comparison. No, it’s not a matter of progress. Except the progress toward greater and greater incorporation and integration.

Q: Can I ask a formal question? I wondered about the return to rhyme in A Book of Concealments.

A: I don’t know that I ever departed from rhyme. It’s not a return to rhyme in any end-rhyme, structural sense. I’m certainly aware of rhyming as I write and I like rhyming. That said, I rather resent any push toward reinforcing the notion of terminal rhyme.

Q: Understood; that would be terrible. On the other hand, the push that we have in contemporary poetry, to get rid of rhyme altogether, because it’s doggerel, also seems like a wrong-headed push. There’s something gorgeous about rhyme. I was reveling in the music of those poems from A Book of Concealments and very struck by the fact that there should be a return to an audible rhyme in the sadder book, the after-9/11 book.

A: There’s a poem, not from there, that I’ve read it a couple of times on this trip. In 1997, Jackson Mac Low was celebrating his 75th birthday, and I wrote a poem for Jackson. One of the things that’s going on in that poem is that I’m playing very deliberately with rhyme and with the poetics of rhyme. The rhyme comes into it because many years ago now, Jackson had begun and then finally completed a series of poems called the Light Poems, in which by systematic chance operations and by free invention, he plays off a number of words for light or kinds of light, a list of lights which he incorporates as the building blocks of that series. I think the first time I really came to an enthusiasm for Jackson’s work was through the Light Poems. So for his birthday, I decided I would do a night poem for Jackson, which is partly an address to Jackson about what I’m doing: he did the light poems, I’m doing the night poems.

Light and night, “its rhyming brother.”

I’ve thought of how that poem might go in other languages where those key words don’t rhyme. Let’s say in German Licht und Nacht, or luz y noche in Spanish. It’s a phenomenon of English, this rhyme can only happen in English. In France, somebody tried to translate the night poems for one of those poetry festivals where they want to have translations on hand; well, it really becomes a challenge to translation. Really impossible. In English, it makes sense because night and light rhyme. It’s wonderful really, they rhyme and they’re nearly perfect opposites, light and night. Maybe since doing the poems for Jackson, I’m more openly aware of rhyme.

Recently, as the next big book, I’ve been working on a 19th-century anthology, starting with Romanticism as the blast off, the big bang moment and what proliferates out of that. In doing that, I’m immersed in and coming to a greater acceptance of rhymed poetry. For obvious reasons, there’ll be a lot of rhyming.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

With Jackson Mac Low: The Light Poems & Other Matters (Personal, Literary, Political)

An Exchange of Letters

01:18 PM 5/31/03 -0700

Dear Jackson -- I'm setting up a workshop for Naropa -- two weeks from now -- and I'm planning some reference to your works & methods as part of that. It all goes well except that I want to confirm your method for composing the Light Poems and can't locate instructions for that. The names of light seem to conform to those in my Thesaurus though you might well have used another list, but I'm unsure what followed from that in selecting light names to go with names of those to whom poems are dedicated. I can guess this and could certainly give them (the students) some kind of modus operandi but I'd prefer that they learned precisely what you were doing.

Anyway, if too much trouble, just ignore this, but a short reply would otherwise be very useful.

Okay, & much love to you and Anne, as always,


Monday, June 02, 2003 1:03 PM

Hi, Jerry

All the answers to your qq are printed on the last 6 pages of 22 Light Poems, including the list of kinds of light. They're very detailed, with an account of all relevant information as to the making of each poem. (For instance, in making most but bt no means all of the poems, I drew the names of kinds of light from my 14-columned list via both the letters in each dedicatee's name and playing cards. It would be much simpler if you could see the lists and descriptions/histories.

If you have access to a copy of 22 Light Poems, just read those last 6 pages. Youll learn all you'll ever want to know about my makingways. If you do not have access to a copy of the book, I'll have to xerox them and mail them to you. However, I'd rather not risk putting the book in the xerox machine or in the scanner. It wd probably come out ok, but I'd rather not take the chance if it isn't necessary, though I will if you can't locate a copy of the book. The book is well bound, so it'll probably be ok.

No thesaurus had a look-in. I made up most of the light names but sometimes used names already in use. As I say in the first of the 6 pages, "The fact is that I used many different methods, ranging from"pure" systematic chance to spontaneous expression . . . " The last 3 pages of the book provide a detailed description and history of each light poem's making, etc.

I've made use of extremely complicated and time-consuming writingways for many years. The complications are still present but of different kinds than most of those of the 50s thru the 80s.

Each of the 14 columns of the list of kinds of light accords with one of the 14 different names of denominations of playing cards (ace to king + jokers), and with one of the 14 different letters in Iris and my names. All of the names of kinds of light in the poems begin with letters in our names.

If you can't locate any copy of 22 Light Poems, I'll xerox or scan the last 6 pp for you. Let me know. I'd be surprised if there's no copy in the UCSD library or in your own. If not, I'll copy the 6 last pages of the book and mail them to you. Please email your answer so I'll have enough to time to photocopy the pages. Scanning is possible, but it would be complicated for me to do. I'd have to make photos and relearn how to make pdf files. So photocopying and mailing would be much less time-consuming.

Love to you and Diane from Anne and me. Hope you have a good time in Boulder.


06:27 PM 6/3/03 -0700

Dear Jackson -- Unfortunately my copy of 22 Light Poems "walked" a few years ago, although I do of course remember that there was an account of procedures in considerable detail. What I'll do first chance -- probably tomorrow -- is see whether the Library's copy is still in place, and if not I'll appeal to David Antin to see if his is. It also just occurs to me that the internet may also be a source, though they probably can't get it to me in time to serve my needs at Naropa. But anyway I'm very grateful for your reply and the information you pased along and your willingness to xerox for me, which I'm hopeful and confident will not be necessary.

With much love to you and Anne,


Wednesday, June 04, 2003 7:45 AM

Dear Jerry

I'm afraid that most of my methods except free composition, e.g., the light poem for Spencer, Beate, etc. Holst, require a preliminary preparation such as the huge list of kinds of light. That involved both imagination and looking up kinds of things that could be used etc. to make light (minerals, lamps, etc.).

I used a simpler method that occurs to me (which I never wrote down) which I sometimes used in the 70s.

Choose a kind of object, etc., == any kind of abundant things with names. (E.g., kinds of light.) Then make up instances of that kind of thing and work it into poems. Except for the first Light Poem, I think I simply composed the sentences within which the names of kinds of light appeared. I used the big chart of kinds of light in the 60s and early 70s, but after that I just made them up as I went along. That would be easier for Naropians. They can tell stories and everything else. They can use their imagination (as I had to do when making up the names of kinds of light and how to work them into the poems). The first light poem is (I think) is the only one wherein I simply listed kinds of light as they were given to me from my chart by both playing cards or the letters in people's names or a combo thereof , and a random digit book (or similar means) to determine which item in the column to use in the poem.

Very few if any Naropians wd have the patience and obsessiveness to work as I did in the 50s and 60s. You gotta have the temperament and madness.

I lost my beautiful chart of kinds of light when someone made off with lots of my archival stuff when they took care of our loft and our cat while went to Europe. There's a condensed form of the chart in 22 LP, which I've never expanded into its original for again.

Now that I've gotten the bug in my head, I'll probably use our trusty Canon to make copies of the last 6 pp of 22 LP for my own use. But I'm kneedeep in a peculiar poem I've been working at for weeks--materials initially gathered from several widely different sources, but freely edited and revised in many ways. (Lexical words are seldom used in the forms they had in the sources.)

Love to you and Diane


At 03:29 PM 6/6/03 -0700

Dear Jackson -- Yes, I was over to the library and had the Special Collections people xerox the 6 pages from Light Poems. My own inclination is also to simplify with students but I would like them to have a sense of the more complicated procedures -- at least a look at them.

I was also very happy to get your other messages -- and espcially the poem, which I'm reading with pleasure.

There seems to be no let-up in the work, and the work continues to delight me. With love to both of you,


P.S. You're right about the Malcolm/Stein New Yorker piece -- not terrific on the poetry (awful in fact) but of considerable interest concerning the mystery of Gertrude's and Alice's survival under those circumstances. I'm surprised that she doesn't mention the Stein/Toklas grave site at Pere Lachaise -- the usual large memorial stone for Gertrude and an unmarked grave beside it for Alice. (But that must have been Alice's doing at the end, having survived Gertrude by that many years.)

The politics I more or less knew about from other sources, and I'm aware too of some of Gertrude's sillier comments. But the poetry and other writings still knock me out.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003 3:22 PM

Dear Jerry

I'm glad you were able to photocopy the last 6 pages of 22 LP at the UCSD Special collections. They probably know how to do so without damaging the books.

Yes, for information, it's good for them to learn what relatively labor-intensive work so-called chance operations and kindred methods may entail. Also, the ways in which personal choices enter such "impersonal" methods. Even the "strictest" following of given methods has always been for me crisscrossed with artistic choices, often ones made at liminal and subliminal levels. Such was the choice of source texts in my solely chance-operational poems such as those in Stanzas for Iris Lezak.

(Because I trusted the typing from my notebooks by a woman who seemed very serious (the girl friend of a composer friend of mine), is crammed with typos. A friend and I determined these in the early 70s and made a large bunch of errata cards for the book, but I never had the time or opportunity to publish them. I'm not sure whether they survived the big theft of many of my archives while Anne and I were in Europe in the early 90s, which I didn't realize till Anne and I got together manuscripts, etc., to be sent to UCSD when they bought my archives up to 1993.)

I knew nothing about Stein's and Toklas's politics when I read Malcolm's article. She's a rather philistine ignoramus when it comes to Stein's writings, but I'm glad she somehow ran into Ulla and her work (and Bill Rice's invaluable help--he's an interesting painter). I never heard about Burns before and thus haven't read the book he and Ulla edited.

I'd only heard of previously Fay (my computer doesn't know how to print umlaut-y's or whatever they're called) as a pal of GS. He must have been very agile to have survived even as a collaborator in occupied France since he was gay. (Cocteau, of course, also made it.) Despite all, I'm glad he was there, wreathed in evil, to help G & A. The worst political shock was not that they had a helpful friend who was a collaborator but that G at least was pro-Franco. Reactionary US politics is one thing, but Franco! (Of course I continued to correspond with Pound for a decade after I knew he had been pro-Mussolini and continued to be for years. (He claimed that he wasn't anti-semitic--that he'd "never bitched Louis [Zukovsky] or Mina Loy (Levy) -- [almost right] and indeed when Jewish friends of mine visited him in the hospital, he was very cordial. We fell out in about '55 when I pushed him on his antisemitism. Up till then I'd decided it was wrong to attack and old man in his paranoia.}

I'm glad you like that curious first poem in my new HSCH (Hartshorne, Stein, Carroll, Hopkins) series--I resubtitled it--it's now HSCH 1 and I'm now at work on HSCH 2 which is quite different in both form and content.

I don't know why I didn't mention Duncan's name in referring to its form, although I think it was only when I'd written most of it that I realized the lineage. Pound of course was also a source of that kind of placement of lines and sentences, but I realize that I'd done all of the basic writing of the poem before I realized wherefrom that kind of text placement entered my writingways. He turned up not only the first day I got to NYC on my 21st birthday [my U of Chi girlfriend met me at the bus station and insisted that I go with her to the apartment of Charles Glen Wallace on Bedford Street. Rogert and his erstwhile wife, Marjorie McKee were there and he took over the afternoon in true voluble Duncan fashion--reading from his journals, telling gay jokes that ended with his jumping in the air holding his buttocks, remarking from his journal that Robert Frost was a fairybaiter, etc. (The latter, as well as other shocking remarks RD made then and later, all turned out to be true.)

I visited them with Charles GW a little later when they'd move to an apartment of their own, and then I ran into Charles in the village one night and he told me Charles had died by falling from a friend's window on Leroy St. during a party. Robert also turned out to be a close friend of the woman I lived with for several years in the Village and often visited us. It turned out that Robert's wife had "run away" with my girl friend's husband, so RD and I were "brothers out of law."

And when I began to work with the pacifist-anarchist group that got out the paper Why? (later Resistance) for about a decade, he often turned up at our Saturday discussion meetings (at a Spanish anarchist loft on Broadway between 12th & 13th sts), Robert often showed up until he moved to San Francisco (he'd been born in California). Many of the founders (in 1944 of our group also moved to San Francisco. A few nights ago I attended a concert at Riverside Church in which a daughter of two of the founders--a very fine professional flutist named Diva Goodfriend-Koven--played in some of the pieces.

After Robert moved to SF (about the time that many founders of the A-P group moved there in the late 40s), I only saw him when I was doing readings or lectures in SF. I think the last time I saw him was when he was already ill. He came to either a reading or a talk that I did at Langton St. (or both). Not long before his death, he came to NYC and Quasha wheeled him around in a wheelchair at the Met Museum and Robert called me from there and we talked for a short last time.

Curiously, the last time I spoke to Bob De Niro (father of the actor, who I met when he was a baby in 1944 because his parents [both painters] were friends of the lady I lived with then), I saw him waiting to hail a cab in front of his building on W Broadway and he said "Marjorie McKee (Robert's erstwhile wife] is in town. Bob died not long after that. His son own a lot of Tribeca and just put on a film festival here; he owns the building 2 doors north of ours and I think he still lives in what used to be the top-floor apartment of the man who owned our building when I moved here.

I'm interested in the degree of choice that entered the making of the LPs. And the variety of writingways and subjects. I think that even though many names of kinds of light in most of the early LPs were drawn from my big chart by random-digit and playing-card chance operations, much or all of the text between light names was freely composed. (And most if not all of those light names were made by me.) I

wish I still had the big chart from which I gleaned the kinds of light when writing many of the LPs (via both random digits and playing cards (That too went with the big theft.) The lists in the book are in a condensed form necessitated by the amount of available space in the back of the 22 LP book. I wrote many LPs after I wrote those 22.

Enough of this. Are you going to photocopy those pages and hand the copies out to your students?

Love to you and Diane

[Mac Low’s web site can be found at, & my own introduction to his works appeared in my Poetics & Polemics (University of Alabama Press, 2008) & originally in Representaive Works (Roof Books, 1986), if still available.]

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Diane Rothenberg: The Economic Memories of Harry Watt (Part One)

The Setting

We first met Harry Watt in December, 1967. Stanley Diamond prepared a letter for us to carry along and telephoned ahead to introduce us. Diamond was interested in the experiments in translation that my husband, Jerome Rothenberg, was doing and thought that a meeting with some of the singers of the Allegany Seneca, a group among whom Diamond had worked, might be conducive to further explorations in translation. Harry Watt received us in his warm house on a very snowy evening and, because of his fond memories of Diamond, made an effort to acquaint us with the community. We went back several weeks later and the next summer rented a barely converted gas station just outside of the Steamburg relocation area. During that summer, Jerry engaged in productive translation projects with several of the leading singers and songmakers, and our relations with many people intensified and expanded. Toward the end of the summer we were honored by clan adoptions in the Longhouse, and Harry Watt became my uncle in the Blue Heron clan.

We returned regularly to western New York in the following years to visit, to participate in ceremonies and to talk with friends. Some of the best talk was with Harry Watt. We would meet at his house, or around his sister’s table, or, in better weather, at the old house, several hundred yards away through the woods, where Harry Watt and his wife had their gardens and where he most liked to be. This was the house that he had preserved when the forced relocation in 1965 caused by the building of the Kinzua Dam required that everyone occupying a house within the flood plain move. The misery of the time of removal was vividly felt, and the new houses generally resented. Harry Watt’s old house was the almost singular representative of what had been a very recently transformed way of life and, as such, conveyed layers of meaning and emotion that we could hardly begin to appreciate. It was located high on a bank overlooking the Allegheny River, with the gardens on one side and the woods all around, and Harry Watt would point to places when he talked about his childhood, about herbal knowledge, about encounters with animals. He talked about his experiences at the local Indian school and his running away from it for a perceived injustice, about his experiences traveling around the country doing construction work, about the skills and men involved in his work, about his encounters with Indians in other parts of the country, about Indian sovereignty, and about his hopes and fears concerning a retention of Indian identity by those who were losing the Seneca language and ceremonial knowledge. He talked about schemes for teaching the old ways, about his respect for those who were educated and knowledgeable in those ways, about his own sense of deprivation in having chosen paths which led him away from an early immersion in Seneca language and culture, onto his return in his later years with an eagerness and a sense of responsibility toward a goal of Seneca cultural preservation. Harry Watt’s dedication in these matters was essential to the smooth running of the Longhouse Religion and, most importantly, to the preparation for the annual cycle of Six Nations meetings which preserved and carried the message of the prophet Handsome Lake throughout the intertribal circuit of believers. He was a model of a traditional Iroquois peace chief (although he did not have such a title): dignified, courteous, reasonable, personally available and generous, highly intelligent, and responsible to the collective. For these, and many other reasons, strangers were sent to see Harry Watt, and he was accustomed to representing his community to visitors – journalists, scholars, students. We witnessed many of these encounters and grew familiar with some of the regular turns the interviews would take, so that, over the years, we heard him discourse many times on some of the same subjects. Two of his favorites were religious epistemology and working, and I began to feel that I could “hum along” when he introduced one of these topics, although I tried not to seem inattentive and not to interrupt.

In June, 1972, we rented a house In Salamanca – on the Allegany Seneca reservation – for the beginning of a new project, this time the field work toward my dissertation. We had no clear idea of how long we would stay, but the work was going well and there was no other place we needed or where we wanted more to be, so we stayed for two years and left with great regret. My own work turned more and more toward historical research and archives and away from a systematic accumulation and recording of fieldwork notes. I regret now the tapering off of these detailed notes; when I reread them I hardly recognize my own voice, as if I were reading the experiences of some other person. Our social interactions and participation were intense, but became less instrumental, and the “participant” activity quite assuaged my early 1970’s discomfort with the “observation” part of the anthropological enterprise.

Harry Watt frequently remarked that “people say I should write a book.” I had heard that statement often enough to feel some impatience whenever I heard it again, but also to feel that maybe he really should tell the story of his life in writing and that I should help facilitate that ambition. While it also seemed to me that hearing a systematic account of life on the reservation at the turn of the twentieth century might be of use to my research, I was already more focused on the turn of the nineteenth century, so my own goals were of secondary concern in this project. I offered to come around with the tape recorder that I rarely used, to transcribe his dictation, and to collaborate with him on editing it for potential publication. It seemed like a tidy project.

On November 16, 1972, I sat on the sofa in Harry Watt’s living room, hunkered down for some serious descriptions of his early life on the reservation. He sat in his rocker, eyes slightly closed in an attitude of remembering and, to my distress, began, “When I was a boy, we really knew how to work.” I had heard that many times before and I was sure that was not the way to start this project. I tried to divert him, to suggest he talk about his grandparents, his memories of being a little child, events and people in his family. He responded briefly to my inquiries, but seemed determined to continue talking, in what seemed to me a platitudinous way, about working. The tape recorder ran on and he talked on, while I sat enveloped in a cloud of frustration. When he tired of talking, I turned the machine off, went home and transcribed what was on the tope, gave him a carbon of the transcription the next day, and never mentioned the autobiography again. My copy was filed away, that other filing system in my head contained only a record of my frustration, amended slightly by my feeling of superior wisdom about what a real autobiography should be.

About five years later, friends who were editing an issue of a conceptual-art magazine, proposed that contributors from various disciplines should consider the subject of memory from the perspective of their own work. My experience with Harry Watt’s autobiography still rankled, and so I began an essay exploring the generalizing tendency of the elderly in relation to their own pasts and the related problem of using oral history as data. After I had completed several paragraphs, I remembered that I had the transcript in my files and thought to search it out for relevant examples.

Harry Watt’s words flew out at me as a reproach both for my incomprehension and for the opportunity I had missed. The organizing principle of “work” was for him a primary value and a life metaphor. It was through working that he defined himself and it was through the core of economic behavior that the rest of life was elaborated. Because I did not open my ears and my mind, as the Seneca invocation directs one to do, I missed the opportunity to know more about it. The transcript which exists represents in small measure an homage to the man who died in 1986 and is included here in full to convey both the spoken cadences of the oral delivery and the richness of ethnographic detail.

(to be continued: Part Two, The Text; Part Three, The Commentary)

[Originally published in Dialectical Anthropology : Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, edited by Christine Ward Gailey, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992. A professional anthropolgist & an active player in the emerging discourse around an ethnopoetics, Diane Rothenberg is also the co-editor of Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics (University of California Press, 1983) and the author of Friends Like These: An Ethnohistorical Analysis (University Microfilms International, 1976. Copies of her book, Mothers of the Nation, in which this essay also appeared, are still available through Ta’wil Books, Another essay from the same collection, "Corn Soup & Fry Bread," was posted earlier on December 5, 2008.]

Monday, March 9, 2009

Julian Beck: the state will be served even by poets

the breasts of all the women crumpled like gas bags when

neruda wrote his hymn celebrating the explosion of a hydrogen bomb by soviet authorities

children died of the blisters of ignorance for a century more when

siqueiros tried to assassinate trotsky himself a killer with gun and ice

pound shimmering his incantations to adams benito and kung prolonging the state with great translation cut in crystal

claudel slaying tupí guaraní as he flourished cultured documents and pearls in rio de janeiro when he served france as ambassador to brazil

melville served by looking for contraband as he worked in the customs house how many taxes did he requite how many pillars of the state did he cement in place tell me tell me tell me stone

spenser serving the faerie queene as a colonial secretary in ireland sinking the irish back for ten times forty years no less under the beau monde’s brack

seneca served by advising nero on how to strengthen the state with philosophy’s accomplishments

aeschylus served slaying persians at marathon and salamis

aristotle served as tutor putting visions of trigonometrics in alexander’s head

dali and eliot served crowning monarchs with their gold

wallace stevens served as insurance company executive making poems out of profits

euclides da cunha served as army captain baritoning troops

and even d h lawrence served praising the unique potential of a king

these are the epics of western culture
these are the flutes of china and the east

everything must be rewritten then

goethe served as a member of the weimar council of state and condemned even to death even to death

this is the saga of the state which is served

even to death

pinerolo to faenza palma de mallorca paris roma
november 1976 august 1979

[Poet, painter, actor, and director, Julian Beck (1925-1985) was the cofounder with Judith Malina of the Living Theater. Their influence & dedication to a liberatory poetics has continued into the present, and the Living Theater in its most recent incarnation continues to remind us of what poetry at its most extreme & experimental still has to offer: “an archimedean point of imaginative / construction, / in which we can be energized, our resourses shored” (C. Bernstein). For all of that, the poem above is a kind of counter-manifesto, a warning of our susceptibilities, the temptation to act against our works & our own better nature. [Reprinted from semi-perishable membranes: twenty songs of the revolution, as it appeared also in the Art of the Manifesto section of Poems for the Millennium, volume two.]

Friday, March 6, 2009

Shaking the Pumpkin (6): Navajo Correspondences, with commentary

(First Set)

red willow



wing feather
Big Fly

Big Fly
skin at tip of tongue

(Second Set)

Black Wind
yellow squash

Black God
Black Star

danger line

ambush woods
emetic frames

digging stick

(Third Set)


Yellow Wind
Pink Thunder
Pink Snake
Holy Girl

feather cloak
yellow lightning


Old Age

(Fourth Set)

cloud water

breathing in

nerves & veins

red willow

Yellow Wind
black squash


SOURCE. Gladys Reichard, Navajo Religion, Bollingen Series, XVIII, Pantheon, 1950, pages 518-521. Selected from sixty-five such groupings & arranged in sets by JR.

Reichard speaks of such correspondences (“associations” her word for them) as “key to the Navajo system of symbolism” & maintains that they “are by no means ‘free,’ but are held together in a stipulated pattern which only the details that compose it can explain” – details, however, which she finds impossible to get at, therefore no “explanation” presently possible, etc. While the present writer accepts all that as “true enough,” it seems to him that there’s also a level at which the combination of images (poised between languages & cultures) has a way of opening our eyes to possibilities of relationships it would be hard to reach by following our own set habits-of-thought. And while it’s interesting to learn in relation, say, to the fifth group of the third set, that the “ax which destroyed anyone who took hold of it, other than the owner, was possessed by Frog, Gambler & Old Age,” it seems obvious that the matter didn’t end there but might itself be changing under the influence of transmission through succeeding generations or as touched by the vision of a single seer (= “poet”) – which is something that is always going on.

[Originally printed in Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas. The book, first published by Doubleday in 1972 & last by University of New Mexico Press in 1986 & 1992, has now been out of print for several years.]

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Reconfiguring Romanticism (25): William Everson, on Robert Duncan’s romanticism and modernism, & other matters

Lee Bartlett, interviewer, March 1988

William Everson: What I was particularly impressed with about the reaction to Duncan’s death was the prestige he had accumulated over the last years of his life. This was apparent in the acclaim and homage occasioned by his passing. The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, no less. I hadn’t expected that. No matter how much coterie-support we poets can count on, we hardly think of ourselves as front page news.

Lee Bartlett: How did you regard his reputation?

Everson: Well, over the years we were always under a cloud from the establishment--disparaged as bohemians, beatniks, and hippies. What seems to have happened is with the passing of all the great modernists, and now with the second generation almost gone, Duncan emerges in prime place, with impeccable credentials, as a forward carrier of consciousness, the bearer of those celebrated values.

Bartlett: So you place Duncan in the modernist line.

Everson: Emphatically. Following Pound, he was a long-time, banner-bearing member, and so built his career. Then in the Ekbert Faas interview he reversed himself and claimed romanticism. I think he was probably disassociating himself from the oppressive postmodernist sweep, which has become so total it chiefly inspires tedium. The truth probably is that in his head he was a modernist but in his heart of hearts he was a romanticist. Actually the position isn’t all that common. Al Gelpi’s new book, A Coherent Splendor, is a masterful study of the prolongation of romanticist values in the marrow of the modernist bone. However, if the Augustan age can be thought of as the thesis, due to the establishment of a self-conscious formal English literature, and the romantic revolt taken as the antithesis, then modernism shapes up in a fairly creditable synthesis. I say "fairly credible" because Gelpi stresses what pains the modernist masters took to disparage romanticism. But it doesn’t look like we’re headed for another thesis, a new Augustan Age. On the contrary, it looks like Robert’s instinct will prove correct: full speed ahead to neoromanticism! And he brings a special proclivity to the synthesis, possessing almost a physical disposition in the upshot. I have in mind the childhood accident to his eyes, which left him cross-eyed, bifurcating his vision, making him more aware of accidentals than of essences, or at least more than people of normal vision.

Bartlett: Can you explain this a little more fully, how this applies to modernism over against romanticism?

Everson: The thrust of romanticism was toward the sublime but by the century’s close it had deteriorated to the banal, giving the new century, our own, the opportunity to emerge as a quasi-classical hegemony called modernism, in which intangibles like complexity and abstraction -- sophisticated technical invention and spatialized form --take precedence over the substantive rendition of the subject in romanticism’s preoccupation with strong emotional resonance of the ideal. Thus Robert’s eye injury with its consequent bifurcation put him in line with the aesthetic abstraction that was modernism’s special characteristic. In the same way an artist hooked on drugs may find his imbalance inadvertently increases his penetration into the rarified interstices of a disordered world. Actually, Faas goes into it in the opening pages of his biography of Duncan, giving Robert’s own version of his weird vision and goes on to speculate that the eye defect may well have had its positive effects for a child who was to face multiple alienation as orphan, sexual deviant, and disreputable bohemian.

Bartlett: Who were Duncan’s primary modernist precursors?

Everson: Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.

Bartlett: And romantics?

Everson: Coleridge, I would assume. He wasn’t particularly Wordsworthian.

Bartlett: But you do regard the modernist impulse to hold the primary position.

Everson: Without doubt, over the greater part of his career Robert was a torchbearer for the modernist movement, a front-runner for an entire field this is passing away. Even its sequel, post-modernism, is finished. The new romanticism is emerging not out of literature as yet but out of popular culture --namely, the "New Age." The literary movement will surface later when the intellectual elite gets accustomed to it, which will take some time because the snobs did not discover it themselves, so they stand aloof. But they’ll come around. Never forget the three stages of an idea: first, it’s false, heresy, a lie; second, it may not be false but it is irrelevant; and third, "But we knew that all the time!"

I think Robert knew in his bones that postmodernism was finished; it was so widespread, so universally followed that it had become predictable. So he started back to the fountainhead. But he did not live long enough to do much with it, and maybe it’s just as well he completes his witness with his modernist achievement intact. His life is more coherent this way.

Bartlett: What do you think is his greatest attribute?

Everson: His visionary insight into the intangible dimension of phenomena constituting reality, and the imagination to register it in graphic figures and potent speech. He had a marvelous sense of imagery, but went too much by aesthetic theory, which seems the modernist pitfall. Modernist art becomes too esoteric, too abstract. It eschews the common touch, the physical dimension. Duncan was a seeker. His life, his art was a quest. All his experimentation was a search for the will o’ the whisp of significance in the welter of circumstance. His whole life was a record of sojourning in or another branch of aesthetic speculation. When he was working out one of these phases he often wrote poems that were not very interesting. To him they were vital, because the search was vital, and to many postmodernists they were ingenious and hence commendable; but as poetry they were too abstract. Then when he had the implications worked out he would stop to catch his breath, and the span of his attention would drop below the speculative level to the old inveterate lizard waiting with primordial patience in the heart of man, or in his plexus, his groin. And it will rouse itself, wake from its long hibernation, slit its skin lids, and sing. And the libidinous song will find his lips, and its thin reptilian croon run down his arm to his finger and pen, and the song of salvation is born again, the litany of self-renewal is heard again in the world:

Negroes, negroes, all those princes,
holding cups of rinoceros bone, make
magic with my blood. Where beautiful Marijuana
towers taller than the eucalyptus, turns
within the lips of night and falls,
falls downward, where as giant Kings we gathered
and devourd her burning hands and feet, O Moonbar
thee and Clarinet! Those talismans
that quickened in their sheltering leaves like thieves,
those Negroes, all those princes
holding to their mouths like Death
the cups of rhino bone,
were there to burn my hands and feet.
Divine the limit of the bone and with their magic
tie and twist me like a rope. I know
no other continent of Africa more dark than this
dark continent of my breast.

Once the theoretical problem was worked out he would return to a more integrative poetry. At that point the mood changed from intellectual quest to visceral recovery, maybe for only a single poem, essentially out of sequence, but fundamental.

Bartlett: Would he have thought of himself as a vatic poet?

Everson: That was his pride, his sense of vocation.

Bartlett: Why would he be so drawn to H.D.?

Everson: Her modernist sensibility. Actually he was always attracted to intellectual women. Unlike many homosexuals he was not a misogynist. But he had enough of it in him that he wasn’t cowed by militant feminists, as I am. I’ve thanked my stars for his presence more than once, on some university panel when my sexist poetry of an earlier day was in hot water. Sexism and violence coexist in the masculine unconscious, as they do in the feminine, and to get at them you have to expose them. This is best done through your art. Duncan understood the function of the violence in what I was doing. As for H.D., her modernist credentials were impeccable. She was the first Imagist. That in itself would be enough to quicken Duncan’s interest. Actually, Gelpi’s book is very convincing on H.D. as a vatic poet in her own right. But Duncan’s esteem for latter-day postmodernist male poets is harder for me to understand. They had the vatic impulse but lacked the means.

[Originally published in Lee Bartlett’s American Poetry, 1988, as “On Robert Duncan: An Interview with William Everson.” Bartlett wrote of this: “Robert Duncan died February 3, 1988, following a long illness. A number of writers agreed to write brief essays on the poet for a special issue of American Poetry, including William Everson [a.k.a. Brother Antoninus]. Due to his long trial with Parkinson’s disease, however, Everson was unable to complete his tribute. In its place he agreed to discuss his friend with me at his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains on March 8, 1988.” During his later years in central California, Everson founded Lime Kiln Press, through which he published limited artist's editions of his own work & those of a number of his contemporaries & predecessors.]