To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
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

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Editing A Book of the Book: A Return to the Book & Writing

[Prepared for a panel on “The Book as Object and Metaphor in the Digital Age,” Modern Language Association meetings, December 29, 2000]

There was a time in the increasingly distant past when I found it necessary to place great stress on & to investigate the possibilities of a poetry without [outside of] writing. At a time when Dennis Tedlock & I & others were launching a specific ethnopoetics, we saw our work involved, before all else, with bringing to light & defending those deeply imbedded oral traditions that accounted for the greater part of people’s attempts to shape language as a vehicle for gnosis & transformation. And right from the start – how could it be otherwise? – I found myself caught in an assumed dichotomy between speaking & writing.

There is no doubt that we had presented a critique of writing as such – at least of what we saw as a kind of authoritarian literalism for which writing was the necessary instrument. The easy assumption by those who didn’t want to hear from us (and by many of those who did) was that we were divorcing ourselves from writing or from literacy, the victims, so to speak, of our own either/or mentalities. In the face of this, as I pointed out to William Spanos in an interview (circa 1975), I recognized myself even then as a writer & as a maker & creator of books – saw writing & books as the principal vehicles in my life as a poet.

[Quote] I don’t think that writing is the ultimate cause of our troubles, but that writing itself comes about [initially] in response to a more fundamental change in human organization: a need to institutionalize laws, to control change & the uncertain acts of the individual, in the name of a tribe, of a class, of a nation, of a god, whatever. ... I have never thought of “oral” ... as my personal shibboleth, & I probably use it much less than you suppose. Because I happen to write – as do the other “oral poets” you mention elsewhere -- & I’m not going to undo that [now].

That, however, was not the point that needed to be made at the time, and I dedicated myself for a number of years to the restoration of voice and presence as matters of comparable value to our practice.

I have gone over this a number of times in the past and I’ll return to it later when I read from the pre-face to A Book of the Book. But to move it forward now, let me point out that the title of this talk – the subtitle at least – is meant as a gesture toward Edmond Jabès, another of the poets (and a very great one) who was willing to enter with us into the ethnopoetic discourse. In 1975 I had managed, with the crucial involvement of Michel Benamou, to organize an international symposium on ethnopoetics at The Center for 20th-Century Studies in Milwaukee. The first of two such symposia, it focused on a number of contemporary concerns, but with the greatest intensity perhaps on the possibilities of oral poetry and (as a counter to that) on the problematics of writing. (“Otherness” and “identity” were likely the other two major questions.) By the time of the second symposium – 1983 at the University of Southern California’s Center for the Humanities – it was my desire & decision to open the range of the discourse to consider an ethnopoetics of writing. Put in terms of the larger project, “the intention of the conference,” I wrote, “was to take the discussion of ethnopoetics beyond its earlier, restricted definitions.” And later, in my introduction to the conference: “An expanded ethnopoetics would include an ethnopoetics of writing / of the book.”

With this in mind I turned to Jabès as one of the anchors of the conference. For it was in Jabès, as in no other poet since Mallarmé, that the Book, the repository of the written text, became the key term [along with the word “jew” he tells us], the unifying metaphor of both his poetry and his poetics, referred to often, binding all. Yet Jabès was also a poet of the voice – in the tradition from which he and I both sprang, however separated from it we thought ourselves to be. This was the concept of both a written and an oral torah [a written and an oral way] that led back to a common source in mind or spirit – to that which makes us “human,” and in the view of some, “divine.”

In turning to Jabès, who had been a friend since the late 1960s [early 1970s?], I had in mind – in a very personal way – the title of one section of his Book of Questions – “Le retour au livre” [The Return to the Book]. For the 1983 symposium, he gave his talk the title: “From the Book of Books to the Books of the Book.” What he spoke of there rhymed perfectly with the major thrusts of the gathering – a question of the relation between the spoken word & writing; of memory tied to language, music, sound, noise, silence; of whether we are the product of one culture or of several; of the way in which a written text is a victory of the anonymous [or not] – all pertinent to the poetics we were then constructing [the questions we were then discussing].

The book – for Edmond as for Mallarmé before him – is the book writ large, for which the book-in-hand is a valid but fleeting instance. (A kind of platonic Book [capital B] and book [lower case].) It is also something else that he spoke of – the “mythical book, the Book of books ... inside every writer ... [and] which he vainly tries to approach in each of his works.” This Book of the Mind, which is also “the book of the universe ... which we try to copy ... [and which] cannot be a ‘closed’ book,” brought me back to the image of the “great book,” “the Book of Language” envisioned by the Mazatec shamaness María Sabina. In a well-known account of her initatory experience, she describes her encounter with the Principal Ones, the tutelary beings of traditional Mazatec culture:

On the Principal Ones’ table a book appeared, an open book that went on growing until it was the size of a person. In its pages there were letters. It was a white book, so white it was resplendent.

One of the Principal Ones spoke to me and said: “María Sabina, this is the Book of Wisdom. It is the Book of Language. Everything that is written in it is for you. The Book is yours, take it so that you can work.” I exclaimed with emotion: “That is for me. I receive it.”

In 1982, the year before the second Ethnopoetics symposium, I assembled (in collaboration with the poet and folklorist David Guss) a first collection of works about the book & writing. Presenting it initially as an issue of my magazine, New Wilderness Letter, and later in a reprint by Steven Clay and Granary Books, I took the cover-all title from Mallarmé’s essay, The Book, Spiritual Instrument. As Mallarmé – in my mind at least – was one pivot for the work, María Sabina, though not included, was the other. In other words, what I was aiming for was a reconciliation of a modernist (experimental) poetics with my sense of a necessary ethnopoetics to which it related. As stated in my Editor’s Note:

In an age of cybernetic breakthroughs, the experimental tradition of twentieth-century poetry & art has expanded our sense of language in all its forms, including the written. While doing this, it should also have sensitized us to the existence of a range of written traditions in those cultures we have named “non”- or “pre”-literate – extending the meaning of literacy beyond a system of (phonetic) letters to the practice of writing itself. But to grasp the actual possibilities of writing (as with any other form of language or of culture), it is necessary to know it in all its manifestations – new & old. It is our growing belief (more apparent now than at the start of the ethnopoetics project) that the cultural dichotomies between writing & speech – the “written” & the “oral” – disappear the closer we get to the source. To say again what seems so hard to get across: there is a primal book as there is a primal voice, & it is the task of our poetry & art to recover it – in our minds as in the world at large.

Writing and the Book, then, from a perspective that hopes to bring together the experimental and the ethnopoetic – and with much left out in between. All of this was something on which I continued to ruminate, until (it now seems to me) the idea of writing and the book had struck a balance in my mind with voice and presence. And beyond The Book [as] Spiritual Instrument, there was an ongoing regard for the book as a material object and – as Steve McCaffery and bp Nichol have it in a well-known essay – the book as a machine, whose fine technology has still not been truly superceded by its vaunted virtual replacements.

With A Book of the Book, Steven Clay gave me the opportunity to go over those concerns and to extend the work of the earlier collections to a wider range of experimental and ethnopoetic examples. Between the two of us we set out to construct an assemblage of writings (and imagings) that would map (very partially) some 200 years of changes in the way that books are made and thought of – what the idea-of-the-book might mean across that stretch of time down to the present. It was in line with my own earlier work – and that of many others – that we attempted to bring the very distant and the very present into the same field. And we wanted at the same time to expose the material bases (ink & paper, manufacture & dissemination) of those ends to which the work of Mallarmé and others had led us.

A book for me is a big or little structure (a big structure in this instance) made of words. (William Carlos Williams, in the statement that I’m here distorting, uses the word “machine” rather than “structure” – a word echoed by McCaffery and Nichol in the essay that I mentioned before; but Williams of course is defining a poem rather than a book.) In line with this, as our book-of-the-book, we paid particular attention to how the book was divided, how the individual works were arranged and related (both within and between sections), and even how the individual sections were titled. The physical appearance of the book – no small matter in an undertaking of this sort – was largely the work of Steven Clay and his designer-printer Philip Gallo. This also involved a wide range of illustrations, including a color foldout of La prose du transsibérien, the pioneering artist’s book by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay, and a facsimile of a complete visual book (O!) by Jess [Collins] that I had published many years before under my own Hawk’s Well Press imprint.


To conclude, then, is to say that here as elsewhere there is no conclusion. “Of the making of books there is no end,” as the old scriptural saw once put it (while reifying a single book as the unalterable word-of-god), and Mallarmé in his modernist détournement: “Everything in the world exists in order to be turned into a book.” It is my sense – at least in our common work as poets – that the movement, the dialectic (to use a once fashionable word) is between book and voice, between the poets (present) in their speaking & the poets (absent) in their writing. That is to say, we are (up to & past our limits) full & sentient beings, & free, as Rimbaud once told us, to possess truth in one soul & one body. For myself [as for many others here present] the return to the book is the step now needed to make the work complete.

Jerome Rothenberg
Paris/London 1997
Encinitas 1999

Both The Book, Spiritual Instrument and A Book of the Book continue to be available through Granary Books.