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

Friday, June 5, 2009

Poetry In The 1950s As A Global Awakening: A Recollection & Reconstruction, Part One: My Life in America

Paper delivered at "American Poetry in the 1950s": University of Maine, Orono June 1996

MY FIRST PUBLISHED BOOK came in 1959 - on the cusp between the 1950s and the 1960s - & took me (almost by surprise) into the center of what had by then emerged as the New American Poetry (a year before its being named that in the great Don Allen anthology of 1960). That book of mine was called New Young German Poets and was a work of translation; the publisher was City Lights (thru Lawrence Ferlinghetti) and the imprint was as number 11 in the Pocket Poets Series, of which Ferlinghetti's Pictures of the Gone World was number one & Allen Ginsberg's Howl & Other Poems was number four. (That Kenneth Rexroth's Thirty Spanish Poems of Love & Exile was number two and Ferlinghetti's translation of Jacques Prévert's Paroles was number nine should also be remembered toward the narrative that follows.)

That decade for me - for most of us, I imagine - had started out differently. In 1950 I was still a student, with David Antin & others, in New York's City College, and it was from there that I watched the war return to us in Korea, & with it the early repressions of the Cold War in its McCarthyite manifestations. I had declared myself a poet a few years before that - a kid's reaction or assertion of some degree of otherness against the years of war (world war) & holocaust that accompanied the early childhood. What I found most thrilling – most needed – at the start was the work / the language of those poets who could lead me into acts of othering. Stein came early in that sense - as did Joyce & Cummings; or on another level, Dalí (in his writings too) and the rumored Dadaists, whose works we wouldn't read for another year or two but who we heard had written poems that did away with words. Williams and Pound came about the same time & carried Whitman in their wake. And we also read The Waste Land. What college did - but not to me alone - was to inculcate the sense that most of that was dead. That was the going wisdom then, & largely in the name of Eliot, whom Williams called - & rightly in that sense - "the great disaster to our letters." The result - postmodern, after modern in the worst sense - was to throw us into a condition of what [my first poetry teacher] Delmore Schwartz then called "picking up again the meters" and continuing "the revolution in poetic taste which was inspired by the criticism of T.S. Eliot," or elsewhere: "the poetic idiom and literary taste of the generation of Pound and Eliot." As an example of that "revolution" he cited the following from W.D. Snodgrass:

The green catalpa tree has turned
All white; the cherrry blooms once more.
In one whole year I haven't learned
A blessed thing they pay you for

- at which David Antin looked back (circa 1972) and commented: "The comparison of this updated version of A Shropshire Lad ... and the poetry of the Cantos and The Waste Land seems so aberrant as to verge on the pathological."

It was this, then, or something roughly equivalent to this that was being hammered home to us in our late teens & early twenties, & it followed me in 1952 when I went to the University of Michigan for a year of graduate study & draft evasion, most notably in the intelligent "new criticism" of Austin Warren & others that nearly spun my head around. I found myself there - curiously - as a lone defender of Walt Whitman, watching as Warren tried and failed to cope with both Whitman's monumental verse lines & his equally monumental stance-toward-reality. Against which the principal relief - along with Pound & Williams and a few of the other American rejects we still knew (Stein & Cummings certainly) – came through the works (translated or not) of a number of European poets and near- avantgardists: Rimbaud, Lorca, Mayakovsky, Rilke, Apollinaire [& so on] early in the decade, others (along with other American forerunners) as the decade swung around. It was at Michigan too that I came to my own discovery of Blake and Christopher Smart (I wrote my master's thesis on Smart's rhyming "hymns" while loving most his Jubilate Agno), & it was there that I discovered - in library stacks divorced from literature or poetry - the poetries of Africa & the Indian Americas that would reemerge for me well into the 1960s.

What I was unaware of - what we were unaware of where I roamed - was the widespread unrest within our generation & the ways in which the turnaround was getting under way - both in the States & elsewhere. My own way then went through two years in the army - most of it spent in (dreaded) Germany - & a return to New York & a company of friends (Antin, Kelly, Schwerner, others by the later 1950s), with whom it was possible to shape a mutual deliverance. The breakthrough, when it came, was a return at first to the ideas of poetry that the early years had nearly driven out of us. For me this had the sense of a renaissance, the rebirth or reawakening of a radical modernism that was not only rooted in the U.S. (out of Whitman) but had gone still further elsewhere - into shapes & forms (of mind as well as measure) that were the starters for a work that we would carry forward.

What finally brought me over the edge - along with the sense of an ever increasing company of poets & others in a circle-of- companions - was the work on New Young German Poets. (I had also, with Robert Kelly chiefly, coined the term & elaborated the practice of "deep image," a term that would later be associated with the considerably different practice of Robert Bly, another companion from that time.) The offer from Ferlinghetti to look into the "new" postwar German poets followed on what was in fact my first publication: a set of rhymed translations from the 1920s poet and novelist (cabaret poet, as I made him out to be) Erich Kästner, one of which (for the record) ran like this:



For those who weren't born, it's all the same.
They perch upon some tree in Space and smile.
Myself, I never thought of it, I came,
A nine-months child.

I spent the best part of my life in school,
Cramming my brain till I forgot each word.
I grew into a highly polished, model fool.
How did it happen? I really never heard.

The war came next (it cut off our vacation).
I trotted with the field artillery now.
We bled the world to ease its circulation.
I kept on living. Please don't ask me how.

Inflation then, and Leipzig, and a whirl
Of Kant and Gothic and Bureaucracy,
Of art and politics and pretty girls,
And Sundays it was raining steadily.

At present I am roughly 31
And run a little poem factory.
Alas, the greying of my hair's begun.
My friends are growing fat remorselessly.

I plop between two chairs, if that's appealing,
Or else I saw the bough on which we sit.
I wander down the garden-walks of feeling
(When feelings die) and plant them with my wit.

I drag my bags around despite the pain.
The bags expand. My shoulders grow unsure.
In retrospect, permit me to explain:
That I was born. And came. And still endure.

The work was printed under my full name - Jerome Dennis Rothenberg - in the winter 1957 issue of The Hudson Review (!) & brought a letter shortly thereafter from Ferlinghetti, asking if I wanted to take a crack at a German postwar project, about which he (like me!) knew very little. The search that followed coincided with the reclaiming of my own work & life after the actual working on the Kästner poems in 1955 and '56.

New Young German Poets allowed me to be the first to publish a number of poems by Paul Celan in English versions, as well as the (probably) first English translations of poets like Günter Grass, Helmut Heissenbüttel, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. (I also translated but didn't include two poems by Rainer Maria Gerhardt, the young poet to whom Olson dedicated - as "funeral poem" - "The Death of Europe.") In the act of translating I came to discover the existence of writings - of modes of poetry - that opened possibilities that were both like and different from the new poetry & poetics emerging in the U.S. (That every move I made added to my own resources as a writer was - how could it not be? - the still greater bonus.) Of the poets I then translated, Celan (early Celan, let me point out) was the most overwhelming, with the more "experimental" Heissenbuttel (for me, then) almost as important for the sense he gave me of new ways of form and language. Here, because I can't resist, are two examples:

[reads "Shibboleth" (Celan) and "Combination II" (Heissenbuttel)]

With the postwar German poets as my particular way in, the 1950s (as I came to them) were otherwise a time in which I got to know (& reassess by knowing) the work of both the earlier experimental modernists & those who were, like those I knew at home, opening (to use a World War II expression) a second front for modernism. Robert Motherwell's Dada Painters & Poets, which had been there since 1951, was in its way as important for me - for us - as the Allen anthology might be a few years later. So too was the pervasive presence - in New York surely – of already visible and active avant-gardes in painting and music (both jazz and "new"), which created a viable alternative before the Beats & others made it still clearer in their acts of poetry. It was with this as a backdrop that Don Allen, when he came to make his statement for the "new American poetry" of the 1950s, placed it side by side as a revitalized form of modernism with "abstract expressionism" and jazz In doing this he made what was a wonderful & far-reaching assertion of a new American hegemony in the arts, saying of it on its poetry side: "This anthology makes the ... claim [that] the new American poetry [is] now becoming the dominant movement in the second phase of our twentieth-century literature and already exerting strong influence abroad." (That it was the Beat poets who were the leading wedge in this - rather than some others we might more have favored - is a point worth noting.)

My own take on these matters was different then & came to be still more different over the intervening years. While recognizing & participating in what was a crucial American moment, I saw what was happening in American poetry as part of a larger global manifestation, some of it (as I came to know later) occuring before or certainly apart from the American influence as such. It was for these reasons (& from an over-emphasis of my role as a translator) that Donald Allen, in what may have been our only correspondence at the time, pinpointed me as a proponent of what he called, if I remember it correctly, the international style of poetry. In this, but in a way far different from how that term has since been used, I would like to think that he was absolutely right.

[The second part of this presentation -- as a kind of bird's eye view of volume 2 of Poems for the Millennium will appear a few postings from now.]

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