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

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Poems for the Millennium: The Anthology As Manifesto, Art As Collaboration

[Talk prepared for the Modern Language Association, December 1995, combined with interview by Michael Rodriguez published in Samizdat 2002 and reprinted in part on Poems and Poetics. Presented in this form at Naropa University, Summer 2003. The final comments -- on "outsider poetry" bring it up to the present.]

I would like to go back over my own relationship to anthologies & to contrast it to a general discomfort I have with anthologies as such, before entering into a discussion (however it falls out) of this anthology & of “the anthology as manifesto” or, as I had it in an earlier version, "the anthology as an instrument of change." In 1979 I had done five anthologies, the most recent of which (A Big Jewish Book) had been published by Doubleday the year before. It was with relation to this that Charles Bernstein, who was then editing the important (poets-centered) journal of poetics, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, asked me to write a piece on my own work &/or "on anthologies." I began it with a quote from Gertrude Stein about the new & the old, since the anthologies I had then made were a conjunction of modernist poems with ancient or culturally distant works of near-poetry that I wanted (in Robert Duncan's words) to "bring into their comparisons." What Stein wrote (words that I've quoted a number of times since, as I have a way of doing with quotations) was: "As it is old it is new and as it is new it is old, but now we have come to be in our own way which is a completely different way."

With that as epigraph, I went on to recollect (from early childhood) an affinity I had for copying or collecting poems that I wanted to compare — not really that, to see them as they sat beside each other. Let me read three short paragraphs of opening & then take off from there:

[Reads from "On Anthologies" in PRE-FACES.]

There are, then, two kinds of anthologies (a point that seems to me self evident): those that deceive me/us by a false sense of closure & authority (of the this-is-all-you-have-to-know kind) & those that I had hoped to do with regard to the past or those rare & useful ones that opened up the present (perhaps both being instances of the same). The canonical ones we all know as the great conservatizing force in our literature(s), against which — as artists of an avant-garde — many of us have had to struggle. As gatherings of acceptable/accepted poets their conservatizing thrust is evident; as gatherings of contemporary poets the thrust is to rein in or exclude those moves that challenge too overtly the boundaries of form & meaning or that call into question the boundaries (genre boundaries) of poetry itself.

The other possibility of anthologies is to use the form as a kind of manifesto-assemblage: to present, bring to light, or create works that have been excluded or that collectively present a challenge to the dominant system-makers or to the world at large. In my time – or in my early time – the great American work of this kind was Donald Allen's (1960) New American Poetry (replete with its appended section of poetic statements/manifestos), but also LaMonte Young & Jackson Mac Low's An Anthology (as a manifesto of the 1950s/60s Fluxus movement) or Emmett Williams' Concrete Poetry as a first summary & presentation of the movement of that name. Still earlier works were Pound's Imagiste gathering & later Active Anthology or (better yet) Louis Zukofsky's "Objectivists" anthology of the early 1930s (a prime example, that, of the construction of a movement through a book — & little else by way of publication).

From these I sensed the possibility of the anthology as (1) a manifesto; (2) a way of laying out an active poetics — by example & by commentary; & (3) as a grand assemblage: a kind of art form in its own right. My first anthology, Technicians of the Sacred, grew from premises (theory) within experimental modernism, rather than from critical authority situated outside it — what Tristan Tzara implies in his (1918) postmodern divergence, that “Dada is ... not a modern school ... [nor] a reaction against the schools of today ... [but] more in the nature of an almost Buddhist religion of indifference.” Beginning in that general area I was able to explore an open-ended range of deep cultures, of culturally embedded poetries & related language works, many of them subsumed as poetry by resemblance to contemporary work & in that comparison also opening the range & giving a new depth to the experimentally modern. So too I used the back of the book to include a section of commentaries that not only gave some ethnographic context to the traditional pieces but allowed the entry & comparison (for better or worse) of a number of more contemporary works (an early revival of Gertrude Stein & a mix of new & old voices, of the modern & the postmodern:: Breton, Wakoski, Tzara, Snyder, Waldman, Ginsberg, Finlay, Ortiz, Weiner). This was of course the hidden (secret) heart of the collection, what made it (I hope) not a book of antiquities or orientalisms or primitivisms, but a manifesto for our time: each commentary a pointed statement of a way of poetry long overlooked.

All of the anthologies I’ve assembled since then — by myself or with others — have shared in this; or, to use a key word of the 1960s European Situationists, who helped so much in the development of a strikingly “appropriative” postmodernism, they have been a detournement (a turning or a twist) on the structures & presumptions of those fixed anthologies that continue (like the darkness) to surround us. After claiming it as a right, I have somehow gotten leverage to continue & expand this work & (with Pierre Joris as a powerful co-worker) to construct an assemblage of the twentieth-century that would bring together (on a global scale) works entirely of this time that had been too often kept beyond the pale or, if present, had been kept from those comparisons, those co-existences that were so real to our generation of poets throughout the world.

This later work with Pierre Joris is, as I see it, a culmination for me of what came before & an indication of how fruitful collaboration can be in the kind of world we share. For all of that I’m a little hard pressed to remember the steps by which we came to work together. I had known Pierre since the late 1960s, when he was a student at Bard College & was living in New York City for a year or two after graduation. After he moved back to Europe we saw each other on & off in London & Paris, & in 1986, when I started a brief tenure at SUNY-Binghamton, we got the bright idea of bringing him over as a graduate student. I had already floated a proposal for a big twentieth-century book but was very uncertain about it as a one-man proposition. Once into conversation with Pierre, however, it became clear that we were both close enough & different enough to consider this as, simultaneously, a singular & dual venture. The key in fact was in the interplay that it allowed us – the possibility, as with other collaborations, of opening it up beyond what either of us was capable of doing on his own. And right from the start – & over the years that followed – the work proceeded, minus all acrimony, as a process that energized us in the work at hand & in our other workings.

Of the things we had common the two most obvious were that both of us had made anthologies before & that both of us were devoted to the idea of the anthology as a kind of manifesto. We were also, both of us, devoted to the idea of poetry – the kind of poetry we needed – as a radical enterprise that cut across nations & cultures, & we both felt the absence of a gathering reflecting the history of modern (& “post”modern) poetry as we knew it.

Pierre’s background & intentions, then, were in most ways very similar to my own. At the very least we felt a kinship as poets that made the work of collaboration a consistently meaningful process & reinforced a sense that our dual input strengthened our ability to create an image of poetic worlds more diverse (& therefore “truer”) than what either of us might have done in isolation. We could also call on a significant number of others to add to that diversity & to the necessary sense of creating a big work in common. In doing this we were aware that the immediate model for what we were doing was the otherwise debased form of the university anthology. We willingly accepted the subtitle “The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry” as a kind of riposte to Oxford- and Harvard-sponsored compendia (among others) that perpetuated a tediously canonical poetry & poetics of which we (a larger “we” than just the two of us) no longer chose to be a part. We supplied commentaries – sometimes as mini-manifestos – in much the way I had done in the earlier assemblages (themselves a send-up on academic practices), & we enlisted a distinguished board of “advisors” that spoke to our overriding sense of kinships & alliances. We were careful in doing so that such a board would be dominated by poets rather than academics & would be international in scope.

The structure of the book was otherwise of our own devising & different in kind & intention from more conventional assemblages. We chose in the first volume to highlight a number of the movements that characterized the early twentieth-century & had been ignored or diminished in most academic gatherings. Accordingly we gave a separate section of the book to each of six of them – Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Negritude, & the American “Objectivist” poets. The rest of the poets were grouped in three large “galleries” following a rather loose chronological sequence, & we opened the book with a section of nineteenth-century “forerunners” & ended with a section (“A Book of Origins”) that gave a glimpse into historical & ethnopoetic recoveries across the whole preceding century. In the second volume we limited ourselves to two galleries and incorporated a number of movements or quasi-movements as “corridors” within the galleries – many of them still more local or regional than those in the previous volume. And – as a kind of musical or compositional gesture – we began with a section that was pure prelude (“In the Dark”) & closed with a short coda-like section (“At the Turning”) in which we joined two of our own poems with Robert Duncan’s final, altenstil poem, “After a Long Illness.”

In all of this we were trying to present a range of realized possibilities while hoping that the work wouldn’t be read canonically in terms only of its inclusions & exclusions. To avoid that, I suppose, we also put what was probably a greater than needed emphasis on the personal nature of what we were doing – in Charles Olson’s words, our “special view of history.” Going still further, I would describe the book as a construct or even, if it comes to it, a fiction – but the kind of fiction (“supreme” or otherwise) that all such works must surely be.

With that said,. however, Poems for the Millennium remains for me a meaningful if not necessarily “true” accounting of an adventure in poetry in which we ourselves were small but for the moment active, and in our minds coequal, players.

A FINAL NOTE. After the first two volumes of Poems for the Millennium, I didn’t entirely abandon anthologies, but worked with Steve Clay as co-editor and publisher on A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections About the Book & Writing. Here, through Clay’s generosity as a publisher, we accomplished the work without recourse to larger publishers or institutions – indeed without financial backing from any outside source. I don’t know if a book like that will ever pay its way or reach the audience that we would like to reach, but it is, like all the books I’ve mentioned, a project that we thought was needed – for both ourselves & others. The desire to fill such gaps or absences has been the driving force – in one way or another – for all the poets & the artists to whom I’ve felt the closest.

In addition to this, of course, I had a more recent chance to work with Jeffrey Robinson on the third volume of Poems for the Millennium (2009), about which much is presently available on Poems and Poetics. Here the movement was aggressively backwards: a work conceived as a gathering of romantic and postromantic (nineteenth-century) poetry with germinal links to the modernist and postmodernist present. There have been suggestions since then that I continue on a retrospective path, moving backwards from century to century and period to period. I would rather leave that to others with a more academic inclination than my own and have instead been exploring the possibilities of an anthology of outsider poetry, a concept in its different forms that might provide a link to, and a reassessment of, those earlier ethnopoetic gatherings that first got me going. The idea that poetry, a necessary human activity, exists outside of literature as such, even and perhaps most meaningfully outside the boundaries of public or published discourse, is the final step needed to make my witnessing complete. (J.R., 2003, 2010)

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