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On Jerome Rothenberg at 80

The experience of collaborating with Jerome Rothenberg, as I did in making Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three, has led me to think of a remark made years ago about studying the life and work of Samuel Johnson: you pick up one particular corner of a carpet to look at it in some detail, and suddenly the entire carpet rolls up in your arms.The corner I want to pick up is Jerry’s Romanticism, but in doing so I find I am gathering up the rest of his globally vast interests in art and culture.We learn about Jerry that a coherent poetics drives his writings and collections revealing some of what is truly at issue in Romanticism, a poetics that spirals through the multiple galleries of the world poetry he presents, including his own.

His Romantic poetics accords with the general definition given by the German Romantic Novalis: “The art of estranging in a given way, making a subject strange, yet familiar and alluring. . . .”And then the definition of poesis which Jerry gives in A Big Jewish Book as “a language process, a “sacred action” by which a human being creates & recreates the circumstances & experiences of a real world, even where such circumstances may be rationalized otherwise as “contrary to fact.”

Poesis, he continues, is “the re-invention of human liberty in the shadow of the total state.”As instances of this he cites (along with the Jewish poetry of his anthology) the Cuna Indian shaman of Panama, William Blake, and Rimbaud.The cultural range of these citations, in other words, indicates that Jerry places Romanticism (here represented by Blake) as one among several world instances of transformational poetics.

In the rest of these remarks I will characterize Jerry’s Romanticism by demonstrating, with four slight poems, what might be called his visionary schema.I begin with two modernist, diasporic Jewish poems, then one from the heart of German Romanticism, and finally one written by Jerry himself.The schema are, as Jerry put it, as “an intimation. . .of an imagined world embedded in the real one.”

Towards the end ofA Big Jewish BookJerry added two little paired Jewish poems by Charles Reznikoff , that while not obviously Romantic, nonetheless indicate his Romantic impulse:


How difficult for me is Hebrew:
even the Hebrew for mother, for bread, for sun
is foreign. How far have I been exiled, Zion.

What are you doing in the street among automobiles,horse?
How are your cousins, the centaur and the unicorn?

In the first poem the speaker measures the intransigence of his exile through his inability to connect with the homeland language, the most basic words of sustenance still being conventional markers of origins and indicating a wistful, somewhat comical, longing to overstep what is a not particularly important resistance.The second poem accepts fully his condition of exile which, however, does not interfere with observation, surprise, and curiosity in the present and which consequently leads playfully and freely to the myth-making domain of the speaker’s, temporarily non-Jewish imagination.

The two little poems, which seem so unrelated are related and in the Romantic sense of a liberatory estrangement, as Novalis and Jerry would have it.The sequence of poems moves from convention or ideology in the first poem to a full-scale realignment, in the second one, of immediate, unpredictable, and motley realities.How scintillating to be able to addressZion and a horse with equivalent intimacy and to assume without batting an eye the familial links of horse to unicorn!

The third poem, that Jerry and I included in PM3, by the German Romantic Friedrich Hölderlin, follows the same two-step pattern of intimating an imagined world embedded in the real one but now in the domain of democratic fervor after the French Revolution.A notebook poem, it isn’t clear whether it is a fragment or broken monument of an old form or a new form congenial to the atmosphere of democratic contingencies (like automobiles and horses):

I must build

and erect new
Temples of Theseus and the stadiums
and where Pericles lived

But there is no money, too much
was spent today. I entertained
a guestand we sat together

The speaker from the beginning is eager to write democracy into poetry, but he starts in a way that Walter Benjamin, in “The Author as Producer,” would find supportive of the very capitalist system he wants to break from, trying to recover, in a traditional mimetic, monumentalist art, the democracy of the glorious and idyllic Greek past perhaps in the spirit of Winckelmann or Lessing.Then, however, the builder is stumped by a funding problem.So the speaker abandons the building project for guest friendship, “art”for “life”—or art as a shared life.The wish to indicate democracy in art, with which the poem began, doesn’t go away, but is transformed into an an energy or enactment of itthat, in Jerry’s words, “leaves scarce / a trace behind.”

Institutions of extermination of life and art, of radical exclusions, are the enemy for Jerome Rothenberg.A creative nihilism that breaks down all agencies of closed, exclusive solutions based on single means is for Jerry Dada.“Romanticism” as an institution had become monochromatic and domesticated.It was Jerry’s vision inPM3 to restore Romantic poetry to its original brightness, to recover its iridescence which is, in terms of gatherings of poems, the principle of inclusivity, of endlessly varied poetic moments from the world’s inspired resources.Along the way to completing PM3, and in its spirit,Jerry, as a version of the trickster poets he admires, wrote “Romantic Dadas,” a detournement that collapses the two-step process of the Hölderlin and Reznikoff poems into one Dionysian transformative rout casting off Romanticism as Urizenic monument and recovering it as primary poetic energy:

A late night party
where Romantic Dadas
cut a rug too iridescent

to resist
our smug caresses.

How will we begin
addressing them,

by name or by a face
that turns away from you

unseen, leaves scarce
a trace behind.

Mister Novalis,
or if that isn’t
your real name,
drop it right now

& try another.

He is too determined,
too far below
his average height

for anyone to count.
Aside from which

there are the odor
of the women
who surround him
so many that the walls begin
to press his skull.
He has to break away

to make an outcry
in the name of Dada.

I and I and I are left
without a place
ulterior to place,
to run or hide.

The trickster-poet Rothenberg conjures up the wunderkind Novalis Frederick von Hardenberg, who, when he sings at a late night party his Romantic outpouring of the year 1800, “Hymn to the Night,” produces instead (we imagine to his gratifying bewilderment) a Dada outcry for the 21st century.And that “I and I and I” singing unconcealed at the end: is it Novalis or Jerry or have they become one?

Presented at Jerome Rothenberg at 80: A Celebration. CUNY Graduate Center, Dec. 9, 2011.