ETHNOPOETICS AT THE MILLENNIUM
A Talk for the Modern Language Association, December 29, 1994
A quarter of a century has gone by, & where we felt ourselves then to be still tightly if dangerously within the twentieth century & (thereby) the old millennium, we are now rushing into new, uncharted, sometimes heady, often terrifying waters of the century & the millennium to come.
It is curious, to watch your own life run out along with the time, the century that made you. For by 2001 I will be at my allotted biblical age - the time-to-die as specified in Ecclesiastes - unless (soul clap its hands & sing!) reprieve is given for another decade, maybe two at utmost. But millennium is magic time, we like to think, & anything can happen.
I would like to talk to you & to end the talk by reading/performing some poems (none of them my own & some of them very far from modern) that seem (as poems sometimes do) (the traditional ones at least) to defy time & to promise their transition (if not - again - our own) from this century into the next. They came to light for us in the twentieth century - at the heart of modernism, which welcomed them as a part of itself while knowing that they were truly, inescapably from elsewhere. This was in fact the dynamic of ethnopoetics, as some of us came to speak of it during the second great wave of experimental twentieth-century modernism from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s.
For me such an ethnopoetics - which looks away from the modern ∓ experimental, to focus on ancient & autochthonous cultures (often under threat of mass extinction or long since blown away) - is the product (as study & praxis) of our most dedicated & outrageous modernism, even surviving (under fire) into that postmodernism taken as the older movement's early & forever problematic offspring. Early, I say, remembering that it was Tristan Tzara - founder of Dada as a high point [culmination] of that first wave of experimental modernism that Marjorie Perloff called the futurist moment - who in his Weimar manifesto-lecture of 1922 declared: You are mistaken if you take Dada for a modern school, or as a reaction against the schools of today. ... Dada is not at all modern. It is more in the nature of an almost Buddhist religion of indifference. (Armand Schwerner would know far more about the Buddhism than I would - or than Tzara for that matter. For Tzara, who compiled an early - if unpublished - anthology of tribal/oral poetry from Africa ∓ Oceania, [for Tzara] the common roots of poetry & spirit/mind [in French the single word esprit covers both English words] were clearly in cultures that Europeans then saw as farthest from their own. More importantly, the reference to religion positioned what he & the other Dadaists were doing [as] outside the domain of literature as such - a matter here of germinal importance!) But it wasn't only Tzara who put the newness of his own modern -ism into doubt. Gertrude Stein, whom I've also quoted before, said of what she & her modernist companions were about: As it is old it is new, and as it is new it is old ... & she added - by way of clarification &/or complication: But now we have come to be in our own way which is a completely different way.
The point here can go off in a number of different directions.
If the experimental modernists (in whatever art) were calling the bounded categories of earlier European art & poetry into question (∓ they were), it was with the intention of opening possibilities (social ∓ spiritual as well as aesthetic) that those boundaries had obscured or long repressed. Their own creations - in search of the new & unexpected (therefore marvelous) - came foremost. But as technology (transportation, communications, media, etc.) & the attendant global imperialisms opened new/old worlds to view & interchange (and plunder), a revelation to the artist who was then seeking revelation was that the definitions of the imperializing culture were - like its accomplishments - only partial. The suspicion came to be that certain forms of poetry, like certain forms of artmaking, permeated traditional societies ∓ that these largely religious forms not only resembled but had long since achieved what the new experimental poets & artists were then first setting out to do. Those forms once known - & this came to be understood more slowly for language-dependent arts like poetry - forced a reconsideration of what the work (of art, of poetry, of language, of performance) could be or had been in the course of human (truly human) time. Said Picasso, as if to put his turning toward the primitive into other than a merely formal context: The [African] masks weren't just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things. ... [They] were intercesseurs, mediators. ... They were against everything - against unknown, threatening spirits. ... They were weapons. To help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent. [The masks] are tools. If we give spirits a form, we become independent. ... [At that point, he concludes,] I understood why I was a painter.
It remained for my generation of poets - in league with many many others - to show the extent to which this might be true ... & only then to question it. My own entry into all of this was conditioned - clearly so - by generations of predecessors, most of whom I did not know at the outset, some of them poets but others anthropologists, philosophers, biologists, religious thinkers, activist-defenders of a thousand old & new ways. The time of the awakening - in & after World War II - brought a convergence of the need for poetry as a truth-bearing (deconstructing) language (against what Hugo Ball had earlier called the filth that clings to language [as it came down to us]) & the need (also brought home by that second [anti-fascist] war) to do away with racism & a culture of ethnic rankings, while preserving the values embedded in historic ethnicities ∓ cultures. The decade that followed also saw a revival of the concern that we later came to call ecological, with an environment - local ∓ global - under increasing developmental pressure, & the view - emerging from that concern - that just those cultures that were repositories of the old poetries were the models thereby for a more sane relation to the natural world & its other-than-human as well as its human inhabitants. Gradually this would open up to a concern & need for what sacred language in traditional bioregional cultures (I here use Gary Snyder's terminology) could still show us and (lest we forget) to a responsibility toward such of them as remain our contemporaries in their sometimes precarious struggle for survival.
Speaking for - & of - myself, then, I wandered through the 1950s, then the 1960s, looking for that kind of poetry (or language), eager not only to construct or make it but to discover where it might have been before, where it might still exist among us. Somewhere along the way Armand Schwerner became my compadre - one of my compadres - wherever his own search was then taking him. We met in 1957 or 1958, and he was one of those, later, with whom I was in constant conversation at the time I was assembling the works I would bring together in Technicians of the Sacred. (His own astonishing Tablets were already underway in 1968, when Technicians was first published, & I included the second of them in the accompanying commentaries.) Once into that process it became clear to me that we would never know what poetry was really about, what it might still be for us, until we broke down the boundaries & allowed ourselves to see & to refine upon what had already been brought out into the open.
It was after Technicians that I came to know both Dennis Tedlock and Simon Ortiz. I had already introduced the term ethnopoetics in the second issue of George Quasha's magazine Stony Brook and had met the anthropologist & poet Stanley Diamond & the ethnomusicologist David McAllister, who would soon lead me into the most experimental translations of oral poetry I would ever be involved in. Through Diamond, Diane Rothenberg and I had been brought into the sphere of the Seneca Indians in western New York State, where I began a series of collaborative translations with Seneca songmen Richard Johnny John and Avery Jimerson. I also began to realize here that the dissemination - in any form - of [specifically American Indian] religious or sacred art - unlike other cultural areas with which I was then familiar - was subject to great misgivings ∓ prohibitions in the eyes of many. (But more about that later.)
It was while preparing my second ethnopoetic gathering, Shaking the Pumpkin, that I received a packet from Dennis Tedlock including his translation - I would later call it his total translation - of a Zuni Indian [oral] narrative called The Boy & the Deer. What it had to say about the nature of talking & story-telling as those related to poetry (I mean our poetry as well as theirs) was one of the most electrifying experiences in my life as a poet. It also led quickly to our founding of Alcheringa as an ongoing venue (we hoped) for a new ethnopoetics: a convergence of poets ∓ scholars toward a re-imagining of poetry based on its actual development and presence in the life of many different peoples & cultures. (We were also concerned, for various reasons, with the poetries of what we were then calling fourth world peoples - those, in an increasingly postcolonial world, who were still among the [colonially] dispossessed.)
At that time too I had begun to meet a number of new American Indian poets - foremost among them Simon Ortiz of Acoma, who gave me the clearest indication of how a traditional poetry & way of life could be meaningfully brought into the present by someone speaking, knowingly & honestly, from within his culture. But it became clear too - not from Ortiz (who was then with us on the Alcheringa masthead) but from sufficient others - that there was a strong resistance from within those cultures to any such searches / investigations / speculations from without. It was this that (for some of us at least) finally deflected the process we had set in motion - not so much to the satisfaction of the cultural insiders as to that of those outsiders who saw what we were doing as an unwanted threat to western hegemonies and canons. (All this was in large part prior to the 1980s/90s discussions of multiculturalism & western-oriented cultural literacy, & so on, & dealt [I suppose] with what would generally be perceived as smaller stakes for the nation as a whole.)
For me the basic tenets of the ethnopoetics set forth in Alcheringa have never lessened. I believe still - after all the holocausts our time has witnessed - that poetry (∓ I mean by that a radical poetry of displacements & inventions) - is for us the necessary language or counter-language for the lack of which, William Carlos Williams told us many years ago, men were everyday dying. Therefore a poetics is for me what a personal (as distinguished from an imposed) theology might be for a person with a serious belief in God or a metaphysics for another kind of searcher after what is real or true (or both - or neither). But I swear - on my faith as a poet - that a poetics without a concurrent ethnopoetics is stunted, partial, therefore faulty in a time like ours that can only save itself by learning to confront its multiple identities and definitions - its contradictions, therefore, & its problematics.
That, anyway, remains the central tenet for myself as a poet moving with some hope into a new time. And yet, as that time unfolds, we see again the dark side of that strange force I used to speak about as ethnos - the side that shows up (in Bosnia, Rwanda, elsewhere) in a terrible conjunction with the nation-state, erupting into ethnic violence ∓ hatred. I would therefore be wary - & hope you will be too - of the politics of ethnic exclusivity, to insure thereby that our ethnopoetics will not stop with a useful but centrifugal multiculturalism but will push (again) toward an intercultural (centripetal) future.
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All of which has, I'm afraid, been said too quickly - more as an outline of what I meant to say than as a rounded or developed exploration. In my own case - to get back to that - a sense of our ethnopoetics has (I believe) conditioned my work - my poetry & other gatherings - up to the present. The most recent of my larger projects has been (in collaboration with Pierre Joris) a two-volume global anthology of the twentieth-century avant-garde, called (variously) Poems for the Millennium and The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry. In the first of the two volumes (From Fin-de-Sicle to Negritude), which will be appearing by mid-1995, something like our ethnopoetics (but with old ∓ new juxtaposed, set beside each other) is carried forward as a separate section called A Book of Origins. In closing, then, I would like to read the prologue to that section & some very abridged versions of the entries (largely European and Euro-American) that conclude it.
Jerome Rothenberg, Encinitas, California