Jerome Rothenberg: seeking better understanding of poetry

Jerome Rothenberg: seeking better understanding of poetry

Jerome Rothenberg changed the course of poetics with the opening statement to his landmark “Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries From Africa, America, Asia, Europe & Oceania“: “Primitive means complex.”

The 1968 anthology was the result of his search for a better understanding of poetry. “There was a sense I had that what we knew about poetry was really very limited,” the San Diego poet said by phone. “Poetry exists everywhere, and takes many different forms, and I began – just for my own pleasure and edification – to look into that (while) in the process also of writing poetry, so it was feeding my own work. And it was in conversation with many other poets.

“In the late 1960s I had been looking into all poetry from around the world, particularly in some non-state cultures, what were then being called ‘primitive cultures,’ and found a very rich body – many different bodies of poetry there.”

The book’s opening statement reflected a shift in perspective: “Primitive” had largely been understood to mean simple, or basic.

“I thought I was able to show the complexity of poetry that also intersected with music, with dance, with the uses of visual objects: masks, and face painting,” he said, “and costume – all of that coming together to make a very complex art, wherever I was finding it.”

Others thought so, too. “Technicians of the Sacred” effectively launched ethnopoetics, a field that ties poetry to anthropology by recording oral poetry and narrative performance onto the page in a way that reveals the poetry at its source. In practice, ethnopoetics achieves a better understanding of the fundamental nature of poetry.

Assembling that book transformed Rothenberg’s own poetics, too: He became immersed in performance poetry, embracing multiculturalism by incorporating rituals from other cultures into his writing.

“I began to look at poetry as international in scope,” he said. “There’s a lot of interchange with Europe, with Asia, certainly with Latin America.”

In the preface to “Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader,” which was published in September, he expounds on this: “My pursuit of a kind of transcultural or global poetics: a poetry rooted in its place but capable of crossing borders and languages to become a virtual omnipoetics.”

This pursuit led to nine more anthologies, including the two-volume, 1,700-page “Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Press Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry,” edited with Pierre Joris and published in 1995 and 1998, respectively.

“Eye of Witness” does not just include chronological selections from Rothenberg’s vast oeuvre, which spans more than 50 years and nearly 80 books of poetry, translation and assemblage, but also includes manifestos, statements on poetics and critical juxtapositions of work from different time periods that illuminate recurring aspects of his work, even throughout its varied evolutions.

Assembled in the same spirit in which Rothenberg collected work from other cultures, “Eye of Witness,” which was co-edited by Tijuana poet Heriberto Yépez, represents what Rothenberg calls, in the preface, “a multivocal poetry of witness – the ubiquity of an I-as-speaking-subject that we all share – personal and transpersonal at once.”


Jerome Rothenberg, Heriberto Yépez: 8 p.m. Saturday. Free. The Public School, 2141 Broadway, Oakland.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Aldon Lynn Nielsen