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Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry Volume One: From Fin-de-Siècle to Negritude Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium

Edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris
University of California, each $65, $24.95 (paper)


by John Palattella

It's not for nothing that Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris open their mammoth anthology of twentieth-century world poetry with some messianic lines from William Blake's Milton: Book the Second: "Obey thou the Words of the Inspired Man / All that can be annihilated must be annihilated / That the Children of Jerusalem may be saved from slavery." Rothenberg and Joris have gathered selections from the work of 360 poets, aiming to rekindle faith in the belief that the poetic avant-garde can annihilate bourgeois taste and conservative politics. "There have been persistent thrusts to raise demotic, colloquial, common speech as the language of a new poetry and culture" throughout this century, explain the editors in their introduction, after invoking the example of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, and the Situationists. "Taking many different forms and challenging many long-standing prejudices and language barriers, these thrusts mark a key point at which language experiments and politics meet." The rustle you hear is the sound of Blake, the editors' covering angel, flapping his clipped wings.

Given Rothenberg and Joris's predilections, it's hardly surprising that they omit from their 1,700 pages many top bards of the twentieth-century: T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Czeslaw Milosz, among others. The wholesale omission of Auden is particularly telling. During the 1930s, he was as immersed in left-leaning politics and theories of the unconscious--and as susceptible to heroic and utopian fantasies--as surrealists like André Breton, who figures prominently in Poems for the Millennium. But Auden is absent from the anthology for the same reason that Kenneth Fearing and the young Muriel Rukeyser are absent: For all their political and romantic credentials, their work is too thick with pedestrian realities and too thin on extravagant experiment.

Of course, the omissions from any anthology signal an editor's idiosyncrasies, but few editors, except perhaps Ezra Pound, have made idiosyncrasies so integral to their project as Rothenberg and Joris. The two are practically allergic to poems anthologized elsewhere, even if the poems are excellent expressions of the iconoclasm they trumpet--"the idea of poetry as an instrument of change," as they explain, "by both deliberate experimentation in the present and by reinterpretation of the 'entire' human past." Poems for the Millennium includes Wallace Stevens's "Dance of the Macabre Mice," for instance, but not "The Comedian as the Letter C"; a swatch of John Ashbery's Flow Chart but not The Tennis Court Oath; a snippet from Susan Howe's Pythagorean Silence but not a word from My Emily Dickinson.

Rothenberg and Joris haven't barred all conventional ideas about twentieth-century poetry from their pages. Like many anthologists and literary historians, they view the end of World War II as the dividing line between the modern and the postmodern. Volume One of their anthology surveys the period from 1897 to 1945, and it is the more manageable half of their two-volume project. After opening with a section of modernist "Forerunners" featuring the likes of Blake, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, it launches into a survey of literary movements meant to chronicle the ways in which the aesthetic concerns of the poetic avant-garde developed in an uninterrupted manner from 1914 to 1945.

Rothenberg has been fond of this schema since 1979, when he made it the subject of his anthology The Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant-Garde Poetry. With its international focus, Volume One of Millennium includes dozens more poets than its predecessor, but it still covers the same basic terrain, beginning with Futurism and progressing through Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, and Objectivism. The surprise is that unlike Revolution of the Word, Volume One of Millennium culminates in Negritude, the movement of African and Caribbean writers centered around Aimé Césaire and inspired by Surrealism and the Harlem Renaissance. This choice boldly expands the volume's focus on iconoclasm to include challenges to colonialism, thereby setting the stage for Volume Two, whose contents aggressively challenge the idea of European pre-eminence central to accounts of the avant-garde.

Interspersed between Volume One's movements are "galleries" where the eminent jostle against the unsung. These sections best realize Rothenberg and Joris's aim: not to project "a new canon of famous names" but "to have the anthology serve a more useful function, as a mapping of the possibilities that have come down to us by the century's turning." Indeed, the second gallery, which falls between Dada and Surrealism, opens with W. B. Yeats, Gertrude Stein, and Rainer Maria Rilke, but also showcases poems by the Romanian poet and essayist Lucian Blaga and the New York-based Yiddish poet Jacob Glatshteyn. The galleries feature some of the anthology's most venturesome passages; read as whole, each sometimes sounds as demotic as some of the poems it contains. "The real truth is / I am cast of gold / And my voice is pure flute / Gold shmold flute shmute / It is devil take it terribly / Unintelligible," writes Glatshteyn.

Whereas Volume One is brash but accessible, Volume Two is a hectic, capillaried sprawl. Its voice is pure shmute. Spanning the period from 1945 to 1997, it consists of two 350-page galleries separated by a 50-page section on "The Art of the Manifesto" which collects fusillades and polemics penned by the likes of Charles Olson, Steve McCaffery, and Carolee Schneemann. Occasionally Joris and Rothenberg break up the galleries into mini-galleries-The Tammuzi Poets, Concrete Poetry, The Misty Poets--and, as in Volume One, gloss many of the poems in an effort to explain stylistic innovations and sketch connections between poets.

They note as well that their "intention as editors has been to act . . . not toward a new narrowing of poetry but towards its further opening." Yet the overall effect of that act is numbing. As odd as this might sound, the 900-page second volume includes too many poets and too little poetry. Among its many treasures are poems by the Congolese poet Tchicaya U Tam'si and several reproduced pages from Tom Phillip's haunting collage novel A Humument. But without a more generous sampling of their work--Rothenberg and Joris rarely include more than two poems by any writer--and a more coherent explanation of it by the editors, such writers are doomed to remain enigmatic to all but the specialist. It's disingenuous to declare that "the most interesting works of poetry and art are those that question their own shapes and forms, and by implication the shapes and forms of whatever preceded them," and then not provide enough material to grasp this accomplishment. This is particularly crucial when dealing work in translation, since most readers presumably aren't cognizant of the native-language traditions a particular poet might be shattering or redacting. If by having a less crowded and better represented roster of poets the editors would have risked compiling a new canon of famous names, the risk would have been well worth taking.

The one place where Rothenberg and Joris do take a tremendous risk in Volume Two is in the arrangement of poems in the two long galleries. Like most poetry anthologists, the editors limit their selections to short lyrics. But they abandon the anthologist's conventional rubrics of nation, language, or topic ("nature," "love"); instead, they treat poems as disparate materials best assembled through dramatic juxtapositions. Rothenberg and Joris label this assembly "a kind of modernist collage," one that calls to mind limber-jointed works like The Cantos or Paterson, snippets of which are included in Millennium. For all its formal drama and surprises, however, this collage method leaves a reader in something of a quandary. If the galleries, as Rothenberg and Joris explain, are "without a stress on particular affinities or interconnections between those represented," then why assemble them in the first place, other than to signals the editors' embrace of modernist aesthetics? Or if the point is to introduce the reader to collage, why not include a gallery devoted exclusively to the long poem?

The anthology as a whole suffers from a bigger flaw. The parts are lost among the whole; the revolutionary tradition overshadows the individual talent. For avant-gardists like Rothenberg and Joris, who are predisposed to divide poets into warring camps and allied forces, a poem is best understood only as part of a movement, regardless of the warp and woof of an individual poet's entire career. This organizing principle is adequate when dealing with poets like F. T. Marinetti, Hugo Ball, and, in our own time, Barrett Watten, because they more or less did write in service of a movement, be it Futurism, Dada, or Language poetry. But for other poets the principle is misguided because it holds their careers hostage to a movement. The anthology offers a good portrait of Objectivism, for instance, but an impoverished sketch of George Oppen, who produced his most stunning work while writing in postwar America long after Objectivism was defunct. Understandably, Millennium's Volume One includes Discrete Series, Oppen's landmark--and only--work as an Objectivist; Volume Two, however, features a meager two poems from among Oppen's four postwar books. Tethered to Objectivism, Oppen's poetry can only appear intriguing, not astonishing.

Poems for the Millennium is an eccentric book determined to channel the work of many poets and movements into a wider literary stream, enriching its current thereby. What's maddening about the anthology is not the fact that its efforts at assimilation undercut its avant-garde sensibility. Rather, what's frustrating is the manner in which the anthology has been edited, which prevents one from going to school with it the way one can with anthologies of more modest ambitions, such as Mary Margaret Sloan's Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing By Women (1998), Paul Auster's Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry (1982)--or even Rothenberg's own Revolution of the Word. At its best, Poems for the Millennium can only alert one to lessons that must be learned elsewhere.

Originally published in the October/November 1998 issue of Boston Review

 



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