February 21, 2013

"A Vigorous Medley of Voices" | essay by Douglas Messerli (on Jerome Rothenberg's and Jeffrey C. Robinson's anthology The University of California Book of Romantic and Post Romantic Poetry)

by Douglas Messerli
Reading in celebration of Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic & Post Romantic Poetry, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009) / Los Angeles, Beyond Baroque Foundation, February 13, 2009

On Friday, February 13, 2009, Beyond Baroque celebrated the publication of Jerome Rothenberg's and Jeffrey C. Robinson's new anthology, Poems for the Millennium, the third volume in Rothenberg's (the other two co-edited by Pierre Joris) encyclopedic presentation of international poetry, this volume devoted primarily to 19th Century writing.
      It was a cold, rainy night, and, accordingly, the audience was small, but despite the underheated room at Beyond Baroque, there was a warm feeling among those attending.

The evening began with Jerry and Jeffrey sharing the stage to quote from a few individuals about the effect of Romanticism on the 20th and 21st century writing, including remarks by Breton, Paz, Duncan, and Lyn Hejinian, the latter who wrote:
If in the 19th century, as Gertrude Stein said, people saw parts
and tried to assemble them into wholes, while in the 20th century
people envisioned wholes and then sought parts appropriate to
them, will the 21st Century carry out a dissemination of wholes
into all parts and thus finish what the 19th century began?

      Los Angeles poet Will Alexander followed, reading from Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, a work which he described, in what seemed as surprising to me, as having been a sort of lodestar to his own writing. Jerry and Jeffrey again read short passages from Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth, including the last paragraph of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, relevant since that book's 150th anniversary was being celebrated this week, as well as Darwin's 200th birthday. The last paragraph of that book is itself revelatory:
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the
most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving,
namely the production of higher animals, directly follows.
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers,
having been originally breathed into a few forms
or into one; and that into one; and that, whilst this planet
has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity,
from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful
and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

    San Diego fiction writer and essayist David Matlin followed, presenting a powerful reading of Melville's "A Squeeze of the Hand," the highly sexual immersion of hands in whale sperm from Moby Dick. He also sang, a cappella, from the anonymous Russian "Song of the Bald Mountain Witches & Magic Nymphs":

                          Nich, nich, pasalam, bada.
                          Eschochomo, lawassa, schibboda.

     I had chosen to read the nearly impossible-to-perform ode to "The Wall Street Inferno" by Brazilian poet Sousândrade. I recounted how, when I visited Haraldo de Campos in Brazil in the late 1990s, he had immediately put this work into my hand, declaring that I must publish it! How delightful, I reacted, that we now have a section of this work available in English. Jerry read the stage-directions, while—in a vigorous medley of voices, if nothing else—I performed the various cries, lectures, sermons and other proclamations of the poem's cast of thousands:

          (XEQUES appearing, laughing and disguised as Railroad-managers,
                 Stockjobbers, Pimpbrokers, etc., etc., ballyhooing:)
                           —Harlem! Erie: Central! Pennsylvania!
                          = Million! hundred million!! ten digits!!!
                                —Young is Grant! Jackson,
                              Vanderbilts, Jay Goulds are midgets!

 As Jerry mentioned later, he felt that this was one of the craziest poems in the entire 930-page volume! I also read a much quieter prose-poem by one of my favorite philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard, a man who presented himself more as a poet than a religious thinker.
     Jeffrey read a small selection of Romantic writers, followed by Jerry reading from several pieces, including his translation of the Polish writer Cyprian Norwid's "Chopin's Piano":


                     And—now—ended the song—And I
                     No longer can see you—only—can hear
                     Hearing what?—like when boys baffle boys—
                     —The keys still resisting
                    The source of their yearnings unsung
                    They softly push back on their own
                    By eighths—then by fifths—
                    And murmuring: "He—has started to play?
                    Or uncaring—cast us aside?"

     Performance artist Simone Forti read another rendition of that last paragraph of Darwin's The Origin, "The Telegraph Harp," excepts from the journal of Henry David Thoreau, and a couple of poems by the early 19th century Vietnamese woman poet Hô Xuân Huong:

                     Screw the fate that makes you share a man.
                     One cuddles under cotton blankets; the other's cold.

                     You try to stick to it like a fly on rice
                     but the rice is rotten. You slave like the maid,
                     but without pay. If I had known how it would go
                     I think I would have lived alone.

     Jerry closed this joyful series of readings with Edward Lear's charming satire of himself, "How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear":

                     He reads, but he cannot speak, Spanish;
                        He cannot abide ginger-beer.—
                     Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,—
                        "how pleasant to know Mr. Lear!"

How pleasant to get to know this grand anthology. Similar readings have already taken place in San Francisco (with Michael McClure, Michael Palmer, Leslie Scalapino, and Jack and Adele Foley) and San Diego (with Matlin, David and Eleanor Antin, and Michael Davidson), and I know the Rothenberg-Robinson team will take this poetic circus, performed by other casts, on the road. Jerome mentions that he and Jeffrey will be reading soon in New York, at Harvard, and the University Pennsylvania.

Los Angeles, February 15, 2009
Reprinted from Green Integer Review (February 2009).

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