Jerome Rothenberg Essay - Critical Essays

Rothenberg, Jerome

Rothenberg, Jerome 1931–

Rothenberg is a highly respected American poet and editor, closely associated with the small press movement, and a translator of poetry, not only from contemporary German, but also from American Indian. His "fascination with the primitive" is a search, he says, in archaic origins including his own eastern European Jewish for "the oldest possibilities of poetry." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

[Poems 1964–1967] is a collection of five short books of poems, three published previously, two, Further Sightings and A Steinbook & More, printed here for the first time. Sightings includes nine poems, each composed of a series of single lines to be read separated by "a silence equal or proportionate to the duration of each succeeding phrase." The content of the individual lines are not connected. Each poem depends almost entirely on the aural effect of its series of phrases and pauses. Both Sightings and Further Sightings are competent and sophisticated explorations of certain possible structures for the short poem, but they belong to that ever-growing body of artistic production which seizes upon a technical possibility, accomplishes it adequately, and makes it unnecessary for anyone else to take up the task. Conversations is more interesting. Single short lines alternate between two different speakers, and a wider range of effects is created by the expectations and surprises made possible by the "conversation" form. In A Steinbook & More, Rothenberg pays homage to Gertrude Stein, the Magna Mater of the abstract poem. These are, for the most part, accomplished performances of Miss Stein's music on the instrument of Rothenberg's voice. Rothenberg does have his own voice, as is evidenced particularly in the more extended passages in The Gorky Poems. He is at his richest, in fact, when not bound by what are finally tricky, at best merely effective, exploitations of structural problems. (p. 611)

Charles Stein, in The Nation (copyright 1969 by The Nation Associates, Inc.), May 12, 1969.

Perception in Rothenberg's poetry is slow—as if he were peering in some direction (I often can't tell whether out or in) trying to identify (with?) some dim figure which, still nameless, irritates him. So there is sensitivity and vagueness, and also flatness. (Why, if the so-called "deep image" is so carefully attended to, does it always sound so flat?) Sightings and Further Sightings fill a third of [Poems 1964–1967]. "The measure of Sightings involves the creation of an equivalent area-of-silence around each phrase or succession of phrases in the poem." Rothenberg thinks very hard about language, apparently on the look-out for expressionism implicit in common syntax. It is no doubt there:

       He hides his heart.
       A precious arrangement of glass & flowers.
       They have made a covenant between them,
       the circumstance of being tried.

I read it as a kind of scenario, like some of Stein's "April eighteenth interested me" poems. Another part of Rothenberg's book is A Steinbook & More. Here, he puts too great a burden on Stein's lilting reduction, and I don't see what Rothenberg hopes to gain, except perhaps some key to her method. His sensibility is too weighty, and not shrewd enough, to fit a mandarin style. He displays more richness in The Gorky Poems, particularly in The Diary of A Seducer, which has a nice "Continental" flavor…. (pp. 258-59)

Bill Berkson, in Poetry (© 1969 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1969.

Rothenberg is one of my favorite living poets. The work which recommends him to me, at this point in his career, is found in four sets of poems: The Poland Poems; The Gorky Poems; The Seven Hells of Jigoku Zoshi; and White Sun, Black Sun. By far the most interesting are the Poland poems, but Rothenberg's selected poems, Poems for the Game of Silence, give us a sample of not only his variety but also much of his best work, and I would recommend that every reader new to Rothenberg's work start with this book.

What makes me love Rothenberg's poetry? First, Rothenberg writes, as does Ginsberg, Lorca, or Whitman, to express a particular culture. Second, I like Rothenberg's subject matter and his narrative use of imagery (the imagery tells the story, often), and, third, the way his poems exist as sound objects. The expanded realization of "music" in poetry is the twentieth century's unique contribution to the history of poetry…. Poetry is not a kind of music, and while it can be put into musical forms—songs or operas—the music of twentieth century poetry, in its simplest terms, is what makes one want to hear a voice reading a poem out loud rather than wanting to look at or study it written on a page….

It is not a coincidence that Rothenberg has spent a major part of his career as a poet following a passion for the poetry of primitive cultures, all of which reflects cultural concerns and much of which reflects these concerns in religious form or formulae. The religious chant is never far from Rothenberg's voice. When he finds and reports anything, he has the odd gift (which would make him a terrible historian or anthropologist) of always sounding Jewish—whether his subject is the Senecas and their songs or Japanese mythology or his attempts at experimental poetry (e.g. Sightings). His poems are always Jewish. Beautifully, fully, deeply, poetically Jewish. Poland, 1931 (the year Rothenberg was born in Brooklyn of Polish, Jewish parents) is a very long work in progress; it is the basic Rothenberg to me and my favorite of his works—the source book for all of his poetic energy….

When I read Rothenberg, I become a Jew, a dreamer, an ancient demon, whatever he wants me to become—unquestioningly.

There are few poets I don't question. Rothenberg is one of them. (pp. 142-47)

Diane Wakoski, "20th Century Music," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1972, pp. 142-47.

The indelible imprint of Rothenberg's Jewish/Polish heritage materializes [in Poland/1931] in a cache of pungent poetic communications. With focus advancing from Old World scenes to American settings, the poet at once lampoons and upholds the cultural characteristics of his dual ethnic background, but whether he is pondering beards or Jewish law codes his utterances harbor sexual undertones. (p. 542)

The Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright 1975 by the American Library Association), February 1, 1975.

In [Poland/1931,] 150 pages of lyrics, portraits, spells and events, myths and histories, novel-fragments, laws, and hymns, Rothenberg has created an imaginary Poland full of real Jews, Jews dripping with sexuality, superstition, tenderness, prejudice, violence and chicken-fat, bringing their tormented and magical lives to the New World …, Jews that the clean-shaven directors of community centers want to forget—too bad: they are alive forever in these poems. Jews as cleanly and vigorously painted as Singer's and Babel's characters, as big as life…. These Jews are more than old-country Jews conjured up to scare the goyim or their own bland, prosperous grandchildren—they are embodiments of life, what life can be if it chooses to, images of the sensual, bloody, pious and blasphemous human race that Americans also would run from, run back to the images flickering on the wall of the television cave, illusion of cozy, innocent families, neuter and odorless creatures that never drew the breath of life…. (pp. 200-01)

Robert Mezey, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1974, University of Utah), Spring, 1975.

The theme of the uniqueness of the Jewish experience [underlies the whole of Poland/1931], with special reference to Jewish life in the Old Country, the Jewish immigrant in America, and the contemporary Jewish consciousness. But these ideas are not taken up in any significant order. Instead Rothenberg engages in the extremely free association of memories, utterances, oral legends, Biblical quotations and allusions, and odds and ends of Yiddish and Hebrew, much of which will be downright incomprehensible to the average reader, Jewish or Gentile. Rothenberg's free-verse technique is in itself extremely impressive. He is suggestive of older Objectivist poets like Rakosi and Zukovsky, with occasional overtones of T. S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg. (p. 222)

Choice (copyright © 1975 by American Library Association), April, 1975.