Alan Golding


Anthologizing the Innovative: Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris' Poems for the Millennium


          Epigraphs are of course obligatory, and for mine I'm taking a comment from each of the editors of the recent two-volume historical anthology of international twentieth-century avant-garde poetry Poems for the Millennium that I want to discuss today.  From Pierre Joris: "Just as 'true dadas are against dada' . . . so true anthologists are against [anthologies]."  From Jerome Rothenberg: "I make anthologies . . . out of a deep suspicion of anthologies."  These comments point in the direction that I'd like to take in my own brief remarks, where I want to raise for discussion some of the complexities and contradictions surrounding the construction of an anti-canonical or avant-garde anthology; the relation of such an anthology to questions of canon formation; the definition of "avant-garde" at work here; and the text's negotiation of gender issues within the history of avant-gardism that it records.

          In a 1981 essay, Rothenberg casts the self-proclaimed canonizer Harold Bloom in Blakean terms as "exterminating angel," deciding which poets shall live or die.  In this view, Bloom as "teacher / Devourer / critic is driven to despair and to canon-formation to relieve the stress" of what could otherwise be experienced as a delicious literary-historical complexity.  Rothenberg's terms in this essay--"Devourer," "exterminating angel"--help us understand the ambivalence about questions of canon underlying Poems for the Millennium (which, due to the visibility, academic clout, and distributing power of its publisher has the best chance of any of the anthologies in which Rothenberg has been involved to make an immediate canonical difference).  For in Rothenberg's view--and it's a common one, that has been with us at least as long as the avant-garde itself--the impulses behind canonizing and behind a revolutionary poetics are in direct conflict; there is an ongoing "struggle between new vision & the literalisms of the canon-making mind" (23).  As a canonizing critic, "Bloom's aim--against the whole thrust of visionary & revolutionary poetics--has been to maintain the process of canon-formation & the mastery of critic over poet," and he fails to acknowledge how his own favored poets themselves struggled "against the total apparatus of canon-formation both as a religious & secular phenomenon" (14, 25). 

          Subsequently, in a review of Donald Allen and George Butterick's The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revisited (1982), Rothenberg applies this skepticism about canonizing more explicitly to poetry anthologies.  Looking back over some of the collections preceding the Allen/Butterick one, he finds Robert Kelly and Paris Leary's A Controversy of Poets problematic because it "unfortunately focused on individuals (hence: reputations)," and in collections by Paul Carroll and Michael Lally likewise "issues of poetics seemed secondary to the process of spotting & predicting reputations" (182).  These criticisms rest on a distinction between anthologies that emphasize a poetics and those that emphasize individual poets and their careers--a distinction that I'll return to later in this talk, and that has important implications for the project that Rothenberg and Pierre Joris were to take on some years later, the two-volume Poems for the Millennium.  Rothenberg writes of the Allen/Butterick collection that the more "the editors become fixed in their idea of an avant-garde [as something done with and now simply to be preserved, collected, represented], the more the matter of prediction focuses on reputations: which poets have 'endured' & 'have achieved a certain recognition' & which have not.  This is the canon-making mind at work again (not Bloomian here but at the service of the 'avant-garde')."  The end result is an "enshrinement of the new [that] . . . seems almost to freeze the idea of newness" (185) in its representatives from a previous generation.

          Pierre Joris proposes in a December 1995 on-line conversation that "an anthology of the avant-garde is in some way a contradiction in terms--unless it tries to . . . resist taxonomies and the building of boundaries."  Like Rothenberg in his remarks on Bloom, Joris puts his finger here on the unavoidable central contradiction of the avant-garde anthology, which gathers anti-institutional art in an institutional form and which aspires to use one part of the art system (the publishing of anthologies) against itself.  In their postwar groupings, Rothenberg and Joris say, "the thrust in all was toward a rupture with the past, or a renewal of the interrupted ruptures of the pre-war avant-gardes."  In a variation on that familiar paradox, the tradition of the avant-garde, the anthology will instantiate an ongoing and uninterrupted rupture of all the ruptures that have preceded it.  The aporias of such an anthology parallel exactly those of the institutionalized avant-garde itself, reflecting perhaps the single most significant change in the social location of avant-garde art practices during the thirty-year period of their protracted death--the loss of any possible "outsider" location.  (Rather than being continually re-pronounced dead, the avant-garde needs retheorizing with this change acknowledged as the ground of any such retheorizing.  What is "dead," that is, is a historically specific conception of avant-gardism.)  At the same time, a gathering like Poems for the Millennium rests on the premise that the anthology in our own time can represent an institutional frame susceptible to useful intervention (even if the effects, for instance, of Paul Hoover's Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry on Norton's general editorial and publishing practices are minimal).  It can be a medium of intellectual change as much as of routinization, although to function as such perhaps the form itself needs to be challenged in some of the ways that Rothenberg and Joris indeed do.  As Rothenberg says of vol. 1, "part of the pleasure of the book is for the first time being able to bring [previously excluded work] into the body of a purported University anthology, book of etc. etc."  He goes on, "there was a real excitement . . . in having captured that frame [of the institutionally sanctioned anthology] & then being able to use it towards the ends for which it should long ago have been used.  But I had that feeling with anthologies from the start."  (And in fact it is worth remembering that Rothenberg's influential earlier anthologies appeared with large trade presses, Doubleday and Random House.)   Despite Rothenberg's claims to the contrary, I find it hard to see this as anything other than an act of canonizing--the use of an influential institutional framework to put forward work previously outside that frame.  In Poems for the Millennium, then, we have an anthology that is countercanonical in two contradictory senses: it contributes to a counter-canon of alternative poetic practices, while seeking to counter the very notion of a canon and refusing to claim canonizing status or ambitions for itself.

          Canonizing, career-mongering, freezing the ongoing processual nature of revolutionary poetics into a canon of avant-garde names--these are the risks of even the avant-garde anthology for Rothenberg and Joris.  So how to navigate these risks?  To put that question another way, how to create an anthology that doesn't read like an anthology, if you are an editor who says quite explicitly, as Rothenberg has done, "I . . . dislike anthologies?"  Anthologies of recent linguistically innovative American and / or British poetry--gathering work that reassesses the boundaries and assumptions of genre in every way imaginable--nevertheless do not rethink the nature and form of the anthology itself.  One signal part of Rothenberg and Joris' achievement is that they do.

          Though he has generally been willing to use the term "anthology" to describe such gatherings as Technicians of the Sacred, Shaking the Pumpkin, A Big Jewish Book, and Revolution of the Word, Rothenberg describes Poems for the Millennium as less an anthology (though he knows it will be received that way) and more an "assemblage as a pulling together of poems & people & ideas about poetry & much else in the words of others and in our own."  As such, the gathering is structured like a long poem--as Rothenberg puts it, an "epic poem replete with histories & voices."  I would not put too much store by the absence of the term "anthology" in the title, an absence shared by many such texts.  There's a real sense, nevertheless, in which this is an anthology that doesn't want to be one.

          As far back as the 1974 Revolution of the Word, Rothenberg's editorial concern has been with "individuals and groups" (xxiii; my emphasis).  Poems for the Millennium is organized alternatingly by themes and movement and by poet.  Vol. 1 includes sections called "Futurisms," "Expressionism," "Dada," "Surrealism," "'Objectivists,'" "Negritude," intermixed with "three larger, loosely chronological 'galleries' of individual poets, without a stress on particular affinities or interconnections" (15).[i]  Thus Rothenberg and Joris do not gather all the selections for a given poet in one batch as an invitation to consider that person's work "whole."  Coverage of individual careers is not the point here, and a poet's work may be scattered throughout the book.  The poetry and prose of Ezra Pound, for instance, the most heavily represented American in volume I, appears at a number of places both within and between sections.  In vol. 1, to fulfil their goal of offering "a history of the 'modern' and the 'avant-garde'" (4), they stress movements that "functioned as collaborative vortices . . . bringing together many individualities in a common push toward a new dispensation, aimed at a drastic change of poem & mind" (6).  "[I] remain distrustful of the rigidities & career tactics implicit in the form [of anthologies]," Rothenberg wrote in 1978 (Pre-Faces 140); he remains so today, and the structure of Poems for the Millennium embodies that resistance to canonizing rigidities.

          What I've suggested earlier as the privileging of "poetry" over "poets" is evident throughout Rothenberg's career as an anthologist.  As he and George Quasha put it in America a Prophecy,

our general intention has been to show modes of poetry rather than individual poets, and any reader who takes what follows as an attempt to draw up definitive lists of poets or to chart chronologies of careers will have missed one of the fundamental premises of this anthology (xxxvi).

In the same preface, he includes "A Note on Kindred Publications," listing related little magazines, small presses, and other anthologies and suggesting his vision of poetry, poetics, and anthologizing as a collective human enterprise. Rothenberg seeks to further this vision partly through organization.  In A Big Jewish Book, he writes "my first decision as to structure was to stress idea over author" (xl).  Along similar lines, Revolution of the Word proposes "not just a change of names or personnel but a counterpoetics" (xvi)--again, then, an anthology of a poetics, a kind of practice, rather than a representation of individual oeuvres.

          Conceiving organization as an act of poesis, Rothenberg designs an anthology as a poem-- as "a composition & collage" (Big Jewish Book xl), the way good little magazine editors design an issue.  (Conversely, he has also thought of his own magazines as anthologies, describing Poems from the Floating World as "'an ongoing anthology of the deep image'" [Pre-Faces 139].)  Elsewhere he conceives of the anthology as "a grand assemblage: a kind of art form in its own right" ("The Anthology as a Manifesto").[ii]  In some sections of Poems for the Millenium, chronology itself produces "a number of chance juxtapositions that resemble a kind of modernist collage" (I.15)--a collage of texts, however, as much as names.  It could be claimed, of course, that chronology--that "objective chance" structure--produces, or has the potential for, the same kind of "chance juxtaposition" in any anthology.  More orthodox gatherings, however, have teaching apparatus or intervening material--footnotes, headnotes, bilbiographies--that dissipates or blurs the effects of sharp, even if chance, juxtaposition.

          As a form, then, structurally, Poems for the Millennium is designed to counter any readings conducted in terms of canonizing judgments or in terms of representing some presumed avant-garde canon.  To reiterate an earlier point: in their introduction to Poems for the Millennium vol. 2, Rothenberg and Joris assert that their anthology is explictly not "an attempt to set up a new canon of contemporaries" (13); on the contrary, it represents a rejection of the canonizing impulse, "the abandonment of judgment as a bind on the intelligence or of taste as a determinant of value" (3).  The book actively frustrates a reading conducted in terms of "taste," in contrast to the more conventionally structured anthology organized around selections from individual poets that invite the reader to decide whether he or she "likes" that poet and wants to read further.  In distributing contributors' work throughout the volume (and in some cases, two volumes), the editors also confound--or at least defer--that favorite reviewers' party game of canonization-by-page-count: X gets 20 pages, Y only 3, Z isn't even there.  Such counts are simply not easy to make in this case--though to the extent that the game demonstrably still gets played, the editors' resistance to it has qualified success.  As Joris argues in response to one critique of the book's inclusions and exclusions, "the intent . . . is to map & link territories, to foreground areas of experimentation, to point to ongoing possibilities, NOT to do a headcount of the best and brightest canonic or anti-canonic heads."  This position remains vulnerable, I think, to the objection that the absence of a given group or individual suggests that their work does not present "areas of experimentation" or "ongoing possibilities" with sufficient force to justify their inclusion.  Be that as it may, such a position is consistent with Millennium vol. 1, where Rothenberg and Joris propose "a mapping of the possibilities . . . without turning the selection of authors into the projection of a new canon of famous names," "a demand to be freed from the tyranny of the canonic past," "the inherited (authoritative) past" (3, 6).  The key terms here are "canonic" and "authoritative"--not, I would stress, "past," since the editors, always conscious of poetry's ancient roots, are not merely pointing to some kind of old-fashioned American Adamism generalized to a global scale.

          Rothenberg and Joris state in Poems for the Millennium vol. 2 that they "have tried to avoid a doctrinaire avant-gardism while presenting works that test the limits of poetry" (17)--a testing, by the way, that one would have to say often resides more in the editors' use of the work than in the writer's intention for it.  (I find it hard to imagine Robert Johnson or Tom Waits thinking of themselves as "testing the limits of poetry.")  One question this anthology raises for us, then, is this: what does it mean to be "avant-garde," and what definition(s) of the avant-garde does the anthology propose?  (I ask this in full awareness that the anthology resists the taxonomic impulse implied in my questions and in the term "definition.")  Do those definitions look different when regarded from an internationalist perspective?  How successfully do Rothenberg and Joris negotiate the tension between revealing connections across cultures, nations, and generations (and in the process sketching a definition of avant-gardism by implication) and honoring heterogeneity and difference? 

          Certainly the editors are aware that the notion of the "avant-garde" will vary in culturally specific ways, as they show in remarking what specifically Japanese traditions the Arechi poets react against.  But--to take the American context--what definition of an avant-garde writing practice does not include Jack Spicer?  Includes a selection from Ashbery's "Flow Chart" rather than from The Tennis Court Oath or Three Poems?  What definition of "avant-garde" is operative in the choice of texts by, say, Anne Sexton or Adrienne Rich?  They can't be described as part of a self-defined avant-garde community (somehow Sexton, Plath, Lowell and  Bishop as a Cambridge, Massachusetts avant-garde don't quite cut it).  Can Sexton and Rich be described as producing particular avant-garde texts, and if so what would that avant-gardism consist of?  The usual criteria of formal innovation, however defined, wouldn't apply: there's little that's formally innovative about their work.  And formally, something might look "experimental" in relation to the writer's own oeuvre (Rich's move into free verse, say) that looks perfectly conventional in relation to other writers' practice.

          Does Poems for the Millennium, then, ask us to accept the proposition of something like an avant-gardism of content and theme as well as of structure, of attitudes toward art, and so forth?  To include Sexton and Rich in this context is to include writers on the basis of an iconoclasm of content--Sexton rewriting the Jesus myth, Rich's rhetorically passionate 1970s feminism.  Sexton, however, only seems "iconoclastic" in relation to the mainstream poetics of her own particular historical moment, and no more so even in that moment than Lowell or (especially) Plath.  And according to the criterion of content, why would Edna St. Vincent Millay, for example, not appear in vol. I?  I raise these definitional issues precisely because Rothenberg and Joris assume the continued relevance of avant-garde practice.  Indeed this is one of the crucial contributions of their work, in the face of contemporary theoretical arguments for the death of the avant-garde, or of claims like David Lehman's (to cite the title of his recent book) that the New York School is "the last avant-garde."  In other words, Poems for the Millennium reminds us that avant-garde writing (whatever we might mean by that term) has a century-long international history and an active international present.

          Historical reminders come with historical baggage, of course, and the baggage in Poems for the Millennium has to do with gender.  The anthology asks gender questions of itself, through the inclusion of this passage from Rachel Blau DuPlessis: There are questions which the avant-garde must answer . . . Where is/are its women: where in the poems, serving what function?  where in its social matrices, with what functions?  where in its ideologies?  How does it create itself by positioning its women and its women writers? (433-34) 

The one aspect of literary history that Poems for the Millennium does not place under sustained scrutiny is the historically homosocial structure of avant-gardes.  Rothenberg himself both acknowledges and tries to address the problem of representation:

As the editors are well aware, there's a notable lack of women in these opening entries [of vol. II]--offset, in the natural course of things by a strong female presence as the book & the century unwind.  Thus in the second gallery (post-1960), eight of the last ten entries (six of eight by another count) are women--a change in the demographics of avantgardism & a far cry from the 1950s.

Rothenberg's observation does not entirely explain the gender imbalance of the volume as a whole, however (which is about 25% women; vol. 1 is lower).  Furthermore, it is hard to see on what he bases this claim.  At the risk of seeming like a bean counter: the count of 6-out-of-8 obtains only if one discounts the seven male artists in the book's final section, "Toward a Cyberpoetics," and the three men to whom it is given to close the book: the editors, and Robert Duncan.  (In other words, the gender balance looks pretty good toward the end if one ignores ten male writers.)  On the last two pages of the table of contents, in fact 4 out of the last 15 names are women, which is right around the 25% that obtains for the volume as a whole.  As regards some quick suggestions on what to do: firstly, it's not too hard to imagine a "feminist poetics" section in the anthology.  At the level of specific inclusions, in the Anglo-American context, the inclusion of, say, Joanne Kyger and / or Helen Adam as San Francisco poets; the inclusion (or at least mention) of Barbara Guest with the New York school; of Joanna Drucker in the context of visual poetics; of Trinh Minh-Ha and Harryette Mullen in the context of race and gender identity; and of some more British women beyond Maggie O'Sullivan could have gone some way towards redressing the balance. 

          If, as Rothenberg argues, "the poetics of gender is taken throughout as one of the significant and necessary breakthroughs of our time," we have to ask how that significance is reflected in the text.  If Poems for the Millennium is a manifesto-anthology that involves "the sense of poetry being the center of a program, a proposition or a set of propositions working in the public sphere," what public positions does it project on the poetics of gender?  The use of Sexton and Rich seems to suggest that, even in the context of an anthological history of avant-garde writing, a feminist poetics is best represented by recourse to unproblematically referential mainstream work.  (Parenthetically, I think it revealing that the text contains no comparably mainstream male writers.)  In raising an eyebrow about these two poets, I'm embarrassedly aware of how my position could seem to replicate the exclusionary judgments of male modernists who dismissed their inadequately experimental female contemporaries.  I do not want to do that, especially with Rich, who has been and remains a crucial figure for post-World War II American poetry.  And I do not want to minimize the anthology's utterly transformative effect--certainly on my own understanding of twentieth-century poetry, and I imagine on that of many other readers too.  But I do want to argue that a different gender balance and discourse in Poems for the Millennium would provide not just the powerful revision of twentieth-century literary history that the volume already offers, but a revision of that revision.  In addition to a revisionist history from an avant-gardist perspective, we would get a realignment of or fresh perspective on that historically male-dominated avant-gardism itself.  To the extent that Poems for the Millennium is a historical anthology, it has the chance to re-examine the history that is its subject.  Like the very best anthologies, it does not merely reflect but recreates in spectacular ways a whole body of poetic knowledge, a century's worth of experimental writing practices.  But it does not recreate the gendered history out of which so many of those practices emerged.


Alan Golding

University of Louisville


Author’s note: Page references to the Poems for the Millennium prefaces are to the pre- publication versions, and need revision.