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Poems for the Millennium (3): The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry. Ed. with commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780520247352 (Hardback); 9780520255982 (Paperback). Price: US$80.00/US$34.95

  • Maureen N. McLane

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  • Maureen N. McLane
    New York University

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An absorbing, impressive, deliberately and often exhilaratingly estranging work, Poems for the Millennium (3): Romantic and Postromantic Poetry is a doorstopper of an anthology, a 900+-page polemical “assemblage” (18) that aims to prove “romantic” poetry an unfinished and indeed joyfully unfinishable project. “Romantics Our Contemporaries,” this anthology might have been called: in the editors’ lively introduction (a galvanic manifesto in its own right) and the notes and commentary appended to entries, one finds a through-line of commitment—to the proposition that romantics were already making it new in ways that “postromantics” (read: old-school Victorians) and modernists and postmodernists (a term generally eschewed but haunting the volume) were to continue. Simultaneously proposing a kind of “long romanticism” and a prequel to two previous landmark volumes, Poems for the Millennium 1 and 2 (edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, focusing mainly on twentieth-century poetry and poetics), Rothenberg and his new co-editor Jeffrey C. Robinson take us in Poems for the Millennium 3 back to the future. As they observe, invoking innovative “talk-poet” David Antin, “the past is yet to come” (14).

Some anthologies are stately gatherings, impressively arranged bouquets; others offer flowers of a moment; others are miscellanies; still others—the Norton brand most notably—aspire to the condition of instant monument. PM3 (as I shall henceforth refer to the volume) offers something else, a kind of Baudelairean permanent-fleeting, a provisional, albeit massive, ingathering that proposes to track new and other lines—a “counterpoetics” (7-8) explicitly opposed to romanticism as conservative, official, primarily inward; a romanticism flourishing via the operations of Fancy more than Imagination; an exilic romanticism; an “international” (4), comparative romanticism; an ethnopoetic romanticism; a romanticism, we might say, of the Other as well as of what John Ashbery called “Other Traditions.” Such an anthology gains its force precisely through its oppositional torque: yet like all oppositional things, it relies heavily (yet mainly implicitly—and for students, perhaps problematically) on the previously installed architecture of a version of romanticism it everywhere seeks to displace. Thus Goethe, Blake, Robert Burns, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, John Clare, Hölderlin (for example) shine forth but in defamiliarized ways; and the featuring of (for example) “outsider” and “outrider” works and “some Orientalisms” alongside some old familiars aspires to reorganize the territory formerly known as romantic.

Certainly this is a book that is extraordinarily good to think with (as the French say). In this it resembles its predecessor volumes, equally committed to rethinking, globalizing, fracturing, and otherwise complicating and reopening accounts of modernism and its afterlives. The formal arrangements of PM1 and PM2 are echoed in PM3: each volume features a “Forerunner” or “Prelude” section (in PM3 a “Preludium”), a kind of opening salvo, followed by intriguing and substantial “galleries” of works, themselves organized loosely by chronology, interspersed with striking mini-galleries and détournements. In the three mini-galleries of PM3, for example, we encounter some brief, arresting byways—“Some Asian Poets,” “Some Outsider Poets,” and later “Some Orientalisms”—which throw into relief the heftier galleries. These sections alternate with two other large groupings called “Books”—“A Book of Origins” and the later “Book of Extensions”—which make clear the constructed genealogical work undertaken here. The book concludes in the polemical spirit with which it began, the final section called “Manifestos & Poetics.”

This volume should be read then as the third major and presumably culminating installment of a kind of experimental-poetic organon: its principles of selection and combination are informed by the preceding volumes and have a powerful genealogical thrust. Like its sister volumes, PM3 situates itself among several communities of writers and readers, dead and alive, but all contemporary in the mind’s eye and ear: scholars and poets and polemicists will find much to stimulate them here, as well as some things to irritate. For romanticists (Anglophone and European), PM3 may well read as simultaneously irritant and pearl: its militant (yet cheerfully flexible) avant-gardism and retroactive romantico-modern project imagine an enemy that in most precincts no longer exists. One feels at times that the editors are fighting old battles elsewhere won, without alerting the uninitiated to the state of a conversation that would make clearer the necessity for the polemic sustained here. Those who have ears to hear will hear. But those who require longer patient tunings-up may sometimes feel themselves at a loss.

And indeed among those lost in the somewhat idiosyncratic and fragmentary riches here have been, if their anecdotal murmurings may be invoked, several prominent romanticists themselves, who were invited to engage with PM3 over the past year or so in a series of panels organized by the editors and various sponsors. Although these panels have been intriguing, stimulating prompts for conversations (I participated in one such genial occasion in New York in April 2009), it may be the case that some romanticists do not yet know quite what to do with this book. This is in a perverse way a measure of its strength and of the editors’ collaborative ingenuity, wide and deep reading, and strong commitments. The power of the volume will likely take some time to show itself. Beyond the community of scholars and teachers and translators of 18th- and 19th-century literature and culture, this book aims at an audience invested in contemporary poetry and longstanding debates over modernism, various avant-gardes, and more recent phenomena like Language poetry. These are subsumed in a grander genealogy for emergent “radical,” “experimental” poetry and poetics, of which “romantic” poetry is only the first installment, itself heralded by such figures as Rousseau, de Sade, Swedenborg, Christopher Smart, and Mary Robinson (see “Preludium”).

The editors’ keywords establish their orientation: they embrace the “radical,” the “experimental,” the “transgressive,” the “subversive,” the “defamiliarized.” They espouse, like the poet Lyn Hejinian in a famous essay, “The Rejection of Closure.” One could argue that the book represents a mash-up of revivified Jena romanticism and late-twentieth-century Language poetry polemic plus ethnopoetic shamanism (this last a special precinct of Jerome Rothenberg). The editors are friendly to a Schlegelian poetry-as-becoming, as long as it is not a poetry-of-becoming-(say)-Walter-Scott.

The book is caught on the horns of some familiar progressive dilemmas, wanting to align (though aware of the complexities of doing so) formal with political radicalism. This is the Achilles’ heel of many a radical project, especially in the US, and it seems to me a diagnostic limit of this anthology. (I write this as one completely sympathetic to its formal, political, and genealogical commitments.) “Radical” here means left-wing, progressive in politics, and usually innovative in form, though these distinctions wobble throughout. Although the editors acknowledge the distinction and frequent disjunction between radicalisms political and aesthetic, the longing to have the two fuse seems to have operated strongly as a principle of selection: for if the question were considered more rigorously, Walter Scott’s metrical romances were among the most formally experimental verse of the period, as were a number of Robert Southey’s works. Despite Southey’s youthful Pantisocratic dreams and radical sympathies, neither he nor Scott fits the current standard profile of “the innovative,” or “the transgressive,” and neither appears here. More reflection on this might have led to an even more revisionary anthology: there are many other genealogies and constellations, as or even more radical than the ones tracked here, available to those willing to scrutinize the consignment of Scott, say, to the Tory dustbin, or to the history of the novel. Tom Pickard, a Northern English poet radical in form as well as politics, has recently reanimated Scott (among many other Border raiders) in his remarkable Ballad of Jamie Allan (Flood Editions, 2007). Elsewhere the editors are wonderfully alert to vernacular lines of force, for example in Burns’s inspiration of and for Hugh MacDiarmid, and long before that, for Wordsworth.

Those attuned to debates in modernist studies and in the world of contemporary poetry over the past thirty years will recognize in PM3 the residue of these debates: if in 1982, the estimable critic Marjorie Perloff asked in an article in New Literary History, “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?,” it could often seem that North American poetry and criticism over the past decades was riven thus: “Helen Vendler/Marjorie Perloff: Whose Team?” The debates between so-called traditionalists and so-called experimentalists look increasingly moribund, and one wishes the editors here didn’t cleave so closely to their terms. PM3 most definitely offers, we might say, Perloff’s romanticism. (It is no accident that she is thanked, among others, as a consulted scholar.)

PM3 also, and more importantly, offers Rothenberg and Robinson’s romanticism and postromanticism: and here we see the fruits of a terrific crosspollination of expertise and sensibility. Rothenberg, a poet, impresario, theorist of ethnopoetics, and enormously influential anthologist—from his Technicians of the Sacred (1968) through PM1-3—has been a major figure in contemporary poetry and poetics since at least the 1960s.[1] And Jeffrey C. Robinson is an eminent romanticist and our foremost scholarly inquirer into, and rehabilitator of, romantic “fancy”—a faculty and discourse which had seemed not so long ago to have permanently lost the sweepstakes to Coleridgean “Imagination” and its attendant lords, synthesis, symbol, totality, and so on.[2] Robinson is also an accomplished poet: both he and Rothenberg bring to the project enormous energy and brio and deep learning. They have obviously labored in the vineyards for many years and have created a volume that will have surprises and pleasures for readers of all types—scholars in several fields; young poets; graduate students; general readers wishing to tune back into or discover some new romantic frequencies. It must be said however, as suggested above, that those wholly new to the period or to “romanticism” as a transhistorical, transnational phenomenon may occasionally find themselves a bit at sea. The book is lightly glossed, the commentaries themselves often superb mini-essays but ones that presume some familiarity with authors, works, debates, cultural locations. Then, too, the very need to select and to excerpt creates its own distortions and difficulties—two short paragraphs from Rousseau’s Social Contract, a passage on urine from Coleridge’s notebooks, an extract from Shelley’s “Notes on Queen Mab,” an “Anonymous Revolutionary Pamphlet” from 1775, Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”: a reader may wonder—Why? Huh? and occasionally think, Cool!

There are, obviously, reasons for these editorial decisions, not terribly hard to ferret out, but ferret them out one must, and one must have some prior tools for ferreting. When reading the volume, with poets one knows, a reader may experience a disorienting tacking between “representative works” and truly esoteric stuff—which is precisely the defamiliarizing work the editors wish to sponsor. But again, as the Russian formalists knew, defamiliarization only works when a device is deployed against a known background.

It may be that the most pleasurable way to read this book—indeed, the way to read any anthology—is to read around in it: one can take up the pleasures of “picking and choosing,” as Marianne Moore titled a poem. The book offers less a buffet than a series of tantalizing morsels: but what wonderful items they are! Leigh Hunt’s “Deformations”; the section titled “Three Alphabets” (featuring Christopher Smart, Victor Hugo, and Benjamin Paul Blood); Giuseppe Belli’s savage “Sonnets: for the Pope”; Shelley’s “Arethusa” juxtaposed with Robert Duncan’s “Shelley’s Arethusa Set to New Measures”; Hô Xuân Huong’s lacerating, brief lyrics; Sándor Petöfi’s “Homer and Ossian”; Yosano Akiko’s plangent, witty “Song of the Letter A”—all new to me, and all opening up new vistas for thought. And these sound forth most resonatingly against, for example, Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode, Coleridge’s Dejection Ode, several of Blake’s Songs, Baudelaire’s “Correspondences,” and other more familiar works. This is not your grandfather’s romanticism, then, yet the volume certainly knows all about that inheritance and wants us to see romantic and postromantic configurations wholly afresh.

In its emphasis on a constructed and not passively transmitted romanticism, in its preference for genealogy over history, its interest in radical form outstripping its intermittent interest in radical politics, PM3 honors the manifest commitments of its introduction. Robinson and Rothenberg’s introduction might be read alongside Paul Hoover’s similarly polemical introduction to The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, first published in 1994: Hoover, like the editors of PM3, expressly announces his allegiance to experimental, innovative poetries and poetics (which for him is “postmodern” poetry and poetics), and creates a usable past for poets dedicated to experimental futures. PM3 attempts and in many ways accomplishes this on a much larger scale, with greater historical and international reach.

Among the intriguing aspects of the anthology is the way it more or less silently and elegantly metabolizes the transformation of romantic canonicity over the past thirty or so years[3]—the important place of women poets, peasant poets, “outsider poets,” etc. just assumed, not even tendentiously argued for. So too its version of a global or international romanticism points to a possible proto-world literary systems analysis for romantic poetics; and its friendliness to ethnopoetics (including chants, sound poems, ballads, and songs) and its canny inquiry into poetry-in/as-prose might be redescribed as an astute reckoning with the transmedial aspects of romantic poetry, which is not merely a literary or authored or even versified poetry. The appearance of Macpherson’s Ossianic “Song of Selma” here in the Preludium rings true as an opening note, as does the inclusion of Chatterton’s “Excelente Balade of Charitie.” The “Book of Origins” is particularly inspired, suggesting a broad complex genealogical turn within romanticism—toward “ancient” vernacular poetries, ancient Greek, medieval balladry, myth, “folk” culture. It is extremely productive, and the result of long, complex thought, to put Blake’s “Ancient Poets” next to Francis James Child’s “Sir Patrick Spence” next to Shelley’s “Homer’s Hymn to the Moon” next to Lady Charlotte Guest’s “Tale of Taliesin” next to Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s transcriptions of Negro Spirituals: materials that might have been otherwise framed—as antiquarian preromantic stuff, as aspects of a “Gothic vs Celtic” debate, or as signs of philhellenism, or as neo-classicism, or as incipient folksong—are here shown in a differently revealing light. That any given romanticist might instinctively generate her own different groupings, textual selections, and rubrics shows both how polemical PM3 is, but also how stimulating for thought and conjecture. Among the topics some readers will surely wish to debate: how the particular translations featured here (e.g. of Heine, Goethe, Hugo, Lermontov, several Asian poets), and the specific versions of poems included (e.g. the 1807 version of Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode), will shape the reader’s experience. The anthology is an invitation equally to argument and to reverie.

I have focused primarily on the “romantic” aspect of this anthology, but its subtitle suggests that the remit here is far broader than, say, the period of literary-cultural efflorescence in Europe, North America, and even Asia between, say, 1750-1830: about half of the book moves us decisively into the mid-to-late nineteenth century, with selections from Baudelaire, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, both Brownings, Mallarmé, and even Gertrude Stein. The editors seem to me exactly right in releasing “romantic” from mere period (though I would be curious to know how a self-identified “Victorianist” would read this volume). As has frequently been argued, “romantic” as a designation evades historical confinement even if those called “romanticists” have often in recent years harnessed themselves to a profoundly historicist project.[4] This anthology is, as must be clear, profoundly antipathetic to a New Historicist sensibility and method (despite the acknowledgment to Jerome McGann), though its choices and commentaries bespeak the editors’ grappling with the many insights of, and shifts occasioned by, important new-historicist work as well as scholarship informed by cultural studies in all its varieties. The editors are not especially concerned with materialist specificity or immediate contemporary resonance: they are sympathetic to texts that had very few readers or none, to works whose publication was deferred for decades, to a reception history untethered to the banalities of first publication date and numbers of books sold (thus the attention paid to Blake, Shelley, and Dickinson, hardly read at all in their time compared to, say, Byron—who makes a fairly thin showing here—and Walter Scott, who makes none).

Though informed by extensive scholarship, the volume is more a poets’ than a scholars’ anthology: and this is no dispraise. In a peculiar way, PM3 is a Bloomian project (Harold, not Leopold or Allan): it proffers its own Visionary Company, and an invitation to view new constellations along an emergent horizon. I shall be returning to this volume, as I have to PM1 and PM2, for years.

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