Lost Poems Shed Light on Jerome Rothenberg’s Work
Author and Translator Made Considerable Contribution to Canon
By Jake Marmer
Retrievals: Uncollected & New Poems, 1955-2010
By Jerome Rothenberg
Junction Press, 178 pages, $21
Author and translator of nearly 100 books of poetry as well as editor of numerous groundbreaking anthologies, poet Jerome Rothenberg is turning 80 this year. A retrospective of his work has long been overdue. Yet Rothenberg, who throughout his literary career has dodged conventions and expectations, stays true to the course with his recently published collection, “Retrievals.” Although billed as a retrospective, the book does not have any of his best-known or most anthologized work, but only poems that have fallen between the cracks: unpublished and newly rediscovered material from over the years. As the author himself puts it in the afterword, this is a “book that charts my life as a poet… if it were arranged without the poems collected here.” It is his literary trajectory, read through the lens of previously unknown work.
Rothenberg’s contribution to the canon of American poetry is considerable — not only in terms of poems but also the poetics: theory, criticism and techniques. Most notable is his involvement with “ethnopoetics,” which has grown to become a full-fledged movement and literary field. A term he coined in the 1960s to describe notions of poetry within cultures other than Western, it attempts, for example, to attain wider understanding of the narratives of Native American mythology through the context of its rituals.
As an anthropologist, translator and folklorist, Rothenberg not only goes to the very roots of poetry, but also follows its hypothetical branchings. His interests in mysticism and linguistics have led Rothenberg to a poetic engagement with gematria, the ancient Rabbinic hermeneutic device. Using the idea that every Hebrew letter has a numeric value, it offers connections between words and phrases otherwise unrelated. In his book “Kabbalah and Criticism,” American literary critic Harold Bloom called it “interpretive freedom gone mad,” but in Rothenberg’s work, gematria is more about a surprisingly natural or, one could say, casually cosmic connection underlying language’s building blocks. Indeed, “Retrievals” features a group of poems, composed using gematria, where gematriabecomes a device akin to rhyme — except in place of the sonic correspondence there is an abstract and mysterious mathematical one.
… (ctd here)