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  • A Millennial Poetics
  • Kenneth Sherwood
Rothenberg, Jerome and Pierre Joris, eds. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry (Volume one: From Fin-de Siècle to Negritude). Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1995. Pp. xxvii + 811; 35 illustrations. Paper, $25.00.

The newest entry in the long-running debate over the scope of modernism and its relation to postmodernism is neither a discursive essay nor a scholarly book. Rather, Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris reveal the “experimental modernism” at modernism’s core via an anthology which, through its form and range, exhibits the continuity of poetries “that wouldn’t so much describe the world as remake it, through a vital act of language” (189). Their Poems for the Millennium maps out just this expansive a project, one certain to be transformative of criticism and the hermetic world of literature anthologies. With a “global” reach that transgresses the conventional narratives of aesthetic movements or national literatures, the book performatively demonstrates twentieth-century poetries’ exploration of language — the common term — in relation to: consciousness; desire; performance; dialect; technology; politics; and play. The resonance between these concerns and those of post-structuralist criticism illuminates the editors’ contention that “at the core of every true ‘modernism’ is the germ of a postmodernism.”(3)

This first of two volumes embraces poetry “from Fin-de Siècle to Negritude,” crossing more than twenty national borders and nearly as many languages. An unusually expansive project in many respects, Poems for the Millennium rejects the retrospective stance toward the literary canon typical of the standard anthology. It posits a formulation of new literary relationships rather than the further reification of accepted ones. Of its eleven sections, only half respect conventional historical movements: Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Objectivism, Expressionism,and Negritude. These are interspersed with three “galleries” and bounded by sections of “forerunners” and “origins.” On either end, then, the temporal bounds of the anthology’s period frame are strained at — as if to recall William Blake’s “Poetry Fettr’d, Fetters the Human Race!”

In the initial “Forerunners” section, which begins fittingly with Blake, one first notes another aspect of this project’s effort to survey without succumbing to the homogenizing and containing habits of the conventional anthology. Instead of being presented in typeset “translation,” the poems of Blake and Emily Dickinson are presented in holograph. Partly as acknowledgement of recent scholarship emphasizing the significance of the visual materiality of these authors’ texts by Susan Howe and Jerome McGann, the visual reproduction respects the fact that Blake almost exclusively self-published his poetry in handmade, illustrated books and Dickinson meticulously bound her handwritten, eccentrically formatted poems into notebooks, holograph reproductions of which are the only adequate representation of her generally bowdlerized poems.

Representing these and many other works in their original and often visually striking typography does more than make for varied perusal. It more accurately reflects the divergent activities taking place within what is too easily termed Modernism. The reductive groupings of literary historians, their tracings of the anxious lines of influence, is aided and abetted by anthologies which themselves visually homogenize such writing. The materially conscious presentation here dramatizes the connections between nineteenth-century practice and the highly visual texts of Futurism and Dada, which are also presented in a sample of reproductions (leading in later years to the Concrete poetry and book arts sure to be represented in the upcoming second volume). Moreover, by reproducing something of the heterogeneous visual forms these poems originally took, the anthology argues for a consistent, historical interplay between poetry and visual art through the twentieth century while, at the same time, urging the reader to keep in mind the particularity of the remaining poems presented in the volume’s default, thirteen-point Sabon font.

The “Forerunners” section that introduces the volume forces the reader of modernism to bring Baudelaire, Whitman, Lonnrot, Hopkins, Lautreamont, and Holderlin into consideration, but the book’s closing frame, “A Book of Origins,” is even more frame-breaking. Consisting largely of “ethnopoetics” texts, it leaves modernism doubly open-ended. Perhaps the most often overlooked dimension of twentieth-century poetry, the traditions which ethnopoetics encompasses are...

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