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  • Poetry at the Millennium: “Open on its Forward Side”
  • Richard Quinn
Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, eds. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry. Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998.

Talk-poet David Antin got it right when he argued that “it is precisely the distinctive feature of the present that, in spite of any strong sense of its coherence, it is always open on its forward side” (98–99). That the present is always unfinished, needing the future to provide closure, is a fact that has led to both anxiety and optimism as the millennium turns. Y2K paranoia and nostalgic recitations of old-fashioned values jostle with enthusiasm for economic expansion and explosions of alternative culture. Antin’s own poetics consistently points to the “open” nature of moments like ours, doing so with excitement rather than ennui. Consequently, it makes perfect sense that a piece of Antin’s “Endangered Nouns” would make it into Poems for the Millennium, Volume Two, a decidedly exciting anthology of modernist and postmodernist poetry edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. Nothing short of a celebration, the anthology returns to the past, peruses the present, and speculates about the future of experimental poetic practices without ossifying either history or poetry. The experience of twentieth-century life, tempered by the horrors of war, genocide, and cultural revolution, meets the cyberpoetic future in the works of over two hundred poets included in this 850-page book. In its totality, such a book can only be called what the editors themselves recognize as “a mapping of the possibilities” (13).

Picking up where volume one left off, volume two continues the project of constructing a millennial poetics outside traditional canonical frameworks. Such a poetics, first and foremost, includes both the oft ignored “experimental” wing of modernism and the international postmodernisms of nations like Japan, Iran, Russia, the United States, and Italy, to name a few. As the editors put it, the anthology

is the celebration of a coming into fullness—the realization in some sense of beginnings from still earlier in the century. And yet the poetry like the time itself marks a sharp break from what went before, with World War II and the events of Auschwitz and Hiroshima creating a chasm, a true aporia between then and now.


Of course, one result of an anthology like Poems for the Millennium is the continued questioning of monikers like “modern” and “postmodern.” While the disjunction between modernity and postmodernity (epochs) and modernism and postmodernism (aesthetics) has been theorized and historicized by artists, philosophers, and scholars since at least the 1970s, the editors doubt whether such a decisive rift truly exists. Despite their claims that the included poetry represents both a “realization” of prior processes (modernist becoming postmodernist) and the actuality of new art (uniquely postmodern), wisely the editors avoid indicating which poems fit within which framework. Words like “modern” and “postmodern” may apply to the whole of the anthology but certainly not to the constituent parts. It would seem that the question of where experimental modernism ends and postmodernism begins remains deliberately unanswered.

Nevertheless, the editors ask that we consider the relationship between poetic practices, whatever their aesthetic status, and the world with which they interact. Rothenberg and Joris state that much of the poetry included within the anthology is driven by “a renewed privileging of the demotic language” and “the exploration of previously suppressed languages” (11). Moreover, the poetry attacks “the dominance in art and life of European ‘high’ culture” leading to an “exploration and expansion of ethnic and gender as well as class identities” (12). In this sense, poetry is part and parcel of the fight for human recognition, but with a “shifting connection to related political and social movements” rather than firm ties to rigid ideologies (12). Joining cultural critics like Paul Gilroy and Charles Bernstein then, the editors argue for artistic practices that reflect both millennial openness and reflective linkages to particular human identities, though such linkages are always “shifting.”

And it is within the realm of language itself where such links and shifting occur. Much of the poetry included...

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