Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Rothenberg's White Sun Black Sun

Jerome Rothenberg [1931- ] has accomplished a good deal in his lifetime. Aside from being a unique and interesting poet himself, he's edited a series of anthologies highlighting not only the American avant garde, but the literatures of cultures around the world, linking the common efforts of writers from diverse backgrounds, over long stretches of time, and facilitating the cross-fertilization of ideas and forms across borders and barriers. But his beginnings were relatively humble, if, in retrospect, auspicious.

One of my favorite poems from the post-War period is the lead (or "title") poem from his first, self-published, pamphlet, White Sun Black Sun [New York: Hawk's Well Press, 1960]. Published in the same year as the Allen Anthology, New American Poetry 1945-1960 [New York: Grove Press], it's only 30 pages long, and has a certain Germanic cast, with echoes of, for instance, the work of Paul Celan. A symbolic, deep imagery predominates. Ikonic "universals" are manipulated in dream-like sequences. There is no overt evidence here of the explorations of Jewish identity [Poland/1931, Unicorn Press, 1970], or the explorations of form [Conversations, Black Sparrow Press, 1968], or the interest in primitive/tribal cultural artifacts [The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell, Tetrad Press, 1969], which would characterize much of the work of his earlier period. Again, the driving influence seems to point to those German poets Rothenberg had translated [Young German Poets, City Lights Books, 1959]--Celan, Grass, Enzenberger--for Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets Series.

Poets' debut books often present either as ironic counterparts to their later careers, or as perfectly consistent prefigurements. Consider William Carlos Williams's first self-published book Poems [Rutherford, NJ, 1909], which, had you read it contemporaneously, would have held no clues whatever to his later accomplishments. Or Wallace Stevens's Harmonium [Knopf, 1923], published when he was in his early forties, which already feels triumphant in its mature command of materials--of which his later books seem almost an elaboration.

Had Rothenberg not been the impatient, curious explorer, his career might have developed along fairly predictable lines. But the Sixties exploded a number of traditional modes of professional literary presumption. What kind of poet might Robert Bly have become, for instance, if he had not confronted militarism, the counterculture preoccupation with sexual identities, and the poetries of South America and the Middle East and Scandanavia? Silence in the Snowy Fields [Wesleyan, 1962] shares a number of concerns with Rothenberg's White Sun, though the divergent paths of their respective careers tells us not only how fragmented the poetry culture would become in America over the succeeding decades, but also how similar (and cohesive) the poetry scene had been at their mutual beginnings [circa 1955-59]. The careers of both these poets benefited from a wide exploration of different literatures, as well as investigations into personal history and psychology.

But in 1960, this was all to come.

The pre-face to Rothenberg's pamphlet comes directly from William Blake (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1793]--one of his prophetic books--

By degrees we beheld the infinite
abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning
city; beneath us at an immense dis-
tance was the sun, black but shining;
round it were fiery tracks on which
revolved vast spiders, crawling after
their prey, which flew, or rather
swum, in the infinite deep, in the most
terrific shapes of animals spring from
corruption; and the air was full of
them, and seemed composed of them.
These are Devils, and are called powers
of the air. I now asked my com-
panion which was my eternal lot.
He said: "Between the black and
white spiders."

Blake's appreciation of the rhythms and literary styles of the King James Bible [1611] is reflected in his own quasi-prophetic linguistic expression. Indeed, the Biblical qualities in subsequent epochs of literary production is a whole field unto itself, and far beyond the range of my interest here. Suffice it to say that I see in Rothenberg's poem, a lineage of phraseology which though secular in content and purpose, employs rhythms and rhetorical turns which derive from that tradition. Rothenberg's poem is taken directly from the title of a Blake poem, but it may be unclear which poem/or poems Rothenberg's piece refers to. There is Blake's poem A Little Boy Lost (quoted below)--

A Little Boy Lost

"Nought loves another as itself,
Nor venerates another so,
Nor is it possible to thought
A greater than itself to know.

"And, father, how can I love you
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door."

The Priest sat by and heard the child;
In trembling zeal he seized his hair,
He led him by his little coat,
And all admired the priestly care.

And standing on the altar high,
"Lo what a fiend is here! said he:
"One who sets reason up for judge
Of our most holy mystery."

The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,

And burned him in a holy place
Where many had been burned before;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such things done on Albion's shore?

--then there are the two poems The Little Boy Lost, and The Little Boy Found--

The Little Boy Lost

"Father, father, where are you going?
O do not walk so fast.
Speak, father, speak to your little boy,
Or else I shall be lost."

The night was dark, no father was there,
The child was wet with dew;
The mire was deep, and the child did weep,
And away the vapour flew.

The Little Boy Found

The little boy lost in the lonely fen,
Led by the wandering light,
Began to cry, but God, ever nigh,
Appeared like his father, in white.

He kissed the child, and by the hand led,
And to his mother brought,
Who in sorrow pale, through the lonely dale,
The little boy weeping sought.

And here is Rotheberg's poem:

"A Little Boy Lost"

They took me from the white sun and they
left me in the black sun, left
me to sleep among long rows of overcoats:
I was a city boy lost in the country, a
wound in my hand was all I knew about willows
Can you understand, do you hear the wide
sound of the wind against the cow's
side, and the crickets that run down my
sleeve, crickets full of the night, with
bodies like little black suns? try as I will
there is only this cry in my heart, this cry:
They took me from the white sun, and they
left me in the black sun, and I
have no way of turning now, no door

The poem's rhythms have a nursery rhyme jingle to them, an obsessive beat--

They TOOK me from the WHITE sun and they
LEFT me in the BLACK sun

This is emphatic dactylics--Dah da-da--or even a stressed syllable followed by three unstressed syllables--Dah-da-da-da / Dah-da-da-da. The Blake poems are in tetrameter, but Rothenberg's poem feels like much longer lines broken for perceptual effect--

They took me from the white sun and they / left me in the black sun

left / me to sleep among long rows of overcoats

I was a city boy lost in the country,

a / wound in my hand was all I knew about willows

Can you understand /

do you hear the wide / sound of the wind against the cow's / side

and the crickets that run down my / sleeve

crickets full of the night, with / bodies like little black suns /

try as I will / there is only this cry in my heart, this cry

They took me from the white sun, and they / left me in the black sun

and I have no way of turning now, no door

Nevertheless, the poem's rhythmic structure carries considerable force. Its chanting insistence in the repeated phrase at beginning and end, frames the imagery of overcoats, willows, cows and crickets. In terms of theme, Rothenberg's poem appears to play off of Blake's antinomy of innocence and experience in terms of dark and light/birth and death/city and country-- as if the speaker were trying to come to terms with the wildness of experience. If the city is represented as "white" light, and the country as "dark"-ness, or dark light, it may also signify evil or chaos, much as, in Blake's poems, the "mire," in the "lonely dale." Rothenberg's poem seems also to recall or evoke a childhood dilemma, a feeling of being lost in the wilderness, not just the literal universal wilderness but the wilderness or chaos of mind, entangled in transgressive or confusing nets. Though the poem doesn't strike me as a religious dialectic, it could be interpreted, in that context, in a number of possible ways.

If I had to choose an example of a poet whose annunciation of his life-task was as clear and persuasive as this one is, Rothenberg's would be near the top--as indicative, and convincing, in its way, as Eliot's Prufrock. A great beginning isn't crucial to the career of a writer, but it can be critically important, especially if it rings true. The final "no door" suggests a trap, a closed off space or room from which the poet cannot escape. But the poem, especially as the annunciatory entry into the clearing (Duncan) of verse, suggests a birthing as poet. The poem could be a metaphor for the sense of historical enjambment which Rothenberg feels as a Jew following the horrors of the Holocaust, the door a symbolic escape hatch from the fate of persecutions of race and ethnicity. As an American Jew, Rothenberg was in the crucial position of empathizing with the suppressed poetries (and peoples) of the Third World, and the many worlds (or rooms) he would explore in the ensuing years. Each door leads to the outer world, and each door to another room. An igloo is a teepee is a mud hut. Though the poem says "no door" it's actually the door--the road beyond. The poem is a door to the poet's future.


Craig said...

"Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?" —
"Siehst, Vater, du den Erlk├Ânig nicht?
Den Erlenk├Ânig mit Kron und Schweif?" —
"Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif."

Wonder how much access Blake had to Goethe. My dad grew up able to recite this poem in both German and English.

01010101 said...


what's funny is how Blake's sunday school hymns became the manifesto of the beatskis--rather ~(sunday school). What did Joyce (as in James) say of Goethe & Co, sturm und drang? Donner, blitzen, etc. Nietzsche sort of changed that romantic Weltanschauuuung--at least FN was an honest nazi.

Curtis Faville said...

Blake's poems are much more complex and ambiguous than his readers often imagine.

It's a simple mistake to see his work in the same light, say, as Dickens--criticism of societal corruption or class struggle.

Blake's dilemmas are much more tortuous and not at all synthetic--he doesn't give us easy answers.

The ambiguity of the Rothenberg poem is one of its strengths. It's unclear what the thrust of the argument actually is.

01010101 said...

Blake's themes might be somewhat complex at times (usually, related to the problem of evil chestnut). The forms aren't. Rev. Blake may have had a good heart but he's another low-rent Milton. Dickens a bit richer (and with a better eye for well, societal corruption and class struggle)

01010101 said...

Have you seen any of the Blake's manuscripts in person, Sir F.? They have a few on display at the Huntington museum. Rather intense--Blake did all the engraving/printing as well, and in those days had to do it backwards. That said, I'm not sure the accusations of... WB's madness were entirely unfounded.