From Pre-Face to a Symposium on Ethnopoetics (1975)

There is a Seneca Indian song, a song that is part of a medicine society & ceremony called "shaking the pumpkin" or "the society of the mystic animals" or "the society of shamans," which I have translated elsewhere in a more elaborate form than I will give here. But it is a key, in what it says, to the bewilderment I feel at where my own poetry & the poetry of my generation has taken me — to this place, for example, where I am to be celebrating a poetry of performance in our time tied up in some ways we have yet to define to a poetry of performance in those cultures we may think of as "primitive" or "primary" or "primal." The words of the Seneca song, which I translated with the Seneca singer, Richard Johnny John, go like this (the title is our own addition):

I didn’t think I’d
shake the pumpkin
not just here & now
not exactly tonight
I didn’t think I’d
rip some meat off
not just here & now
not exactly tonight

Now, I had not shaken the pumpkin before, had not sung before or sung before to a rattle: I had not done any of these things & it would have seemed foolish to me then to have done them. It did seem foolish but at a point I was doing them & it no longer seemed foolish, seemed necessary if anything I had said about it before had a meaning. My own origins, from which I had been running for most of my own grown life, should have told me as well, if I had been able then to give them my attention, for the living tradition of the Jews is also "oral," from the mouth, & even in an age of writing, the word must be renewed by the process of "speaking" & of "sounding." It is by such sounding & voicing (this near eruption into song) that the attention is brought to focus on the sources of the poem, the song, the discourse, in the prior act of composition (making or receiving), which was itself an act of focusing attention. In creating that attention, that intensity, the Senecas, who are otherwise as removed as we are from the primitive condition, begin the ceremony by invoking those "mystic animals" who were the first keepers of the song., who came once in a vision to a hunter lost & wounded in the woods, to cure him & leave him with a set of keys by which to summon them again. Thee ceremony begins in darkness, then the rattle sounds & makes a kind of light, a heat, that moves around the circle of those joined in the performance.

(At this point there follows a chanting, with rattle, of the opening songs to "Shaking the Pumpkin," translated by myself &Richard Johnny John)

Now, what has happened here, at least for me, is not a separated series of events or actions but a totality that I no longer want to break into its component parts: to isolate the words, say, as the poem. For my experience is the experience of everything that happens to me in that act: the movement of my arm, the sound (& feel) of pebbles against horn, the way that breaks across my voice, the tension in my throat, the full release of breath, the emptying that leaves me weak & ready to receive the next song, the song occurring, rising out of memory, becoming voice, becoming sound, becoming physical again & then returning into silence. And it is also this room, this time & place, these others here with me. The event is different from the event of composition (in this case, to further complicate the matters, involves a second composition-by-translation), but the poem is everything-that-happens: & if it is, then to insist that it is only part of it (the words), is to mistake the event, to miss that total presence.

Before I am anything else, I am a poet & (living in the time I do) a stand-up performer of my own poetry. It is better for me to do poetry than to talk about it. I do it first & then I sound it: this is doing it a second time, a third a fourth a fifth time, to renew it by the sounding. My performance is the sounding of a poem: it is renewal of the poem, the poem’s enlivening. Without this sounding there would be no poem as I have come to do it (though, since I work by writing, there would be notes about the poem as I intended it). This is the return to voice, to song, as the poet Gary Snyder speaks of it; it is one side of the impulse towards the oral, toward a poetry of performance, as is that other side, discourse, that the poet David Antin speaks of. Poetry becomes the sounding — not the script apart from, the preparation or notation, but the sounding. Where there is no writing, the sounding truly renews the poem, creates it in each instance, for here there is no poem without performance. Writing, that strange aid to memory, eventually becomes its surrogate, displaces memory itself — the first, great Muse. The poetry sounding becomes the poetry reading. This is the condition under which most of us work. If others would go more deeply into orality, would bring composition & performance together in a single, improvised event, that would also be welcome. But I would like to describe it as it now is for me & why I have sought my model of the poem-as-performance (the poem in action) in the domain of what I came to call the "ethnopoetic."

As a stand-up performer the poet retains a solitary stance. He is in no way the playwright of the old verse dramas, but the central (typically the only) figure in a performance in which he must play a part. The part he plays is the poet-as-himself, performing in a theater as yet without an actor — or much of anything else besides what the poet brings: words & a voice. The difference between the poet & the actor is somehow crucial: the basis of the poetry performance is in fact hostile to the presence, the manner, of the professional actor. That the poet as performer is otherwise motivated, otherwise related to the poem, is here a shared assumption: in insistence on a lack of separation between the maker & his work, & of a virtual innocence of any means of performance beyond the ones immediately to hand. The poet’s delivery may vary, he may read easily or he may falter, he may digress, he may drift at times into a drunken incoherence, he may fulfill or disappoint our expectations of how a poem is spoken. Somehow it is enough that he has risked himself to do as much as he can do: to stand there as a witness to his words, he who alone can sound them. That kind of witnessing is not without its precedents, as in the sounding of the written "law" within the ancient Jewish Temple, where the reader (sounder)w was the witness to the meaning of a text devoid of vowels. It is one arrangement (there are others) that maintains the oral basis of a poetry, its openness, once we have entered on an age of writing. In the poetry of our own time, with its use of an approximate & highly individualized notation, the measure of a poem (& much of its meaning) is likewise only clear when it is being sounded: in this case sounded by its maker. The poet when he sounds his poem is witness to the way it goes, the way it came to happen in the first place. He is in fact the witness to a (prior) vision, to an image-of-the-world expressed through word & sound. The failure to communicate is a failure to communicate his credibility: his own relation to those words, that vision. The actor may attempt to take his place (& in certain kinds of theater today the actors have become the makers & sounders of their own words), but as a witness to the poet’s words the actor’s credibility has yet to be established.

There is a widespread idea that the poets of our time, the artists in general, have abandoned the possibility of relating to poets of other times as models: that we live without a vision of ourselves as historical beings but are locked into an eternal present, not so much an opportunity as a trap. I have never seen our condition in those terms — have rather seen us as freeing ourselves, on the basis of conditions in the world itself, to a wider, more generous view of the past, of the historical totality of human experience, than has ever been possible. This process has been going on at least from the time of the Romantics, & it has produced a number of new images, new models or visions of the past, from which we now can draw. (Like any historical search, it functions to heighten our awareness of the present & the future.)

Increasingly, the model, the prototype, of the poet has become the "shaman": the solitary, inspired religious functionary of the late paleolithic. Partly this has been because of our own involvement with the kind of solitary, stand-up performance that I was just describing, But there is also a second side to it: the visionary & ecstatic, & a third perhaps, the communal. I will not concentrate on the last two (although they are in some ways the real heart of the matter) but will try to focus on the shaman’s (proto-poet’s) way of going/speaking/singing: his performance. In deeper, if often more confused sense, what is involved here is the search for a primal ground: a desire to bypass a civilization that has become problematic & to return, briefly, often by proxy, to the origins of our humanity. Going back in time we continue to find diversity & yet, maybe because we’re looking at it from the wrong end, the picture emerges of an intertribal, universal culture (& behind a poetics) that has a number of discernable, definable features. The most direct inheritors of this culture — up to their virtual disappearance in our time — are those hunting & gathering peoples, remnants of whom now exist as an endangered & ultimately doomed "fourth world." Far from being mere "wild men," mere fantasizing children, they had a world-view marked (Paul Radin tells us) by a strong sense of realism ("reality at white heat") or, according to Stanley Diamond, " (by) modes of thinking (that) are substantially concrete, existential & nominalistic, within a personalistic context" & supremely able to "sustain contradictions."

Here the dominant religious functionary is the shaman: he is the one who sees/the one who sings/the one who heals. He is not yet the bard, the tribal historian. He is not necessarily the speaker. He is typically withdrawn: experiences long periods of silence, other periods of exaltation. He may inherit his words, his songs, from others or he may come on them directly in a vision or a trance. He may be a prolific songmaker or he may be constantly renewing a small, fixed body of song. He may have helpers but typically he works alone. He may improvise within the actual performance of his rites, but more often he will sound, will activate, the words or songs delivered at another time & place.

So, among us the poet has come to play a performance role that resembles that of the shaman. (This is more than coincidence because there is an underlying ideology: communal, ecological, even historical: an identification with late paleolithic ideology & social organization, seen as surviving in the "great subcultures" within the later city-states, civilization, etc.) The poet like the shaman typically withdraws to solitude to find his poem or vision, then returns to sound it, to give it life. He performs alone (or very occasionally with assistance, as in the work of Jackson Mac Low, say), because his presence is considered crucial & no other specialist has arisen to act in his place. He is also like the shaman in being at once an outsider, yet a person needed for the validation of a certain kind of experience important to the group. And even in societies otherwise hostile or indifferent to poetry as "literature," he may be allowed a range of deviant, even antisocial behavior that many of his fellow-citizens do not enjoy. Again like the shaman, he will not only be allowed to act mad in public, but he will often be expected to do so. The act of the shaman — & his poetry — is like a public act of madness. It is like what the Senecas, in their great dream ceremony now obsolete, called "turning the mind upside down." It shows itself as a release of alternative possibilities. "What do they want?" the poet wonders of those who watch him in his role of innocent, sometimes reluctant performer. But what? To know that madness is possible & that the contradictions can be sustained. From the first shaman — that solitary person — it flows out to whole companies of shamans, to whole societies of human beings: it heals the sickness of the body but more than that: the sickness of the soul. It is a "mode of thinking" & of acting that is "substantially concrete, existential & nominalistic, within a personalistic context" & "supremely able to sustain contradictions." It is the primal exercise of human freedom against/ & for the tribe.

Now, as many questions are left as are answered. Does the poem really heal? Or what kind of poem or song, or discourse, does heal — or sustain contradictions — or turn the mind upside down? What is the basis for seeing in cultures & poetries so far removed from us the kind of conjunctions I have so far assumed? And if the move from the "oral" to the "literal" was tied up, as I believe it was, with the need of an emergent class of rulers for a more rigorous arrangement of society, why should we now expect a movement in the opposite direction? It is as yet hard to say, for our whole poetics (not just our ethnopoetics) is, like our life in general, up for grabs. What do we say about the function of our poetry, the thing we do? That it explores. That it initiates thought or action. That it proposes its own displacement. That it allows vulnerability & conflict. That it remains, like the best science, constantly open to change: to a continual change in our idea of what a poem is or may be. What language is. What experience is. What reality is. That for many of us it has become a fundamental process for the play & interchange of possibilities.

And it has come out of a conflict — more or less deeply felt — with inherited forms of poetry, literature, language, discourse: not in every instance but where these are recognized as repressive structures, forms of categorical thinking that act against that other free play of possibilities just alluded to. Against these inherited forms, the conventional literature that no longer fed us, we have both searched for & invented other forms. Some of us have doggedly gone from there to a reviewing of the entire poetic past (of any poetry for that matter outside the immediate neighborhood) from the point of view of the present. Here there are two process involved — not mutually exclusive. On the one hand the contemporary forms (the new means that we invent) make older forms visible: & on the other hand, the forms that we uncover elsewhere help us in the reshaping, the resharpening, of our own tools. The past, come alive, is in motion with us. It is no longer somewhere else but, like the future, here — which is the only way it can be, toward a poetry of changes.

by Jerome Rothenberg, from PRE-FACES & OTHER WRITINGS, copyright 1962 by New Directions Publishing Corp., Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.