Reconfiguring Romanticism (33): Coleridge’s Faustus

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:34 AM 0 comments

[A once anonymous 1821 translation of Goethe’s Faust has recently been attributed to Coleridge, though the attribution remains open to question. Even so, once the possibility arises, the temptation to hear echoes of Coleridge in the following excerpt becomes very strong, and the accompanying prose narrative is itself a matter of some interest. The major proponent of a Coleridge version seems to have been Goethe selbst (Coleridge, on the other hand, denied it), and the major new source is the Oxford University Press edition (2008), Faustus From the German of Goethe Translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Frederick Burwick and James C. McKusick.]

SCENE—Faustus’s Study,
Enter FAUSTUS with the DOG.

Faustus soliloquizes, in a tone of feeling and sentiment, on the stillness of the night, calming every passion to repose. He is interrupted at intervals by the growling of the Dog, whom he in vain attempts to pacify. He feels a sudden desire to translate a passage from the New Testament, but cannot determine on an expression in his native language sufficiently comprehensive to express the creating power.

‘In the beginning was the Word,’ ‘tis written;
Here do I stumble: who can help me on?
I cannot estimate ‘the Word’ so highly;
I must translate it otherwise, if rightly
I feel myself enlightened by its spirit.
‘In the beginning was the Mind,’ ‘tis written:
Repeat this line, and weigh its meaning well,
Nor let thy pen decide too hastily:
Is it the mind creates and fashions all?
‘In the beginning was the Power, it should be;
Yet, even while I write the passage down,
It warns me that I have not caught its meaning:
Help me, then, Spirit! With deliberation,
And perfect confidence, I will inscribe,
At last, ‘In the beginning was the Deed.’

At this juncture the yelling and howling of the Dog increase, and Faustus again commands him to be quiet, and threatens to expel him. Suddenly he becomes enlarged to an enormous size, and assumes the form of a hippopotamus, whilst without, spirits are heard bemoaning the loss of their comrade. Faustus tries to subdue him with a spell of the four elements; but, finding that charm inefficient, concludes that he is under the dominion of a higher power, and has recourse to this stronger incantation:--

Art thou one who fell,
Deserter from hell?
Whose virtues incline
The legions of hell to obey it.

At this potent bidding the Dog reluctantly issues forth from behind the stove, whither he had retreated, and swells till he appears as large as an elephant, and nearly fills the room. He at length bursts in a cloud of smoke, which gradually dissipates, and discovers Mephistopheles ‘drest like a traveling student.’

The famous Walpurgis-Night, or night of the first of May, is now arrived, and the scene, changing to the Hartz mountains, discovers Faustus, under the guidance of Mephistopheles, pursuing a toilsome journey, climbing up rocks, and threading the labyrinths of this region of magic to the heights consecrated to the celebration of the Witches’ Revel. The last breeze of spring blows coldly; the moon shines dimly above their heads, scarcely distinguishing the projecting boughs and jutting cliffs. Mephistopheles calls an ignis-fatuus to light them. It proceeds before them in its usual tortuous course, till it is commanded by the Evil-One to go straight forward. The travelers join in a wild strain, descriptive of the surrounding objects of wonder—the moving trees—the bending cliffs—the falling torrents and rivulets—the unearthly sounds—and the echo like the voice of other times. Birds of all kinds are still in concert, as if it were day; reptiles in motions; knotty trunks stretched out in all directions, twining like serpents, as if to intercept their path; and swarms of glow-worms sparkling all around. Mephistopheles directs Faustus’s attention to the veins of ore glowing in a deep cleft of the mountain; he scents the approach of the concourse of guests hurrying forward through the air to this great magic festival, and desires his charge to hold fast to the rock, or he will be swept to the precipices below. He thus paints the aspect of the scene before them:--

O’er the night a cloud condenses,
Through the woods a rush commences,
Up the owls affrighted start;
Listen! How the pillars part,
The ever-verdant roofs from under,
Boughs rustle, snap, and break asunder!
The trunks incline in fearful forms,
Roots creak and stretch, as torn by storms;--
In startling, and entangled fall,
Upon each other rush they all,
And through rent clefts and shattered trees,
Now sighs and howls the rushing breeze.
Hear’st thou voices in the air,
Now far distant, and now near?
Yes, the mountain’s ridge along
Sweeps a raging, magic song!

The witches then appear in full band, mounted on broom-sticks, pitch-forks, goats, and sows, sailing in troughs, and decorated with all the paraphernalia of their order. They sing a rude measure, the voices of those above, and of those who are making their way up the mountain, mingling in the chorus. Mephistopheles again warns Faustus to be on his guard, lest they should be separated. He recommends him to hold fast to his skirts. The voice of Faustus in reply, sounds from a considerable distance. Mephistopheles perceives the danger to be imminent, and exerts his authority in commanding the throng to make way. He enjoins Faustus to attach himself to him, and leaps out of the rushing population. They approach a detached spot, where many fires are blazing. Mephistopheles displays the all-potent sign, the cloven foot; a serpent recognizes it, and crawls towards him. The two visitants advance from party to party, listen to the converse of each, and gaze on their revels. Mephistopheles suddenly assumes the form of an old man. He points out to Faustus, Lilith, Adam’s first wife, distinguished by her beautiful hair. Faustus addresses himself to a fair magician, and Mephistopheles to an old witch. They lead them forth to dance.

[Other examples of translating Goethe, one of them shared with Coleridge, were posted November 27, 2008, January 23, 2009, & May 19, 2009 on Poems and Poetics.]

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Graham Reynolds

Ebb be.
Sloops’ sleek keels.
Deeps speed.
Dirge, gride;
Race, fast salt,
A deluge guled.
Oh surf, rush,
O, glibe
Big swash saws;
Reel, leer.
Yaw. A raft.
Far eve,
Tar at dusk,
Cord, lock,
Rack, cark,
Cold rock,
Tar at eve,
Raft far away.
Reel, leer,
Swash saws,
Gibe big,
Oh, surf, rush
O deluge guled.
At last safe.
Care, dirge, grid.
Deeps speed,
Sleek keels’ spools:
Ebb be.

J.A. Lindon
Three Palindrome Poems


We sew.
Nell, Edna,
Ada –
hem, eh?)
– Enid and Nadine
loop, spin, snip
“Damosel” silk, cut
elastic – “I’ll iron,”
went on Sal.
“A ruffle’s a slip!” I railed.
No, not to cod,
Di held e’en
needle hid?
Do cotton on, Delia!
Rip Ilsa’s elf-fur –
alas, not new
nor illicit sale –
tuck lisle so mad,
pin, snip, spool . . .
Enid and Nadine
hem, eh?
and Ellen,
we sew.


Rise, cap!
Sniff oxygen . . .
Do orbits alter?
Cesta, rise!
No g–
Gyrator still upon
Sun, every gyre
No pull
It’s rotary –
G gone, sir
At secret last I brood
Neg, yx . . .
Off in space, sir!



Sit, walk
Spill, lap milk

(Meek, ample)
Help make ’em
All lips

Stack-law ’tis
No two aims
Lap . . .
Lap, lap . . .
Lap . . .

[Palindrome poems, reading the same back to front like shorter, more familiar palindromes, reside outside the limits of accepted literature. Yet works like these will often bear a stunning resemblance to language-centered poetry & prose by the likes of Joyce and Zukofsky, & even more so to the rule-ordered writing of the French Oulipo poets & twentieth-century experimentalists such as Mac Low and Cage. Further examples of poetry by Reynolds and Lindon can be found in Howard W. Bergerson’s rich & powerful Palindromes and Anagrams (Dover Publications, 1973), from which these samples have been taken. Earlier postings on "outsider poems" can be found by using the checklist in the column on the right or the search window at upper left.]

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Wai-lim Yip, from "Dialogues," after Photos by Jonas Yip

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:24 AM 0 comments

[Click on image to enlarge.]

empty park
empty chair

small eddies in the pond
ringing through the sky
to the empyrean



dark leaves
dark leaves
push and press
ranges and ranges
of rock
houses push
and press more rock
houses push and
press a million
dark eyes
gazing all upward
toward the eiffel spire
the moving clouds

a shaft of sunlight
cuts the room
in halves
giving darkness
a body
and prepares a stage
for a bottle
and two bowls
to assume
their graceful


pounding rains

spectra crowds gone

untarnished aura
an anonymous witness
N.B. The source of these poems & photo-images – 13 of them presented as “dialogues” – is Paris: Dialogues + Meditations by Jonas Yip and Wai-lim Yip – published bilingually by Nanjing University Press in 2009 & available internationally through The full set of thirteen Dialogues is also posted at Jonas Yip’s "Paris: Dialogue" gallery: An exhibition, "Paris: Dialogue,” featuring photographs and poems excerpted from the book, is currently traveling through Taiwan and China, & will arrive in the United States in 2011 with a show at the San Diego Museum of Art.

Jonas Yip is an award-winning photographer & musician based in the Los Angeles area, while readers of Poems & Poetics will likely be familiar with Wai-lim Yip as the author of Pound’s Cathay and Chinese Poetry: Major Modes and Genres (University of California Press). A longtime resident of the United States, Wai-lim Yip has been active for over 45 years as a bicultural poet, translator, critic & theorist with special contribution to East-West comparative literature, aesthetics, & comparative poetics between China & America. In recent years he has been celebrated in China with exhibitions devoted to his archives & conferences devoted to his poetry, as well as publication of his Complete (Chinese) Works in nine thick volumes. Paris: Dialogues + Meditations is the best presentation so far of his original poetry in English.

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[Continued from posting on July 28, 2009.]

The existence of the content of Cornplanter’s visions is serendipitous. A copy of the manuscript (or the original) was in the collection of the Cornplanter family and was found and recopied by a young man, Charles Aldrich, in 1849, and sent to Lyman C. Draper who had expressed an interest in collecting memorabilia relevant to a project on the Revolutionary War. Aldrich offered himself as a reliable local scholar who had access to a series of documents in the possession of William O’Beale, one of Cornplanter’s sons. Aldrich apologized to Draper for the legibility of the manuscript he sent because, he explained, he was rushed in producing it, but “it is about as legible from the ms from which it is taken.”

Cornplanter called on Henry York to interpret and transcribe his dictation of his visions. Henry York was a Seneca living at the Cattaraugus Reservation where he was occasionally, but apparently not preferentially, called on to act as an interpreter. We may assume that York was both bilingual and literate, but the chaotic form of the written document presumably produced by him is likely as much a reflection of his own limitations as it is of Cornplanter’s mental state. Ethnohistorians are certainly aware of the problem of the intervention of interpreters and the reliability of their productions.

The manuscript entitled “A Copy of Cornplanter’s Talk February 12, 1820, it being 328 years after the discovery of America” is quite systematic in its presentation. This is not the forum for presenting the manuscript in its entirety and so the following is a schematic description, including some explanatory remarks of my own.

I. PREHISTORY: Presents The Iroquois Origin Myth of Turtle Island, the origin of Good and Evil personified by the mythical twins, and the creation by the Great Spirit of natural abundance for the Indians. The absence of intoxicating liquors in that natural abundance indicates that they should be excluded from Indian use.

II. RECORDED HISTORY: The section begins with the words that dramatically set the tone for the whole section: “The white man lies when they say that he (the Savior) ordered them to seek out the Island.” The account that follows describes the coming of the British and French, the deceptions they practiced to involve the Indians in political conflicts that disrupted Indian life, and the distress, including personal family examples, that the Indians suffered from having allowed themselves to get involved in white men’s affairs. In this section Cornplanter describes a conversation he had with a British general who reassured Cornplanter that he had no cause for remorse in having killed seven people during wars fought for British interests. Cornplanter’s expressed retrospective conclusion was that killing and warfare were wrong, particularly when it was done to further European interests that ultimately resulted in Indian land losses.

III: RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION: (These are the contents of the visions themselves, reported by Cornpanter as having been received from the Great Spirit for his own behaviorial modification, but also to be imparted by him to the Seneca community.) a) Reject alcoholic beverages. b) Destroy tokens of war and gifts from whites that were rewards for participating in and advancing white interests. Significantly Cornplanter indicates that he was instructed that, “when you destroy anything by my voice (i.e. by my instructions) you must do it publically and not keep it secret, but let all know it …” I think we are justified in suggesting that when Cornplanter destroys his sword, his French flag, his feathered hat, the documents giving him a commission of captain, and his wife’s family’s wampum, he was not engaged in a private act of madness, but rather in a prepared, public, political event replete with appropriate political symbols designed to influence public opinion and action.

IV: PERSONAL STATEMENT OF STRATEGIES FOR FUTURE BEHAVIOR AND RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE COMMUNITY: a) Future separation of whites and Indians, particularly around missionary activity among the Indians. He says, “I do not wish to forbid the ministers to preach among their own people for if I did it would strike them with confusion and might make them take their own lives and so it would be with us if we would quit our own way, we should get into confusion and something would happen or befall us so that we should lose our lives.” b) No tax payments. (Insofar as he was a holder of private property who was at that time being faced with tax assessments from which he had believed his property to be exempt, this instruction was likely more a personal declaration, which he repeated in his Warren, Pennsylvania. address, than it was at that time generally relevant to the Seneca community. As a general position with reference to Native American sovereignty, he was certainly being prophetic.) He says, “They will support themselves and the white people must do that same thing.” c) To determine future action, Cornplanter says that he will follow the instructions of the Great Spirit as he understands it, “for I believe him to be my master and if he tells me wrong I cannot help it,” which certainly constitutes a convenient all purpose response to further missionary pressures that was directed not just to religious belief and practice but to all areas of social restructuring. d) Indians should avoid drinking cow’s milk because it makes them sick, and the more they drink, the worse they feel.

The recommendation for Indians to avoid drinking cows milk seemed, on its face, so bizarre that it frequently functioned as the clincher argument to prove Cornplanter’s derangement. The historian, James Axtell, has suggested that cow’s milk may have been the only white introduced item without parallel in prior Seneca experience. The substitution of hen’s eggs for wild eggs, raised meat for wild, metal tools for wooden or stone, cloth for skins would be acceptable because of the parallelism of the categories, but cow’s milk would be without an appropriate item to fill in its binary slot. This is not an unattractive suggestion that provides satisfying cultural reasons for cultural behavior and that would probably be totally satisfactory if it were not that the consequences of drinking cow’s milk as described by Cornplanter seem to suggest that he has observed something physical happening to those who drink it.

Needless to say, the drinking of cow’s milk is non-native in origin, although Cornplanter’s community had 14 cows and other livestock before the Quakers came in 1798. The Quakers assisted them in accumulating more, but were very critical of their neglect of their cattle, particularly during the winter. Under these circumstances, milk production must not have been abundant, but milk was probably at least sporadically available During the nineteenth century cattle stock increased and, after 1860, when the coming of the railroad made possible the commercialization of cheese manufacture, Senecas participated with whites in supplying the milk for this industry. The importance of cheese manufacture for white markets is, however, forty years after Cornplanter singled out cow’s milk for special condemnation specifying that it was detrimental to children and cursed by Christ to revenge himself on the wicked who are blighted by drinking it. And to repeat: the more of it you drink, the worse it is.

In our contemporary age of milk substitutes, it may be hard to believe that lactose intolerance was only first identified in the 1970’s, including the pinpointing of those rare communities that could tolerate dairy products. The symptoms are familiar and distressing: diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting, and excessive bloating. They vary in severity from individual to individual and, for many years, were taken to be the irrational psychosomatic response of populations who rejected animal milk drinking for cultural reasons. Certain Native American communities approach estimates of 100% malabsorbers. Cornplanter described those symptoms and he might have concluded that what was good for white men was not appropriate for Indians no matter what the whites advised.

The scholars who accepted Cornplanter’s temporary derangement and who were writing before the physical evidence was in looked at this strange injunction against milk-drinking as the confirming evidence to accept the missionary’s statements that his behavior at this time was irrational. We can, of course, never really know, but I find it more productive to consider what he might have had in mind rather than to accept that he was out of his mind. He was a remarkable man and deserves at least this much respect.

[A professional anthropolgist & an active player in the emerging discourse around an ethnopoetics, Diane Rothenberg is the co-editor of Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics (University of California Press, 1983) & the author of Friends Like These: An Ethnohistorical Analysis (University Microfilms International, 1976). Copies of her book, Mothers of the Nation, are still available through Ta’wil Books, Two essays from the same collection, "Corn Soup & Fry Bread" & “The Economic Memories of Harry Watt, were posted earlier in Poems and Poetics (December 5, 2008, March 12. 2009, March 24, 2009, & April 8, 2009). “On the Insanity of Cornplanter,” a historical account that touches also on the poetics & problematics of vision in traditional Indian cultures, has only recently been reassembled.]

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NOTE & COMMENTARY. The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing — called "Shakers" — originated in England in the mid-eighteenth century and soon centered around the person of Ann Lee (Mother Ann, or Mother Wisdom, or simply Mother), who became "the reincarnation of the Christ Spirit … Ann the Word … Bride of the Lamb." The group practiced communal living and equality of the sexes, along with a reputedly complete abstention from sexual intercourse. After persecutions and jailings in England, Ann brought them to America in 1774, where for many years they thrived on conversions, reaching a maximum size of 6,000 before their demise in the twentieth century.
Between 1837 and 1850 ("known as the Era of Manifestations") the Shakers composed (or were the recipients of) "hundreds of … visionary drawings … really [spiritual] messages in pictorial form," writes Edward Deming Andrews (The Gift To Be Simple, 1940). "The designers of these symbolic documents felt their work was controlled by supernatural agencies … — gifts bestowed on some individual in the order (usually not the one who made the drawing." The same is true of the "gift songs" and other verbal works, and the invention of forms in both the songs and drawings is extraordinary, as is their resemblance to the practice of later poets and artists.

N.B. "To be sure, the term drawing is a misnomer, because the Shakers did not use it themselves when they were referring to these works. In the few Shaker documents in which the gift drawings are mentioned, they are typically referred to as sheets, rolls, signs, notices, tokens of love, presents, rewards, hearts — sometimes prefaced by the adjective sacred. This definition focuses on the function of the works as gifts from heavenly spirits, rather than on the form in which the gifts were materialized. In fact, the gift drawings often include titles, captions, inscriptions, and extended texts, in English as well as in scripts written in indecipherable tongues, that place them on an uninterrupted continuum with other manifestations of belief, such as inspired writing, ecstatic movement, and spontaneous speech, especially in the form of song." (Thus: France Morin, in Heavenly Visions: Shaker Gift Drawings and Gift Songs, The Drawing Center, New York, and UCLA Hammer Museum, 2001 — a book packed with generous examples, more of which can be viewed at

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They shall eat it.


In her womb.


And the sand lizard.


He comes running.


Someone slain.


Their father.


His sins.


A harlot.


In the heat.


He shall lead.


The prophet.


And he built.

The preceding are a series of poems constructed by gematria (traditional Hebrew numerology), for which see earlier postings on 7/8/2008, 7/14/2008, 11/30/2008, & 2/6/2009. The connection to Beaver goes back to my years living with the Seneca Nation of Indians in Salamanca, New York, a quick summary of which appeared (1978) in A Seneca Journal, viz:

I became a beaver in 1968. Richard Johnny John was my father. The ceremony took place in the longhouse & was very brief. They said some words in Seneca. I got a new name. I didn’t know if they were serious but the name was great. My wife & son became blue herons. She was called The One Who Travels, he was called The Talker. My wife’s sister was Thelma Ledsome & her mother was Effie Johnson. I got interested in beavers four years later – when we went to live in Salamanca. Salamanca is a railroad town right on the reservation. I saw it once on a German map of America that omitted Albany. The population now is 7000 & is mostly white. Charles Olson wrote: History is the new localism. And Ezra Pound: An epic is a poem including history. When I die my name goes back to where it came from. A Seneca will come for it.

The connection between the Beaver as totem (clan) animal & the short phrases derived from the Hebrew bible is now hard for me to reconstruct, but my time during our reservation stay coincided not only with the writing of Shaking the Pumpkin and A Seneca Journal, but with the beginnings of Poland/1931 and A Big Jewish Book. The dedicatory poem in A Seneca Journal is also a reflection of that:



a city on
a turtle’s back
a longhouse
was like Jerusalem
‘s temple resting
on a whale


impossible to bring it all

Seneca Nation
Salamanca, New York

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[The first part of "Quantum Poetics," with a note & commentary on the author, was posted here on July 22, 2009.]

Clinamen’s Swerve

My sense of quantum poetics is sourced in the incandescent writings of French symbolist Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), creator of ’pataphysics, a science of imaginary solutions conceived as a next step beyond metaphysics where exceptions are the rule. [Other sources of these topics include Christian Bök’s ’Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (2001); Stephanie Strickland’s essay, “Quantum Poetics: Six Thoughts” (2007), an approach based in virtuality; and Daniel Albright’s Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism (1997).] The inaugural performance of Jarry’s best known work, the absurdist play Ubu-Roi (1896), was incendiary. Bizarre stage settings spooked the audience before Jarry shouted the first spoken word of the play, “Merde!” Half the audience walked out while the other half, including Guillaume Apollinaire, hailed the play as a masterpiece. According to Shlain, who cites Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s essay in Art Quarterly 34, “A New Facet of Cubism: ‘The Fourth Dimension and Non Euclidean Geometry’ Reinterpreted” (1971), Apollinaire was one of the first writers to defend cubism against its detractors when he spoke about the “new measure of space, which in the language of the modern studios are designated by the term, fourth dimension.” Jarry’s experiments, along with cubism, were prominent influences in the development of surrealism by Apollinaire, André Breton, and others.

One foundational context in Jarry’s work is clinamen, a term first coined by the Greek philosopher Epicurus and later reinterpreted by the Roman philosopher Lucretius. Clinamen refers to the spontaneous, microscopic swerving of atoms in space as they fall in a vertical path. The swerve of atoms from their original trajectories was responsible for the creation of matter, it was reasoned, since without the swerve, atoms would never touch to form bodies. According to Roger Shattuck, clinamen is expressed in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. In literature, the idea is cited as a basis for oulipo and other writing techniques. In The Anxiety of Influence (1997), Harold Bloom used the term to talk about how writers swerve away from their predecessors. Joan Retallack, in The Poethical Wager (2003), talks of Epicurus’ swerve and a possible “poetics of the swerve.” In a chapter titled “Clinamen” in Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician: A Neo-Scientific Novel (1911), Henri Rousseau is given an animated painting machine named Clinamen, a “beast” and “mechanical monster,” to alter canvases hanging in a museum with “primary colors ranged according to the tubes of its [the machine’s] stomach.” The machine creates thirteen new “paintings,” each described in a prose poem. This one is called “Love”:

“The soul is wheedled by Love who looks exactly like an iridescent veil and assumes the masked face of a chrysalis. It walks upon inverted skulls. Behind the wall where it hides, claws brandish weapons. It is baptized with poison. Ancient monsters, the wall’s substance, laugh into their green beards. The heart remains red and blue, violet in the artificial absence of the iridescent veil that it is weaving.”

Poetry and other innovative languages seem to be forms of clinamen as are other modes of perception that invite the swerve to interrupt the path. Clinamen’s swerve usurps the imaginary web of straight lines in Euclidean conceptions of space and Aristotelian conceptions of time. Developments in theoretical physics illustrate that swerves do not just happen at cultural or artistic levels but also within physical reality. Like the relationship between matter and spacetime in relativity, the spacetime of language is affected by and affects these spatial and temporal swerves. Just as swerves in space locate and dissipate words on a page, swerves in time inspire and dissolve rhythm. And like the relationship of the observed and the observer in quantum theory, the reader influences text through interpretation. It is also in this way that meaning, in both the new physics and poetic innovations, is a process rather than an end point. Swerves in spacetime—in physical reality, poetry, and consciousness—detach linear time from its imaginary web of straight lines, allowing for the experience of all points in space at the same time. Gertrude Stein examined this phenomenon in her theory of the continuous present. Jarry, in his essay, “How to Construct a Time Machine” (1899), developed the idea of an imaginary present, a second, symmetrical present that is used to redefine duration as a construct of memory.

Poetry and the Invisible Universe

Astrophysicists propose that ninety-six percent of the known universe is comprised of dark matter and dark energy. Yet we often participate in reality as if the invisible is revealed, as if the universe is seen. Perhaps consciousness, operating in quantum, relative, and multiple states at the same time, and as part of the multiverse’s ecology, unbound by the linearity of space and time, is evolving toward novelty through art such as poetry, which is an innovative language of the imagination, and which might equip the invisible universe to see us, so we might, in turn, see it. This seeing might not function as an epistemological seeing but more like the way a viewer perceives Wonder Woman’s invisible jet in the sky: imagining to see the invisible jet and not to see the representative outline, the viewer perceives the jet as both invisible and detectable simultaneously.

Novelty also seems to be a primary action of evolution. Reading and writing innovative languages evolves consciousness, where our faculties of perception and experience extend as we learn. Reading and writing imaginatively also rearranges consciousness so that we are receptive to novelty in our encounters. Perhaps being receptive to novelty through the regular exposure to and practice of innovative language, which is an activity of perception and experience, is part of an evolutionary process of novelty. Culturally, novel languages operate on different frequencies, like radio waves, registering as alien languages to those who don’t, or refuse to, encounter them. If the universe is comprised of multiple dimensions of space and time beyond the three dimensions of space and one dimension of time we normally experience, and if language is operating beyond these normative dimensions, what is poetry? What are we when we write innovative languages? What are we when we read and hear them? Was Gertrude Stein writing at the speed of light?

In Mad Science in Imperial City (2005), Shanxing Wang asks: “Is there a 4th person narration?” In physics, the fourth dimension of space is time. It is a site of temporality, or, rather, when time intersects with the three dimensions of space. In a string-theory multiverse conceived of multiple dimensions of space and time, fourth-person narration invites us to consider temporality and higher dimensions in relation to point of view. To write within or beyond the fourth dimension of time might be to write outside of time, or in all times, making simultaneity itself a point of view, as in Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves (1931). The stream-of-consciousness, first-person singular monologues of the six primary characters are framed by italicized sections describing the sun rising and setting over the sea during one day. The compression of time in the italicized frames swells against the elongated passages of time that follow the six lives from childhood through adulthood. Yet the monologues exist in present tense, thus colliding Jarry’s imaginary present and Stein’s continuous present with both the compression of time, as evidenced in the italicized frames, and the expansion of time, as shown in the primary narrative. By adopting the same non-realistic, artificial idiom, the monologues suggest that consciousness is both an individual and collective construct and reality and the self are constructed through language. Agency is multiplied and expanded through the varied immediacies of perceptions existing in a collective medium—which seems to be the sea-setting of the novel and also the novel itself. It is no surprise that Woolf thought of the text as a “play-poem.” Its self-reflexivity challenges expectations of form through its formal structures and also through overt strategies where characters directly address language, poetry, and story-telling. Such self-reflexivity provokes a relationship between fourth-person narration and the fourth dimension in physics; fish must jump out of the sea to perceive the waves in relation to the sea-bed and the sky.

At quantum scales, the components of the atom, electrons and neutrons, look identical, making the universe in quantum reality appear to look the same everywhere. Complexity in matter is not missing in quantum reality; it’s more likely our mechanical and biological instruments (our technology and senses) are unable to receive these details. The same phenomenon occurs at astronomical scales in space. What machines will we invent—and what senses will we evolve—to explore complexity at invisible scales? What poems could we be?

Sometimes the gravity in poems is absent: Zero-G. Some poems, strong with gravity, behave as if compressed undersea. Some poems have a similar gravity as Earth above the ocean; in these poems, apples drop straight from their tree.

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Nine excerpts from a sequence of twenty quasi-sonnets


Remember, the Romantics also brought us Malthus,
who made war, vice, misery, and starving the poor
seem OK (published the same year as Lyrical Ballads,
the superior mind of Coleridge sacrificed

to “undemanding” verse) and evangelical Christianity,
energetic, pious, vehement, sincere (a bumper sticker
the other day read “Born fine the first time”) –
the new moral religion, heavy on lower class depravity,

lighter on child labor – even the end of the slave trade
was championed by those who felt Napoleon had been
sent by the Lord, angry at the Sabbath’s violation,
who would dismiss him when that practice ceased,

as Hannah More, “tireless, tiresome, with a small literary gift”
consoles the poor, god’s creatures, and Huckabee wins Iowa . . .


Walter Benjamin wrote:
I have nothing to say, only to show
I will make off with nothing valuable
and allow myself no clever turns of phrase

only the refuse and waste
which I will not inventory
but instead allow to come into their own
in the only way possible:

I will make use of them.
This work must raise the art
of citing without quotation marks
to the highest level,

its theory most intimately linked
to that of montage.


Readers of the world unite –
all you can lose is your mystery,
the shimmering individual contact
of your eyes with a writer’s mind,

usually trumped by recession
or the fears of it, a “stimulus package”
now debated, lower taxes and/or interest rates
more cash flowing through the hands

of eager consumers, no mention of course
of sensual stimulation or unlocking
the doors of perception, no one cares anymore
how alive anyone is, in fact that’s

a completely useless impediment
as long as we’re not spending money

People who have been robbed of their history, who have no history, who have no moral base, who are . . . interested only in shopping and who are only capable of shopping, and whose only product is shopping, are obviously going to be simple to program.
---Edward Dorn


“By the early nineteenth century
their era of profound hope was in eclipse . . .
in favor of evangelical religion, land speculation,
bargain corn whiskey, kaleidoscopes,

and the reigns of Terror, Bonaparte, and Pitt
the Younger”* aka romanticism, kids,
brought to you by the Reign of Terror,
then and now, and yes, Jerry, I get it,

“a challenge to closure, defamiliarization,
alternative states of mind”**
but all that was in another century
when the I-Phone didn’t sell for a c-note . . .

a republic lost to empire
awash in our precious sensibilities


*Thomas Paine, by Craig Nelson

**Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3, ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffery Robinson


navigating the aisles at Home Depot
is romantic, anti-depressants
are romantic, we live
in a romantic century, we’ve now lived

in three romantic centuries,
Byron was romantic
Sylvia Plath was romantic
John Ashbery is romantic

the painstaking and exquisite
examination of one’s own life
ala Rousseau is definitely romantic
memoirs are romantic

not caring about politics is romantic
from the older form of roman, a novel


which means that novels are romantic
but “creative non-fiction” is also romantic
and poetry is always romantic
“that imagination which is most free” (OED, 1659)

“These things are almost romantique, and yet true” (Pepys 1667)
“Romances and novels are often writ in this mixt language, between Poetry
and Prose: and hence it is sometimes called the Romantick Stile.” (1749)
“In romantic music content is first and form subordinate” (1885)

“Having no real existence; imaginary; purely ideal” (obsolete)
“A tale in verse, embodying the adventures of some hero of chivalry,
esp. of those of the great cycles of medieval legend, and belonging
both in matter and form to the ages of knighthood;” (OED)

The only national literature that didn’t have a romantic period
was American, but we’ve made up for it by now . . .


the Reign of Terror was romantic
Rousseau leads straight to Robespierre
a republic lost to empire
tres romantique

a nation of sensibility
(invasion is romantic)
(beheadings are romantic)
Paine fought for Louis XVI’s life

Mary Wollstonecraft cried
for his dignity
while on vacation with her American lover
on the run from debt and land speculation

who would later desert her
and cause her to try to commit suicide


“the machine”
the guillotine
(the family later changed their name)
death is romantic

just ask Rilke
an ABC news poll says
91% of Americans
believe in God,

but 21% are “less certain”
(negative capability!)
God is definitely romantic
as is every religion on the face of the earth

even atheists are romantic
worshipping at the church of rationality


the nation-state is romantic
nationalism is romantic
war is romantic
fame is romantic

“social programs” are romantic
the middle class is romantic
being rich is romantic
progress is romantic

soul-mates are romantic
simultaneous orgasm is romantic
I’m romantic
you’re romantic too

we’re all romantic
and all equally screwed

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with Nina Zivancevic in Paris

Question: Many people have tried to define literature — what is it for you and how much does your approach differ from the traditional approach to it?

Rothenberg: My sense of literature comes basically from poetry, so I won’t broaden that to discuss various forms of fiction which would change the discussion in any number of ways... but possibly not. For me, the turning to poetry came from my need for a different kind of language from what surrounded me in the world in which I was growing up. Poetry had some of that difference, and that it was so often despised only made it that much the better. Ultimately of course the language of poetry — for myself and others — came to be closer and closer to the language that people really use in everyday speech, but different at its best from official language, from authorized language — as we get it in politics, in advertising, in standardized religion — all of that.

So it seems to me that poetry continues to have a sense of otherness about it; so, looking back, it seems to me that what I was engaged in with others of my generation was the search for a new language, another language, over against the language that was taught to us, force-fed to us, in which the values of the society that we would come to question were expressed. So the ‘ other language ’ came to be asscociated in my mind with the language of poetry — whether in my work or in the work of others whom I began to read and who began to influence me. And this was a central point about which the nature of that language — I entered into what seemed to be some sort of discourse, some sort of dialogue.

Was there a desire also to express some sort of a ‘ surpressed ’ language, the one you spoke perhaps at home?

Well, you and I both write primarily in English, though we both have roots that take us elsewhere, I’ve always written in English as far back as I’ve written and you come to the English language at a later point. But, in fact, there was the other language for me in childhood — the Yiddish spoken in my family — and certainly the first language that I spoke as a very young child was Yiddish. So I still have some memories of coming from that first language into the other language when I was maybe two or three years old. And the first language would invade the other — stray words, even somewhat later on.

But then you had to suppress it in school, right?

Well, there was an obvious push toward suppression in school, but there was another push — different and maybe stronger — toward suppression in the street. So from very early on, for most of us who were immigrants — the children of immigrants — there was a movement from the place of the family into the place of the street, and the street took the part, played the part, of the larger society... I don’t know if I was compensating — later on — for the loss of the first language, and I know, looking back, that that first language was never entirely lost. I could still speak with my grandmother and the other people in my family who did not have English as a ready second language. I would speak to them in Yiddish, although over time the Yiddish weakened for me as a language.

Even so I still hear it in a way that I don’t hear any other language besides English. I can speak German when the occasion arises, I can speak French or Spanish when the occasion arises, but I’ve never been in another language otherwise, never to the point where I’m simply speaking the language without something else going on in my mind — a train of thought in English, accompanying the speech of the other language. It doesn’t happen now that I get to speak Yiddish very much, because the older people with whom I spoke it then are dead, but when I do, it comes (so to speak) trippingly on the tongue... it comes automatically...

Have you ever tried writing something in it?

Yeah, occasionaly I’ve let it come into something that I was writing, especially when I was doing something like Poland 1931. Later on in Khurbn, there are brief moments when the language invades a poem, because of what I’m doing there specifically — a response, so to speak, to two visits to Poland (1987 and 1988), with a sense of Holocaust there for the first time — the first time that I let it, that it made me let it, come into the body of a poem. Both the Holocaust and, here and there, the Yiddish. Also, many of the titles in Khurbn, including the title of the book itself, are in Yiddish.

It comes in as some sort of a ‘metatext’?

Yeah, in a manner of speaking. And yet I don’t really think that it exists for me as a presence when I’m otherwise writing in English. But I do take some pleasure from time to time, on those now rare occasions when I come across an individual who really speaks Yiddish, to enter into a conversation. In those circumstances it’s always with somebody who’s a far superior speaker than I am. It’s a nice exercise in language, but not much more.

But as for the poetry, it was more than a language exercise, and the struggle was in English really — my real language. I don’t mean to say that the poetry or that my thinking was separated from the ‘fate of Yiddish,’ but at the same time it related to many other losses that were a central part of what we took to be the human condition in the middle of the century. As I grew aware of those, the poetry became for me, as for many others, an act of defiance, as if all of our languages had been destroyed or lost their meaning. And we thought, rightly or wrongly, that we were in a position to make a new language, an other language, using English as the vehicle for that. It allowed us to say things, to use logic — or illogic — as a way of thinking, a way of talking which was otherwise unacceptable and sometimes disturbing to the society at large...

You mean disturbing in ANY language?

Yes, any language would suffice. I assume anyway that something like that was going on for some number of poets, not only at the time of the Second World War, but going back far earlier than that. There were poets who were writing in French, writing in German, at both ends of the century — poets to whom this would apply. Certainly someone like Paul Celan, whom one takes as a prime example of that kind of situation — a situation in which the German language had not only failed him but was so clearly identified as the language of the oppressor. (This has been said many times about Celan, and still it’s absolutely true.) So, as his poetry, his language, develops, he builds it up of course out of German, but it’s a German that’s post-Holocaust, the German of a post-Holocaust writer and a witness. It’s fair to say that it becomes a kind of counter-German, a German that contradicts, and yet it’s all the more German for being that, the way the actual features of the parent language become exaggerated and distorted in the writing.

The point is that you don’t escape from it — the language as the base of what you do: for Celan German, for me English. Some poets of course have gone beyond that, and their experiments have been of interest to me though I don’t think they’ve always been successful in dropping the normal, ordinary or specific language out of the writing... in the attempt, that is, to develop forms of sound poetry, a poetry without recognizable words. This is something that was clearly present with the Dadaists, as with the Futurists, both Italian and Russian, around the time of the first world war, and it began to take new and very dynamic forms after the second war.

I think the war connection had something to do with that: the renewal of an attempt to get beyond what Hugo Ball in 1916 described as ‘the garbage that clings to language,’ something that was later reiterated by Artaud and others and that came into prominence again with the post-World War Two makers of sound poetry, poésie sonore, particularly those who combined it with some political stance or, otherwise, with what Olson called ‘stance toward reality. ’

So, would you say that the stress was primarily on the quest and investigation of a sacred language?

That too — at least for the early ones who had mystical/spiritual ambitions like their counterparts among the early abstract painters. For myself, I became aware and interested in so called ‘sacred languages’ sometime in the 1950s. At the time it was possible to think that what we were doing in the present was an ‘othering’ of language, the making of a language that, while it was rooted in the specific spoken language we grew up with, transformed that language in a variety of ways — some deeply meaningful, some not.

It also became clear to me that in the past, conceivably for other reasons, certain religious poets had used language in the context of religion and mysticism that was also — like the work of the experimental modernists — a transformation of ordinary language. So, sound poetry and other such extreme contemporary forms had their counterparts in traditional cultures in which — not as a matter of avant-garde experimentation, but as a matter of trying to understand what were taken to be powerful forces and presences in the world — the performers spoke, chanted, sang without words but using sounds that resembled words, speaking in tongues as that was called in Christian tradition. (Or writing in tongues, in the sense that we were speaking of it before.)

This is a phenomenon that turns up in many parts of the world, in Sufism, for instance, in traditional Jewish nigunim, or in Tantric practices — the mantras which begin to depart from ordinary language, the syllable by syllable repetition of words and sounds.

As I was looking into those areas everywhere, I began to find very much the same practices in traditional American Indian songs and chants — what I took be a basis for a traditional poetry on the American continent. And I’ve explored that as well.

Well, is there anything that you can find in so called ‘oral’ or tribal verse that you can’t find in contemporary poetry of today? In other words, was there something bothering you or some sort of absence in the contemporary poetry of your day that made you go back to the traditional oral verse?

Yes, but let me see how I’m going to answer that question... When I started doing books like Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin what was bothering me was possibly the absence of a reason for doing what we were doing. I could explain it in the terms that I’ve been using here — a sense of the struggle between a new language and a debased older language — but what struck me most about the old poetries was a resemblance to what the experimental poets of our own time were doing, but at the same time rooted in tradition — a poetry in which, even when one departed from obvious meaning, so to speak, into what the anthropolgists and ethnomusicologists used to call the ‘nonsense’ syllables, the resultant work — the poetry — was deeply deeply involved with meaning, and furthermore the poetry seemed to exist at the very center of the culture from which it came.

So, I think the question of context became very attractive, although I have little hope that one can transfer that, or that our own experiments were really leading in the direction of putting back that kind of poetry at the center of the experience of people in our time.

Occasionally I was more encouraged in that belief, but over all I tended to feel that this was not going to happen, and that, you know, was an uncomfortable conclusion to come to, and I would rather have felt that we were really coming back into the center with all of that. But it was interesting to me that whatever I took to be the most radical, the most experimental work in our own time seemed, as I looked back at it, to have a counterpart somewhere in the world.

The sound poetry is one example, the one that comes most easily to mind, but there are also forms of visualisation, forms of visual poetry, whether it’s pictograms or forms of writing that many cultures use to form calligrams or to combine with numbers, as in the Hebrew kabbalistic traditions. Things that would have seemed new when they came through Oulipo or other experimental movements had counterparts in activities that went back very deeply into human experience, and it seemed to me that in some way this proved or gave a sense of the humanity of what we were doing.

[Originally published in Jacket 16, March 2002 (]

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Translation from Kashmiri with commentary by Andrew Schelling


The poems of the bhakti tradition began to take shape in India during the eighth or ninth centuries. We can document the names of hundreds, if not thousands, of singers. Those singer-poets were often members of the old excluded orders of India’s political or social hierarchies, and their appearance caused upheavals in families and clans. At times, revolutions spread across whole kingdoms in the wake of bhakti. Driven by spiritual hunger, a fierce desire for religious freedom, and long-simmering demands for social equality, bhakti poets came forth in dozens of dialects. …

There is an essay by Kenneth Rexroth in which he defined the “counterculture” as “those people who live by the tenets of lyric poetry.” What sets the poets of bhakti apart from classical Sanskrit or Tamil writers—making them a significant counterculture force—is their resolve to match life and poetry: to live by what they sing, no matter the stakes. Some bhakti poets gathered around themselves “communities of dissent” in their own lifetimes. As much as they drew from the traditions of India—both the so-called Great and the so-called Little Traditions—every act given speech in their poems was designed to shatter those fetters of belief that could limit the intensity of experience. …

Bhakti poetry occurs at the confluence of Sanskrit with India’s vernacular traditions. It also exceeds the reach of either. Its first singular emergence—the point at which most scholars name the appearance of something radically new—occurred in Tamilnadu, around the eight or ninth centuries. … The new vision drew on pan-Indian themes, collecting inspiration from Sanskrit tradition, local vernacular cultures, and classical Tamil literature, though in many ways its impulse was subversive of each of these. Bhakti and the poems that convey its passions are, in A.K. Ramanujan’s words, deliberately “anti-tradition.” … The principal poets who come down to us look wild, untutored, often quite mad from the standpoint of conventional social norms. Try to generalize about their beliefs, and some hectoring poet will show up with a contradictory phrase, a puzzling stanza, or a swift image that confounds any earlier assumption.


Almost certainly Lal Ded was born in the early 1300s in Kashmir, of Hindu parents. Her vaakh (verses, sayings), suggest an early education in her father’s house and eventual marriage into a Brahmin family of Pampor, where she was cruelly treated by her mother in law. She took to visiting the nearby river early each morning, crossing it to secretly worship Nata Keshava Bhairava, a form of Siva. Her mother in law suspected her of infidelity, rivers in Indian lore being invariably the site of clandestine trysts. One day when she returned with a pot of water on her head her husband in a fit of rage struck it with a staff. The crock shattered but the water remained “frozen” in place until Lalla had filled the household containers. The remaining water she tossed out the door where it formed a miraculous lake, said to exist in the early 20th century, but dry today.

Word of her miracles spread. Crowds came to take darshan with her, violating her love of solitude, and at some point she left the house of her in-laws to take up the homeless life. Legend has it she wandered naked, singing and dancing in ecstasy like the “Hebrew nabis of old and the more modern Dervishes,” as one Muslim chronicler tells it. Muslim chronicles are full of her encounters with their holy men, and Hindu texts speak of gurus. It’s likely she regarded Siddha Shrikantha, a Saivite, as her teacher, and one of her vaakh begins—

My guru gave a single precept:
draw your gaze from outside to inside
and fix on the inner self.
I, Lalla, took this to heart,
and naked set forth to dance—

She became known as a Saivite yogini, and in her vaakh calls herself Lalla. Tales of her insight and magical powers outstripping those of her teachers circulated, though no records of her appear until centuries after her death. Even her death was a miraculous disappearance, when she dramatically climbed into an earthen pot, pulled another pot over herself, and vanished forever. In her day Kashmir held Buddhists, Nath yogins, Muslims, and Brahmin teachers, all of whom may have influenced her. The likelihood, though, from her own songs, is that she remained devoted to nila-kantha, Siva, “the blue-throated god.”

[Some poems follow.]

Beneath you yawns a pit.
How can you dance over it,
how can you gather belongings?
There’s nothing you can take with you.
How can you even
savor food or drink?


I have seen an educated man starve,
a leaf blown off by bitter wind.
Once I saw a thoughtless fool
beat his cook.
Lalla has been waiting
for the allure of the world
to fall away.


Ocean and the mind are alike.
Under the ocean
flames vadvagni, the world-destroying fire.
In man’s heart twists the
flame of rage.
When that one bursts forth,
its searing words of wrath and abuse
scorch everything.
If you weigh the words
calmly, though, imperturbably,
you’ll see they have no substance,
no weight.


It provides your body clothes.
It wards off the cold.
It needs only scrub & water to survive.
Who instructed you, O brahmin,
to cut this sheep’s throat—
to placate a lifeless stone?


I might scatter the southern clouds,
drain the sea, or cure someone
hopelessly ill.
But to change the mind
of a fool
is beyond me.


I came by the public road
but won’t return on it.
On the embankment I stand, halfway
through the journey.
Day is gone. Night has fallen.
I dig in my pockets but can’t find a
cowrie shell.
What can I pay for the ferry?


The god is stone.
The temple is stone.
Top to bottom everything’s stone.
What are you praying to,
learned man?
Can you harmonize
your five bodily breaths
with the mind?


You are the earth, the sky,
the air, the day, the night.
You are the grain
the sandalwood paste
the water, flowers, and all else.
What could I possibly bring
as an offering?


Solitary, I roamed the extent of Space,
leaving calculation behind.
The place of the hidden Self
opened and suddenly
out of the filth
bloomed a lotus.


O Blue-Throated God
I have the same six constituents as you,
yet separate from you
I’m miserable.
Here’s the difference—
you have mastered the six
I’ve been robbed by them.

[The six kancukas, “husks” or “coverings” of existence in Kashmir Saivism: appearance, form, time, knowledge, passion, fate.]


I, Lalla, entered
the gate of the mind’s garden and saw
Siva united with Sakti.
I was immersed in the lake of undying bliss.
Here, in this lifetime,
I’ve been unchained from the wheel
of birth and death.
What can the world do to me?

This selection is from An Anthology of Bhakti Poetry, edited by Andrew Schelling, forthcoming from Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2010. Earlier entries on “outsider poems” as an ongoing anthology project were posted on Poems & Poetics on June 14, July 7, and July 25, 2009. [J.R.]

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