Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Anthologies Feature—Issue 38, February 2014)

Jeffrey C. Robinson
Editing Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three
The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry

Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three (PM3) differs from most “expressive anthologies” (Charles Stein) that generate their selections as an extension of a manifesto-like vision in that it starts from the context of an already highly iconic canon of texts, of poets, and of poetic principles. This canon is disseminated primarily in schools and the academy and, of course, stands at a remove from the present, in the traditional telling, of up to 250 years. In this regard PM3 differs even from its predecessors in 20th-century poetry PM1 and PM2 and its successor PM4 in Maghrebian literature in that these latter feature a great deal of poetry erased from public awareness or simply unknown; although they obviously have a presence in the academy, they also maintain a lively reality beyond the ivy-covered walls. Accordingly, the editors of PM3, Jerome Rothenberg and myself, were urged to declare: “we have approached the Romantics and Postromantics not as canonized and iconic figures but as if they were our contemporaries.... In doing so, we feel that we have allied ourselves with those poets of our own time who would resist the pressure to keep the Romantic past at a distance, and have approached even the most canonical of those included here as fellow innovators…” (PM3, p.14). We sought to live out the famous aperçu of Ezra Pound, “all ages are contemporaneous in the mind,” which in poetry would invite response to a poem of the past as if it were a resource for the present, its value living, not one of enshrinement. The academic imprimatur placed on “Romanticism,” however, is not to be rejected as a source of knowledge and understanding but rather critically de-stabilized from its hegemonic control over what counts as Romantic and how that gets interpreted. We thought of our project as a massive effort to recover and renew Romanticism, “radical” in the double sense of deeply implicated in a radical or progressive politics and also returning Romanticism, as a vision for an ever-emerging democratic society, to its own, signature drives (Trieben, in Schiller’s use, as inner impulse towards transformative manifestation in the changing social world) to challenge, often through formal literary innovation, instances of social repression and inequity, the systematic exclusion of the voices of certain classes of people, and the repression of critical thought.

As an unabashed, if critical, member of the academy and scholar/critic of British Romanticism, I came to the project by way of a long-standing conviction that academic Romanticism had lost touch with the innovative poetics of the period’s major poets. In my own work I had been for some years practicing various rearguard actions in criticism of Romanticism including writing lyric essays on Romantic subjects (e.g. Romantic Presences in 1995) and a poetry of “splicing” and deforming Romantic poems and idiom, occasionally in the mode of erasure of Ronald Johnson and Tom Phillips, leading to Untam’d Wing: Riffs on Romantic Poetry in 2010. I also wrote a book of scholarly criticism called Unfettering Poetry: The Fancy in British Romanticism (2006) in which I proposed a “counterpoetics” essential to Romanticism based upon the Coleridgean definition of the Fancy as a proliferative, open-form faculty, largely unrecognized by the academy and, curiously, by many poets for whom “Romanticism” had come to mean escapism, sentimentality, a facile idealism. During the writing of this book, I imagined an anthology of British Romantic poetry, written during the traditionally agreed upon span, roughly 1785 to 1830, and based upon and featuring this counterpoetics, a genuine reconfiguring of this great outpouring of inspired writing. Consulting Jerry Rothenberg on how to construct such a work, I spoke of a wish for a “sacred book of Romanticism.” He got it, such a notion resonating with his own wish to connect experimental modernism and postmodernism in poetry with its not too distant predecessor, an innovative Romantic tradition (more precisely, “Romanticism” as a tradition of innovation) and proposed a third volume of Poems for the Millennium, which, as we discussed it, would, like the first two volumes, extend the range of the Romantic forward and backward in time and outward across nations and peoples.1 This book would embody Michael Palmer’s definition of Romanticism found on the back of our volume: a vision of “extension and renewal—of poetry’s signifying capacity in the immediate, human realm and that of the spirit.” A history of Western poetry, constructed as PM1, PM2, and PM3 as an every-renewing series of visionary movements covering the past 250 years would come into being.2

To discuss my experience of editing PM3 is inevitably to say as much about the book itself. The challenge of presenting the Romantic canon appears in our decisions around John Clare’s poem, featured in collections since the mid-19th century, “I am.” Actually, he wrote two poems of that name, one a sonnet and one in stanzas. Originally, Jerry had wanted to include it on the grounds of its quality and also of its fame; I had wanted it left out because in its iconic dimension it had usurped all other Clare poems in importance as a quintessential “Romantic poet of the lyric subject”—to include it, I thought, would be to reinscribe that misplaced reading of Clare whose most original poetry catches more the diverse life of the world and less that of the speaking poet. We solved the impasse by selecting both versions, thus acknowledging its place in the history of poetry and yet troubling its canonical status. Reading both poems redirects attention away from the unspoken assumption about the supreme authenticity of a poem of self and towards a more writerly scene—a poet exploring different formal means of writing about self: a poet conducting an experiment with form. This is one way of characterizing what we meant by saying that we were “bringing back a sense of innovation, danger, and revolution, even or especially to work too often taken for granted or robbed of its newness and power through repetition and enshrinement (canonization)” (PM3, p. 4). Similarly, we defamiliarized Shelley’s translation of a song from Goethe’s Faust, Part One by including both Shelley’s “poetic” and his “literal” versions of the same text. We also followed the German editors’ of Hölderlin in their reproduction of the poet’s manuscript as a “palimpsest” of revisions, in other words, refusing on this occasion to select one version over the rest; here the “both-and” text shows the poet in what Keston Sutherland, quoting Wordsworth, calls “amplitude of mind.” We presented Emily Dickinson’s poems with her idiosyncratic marks over words then clustered with “alternative” words at the bottom of the poem, as well as one poem, called “A poor – torn heart – a tattered heart,” returned to its original setting as a “cartoon” or verbal/visual event.

We encouraged other forms of defamiliarization, primarily by structuring the book on the principle of contiguity. Presenting the poets chronologically and with therefore no regard for national, linguistic, thematic, or formal groupings created aleatory juxtapositions at every point. Thus Swedenbourg stood next to Diderot who was followed by Christopher Smart and then Erasmus Darwin. We had a greater hand in actively producing contiguity our selection of poems themselves. The selections from Coleridge began with “Kubla Khan” and “Dejection: An Ode,” both iconic Romantic poems, but we followed them with a brief, dazzling, notebook entry in praise of “urine.” Then came highly poetic fragments from the early Gutch Notebook, followed by the rarely anthologized protest poem “Fire, Famine, and Slaughter: A War Eclogue” in this book resonant for the mixing of radical politics and a formal hybrid (war with the pastoral genre). The selection concluded with the quasi-free-verse nightmarish apostrophe “Ne plus ultra.” In this setting we were removing the canonical poems from their comfort zones. Reinforcing these selections, we wrote a commentary that focused on Coleridge’s formal innovations accompanying his explorations of dream and other altered states of consciousness insisting upon their links to later drug-induced poetry, and prose poetry and automatic writing, all the way to his challenging the tradition of accentual-syllabic meter.

But defamiliarization of familiar poets and works represented only one of the intentions of the book; just as if not more important, we recovered many works of Romanticism usually left out or restricted to anthologies based on national literatures or belonging to “ethnopoetic” traditions—for example, Dionysius Solomos’ major poem of Greek Independence, The Woman of Zante (1826-33), a prose-poem hybrid in which footnotes gain the primary status of the poetry, Cyprian Norwid’s “Chopin’s Piano,” the Brazilian Sousandrade’s Wall Street Inferno, ecstatic poetry by Adah Isaacs Menken that mixes Old Testament Prophetic writing with Whitman, a great deal of prose poetry from Rousseau to DeQuincey (“Dream Fugue”) to Poe to Kierkegaard to Jarry. By this means the anthology “extends” and “renews” and thus becomes an act of Romanticism itself; the commentaries fundamentally aid in this process by insisting on later revisitings and re-imaginings of earlier thematic risks and formal experiments.

The experience of making selections for the book altered my sense of poems as they were put into place. As I have said before, “Poems here seem to live in horizontal networks, electric currents, waves as much as particles. I don’t completely understand why this is the case, but I can recall, even in the assemblage of the poems, that it was as if a poem, having just been selected, would spring into a set of correspondences of previously chosen pieces, exhibiting the quickening power of poetry conceived and witnessed by poets themselves.”3 The Oulipian poet Jacques Roubaud has said: “Poetry is in poems, but is not poems. It is the absent of all poems.” Poetry is, in a Wordsworthian phrase, “the life of things”; I might add, the conscious life of things, principles as well as verbal manifestations. Roubaud continues: “The most we can say about a poem is that it touches poetry.” Perhaps involvement in a “manifesto-assemblage” (Rothenberg) accentuates the difference between “poetry” and a “poem”: we were assembling/reading poetry, with its radiations and affiliations to other poetic roots with their radiations and affiliations.

Standard textbook anthologies, the major source of Romantic poetry today, emphasize a) the poet as a social being who writes poems, not as an “intellectually alive enthusiasm” (commentary on P.B. Shelley in PM3) in the midst of poetic/political choices, and b) not “poetry,” but the poem as a monument, a fixed, bounded entity available for close reading and as information about biography, history, and politics but rarely about poetics as fundamental to literary history. Poems in these anthologies do not belong to a network of visionary refigurings across time and space that build into a power or counter-power to hegemonic thinking and imagination. Based on a fantasy of comprehensiveness and objectivity, these anthologies paradoxically create unspoken exclusions and domestications of poets and poetry. And, paradoxically, our manifesto-assemblage promotes a sense of inclusivity: although criticized for omissions, PM3 never argues for comprehensiveness but only for a developing picture of a vibrant innovative Romanticism “then” and by extension “now” and in the future.

In the course of co-editing PM3, I correctly anticipated the nature of response it would receive upon publication: poets primarily though not exclusively of the innovative “avant garde” predisposition have been enthusiastic in their praise (though not without criticism) receiving it as a newly energizing resource of poetry of the not-to-distant past, a genuine recovery as a “reconfiguring.” Scholars and critics of Romanticism have, with some notable exceptions and as far as I have been able to tell, been luke-warm in their response or indifferent.

The book does bewilder the teacher of Romanticism, myself included: how do we make sense of proliferating and heterogeneous body of poetry from the perspective of a field so deeply committed to a canon and to a set notion of (Romantic) literary history and even more to a set notion of a “Romantic” poetics? The “discipline” of Romantic Studies has brilliantly increased our knowledge of the many writers contributing to that period in English literary history called “Romanticism,” and has dramatically enriched our sense of social and cultural activity, but has done little to deepen an understanding of poetics and, more specifically, to focus on the “poetry wars” of the early 19th century not all that different from and probably the source for the poetry wars of the late 20th century and of our own. Literary scholars shy away from the “writerly” approach to the discussion of poetry, a site, in the case of Romanticism and its innovative successors, of risk-taking political and poetic activity. Admitting to generalization here with its obvious pitfalls, I will nonetheless venture that the academy prefers the closed form in poetry with its own preference for the drama of the lyric subject and with its preference for traditional formal and verse elements. Romanticism, in standard literary histories, is “closed” as well, not being a vision of renewal over time but a literary period that “begins” and “ends.”

These histories, unfortunately, are arbitrated primarily by the scholars and editors of textbook anthologies; poets have little to contribute here. In our assemblage, however, commentary, witness, and testimony from a collectivity of poets provide (to be sure, along with observations by some scholars) the texture of authority in PM3. I have a mission to bring our vision of Romanticism into more direct conversation with the Romanticism found in universities and schools, in scholarship, and even in degraded notions of Romanticism and “the Romantic” that poets often rely on as straw man with which to fuel their own innovative programs. I hope that over time poets and critics will find this “new,” which is to say, truer, Romanticism a source of energy and excitement.


1 A fuller account of the making of PM3 appears in a short essay I wrote for PN Review 199 (May-June 2011), “A Burst of Romantic Poetry,” pp. 35-38.
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2 The recent “horizontal” extension of this history to Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four: The University of California Book of North African Literature, edited by Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour (2012), achieves with stunning success an enactment of what Goethe predicted, the need for a Weltliteratur.
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3 “A burst of Romantic Poetry,” p. 37.
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