The Original Performance Poetry

Jerome Rothenberg's “total translations” of Navajo Horse Songs bring out the avant garde in the ancient.

Jerome Rothenberg has been active since the late 1950s as a writer, performer, and translator of poetry. He‘s an anthologist and theorist of traditional and “subterranean” verse; and, having founded a handful of presses and magazines, a literary impresario. In addition to his own books of poetry and prose, Rothenberg co-edited Poems for the Millennium, a highly acclaimed, three-volume anthology of poems from the 19th and 20th centuries gathered with a de-centered, omnivorous approach, and a strong eye for the experimental. David Noriega explores the "total translations" of Rothenberg's Navajo Horse Songs.

Olena Kalytiak Davis's Table
Original art by Ian Tyson


Poetry, for far longer than it has existed as a form of writing, has been incantation, meditation, and magic; it has been song and dance and orgiastic communion; and even these hardly begin to scratch the surface.

Jerome Rothenberg has been active since the late 1950s as a writer, performer, and translator of poetry. He‘s an anthologist and theorist of traditional and “subterranean” verse; and, having founded a handful of presses and magazines, a literary impresario. In addition to his own books of poetry and prose, Rothenberg co-edited Poems for the Millennium, a highly acclaimed, three-volume anthology of poems from the 19th and 20th centuries gathered with a de-centered, omnivorous approach, and a strong eye for the experimental. Off the printed page, Rothenberg is known as a captivating performer—much of his work is better heard than read, especially within sight of his physical person: gray beard and (at one time) a short ponytail, sanguine features that suggest both seriousness and cheerful mischief. In all of this, Rothenberg has attained an impressive stature as a sort of poetic prankster-sage, combining scholarly, erudite rigor with an unconstrained and disruptive freshness.  Throughout his decades of work he has taken up the ragged mantle of a band of disorderly forbears (Blake, Pound, the Dadaists) and worn it with good-humored, professorial stateliness.

Among Rothenberg’s most enduring contributions is his development of ethnopoetics, a term he coined in the late 1960s to refer to the linguistic and anthropological study of the world’s “tribal” poetries, as well as to original works directly inspired by such poetic traditions. Rothenberg defined the methodology and mission of his ethnopoetics in Technicians of the Sacred (1968), a massive anthology of ritual, sacred, shamanistic, or otherwise spiritual poetries from across the continents—from New Guinean “Drum Poems” (in which humans imitate the sounds of drums) to Ekoi pictographs to excerpts from the Mayan Popol Vuh. The texts culled and translated in Technicians, along with Rothenberg’s preface and extensive commentary, combine to make the supreme statement of the ethnopoetic project. They stand as testament to the fact that poetry, as a universally human endeavor, involves a multitude of forms, complexities, and implications well beyond those of written verse. 

But Rothenberg’s idea of ethnopoetics was—and is—more concerned with pointing out concordances and establishing links between Western and non-Western poetry than with dwelling on their differences. Rothenberg’s commentaries on the works in the anthology consist in large part of drawing unexpected parallels: between a Gabon Pygmy death rite and García Lorca; a Fijian “Animal Story” and Wallace Stevens; a Gitksan shaman’s gift of vision and Rimbaud’s notion of the poet as voyant. Indeed, the preface to Technicians of the Sacred includes a chart of analogies between “primitive” poetries and a number of vanguardist or visionary movements in Western poetry. Extra-mundane image-thinking and dream-logic, for instance, are common to William Blake, surrealism, and Comanche peyote songs, which are presented as numbered visions and fragmentary thoughts:

  1. It has a red flower, it has power.
  2. Daylight. Red Flower.
  3. It moves along.
  4. Yellow.

In other words, ethnopoetics as conceived and practiced by Rothenberg exceeds the practice of beholding alien cultures as objects of study—as anthropological Others. It goes on to find points of intersection between the traditions of countless far-flung cultures and our own, and treats them as avenues through which to explore and actively expand the domain of what we understand as poetry.

This “active” part of ethnopoetics, its crossing from analysis to creation, often originates in the process of translation, since the effort to encapsulate and convey the sense of a deeply foreign work calls for innovative uses of language and form. The most basic problem inherent in an ethnological project with language as its point of focus is one of transmission. Such a project is faced with a number of formidable obstacles: oral traditions whose forms are difficult to transmit in writing; myriad tongues whose nuances might not be understood in full, or whose tonal or syntactical complexities might be utterly foreign to the natural capacities of the English language; rituals and traditions of which language is merely one component part among many (gesture, music, myth, spatial and social dynamics, etc.), and so on, almost indefinitely How even to begin to “translate” such materials?

Rothenberg’s answer to this question parts from Ezra Pound’s famous exhortation to the Modernists, itself adapted from Confucius: “Make it new.” In his work in ethnopoetics Rothenberg approaches translation not as an ideally transparent medium through which a foreign work can be perceived as its original self, but rather as the transformative process by which a poem, adapted to the forms and contexts of a different culture, becomes a new work in its own right, at the same time that it facilitates a deeper understanding of what it might have been originally. Thus we have two whole sections in Technicians where tribal rituals are presented in the manner of Fluxus event scores:

A great jar is set up with two small ladders leaning against its sides. The performers climb up one of the ladders & down the other throughout a whole night.

Rothenberg is not trying to render the rituals absurd by stripping them of their assigned symbolism, but rather to offer their meaning up for interpretation by shifting attention from the symbolic to the formal. This shift illuminates a “coincidence of attitudes” between tribal rituals and contemporary performance and conceptual art: namely, the imbuing of actions with significance by their programming and/or repetition, and the resulting construction of a “total event”—poetry that is composed as much by situation as by language.

Rothenberg, of course, did not invent the notion of poetry-as-happening, which before Fluxus harkens back, at least, to Dada. What he did was rediscover it through imaginative translation, finding its roots not in the transgressions of Western avant-gardes but in the immeasurably complex traditions and imaginations of “primitive” cultures.

Rothenberg’s work in ethnopoetics reached a high point with “The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell,” a series of translations of Navajo song cycles. His translations of six of the Horse Songs consist of a group of recordings, released in 1978 by New Wilderness Audiographics, of Rothenberg chanting and singing, on four tracks of tape, a combination of sounds and utterances with and without semantic meaning—words and non-words. The recordings add up to over 35 minutes, and if heard without prior knowledge of their nature as an ethnopoetic project, they resemble an organic cross between Allen Ginsberg’s Zen-inspired sound-poetry and Steve Reich’s early experiments in tape technology. They are a hypnotic, pulsing swirl of voices and tape hiss unfolding and doubling back on themselves in layers of echo and repetition.

The Frank Mitchell of the title was a Navajo public figure in Chinle, Arizona for much of the 20th century. His primary role was as a singer of the Blessingway, the group of songs and ceremonies that, passed down through the generations, constitute the backbone of the Navajo religion. In the early ‘60s Mitchell struck up a long relationship with ethnomusicologist David McAllester, whom he allowed to record a large number of Blessingway songs and ceremonies with the condition that they not be revealed to a casual audience. McAllester later relayed some of these recordings to Rothenberg, along with his written transcriptions and literal, interlinear translations of their verbal content, and it was these materials from which Rothenberg crafted his experimental translations.

The Horse Songs, as with all songs of the Blessingway, are meant to accompany ceremonies of blessing and curing, and they allude to mythological tales without necessarily narrating them—in this case, the tale of Enemy Slayer retrieving horses from the land of his father, the Sun, to bring them back to his people. (The fact that the Navajo did not know of horses until the arrival of the Spaniards would seem to suggest a fairly recent origin for these particular songs; still, the Blessingway as a whole is, for all intents and purposes, ancient.) Navajo oral tradition is widely noted for its depth and scope as a literary form, and the complexity of the Horse Songs is indeed remarkable. They are an intricate and polyphonic arrangement of voices, images, and “pure” sounds.

Faced with such complexity, Rothenberg set out to devise a method of translation that would encompass more than just the poetic content and structure of the songs. He dubbed this method “total translation,” and documented it in an essay by the same name. It is total in the sense that the songs’ every active ingredient is transformed in the translation: the melody, the words, and the non-semantic vocables. The first order of business in crafting a total translation was to abandon writing, which was utterly extraneous to the oral transmission and performance of the Blessingway. Rothenberg began to sing his own words over Mitchell’s tape until they acquired an independent form. Concurrent with this process was the need to transform the “meaningless” sounds; in Navajo, these vocables interacted phonetically in very specific ways with the words surrounding them: they created a rhythmic flow of word and sound that needed replicating in the English. Thus, as Rothenberg indicates in the essay “Total Translation,” what in McAllester’s transcription of Mitchell singing the 10th Horse Song looks like this:

Esdza shiye       e hye-la          Esdza shiye        e hye-la

where “e hye-la” is non-semantic, in the score for Rothenberg’s song looks like this:

Go to her my son N wnn & go to her my son N wnn N gahn

with the non-words thus “translated” to cohere, aurally, in the English.

In “Total Translation,” Rothenberg recalls his excitement at finding that “the exploration of ‘pure sound’ wasn’t beside the point of [Navajo and Seneca] poetries but at or near their heart,” in much the same way that it was at the heart of the carefully constructed nonsense compositions of Dada—Hugo Ball’s “Karawane,” Kurt Schwitters’s “Ursonate,” and other such exercises in phonetic abstraction. Both poetries draw on the primal and immediate properties of the human voice, and both poetries share a dependence on the immersive environment of a physical performance or recording—the singular experience of a sound-event.

The final step in Rothenberg’s total translation came from a comment from McAllester indicating that, in Blessingway ceremonies, it was common for those present to periodically join in on the singing to the best of their abilities, often improvising sounds in response to those of the ceremonial singer. To re-create this sense of extemporaneous communal participation, Rothenberg recorded his voice on four different tracks: one has him singing his version loud and clear; the second has him responding to the first with minor variations; the third consists entirely of non-semantic improvisations; and the fourth, recorded through a violin pickup set to “tremolo” and held against his throat, provides a sort of quiet, droning subtrack.

Although the decision to multitrack his voice originated as an effort to allude to the way the songs ostensibly worked and sounded in their original context, it more often ends up creating a sense of estrangement and novelty. Rothenberg’s voices interact melodically and rhythmically in ways that sometimes resemble fugues or rounds in a state of dissolution; tape distortion in louder passages causes the voices to blend into each other in a thin layer of noise; words and sounds scatter across the stereo field to create an immersive and balanced soundscape. The end result is far less suggestive of multiple voices joining together than of a single voice becoming multiple, its different strands intertwining in fluid and meditative patterns. In this sense the role of the recording medium in defining the character of the Horse Songs is difficult to overstress: it completes and extends the process of total translation by which the Navajo song cycles—as per the Pound mantra—are made new.

As is the case with any successful example of imaginative translation, Rothenberg’s Horse Songs evince a combination of loss, gain, and change undergone in the progress from original to translation. In Rothenberg’s hands the songs of the Navajo lose their hieratic function, extricated from their meticulous structures of ceremony: they are no longer songs of blessing and healing, they no longer refer to an accepted spiritual realm, and they no longer belong to an ageless lineage of Blessingway singers. And yet they retain an unmistakable sense of the mystic and ethereal. They are secular incantations, and listening to them the whole way through leaves one in something not unlike an altered, elevated state. The translation, in effect, is a total one—not an equal one, in which nothing is lost or gained, but one in which the weight of everything lost is offset by the opening of new possibilities and unexpected transformations.

As Francis Bacon wrote (and Borges quoted): “All novelty is but oblivion.” Over time, ideas are suffocated by forms thought valuable in and of themselves. Convention occludes content. This is why the most radical breaches of the boldest avant-gardes so often amount to the digging-out and wrenching-free of art’s most basic and time-told concerns; and why what is sometimes needed for such acts of liberation is no more than an earnest look at conventions that are not our own.

In this sense the ethnopoetics of Jerome Rothenberg champions a sort of literary humanism: ethnopoetics rests squarely on the notion that the drive to poetry is intrinsic to the human spirit in all its cacophony, and, more importantly, it believes that in tracing lines of influence and concordance between the most seemingly incomparable of cultures, this cacophony can be made euphonious without reducing its complexity.

Originally Published: May 6th, 2009

David Noriega is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn.

Related Content
  1. May 8, 2009
     ian tyson

    Apart from talking about these "songs" to
    Jerry, this is one of the most articulate
    pieces about them and Jerries work in
    general that I have read.
    It is a pleasure to see the images heading
    this up. Many thanks


  2. May 8, 2009


  3. May 9, 2009

    Part of the creative process reminds of me of a recording project I participated in some years ago. One person would gather material--books, newspaper articles, original poems--and free associate; reading aloud from between the sources like running along slippery stones down a wet creekbed. Just keep going in singsong.
    Later, we'd partially submerge the track in a mix, and another person would listen closely to the unintelligable garble and write down what it sounded like the words were saying. Except of course it would be something different.
    Then partially submerge THAT track, and repeat the process of translation. Again and again. Like damascus steel.
    Very interesting article. Thanks, David.

  4. May 11, 2009

    if it wasn't for experiment of sounds, we'd
    have no language, no future, no next. so
    now that we have access, we can begin to
    dive in music and dance with attitude. we
    are a tribe again

  5. May 12, 2009
     Manoel Cartola

    Thank You for this. It means a great deal that you included this here.