What does Edward Lear have in common with Samuel Taylor Coleridge? The answer, or at least the question, may be found in the brand-new volume 3 of Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millennium, coedited with Romanticism scholar Jeffrey C. Robinson. The book approaches the nineteenth century the way Rothenberg and former coeditor Pierre Joris approached the twentieth century—with an eye to the trajectories of alternative poetics. Volume 3 is a fascinating book that’s bound to be controversial in a number of ways, from its aesthetics to its methodologies to its diversity, or lack thereof.
The collection aims to put into practice Schlegel’s contention that “all poetry should be romantic,” including a great range of writing that would not heretofore have been thought of as “poetry,” let alone as “Romantic.” From prose by Erasmus Darwin and the Marqius de Sade to Lear’s limericks, the selections are, naturally, delightfully eclectic, and graced by extensive commentary. The entire collection is infused with a quality of strangeness, offness, askewness, that is as appealing and habit-forming as it is pervasive. Poems for the Millenium 3 is not just a book about romanticism; it gives us, to some extent, romanticism in action.
I spoke with coeditor Jeffrey Robinson at length about the anthology over lunch, soon after it came out, the day after a panel hosted by the CUNY Poetics group at their Graduate Center in a former department store on Fifth Avenue. Jeffrey corroborated my sense that this anthology is proving of widespread importance to poets in a way that anthologies of the poetry of previous centuries are usually not. Something about this claiming of the nineteenth-century roots of contemporary experimental practice has been engaging exploratory poets (he named Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer, Julie Carr, and Elizabeth Robinson as examples) on an emotional level. Robinson attributes this to the fact that the book is like a map or a web, creating multiple connections among the texts involved so that when you do choose to look down into a single poem deeply, it creates a very different experience than an isolated reading.
Even the book’s organization is creative and idiosyncratic, from the “Preludium” through the First, Second, and Third “Galleries,” to “A Book of Origins,” “A Book of Extensions,” and a useful section of “Manifestoes and Poetics.” One might say the book’s organization itself is “romantic,” using one of the definitions provided at the front of the book, Andre Breton’s claim that romanticism is “a state of mind and temperament whose function is to create from scratch a new general conception of the world.”
As Robinson and I finished our lunch, we started talking about one of our shared interests, women poets of the Romantic period (long one of Robinson’s specialties). To my astonishment, I learned that Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther was of great importance to women poets of the time, that many of them wrote poems about Werther, and that Charlotte Smith even wrote a sonnet in young Werther’s voice. Alas, the poem is not in this book, whose heavy gender imbalance—11 women out of 128 contributors-- has already drawn some criticism from scholars. Still, it is an exciting collection, worth reading and absorbing for anyone interested in the dynamic ways that poetic traditions are always changing.
I will close with a summary of Robinson and Rothenberg’s list of characteristics of Romanticism, from their introduction.
1. A challenge to closure.
2. A conscious emphasis on defamiliarization.
3. A foregrounding of emotions, feelings, and perceptions…as process and experiment.
4. The poet as visionary/seer.
5. The poet as a conduit for other voices.
6. An erasure of the boundaries between poetry and other forms of composition and speculation.
7. At its finest, a poetry that allows for the guiding principle of uncertainty.
8. Alongside the celebration of beauty (both “intellectual” and physical), a recurring exploration of the ugly and the grotesque.
9. A calling into question of traditional religious forms.
10. Alongside Romantic ideas of fancy and fantasy, an emergence of a new realism. . .an attention to the details of the everyday world.
11. A heightened sense of the transgressive set against an officially sanctioned ethos of gentility and conformity.
12. A widespread experience of exile.
13. Changes in form, including irregular forms, prose poetry, the fragment as a conscious poetic form, improvisation and performance poetry, sound poetry, dialect experiments, and verbal/visual interaction.
I recall Ange Mlinko posting a quote from a review by Randall Jarrell in the 1930s describing “contemporary poetry,” and pointing out how similar those aesthetics were to our twenty-first century poetics. I get the same feeling from the list above—it makes clear how much mainstream poetic aesthetics today are still informed by the revolutions of Romanticism. Presumably that is because we still have some of those same lessons to learn—and this anthology has a lot to reveal about the complex nature of those lessons.
Annie Finch is the author or editor of more than twenty books of poetry, plays, translation, literary essays, textbooks, and anthologies, including the poetry collections Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and Spells: New and Selected Poems (2012), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (1982) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic...