Taking a Step, Learning From Below, and Imagining Planetarity in Romanticism: On Jerome Rothenberg's Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3

This essay distills the experience of teaching an upper-division English course entitled "An Introduction to Global Romanticisms." This class focused on one text over the course of the semester – Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson’s experimental anthology Poems for the Millennium Volume 3: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry. This collection attempts to construct a truly global Romantic tradition. In addition to the standard writers of the European Romantic canon, North and South American, Scandinavian, Eastern European, and Asian authors are included here as well. The broad scope of the anthology presents exciting opportunities and challenges. This essay assesses the potential of this volume to reform our teaching of and scholarship about Romanticism, and it briefly articulates a thesis about the “cosmic” dimension of literary texts, which can possibly provide an organizing rubric for engaging with the expansive richness of global Romanticism once conventional formalist and historicist methods are shown to be inadequate for managing its complexity.

Taking a Step, Learning from Below, and Imagining Planetarity in Romanticism: On Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three

1.        In her book Death of a Discipline, comprised of the Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory, Gayatri Spivak implores scholars to “take a step, learning to learn from below, toward imagining planetarity” (100). These types of calls are common in the contemporary era of literary studies as scholars discover how to navigate through a sea of new universalizing terms—planetarity, planetary, globality, globalism, worldness, worlding, deep time, and transcultural. [1]  The mission is clear—we must create transformative curricula that refuse to mirror and support the hierarchies and inequities of the social world and that engage with the florescence of human creativity within the largest framework possible.

2.        Yet when it comes to the field of Romanticism, this is a large task indeed. Teaching even a traditional class on European Romanticism would be difficult enough, requiring as it would knowledge of at least the French, German, and English traditions. Yet what would happen if one attempted to construct a truly global Romanticism course, adding to the syllabus North and South American elaborations of Romantic traditions, Scandinavian and Eastern European Romantic episodes, or even a glimpse into various Asian literary developments? While one might, with the best of intentions, want to pursue the laudable goal of “planetarity,” implementing it threatens to push a solitary course past a basic level of coherence and instructors past their areas of expertise and ability. (My own particular areas of expertise are British Romanticism, African-American literature, and nineteenth-century American literature.)

3.        With the publication in 2009 of volume three of the anthology series Poems for the Millennium, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson, a new tool has arrived to help scholars and teachers think about how to teach Romanticism from a global perspective. This anthology has a capacious sweep, and it covers a wide range of poetry and poetic manifestos from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. It moves chronologically from “pre-Romantic” figures such as Erasmus Darwin and Christopher Smart down to early modernists like Guillaume Apollinaire. The global reinterpretation of Romanticism on display here is quite stunning, and it is rare to see East Indian, Japanese, Hungarian, and Brazilian poets placed on the same stage. (Every area of the world is represented here, except Australia and Africa.) In the spring of 2011, I taught an upper-division English course at Marquette University entitled "An Introduction to Global Romanticisms," which used this collection as the main text of the class. In this essay, I will distill this experience, assess the potential of this volume to reform our teaching of and scholarship about Romanticism, and end with a discussion of how to maintain a sense of the full global possibilities of Romanticism.

4.        I will begin by describing the larger Poems for the Millennium project. Edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, the first two volumes are explorations of twentieth-century poetry from the perspective of its many avant-gardes, including movements such as Futurism, Dada, and Expressionism. The first volume moves from the fin-de-siècle to negritude, exploring international modernism in the historical period stretching from 1890 to 1945, while the second tackles poetry from the postwar moment to the millennium. After the focus on Romanticism in the third volume, the fourth volume, edited by Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour, provides a comprehensive overview of the written and oral literatures of North Africa. The series culminates with Rothenberg and John Bloomber-Rissman’s Volume Five, which is subtitled Barbaric Vast & Wild: A Gathering of Outside & Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present. These texts burst at the seams with an anti-traditionalist and anti-mainstream energy, and they delight in the paradox of attempting to canonize works that aim to be anti-canonical, to conserve the poetic gestures of the self-proclaimed radical. The volumes are boldly attentive to poetic activity happening around the globe, including work from the Vienna Group, the Fluxus artists, the Arabic-language Tammuzi poets, and the Chinese Misty Poets. As such, they emphasize the vitality of global movements and propound an eclectic cosmopolitanism.

5.        Romanticism was important to the aims of the Poems for the Millennium project from the very beginning. The first volume, for example, opens with a section entitled "Prologue to Forerunners," which includes selections from William Blake, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Walt Whitman. In the introduction, the editors take a line of Blake’s—“poetry fetter’d, fetters the human race”—as a battle cry and draw a genealogy that traces the emergence of vibrant twentieth-century poetry “out of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and…the seed-bed of a radical romanticism” (1). In other words, Romanticism is viewed as a central precursor for understanding the various avant-gardes and major poetic work of contemporary times. Volume Three covers work written chronologically before the two volumes that precede it and is therefore a homecoming of sorts, insofar as it gives Rothenberg and Robinson a venue to explore nineteenth-century precursors to poetry movements with which they feel immediate kinship. [2] 

6.        The third volume of the Poems for the Millennium opens with a “Preludium” of eighteenth-century figures who set the stage for the romantic movement proper—such as the Marquis de Sade, Emanuel Swedenborg, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Erasmus Darwin. According to the book’s introduction, Rothenberg and Robinson were trying to emphasize figures who do not fit into stereotypical visions of the period as one dominated by neo-classicism and melancholy lyric sensibility. The text is then divided into sections called “galleries,” “clusters,” and “books.” There are three galleries of poets chronologically organized with brief biographical commentaries provided after each poet. The first—featuring poets for the most part born before 1800—stretches from Goethe and Blake to Dionysios Solomos and Aleksander Pushkin. The second contains figures from Victor Hugo and Elias Lonnrot to Swinburne and Mallarmé. This gallery highlights Romanticism’s coming of age, in which it becomes recognized as a coherent movement and begins to develop generational splits and differences, while moving across the Atlantic and all throughout Europe. The final gallery extends from Hopkins and Nietzsche to Yosano Akiko and Apollinaire. This section tracks the movement into a post-Romanticism, featuring early Modernists, pre-Raphaelites, Transcendentalists, modernistas, poètes maudits, and Symbolists.

7.        These sections follow the standard anthology format, and in truth, most figures covered here could be found in mainstream anthologies such as The Norton Anthology of World Literature. (There are only about ten people included in Poems for the Millennium Vol. 3 [henceforth PFM3] that one could not find in there.) The major difference is that some of the continental lyricists featured in the Norton—such as Anna Bunina, Rosalía de Castro, and Gustavo Bécquer—are removed in favor of nationalist icons—like the Polish Cyprian Norwid and Cuban José Martí—and figures writing in local dialects difficult to translate—such as the Italian Giuseppe Belli, which gives PFM3 a more overtly political and anti-conventional slant.

8.        Inside of each of these three galleries, PFM3 includes a small cluster of poems organized around a theme. The first, "Some Asian Poets," tracks the work of a few groundbreaking poets writing from various Asian locations in the nineteenth century—such as Kobayashi Issa (Japan), Ho Xuan Huong (Vietnam), Bibi Hayati (Iran), and Wu Tsao (China). It is a quick survey of figures working on a track parallel to the mainstream “Romantic” movement, but not really in dialogue with it (except in the case of the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore).

9.        The next unit, "Some Outsider Poets," seeks to take account of para-literary activity happening outside of the sanction of the official literary purview, hegemonic literary institutions, or dominant means of production/distribution. Featured in this section are figures such as Raifteiri the Poet, a bard writing in Irish/Gaelic; James Reuben, author of an 1880 history of the Nez Percé nation; and the politically radical poet Thomas Cooper.

10.        "Some Orientalisms," the final cluster, corresponds quite nicely with the first unit, and it works to explode the myth of a static “Asia” untouched by cultural development and locked into a stultifying “tradition.” This section highlights creative work influenced by the opening of the “East” due to the machinations of nineteenth-century colonialism, work that is often at odds with colonial premises. Selections from works like Goethe’s Arabian Ballad, Lord Byron’s The Giaour, Victor Segalen’s Stelae, and Hugo’s Les Orientales are included.

11.        PFM3 also includes two sections called “books” that are placed in between the three galleries. Like the clusters, the "Book of Origins" and the "Book of Extensions" forego chronological organization and exhibit a collection of texts that transforms conventional opinion about Romanticism’s relationship with the poetic past while demonstrating the projection of an experimental poetic future. Jerome Rothenberg is most well-known for his work with the concept of ethnopoetics, which describes the study of various types of global folk poetry, oral literature, ceremonial and ritual speech, and mythic tales and draws deeply from disciplines such as linguistics and anthropology. [3]  The "Book of Origins" allows Rothenberg to emphasize this element of his poetic interests by taking into account three categories of texts: texts rediscovered and/or translated by the modern West in the nineteenth century (e.g., Pistis Sophia, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam); examples of folk poetry alive in the nineteenth century (e.g., Negro Spirituals); and transcriptions of lengthy oral traditions prepared by nineteenth-century folklore collectors and others (e.g., Daniel Brinton’s Rig Veda Americanus, the Navajo Night Chant).

12.        Rothenberg is also a practicing poet, and in collections like White Sun Black Sun he plays with syntax, image, and form in ways that place him in line with what he would call a “radical and experimental modernism,” or an “avant-garde” tradition (PFM3 3). In the "Book of Extensions," he and Robinson highlight a range of visual, performative, and conceptual work not normally associated with Romanticism but rather as an important starting point for twentieth-century poetic practice. Particularly important in this section are poetic techniques such as the interaction of image and text in Blake’s Laocoön, the typographical play of Lewis Carroll’s Concrete Poem: A Mouse, and the use of phonetic syllables in August Strindberg’s sound poem Holy Trinity Night: The Nightingale’s Song.

13.        Finally, PFM3 closes with a section of manifestos and statements of poetics, with excerpts taken from texts ranging from Schlegel’s Athenaeum Fragment 116 to Goethe’s Toward a World Literature and from Whitman’s Preface to Leaves of Grass to Victor Hugo’s Preface to Cromwell. The book closes with ambitious statements of guiding principles and projects that still resonate in the present day.

14.        As one can see, the breadth of the project is astounding. Without a doubt, this text helps one take quite a step toward imagining planetarity. Not only is there a geographically expansive selection of writers presented here to make the case for Romanticism as a worldwide movement, but there is also a recontextualization of familiar “major” writers, an introduction of so-called “minor” writers, an attempt to highlight working-class, women, and politically engaged writers, and selections organized by theme (in addition to chronology) that force one to expand one’s definition of Romanticism. Yet in solving one problem in constructing courses in global Romanticism—the problem of actually assembling readings from all over the world—PFM3 raises another issue just as major: is there an ideal framework that can be used (by either the editors or teachers using this anthology) to coherently present and order the riches of the material given?

15.        In full disclosure, this is the first literature course I had taught after a graduate-student career of teaching composition courses, so I was fresh with the ambition (and possibly naiveté) of wanting to tackle “the globe” in the classroom. The first thing I immediately realized when organizing a course around this book is that I would not be able to cover the entire text. It contains over 950 pages of poetry! Given the limitations of the semester, one has to make selections and condense material into a palatable size. There were only 14 full weeks of instruction, and in the three galleries alone, over 50 poets are presented, with more to be found in the other “clusters” and “books.” I decided to make the course reading intensive, forgoing long essay assignments for short reading quizzes (in addition to a midterm and final) in order to expose the students to as much of this material as possible. This is why the class was entitled an "Introduction to Global Romanticisms," because I knew that even with providing glimpses of approximately fifty writers, I could not do much more than scratch the surface. My syllabus is attached to this article for those who would like to see on a day-to-day basis how the class was organized (Appendix C).

16.        The question of canonization—always a persistent one in English departments—becomes even more acute in the struggle to construct a global syllabus. Based on what criteria does one choose or exclude? Rothenberg and Robinson never fully address this question, and they use the introduction to take up a polemic against the work of Harold Bloom, the critic who is probably most synonymous with the question of canonization and to whom Rothenberg has devoted a much longer and nastier critique (involving the comparison of Bloom and Joseph Mengele) elsewhere. [4]  Rothenberg and Robinson say, “It is our desire in fact to embrace as much of the poetic past as we can and to repudiate in so doing that ‘anxiety of influence’ (H. Bloom) that would separate us (against our finer instincts) from our fellow poets” (8). However, I can imagine that Bloom would respond, as he does in his book The Western Canon, “The overpopulation of books (and authors) brought about by the length and complexity of the world’s recorded history is at the center of canonical dilemmas, now more than ever” (491). When one strips away much of Bloom’s bombastic rhetoric, one can see the value in his list of criteria for canonical stature—“mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction” (Western Canon 27–28)—which is elsewhere shortened to “aesthetic splendor, intellectual power, wisdom” (Wisdom 5). Rothenberg and Robinson’s criterion for selection, on the other hand, revolves around drawing a “fundamental, systematic continuity” between “the most vital strain of nineteenth-century poetry and the Modernism and avant-gardism of the twentieth century” (3), or in other words emphasizing connections between Romantic poetry and the contemporary poetry movements most closely aligned to Rothenberg’s own mode of poetry writing. This, as I will explain, has very peculiar consequences.

17.        In determining what elements of the book to not include at all, I decided to remove whole sections that, while interesting, were sure to cause pedagogical problems. Many students came into the class not knowing the difference between even Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and if they in general do not have a good grasp on “insider poets,” if non-conformist figures like these can be called that, what is the value of studying "Some Outsider Poets?" Admittedly, the institution of “literature” is a precarious one, constructed by a variety of ideological factors, but it is bizarre to ask students to challenge a category with which they have very little familiarity.

18.        Along the same lines, the section "Some Orientalisms" seemed to lend itself to a too easy deployment of a term for which students have not been fully prepared. It is extremely difficult to study Orientalism in any real detail when one is given a quick sweep of poets from different nations, language traditions, and political vantage points responding to the historically shifting idea of “Asia” and more specific locales such as China, Arabia, and India.

19.        Out of the three “clusters,” therefore, I only chose to keep "Some Asian Poetics." This was the section that made the most direct intervention into the question of how to construct a global Romanticism by reaching out to an area of the world rarely considered under this rubric. The Asian poetics section is probably one of the most unique characteristics of the book, yet of course it presented its own round of pedagogical difficulties, as it almost stretches the term “Romanticism” to its breaking point. Rothenberg and Robinson define the “romantic” as a concept referring “less to a historical period and more to a quality of poetic intention—a visionary, expansive, at times comic/ironic quickening of impulse and mind that can lead beyond poetry to the larger world” (5–6). It refers to a set of “vital energies” that “counter the perceived narrowness of vision and language imposed upon persons by hegemonic and repressive societies then and now” (7).

20.        This definition, broad though it is, was the only thread joining the poets in this section together. The figures featured here, from Japan, Vietnam, China, India, and Persia, produced work stretching from the late eighteenth century into the early twentieth. They wrote in completely different forms—from haiku to lu-shih and tz’u—occupied different social positions, and responded to varying cultural and historical situations. This section, as it is probably not hard to imagine, frustrates standard pedagogical methodologies, be they formalist or historicist. First of all, it is difficult to perform nuanced formal readings of excerpts of texts, much less of texts translated from languages drastically different from English. Furthermore, it is close to impossible to reproduce the history of such as wide group of countries for the purpose of contextualizing poets, as well as situating poems in the contexts of a poet’s wider career.

21.        This move to the global, therefore, forces one to compensate for the loss of these familiar tools. It does so by provoking the realization that literary texts possess a dimension of meaning that could be called the “cosmic,” which stretches beyond the formal and sociohistorical, although the latter dimensions have garnered the greatest focus in literary studies. The word “cosmic” often makes positivist and resolutely secular intellectuals sneer, but one can define it simply as a trans-personal, trans-social ordering structure that cannot be reduced to personal fantasy or projection on one hand, or the work of political ideology on the other. It is the realm that exists, in Bibi Hayati’s words, “before there was a hint of civilization,” and it is invoked in Rabindranath Tagore’s phrase “heaven of freedom” (288, 291). Exploring the cosmic dimension of literary texts—outside the realm of formal conventions, individual psyches, and historical movements—helped add substance to Rothenberg and Robinson’s definition of the “romantic” as a “visionary, expansive quickening of impulse and mind that leads beyond poetry to the larger world,” where the larger world comes to mean even the universe beyond the earth itself.

22.        Centralizing “the cosmic” as a guiding hermeneutic made it easy to incorporate the "Book of Origins" into the syllabus, as many of the texts—such as The Night Chant and The Yarjurveda—are overtly ritualistic in nature and aim to access levels of reality transcending the mundane. Furthermore, my own research focuses on the influence of ancient Egypt and various hermetic traditions on the Romantic period, so this section provided an opportunity to walk students through texts with which I was more familiar, such as The Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Pistis Sophia. However, this section also brought up questions about Rothenberg and Robinson’s construction of a Romantic tradition. For example, Wallis Budge did not translate the Book of the Dead until 1895, the very end of the nineteenth century. In what respect, then, can Rothenberg and Robinson position this work as a Romantic achievement or source text, other than the fact that it falls between a pre-given structure of dates? It did not start to wield a large influence until the work of early modernists like Joyce, Pound, and later figures such as Lawrence Durrell. Again, it seems that Rothenberg and Robinson are stretching the term Romanticism to a point of incoherence, which is not helped by the fact none of the texts in this section are accompanied by any commentary which would situate them in any respect, leaving the instructor to puzzle alone over how to create coherent conversations about Scottish ballads, Aztec hymns, Welsh folktales, and Sanskrit translations. Marching through this plethora of texts brought so much battle fatigue that by the end of the semester, I decided to remove the "Book of Extensions" section from the syllabus altogether and drastically condense the "Manifestos and Poetics" in order to have a series of review sessions.

23.        The bulk of the class was spent reading through the galleries filled with poets from Goethe to Apollinaire. In trying to winnow these down to a manageable size (if reading over fifty poets in a semester can be called manageable), I tried to keep Bloom’s criteria in mind—“aesthetic splendor, intellectual power, wisdom”—but I did not have time to finish reading the entire anthology before teaching with it, which will likely be the fate of most teachers of global literature. Therefore, the goal became to include writers from as many different countries as possible. Although I had never read or taught Sandor Petofi before, he ended up on the syllabus as the representative of Hungary. Rubén Darío (Nicaragua) and Sigbjørn Obstfelder (Norway) were other national representatives. Often, I had to delete other authors for the same reason. Because I wanted to focus on the French Symbolist line of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud, I felt comfortable removing Jules Laforgue and Joseph Joubert. Great Britain was very well represented in this anthology, so I chose to cut figures like John Clare, Thomas de Quincey, and Dorothy Wordsworth. As much as I wanted to take out Lord Byron, as I am more interested in vatic than satiric strains of Romanticism, it did not make sense to do so, especially given his international influence. Removing him would have made discussions of others such as Aleksandr Pushkin and Adam Mickiewicz quite difficult.

24.        Yet as an organizing principle, trying to cover a spread of nations was certainly random, as the anthology frustrates these and many other types of ordering moves. The writers are all presented in chronological order, so it is difficult for students to get a sense of the development of national traditions in relationship to the global. Even now the class is over, I am sure that the majority of the students do not remember that Leopardi is Italian, Kierkegaard is Danish, and so on. If Rothenberg and Robinson had provided a simple chart of everyone’s nationality, or even a timeline of the publishing of major works, that would have helped tremendously.

25.        While being attentive to the issue of representing voices from all over the world, I also wanted to be sensitive to including the voices of women. Several canonical Western women were included in this survey: de Staël, Dickinson, Browning, Rossetti, Stein, Shelley, and Lady Guest. Mary Robinson, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Adah Menken were the only women of European descent highlighted in the anthology who were not in the syllabus. All of the Asian women excerpted in PFM3 were added to the syllabus: Yosano Akiko, Bibi Hayati, Wu Tsao, and Ho Xuan Huong.

26.        At the risk of sounding repetitive, Rothenberg and Robinson’s definition of Romanticism becomes quite hazy as the galleries unfold. For example, the poet Arno Holz is included, although he is typically known as the first important German theorist of naturalism. The major innovation of his major poem Phantasus is that all of the lines are typographically centered. Rothenberg and Robinson turn to Friedrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks, 1800/1900 for commentary: “What the verses have in view, then, are not readers and their understanding, but eyes and their psychophysics, in other words…Holz’s Phantasus, rather than addressing fantasy as the surrogate of all senses in the finest romantic manner, reckons with unconscious optokinetics” (835). If Holz moves away from the “finest romantic manner,” in what respect can he be seen as an example of Romanticism? It does not help that Rothenberg and Robinson add in the introduction that “we wish to blur the distinctions of Romantic and Postromantic as much as to insist on them” (7). Moves like this seem to make Romanticism signify everything written in the extended nineteenth century, in contradiction to the earlier definition provided of the romantic as a quality of poetic intention.

27.        Taking into account all these considerations and creating a syllabus after making a large number of cuts, I still ended up with about four new writers on the syllabus for each class meeting. (Classes were held every Tuesday and Thursday for an hour and 15 minutes). The problem with this kind of organization is obvious. For one, you completely overwhelm students who do not have any sense at all of literary history. The most ridiculous effort was trying to use one class period to speak about the Frenchmen Victor Hugo and Gérard de Nerval, the Brownings (Robert and Elizabeth), and Thomas L. Beddoes. Admittedly, some weeks were just a complete blur.

28.        Attempting to survey the globe is demanding—for students and instructors. I cannot say that I am an expert in Norwegian poetry, Finnish creation myth, and haiku, yet I found myself in the strange position of having to mediate these texts for students with no help. The major struggle of teaching a global literature class is how to balance coverage with depth, and one has to be prepared to spend hours figuring out how to achieve that balance. One of the major disadvantages of PFM3 is that there is no teaching apparatus analogous to what might be found in other anthologies such as the Norton or Broadview—no annotations of unclear terms, no bibliographies, no helpful charts or maps, no hints about classroom strategies or topics for discussion and writing, etc. Furthermore, the presentation of material is often distressing. In a section of excerpts from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, for example, there is no editorial note to tell the reader which poems are of “innocence” and which are of “experience,” and they are mixed together. In the Rimbaud section, poems from A Season in Hell and Illuminations were jumbled without hints for new readers.

29.        I attempted to turn this lack of an editorial apparatus into an opportunity for teaching. For written work, I assigned biweekly assignments, where the students were responsible for writing lists of discussion questions for each writer covered and creating an annotated list of unfamiliar allusions and vocabulary. And as I removed readings from the syllabus toward the end of the semester to help us all maintain our sanity, I assigned presentations requiring students to organize a discussion of three writers around a given theme.

30.        Yet in addition to this lack of an editorial apparatus, the major difficulty of using this text for teaching is its very specific frame and agenda for interpreting global Romanticism. Rothenberg and Robinson’s goal here is to redefine Romanticism so that it becomes a precursor to a very partisan definition of “experimental modernism,” and to turn to Bloomian terminology again, this is a very creative misreading. Rothenberg and Robinson privilege texts that rely heavily on stylistic fragmentation, collage/montage techniques, engagement with nonsense, obscure uses of grammar and syntax, the deprivileging of the lyric self, opaque textures, and discontinuous typography. In effect, Romanticism is portrayed as an artistic movement that leads directly to the work of Ezra Pound.

31.        This is not an exaggeration, and one can turn to any number of the commentaries to see Pound as the spectral influence behind this collection, which is especially odd given Pound’s many broadsides against the movement. One can return to Rothenberg and Robinson’s commentary on Arno Holz for a first example: “Increasingly experimental in his later writings (Phantasus would expand to 60,000 lines by 1925 & show a Pound-like ambition to write a ‘Weltgedicht: a Nuova-Divinia after Dante or Über-Odysee after Homer’), he reemerges today as a still vital linking figure across the nineteenth- & twentieth-century divide” (835). And instead of focusing on the highly readable and teachable odes and elegies of a figure like Friedrich Hölderlin, Rothenberg and Robinson choose to emphasize severely fragmented works like the late palimpsestic Columbus, from which I confess I could not draw any meaning, especially given that the reader is only presented an excerpt from an already incomplete piece. Rothenberg and Robinson quote the translator Richard Sieburth: “The French phrases [in Columbus] that punctuate the text in Poundian fashion may be snippets overheard in the ports of Bordeaux during Hölderlin’s residence in that city” (159). As a final (but not the last) example, the Brazilian poet Sousandrade’s O Guesa Errante, which follows a legendary figure of the Colombian Muisca Indians into the inferno of nineteenth-century Wall Street, is said to be “a forerunner of EP’s Cantos and of many other modern poets” (663).

32.        Since Rothenberg and Robinson work with the dictum that “experiments in form often equate to, or imply the possibility of, social and spiritual/mental transformations” (17), centralizing Pound in this way allows Rothenberg and Robinson to wage a mimic war between those “radicals” that experiment with form and the “conservatives” who work in traditional boundaries, between innovators who favor the “playful, proliferating” Fancy and reactionaries who turn toward the “synthetic, disinterested” Imagination (8). It is never made clear how formal radicalism is related to political radicalism, and this polemic is not only distracting, but it muddles the presentation of the material, as I will show.

33.        It is not a surprise that the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz was chosen for this anthology. He almost fits a profile—he was directly involved in all sorts of political intrigues and battles for independence and also the creator of a nationalist epic (Pan Tadeusz). An excerpt of that text from Donald Davie’s “transcreation” is provided in PFM3:

Breakfast the judge
Against the grain
Admits alfresco:
Sportsmen home again
Move to and fro
And serve the ladies, bear
In Dresden ware
Cups, capped in cream,
Of coal-black, honey-thick
Coffee, as aromatic
As mocha, amber-clear
On charming trays;
Themselves the gentlemen
Take as they may prefer
Ham, goose, or tongue,
All cured in juniper,
And then stewed beef in gravy. (337-38)
Here is a more literal translation from Leonard Kress:
…The Judge sat at the flank
of the Chamberlain’s family; amid this fussing
the girls were whispering to one another–
unknown to proper Polish etiquette!
Such chaotic scenes would surely bother
the Judge, who’d rail to show he was upset.
Various dishes were brought to this company
by servants balancing immense trays
painted with colorful flowers. Slowly,
they walked through steamy, aromatic haze with tiny pots of coffee and Dresden
China, each cup with its own jug of cream.
For Poland has coffee like no other nation,
its preparation a custom held in esteem
in all respectable homes. Typically, a special
woman, the coffee-maker, has the chore
of going to the river barges to haggle
for the best beans. She alone knows the lore
for brewing such a drink that’s black as coal,
translucent as amber, and thick as honey.
And then the finest cream has its role
in the preparation. In the country
it is not difficult; after the pot
is set atop the fire, it’s off to the barn
to skim the milk. The richest of the lot
poured in each jug, shaped like a tiny urn.
The ladies sipped their drinks and then prepared,
by warming beer on the stove, a new dish,
mixing in cream and bits of floating curd.
The men picked at fatty smoked goose, fish,
sliced tongue and ham–all quite tasty
and home-made, smoked over juniper, fired
in the chimney; finally rashers, called zrazy.
Such were the breakfasts that the Judge required. (40)
From Kress’ translation, one can more clearly see that the poem is an epic in the mode of Byron and Pushkin, not a work of (proto)modernist fragmentation. If one is trying to give a quick overview of Mickiewicz in a survey of global literature, the latter translation is demonstrably better for giving a flavor of his style, tone, and rhetorical stance. If Davie’s translation is “radical,” then “radicalism” is a project verging on willful incoherence, one that does a great disservice in the classroom. How rewritings of this sort hasten spiritual or social transformation is quite beyond me, unless the transformation is alienating a potential audience for poetry even more. These types of problematic translations are found throughout the book, with the next most egregious example being Robin Blaser’s translations of Gérard de Nerval.

34.        Rothenberg and Robinson’s fetishization of “radicalism” is also tied to an ideology of collectivism that runs throughout this anthology and others that Rothenberg has produced. In the introduction to his America a Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present, Rothenberg says: “our general intention has been to show modes of poetry rather than individual poets, and any reader who takes what follows as an attempt to draw up definitive lists of poets or to chart chronologies of careers will have missed one of the fundamental premises of this anthology” (xxxvi). (Even in this earlier project, the Romantic influence was strong. The title comes from a William Blake poem.) Following this same goal in Poems for the Millennium Volume Three, Rothenberg attempts to decenter the individual poet to think about Romanticism not only as an international, but as a collective movement. There are many sophisticated philosophical positions supporting this stance which I cannot explore here in depth, and I do recognize the powerful tradition of critiques launched against orthodox constructions of the modern bourgeois individual. However, I want to point to the difficulty of teaching “modes of poetry” rather than “individual poets.” Granted, this might simply be a sign of my lack of seasoned teaching, but I found that I could not devise methods of teaching, creating assignments on, and crafting assessments based on students’ grasp of modes of poetry, rather than modes of poetry as concretized by specific figures in specific texts. In reality, what this decentering of the individual seemed to amount to was having a poet’s work spread throughout different sections. Poems by William Blake, for example, were included in the "Preludium," "First Gallery," "Book of Origins," "Book of Extensions," "Some Orientalisms," and "Manifestos & Poetics." It seems that a more radical and consistent method of imagining Romanticism as a collective project, one that allows the voice of Poetry itself to speak, would have been to produce an anthology with no names of poets (or editors) listed anywhere.

35.        All in all, however, this course was a grand “experiment” (to use a favorite Rothenberg and Robinson term) in learning how to imagine planetarity and teach global Romanticism. The class was exciting, but not as successful as I might have hoped. The students were not always kind in their reaction to this demanding and eclectic course. The majority opinion was articulated in the pithy comment: “Intense amount of reading for this class for painfully uninteresting material. Tests are hard.” Thankfully, in the midst of negative feedback, there were a few counter-voices, such as the following: “Doctor Redd’s class was a very challenging, but rewarding one. The material is difficult, but he presents it with an interesting spin. After working a lot, I walk away with an appreciation of the subject matter.”

36.        I surmise that elements of this course were deemed “intense,” “painfully uninteresting,” “challenging,” and “difficult” for many reasons. Trying to absorb the work of approximately fifty authors writing in vastly different languages, styles, and forms over the course of a semester would be a challenge even for a seasoned literary scholar, so it was unfair to expect that of undergraduates without more of a structure to mediate this material for them. Placing all of these writers on the syllabus seemed (before actually teaching the course) to be an effective way to meet the challenge of presenting the full global panoply of Romantic writing, but the sheer number of writers covered meant that the course discussion could not dive deeply into any particular figure or literary issue. The surface treatment of so many figures possibly hindered the students from developing rich emotional connections to the material, hence their rejection of it as “uninteresting.” This course went to an extreme limit in its ambition to represent the global, and future courses on global Romanticism will have to continue to think about how to balance broad and deep coverage.

37.        In the last week of teaching this course, I came across David Damrosch’s book What Is World Literature? I was surprised to see him articulate something of my experience with this class and point toward a new direction:

Anthologies have been growing larger and larger, as teachers and publishers have sought to encompass our ever-expanding canon. When we are presenting a single national tradition, there is still a logic to giving some sense of most of the currently acknowledged major authors, particularly as time and space generally allow the inclusion of a range of less-known figures as well. The task becomes impossible with any truly global vision of world literature, and other approaches are plainly needed. At minimum, it takes three points to define a plane surface, and perhaps three works, interestingly juxtaposed and studied with care, can define a literary field. (10)
Damrosch here moves to the opposite extreme from my course. Instead of broadening the syllabus, he calls for a radical stripping down of it. The ideal global romanticism course probably lies between the minimalist approach for which Damrosch advocates and the maximalist approach I pursued. However, working with Damrosch’s “definition of world literature: not a set canon of texts but a mode of reading, a detached engagement with a world beyond our own” (297) will provide a key for building the theoretical infrastructure needed to make teaching global Romanticism a project more coherent than the juxtaposition of wide-ranging texts. This mode of reading might usefully engage with the idea hastily sketched above about a “cosmic” dimension of the literary text—one that interacts with its formal and sociohistorical dimensions while transcending and not being reducible to them. It is this cosmic dimension that could potentially help us understand nonlocal and nonlinear influences that link seemingly unrelated writers and texts; discover new spiritual, political, and ethical imperatives in our reading of world literature; and proclaim our deep connectedness as a human species, despite boundaries that often assert cultural incommensurability.

38.        In the seven years since I taught this course in 2011, I have transitioned from a faculty role to an administrative one. I no longer teach, so I write this article to memorialize the thinking and effort that went into constructing this course, an experiment that I hope other scholars of global Romanticism will take up after me. I offer this course’s chaos and idiosyncrasies, yet also its potential, daring, and boundary breaking.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. Riverhead Books, 1994.

———. Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Riverhead Books, 2004.

Cheah, Pheng. "What Is a World? On World Literature as World-Making Activity." Daedalus, vol. 137, no. 3, 2008, pp. 26–38.

Damrosch, David. What Is World Literature? Princeton UP, 2003.

Dimock, Wai Chee. Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time. Princeton UP, 2006.

Elias, Amy J., and Christian Moraru, editors. The Planetary Turn: Relationality and Geoaesthetics in the 21st Century. Northwestern UP, 2015.

Emery, Mary Lou. "Caribbean Modernism: Plantation to Planetary." The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, edited by Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough, Oxford UP, 2012, pp. 48–77.

Joris, Pierre and Habib Tengour, editors. Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four: The University of California Book of North African Literature. U of California P, 2013.

Kadir, Djelal. "To World, to Globalize: Comparative Literature’s Crossroads." Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 41, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1–9.

Mickiewicz, Adam. Pan Tadeusz, or the Last Foray in Lithuania: A History of the Nobility in the Years 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books of Verse. Translated by Leonard Kress, HarrowGate Press, 2006.

Miyoshi, Masao. "Turn to the Planet: Literature, Diversity, and Totality." Comparative Literature, vol. 53, no. 4, 2001, pp. 283–297.

Moraru, Christian. Reading for the Planet: Toward a Geomethodology. U of Michigan P, 2015.

Puchner, Martin, et al. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Radhakrishnan, R. "Worlding, by Any Other Name." History, the Human, and the World Between. Duke UP, 2008, pp. 183–248.

Rothenberg, Jerome. America a Prophecy. Random House, 1973.

———. "Harold Bloom: The Critic as Exterminating Angel," Poetics & Polemics: 1980–2005. U of Alabama P, 2008.

Rothenberg, Jerome, and Diane Rothenberg, editors. Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse toward an Ethnopoetics. U of California P, 1983.

Rothenberg, Jerome, and Jeffrey Robinson, editors. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, Volume Three. U of California P, 2009.

Rothenberg, Jerome and John Bloomberg-Rissman, editors. Barbaric Vast & Wild: A Gathering of Outside and Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present: Poems for the Millennium, Volume Five. Commonwealth Books, 2015.

Rothenberg, Jerome, and Pierre Joris, editors. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry, Volume One. U of California P, 1995.

———. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry, Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium. U of California P, 1998.

Spivak, Gayatri. Death of a Discipline. Columbia UP, 2003.


[1]For a few examples of scholars who develop these terms in powerful ways, see Wai Chee Dimock, R. Radhakrishnan, Pheng Cheah, Amy Elias, Mary Emery, Djelal Kadir, Christian Moraru, and Masao Miyoshi. BACK

[2]Throughout the rest of this essay, I will focus on Rothenberg as the major editorial presence behind the Poems for the Millennium project because he participated in constructing four out of the five anthologies. There is not enough space in the context of this essay to give a full appreciation of the contributions made by Pierre Joris, Jeffrey Robinson, and Habib Tengour to this effort. BACK

[3]See Jerome and Diane Rothenberg. BACK

[4]See Rothenberg 2008. BACK


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