by Charles Bernstein
“The conceited villager believes the entire world to be his village.”
– José Martí, “Our America”
“Sou um tupí tangendo um alaúde!”
(I am a Tupí strumming a lute!)
– Mário de Andrade's "O trovador" ("The Troubadour")
“Tupy, or not tupy that is the question.”
– Oswald de Andrade, “Anthropophagite Manifesto”
One day I want to write an essay called The Americas Still in Process. In this essay, I would explore the still-imaginary cultural space of a “poetics of the Americas” in terms of José Martí’s “Our America” and Emerson’s “moral perfectionism.” My discussion of moral perfectionism, indebted to Stanley Cavell, would no doubt lead to a declaration of interdependence: that the poetics of Americas cannot be complete, for if we ever arrive at its end, we will have destroyed its promise to be ongoing, regenerating, and self-cannibalizing.
In this essay, I would proclaim, like a Dada Edgar Poe dreaming of Nicolás Guillén doing Google searches, that the poem of the Americas does not exist. For the Americas is an imaginary cultural space whose mutant and multiform manifestations are as evanescent as the last breaths of a dying tongue.
& then I’d say that this is why the imperative for the poets of the Americas – contra conventional wisdom – has been to tell rather than show. For, telling is the task, as Langston Hughes calls us, of a people “in transition.”
In his 1972 anthology Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americans, Jerome Rothenberg articulates, with comic force, a problem that remains a central issue as we move, in the U.S., from an American poetics to a poetics of the Americas:
For a period of twenty-five years, say, or as long as it takes a new generation to discover where it lives, take the Greek epics out of the undergraduate curricula. & replace them with the great American epics. Study the Popul Vuh where you now study Homer, and study Homer where you know study the Popul Vuh – as exotic anthropology, etc." (Prefaces, p. 175)
Rothenberg here echoes the sentiments of José Martí in “Our America,” eighty
The history of America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught in clear detail and to the letter, even if the archons of Greece are overlooked. Our Greece must take priority over the Greece which is not ours. We need it more.
Rothenberg’s two early anthologies, Technicians of the Sacred (1967) and Shaking the Pumpkin (1972) insisted on the immediate (rather than simply historical or anthropological) relevance of the "tribal" poetries of Native Americans (on both American continents), Africans, and peoples of Oceania. As such, they should be read as crucial poetic documents of the 1960s and 70s, works that accelerated a reconceptualization of American poetry as a poetics of the Americas. Rothenberg presented a concerted assault on the primacy of Western high culture and an active attempt to find, in other, non-Western/non-Oriental cultures, what seemed missing from our own. Moreover, the "recovery" of Native American culture by a Jewish Brooklyn-born first-generation poet-as-anthologist (in Rothenberg's words -- "a jew among / the indians"), whose aesthetic roots were in the European avant-garde, implicitly acknowledges our domestic genocide, on both continents of the Americas, as part of the process of recovery from both Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
Rothenberg's anthologies investigate a pluricultural grounding for the Americas, just as they explicitly reject Eurosupremacism from within a European perspective. At the same time Rothenberg’s work is notable for rejecting outright the popular, but nonetheless demagogic, rejection of Europe and Europeanness among U.S. poets, that is, for rejecting Europe in favor of an idealized and singular "America."
The singular, unitary idea of American literature is based on a set of often violent Anglonormative erasures: of pre-Conquest cultures, of the Middle Passage, of the languages of immigration, and of newly emerging tongues.
In 1951, Charles Olson’s visit to the Yucatan inspired a significant and influential move toward a Poetics of the Americas, the most important, among U.S. poets, in the years immediately following the Second World War. Olson’s expansive rejection of the trap of what Robin Blaser, in an essay on Olson, calls “The Western Box,” both echoes Marti and anticipates Rothenberg:
It is not the Greeks I blame. What it comes to is ourselves, that we do not find ways to hew to experience as it is, in our definition and expression of it, in other words, find ways to stay in the human universe, and not be lead to partition reality at any point, in any way. For this is just what we do, this is the real issue of what has been, and the process, as it now asserts itself, can be exposed. It is the function, comparison, or its bigger name, symbology. These are the false faces, too much seen, which hide and keep from use the active intellectual states, metaphor and performance. [“Human Universe,” in Collected Prose, p 157]
Olson went on to articulate a poetics of place that rejects the metaphysical in favor of the historical and particular. Coming into direct contact with Our Americas, he realized that the way in is not by analogy but through a process of active juxtaposition that produces a third term.
Our Americas is a performance.
I want to insist on the word Americas not just to encompass North and South America, but also as a way to register the multiplicity of our senses of America, as a way of registering this multiplicity, not comparison, as foundational for the poetics of our Americas.
In Ül: four mapuche poets, ed. Cecilia Vicuña, tr. John Bierhorst (Pittsburgh: Poetry in Indigenous Languages Series, Latin American Literary Review Press,1998), Vicuna quotes Jorge Teiller: “… my weapon against the world is another vision of the world” (21). What poetry lacks in efficacy it makes up for in conceptual power, Blake’s “Mental Fight.” Or, as Martí puts it in “Our America”: “ … weapons of the mind, which conquer all others. Barricades of ideas are worth more than barricades of stones.”
No issue has dogged poetry so much in the past two decades as identity – national, social, ethnic, racial, and local. Like the Americas, identity is always plural. And like the Americas, identity is necessarily, a priori, syncretic and braided, indeed, self-cannibalizing, as surely as the DNA that flows in our psyches and concatenates our mental projections.
In developing not only our thinking of a poetics of the Americas but also, far more importantly, in our activities in creating a poetics of Americas we would do well to keep in mind Teiller’s remark, that we are creating another vision of the world, one that in its globablism does not follow the dictates of the World Trade Organization and World Bank and in its localism does not become the site of the creation of strange fruits for export, but rather commits itself to a cannibalizing process of self-creation, as first defense against the “Western Box.” A possibility never better set out than in Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 Anthropophagite – cannibalism – Manifesto:
Only anthropophagy unites us….
Against all importers of canned consciousness. The palpable existence of life. And the pre-logical mentality for Mr. Levi Bruhl to study. …
Against the truth of missionary peoples, defined by the sagacity of an anthropophagite …
But they who came were not crusaders. They were fugitives from a civilization that we are eating, because we are strong and vengeful as a Jabuti. [Tr. Adriano Pedrosa and Veronica Cordeiro]
Martí again: “The trees must form ranks to keep the giant with seven-league boots from passing!”
An ever intriguing model for our global/local/loco poetics, is the Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid, not the name he was born with but the name he aspired to, who was thrown out of the Scots nationalist party, despite his poetic work in synthetic Scots dialect, for being too international; and thrown out of the communist party for being too localist.
In the collection of Mapuche poets, Elicura Chihuailaf writes that “Poetry does not merely safeguard the cultural identity of a people, it generates it.” In this way, Chihuailaf emphasizes the productive forces of poetry in contrast to the reproductive reflexes of cultural theory. A poetics of the Americas would be less concerned with analyzing the themes and cultural narratives produced in Spanish and English fiction than in listening for – and composing – a collage of distinct language practices across the Americas. In replacing theme and system – “comparison” and “symbology” in Olson’s terms -- with overlays, palimpsests, and collage, I am suggesting that we conceptualize our Americas as a hypertextual or syncretic constellation, with alphabetic, glyphic, and a/oral layers. A constellation is an alternative model for understanding what is often characterized as fragmentation, parataxis, isolation, insularity, atomization, and separate development. Hypertextuality maps a syncretic space that articulates points of contact and that potentiates both spatial connections among discrepant parts and temporal overlays that merge or melt into one another.
The Mapuche volume’s palimpsestic approach emerges directly from the material conditions of the poetics of the Americas: not multiculturalism, but what Chihuailaf usefully calls (in Bierhorst’s English translation of the original Spanish text of this Mapudungun-speaking poet): interculturalism. Indeed, this book is in three languages: English, Spanish and Mapudungun (the language of the Mapuche). Mapudungun is the most recent of the three language to be alphabetized, that is, to be transliterated into writing. At first I was confused as to why no translator was listed for the Spanish, but then I realized it was taken for granted that the poets represented in Mapudungun had made their own translations, or more likely worked bilingually in both languages, perhaps moving back from the Spanish into Mapudungum as much as going from a fully original Mapudungum and translated into Spanish, as if it were a foreign language. Perhaps what makes this indigenous for our Americas is not the single strand of the Mapudungum but the braided layers of the aboriginal, the colonial, the immigrant: specifically the joining of any two against a third, which is perceived to be the greater threat. Recall Rothenberg’s lines – a “jew among / the indians.”
Martí speaks of us as laboring with “English breeches, Parisian vest, North America jacket, and Spanish cap [as the] Indian hover[s] near us in silence,” and goes on to emphasize the necessity of rejecting racism by acknowledging not only those here before the Europeans but also those who were violently wrenched from Africa for a rough landing in a New World, those who sojourn “alone and unrecognized among the rivers and wild animals.” Marti is at pains to not the erase of the personhood of those brought to the Americas as slaves. But he also registers that the new worlds of our Americas require an ecopoetics, as Jonathan Skinner proposes in his magazine of that name.
In the imaginary space of our Americas, none has sovereignty, either of suffering or land, for sovereignty is reserved for the ghosts and the wind, which are forever lost both to and in time.
The poetics of the Americas has for hundreds of years been creating syncretic indigenous languages distinct from the received dictions of the languages of conquest or emigration: indigenous in the sense of born in a region, originating in a place. The place of here, the time of now: necessarily a crossroads.
That’s why I would stress, in looking for the threads that interconnect the poetries of the Americas, innovation and over refinement, as a way to register how important ingenuity has been for our Americas. That is, the points of contact that we may find in our mutual inhabitations of the Americas may not be in how we have extended and refined a poetic language we have inherited, for example from Europe, from London’s English or Madrid’s Spanish, or Lisbon’s Portuguese, but rather how these poetries have worked to disrupt the ascent of a literature of refinement and assimilation.
I hope this may suggest a response to a criticism, often heard, to proposals for expanding the study of American literature to the literature of the Americas. If American, in the sense of U.S., literature is understood as an extension or development of earlier, primarily British literature, then we need, necessarily, to look first to the earlier literature of England to understand our own. This is a primary rationale behind the structure of the English department, where the teaching of U.S. literature was itself a hard won battle in the earlier part of the last century. I say U.S., not North American, literature because U.S. English Department’s have paid scant attention to either Canadian or Mexican literature, which are seen, at best, as collateral to, rather than foundational for, the development of U.S. literature.
In a recent essay, Frank Davey points out how few points of contact there have been between U.S. and Canadian poets and almost entirely in after 1950. When they have occurred, these confluences have allowed poets on both sides of the border to put forward a set of shared aesthetic and political engagements against more conservative, if not nativist, poetic positions in their own countries. At the same time, the official narratives of the national poetries of each country has largely been traced as separate and disconnected:
Always latent in Canadian culture are the facts that Canada’s roots began in dissent from the US, and that Canada has been repeatedly re-affirmed by US citizens themselves as the alternate North American nation. … Canada’s first wave of English-speaking immigrants were United Empire Loyalist refugees from the American Revolutionary War. Canada’s formation as a nation in 1867 was in part a response to the large US armies created by the Civil War. Just as Canadian governments have been restricted by this complex cultural history in the extent to which they have been able to affiliate themselves with US policies, Canadian poets have necessarily been both unconsciously and consciously selective in their associations with US poetries and poetics. In general, Canadian poets have avoided association with hegemonic US poetries or poetries that have celebrated the US nation. [“Canadian Poetry and its Relationship to US Poetry,” The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry, 2006]
As Roland Greene argues, the need to reform the disciplinary boundaries of literary study, and move toward what he calls “New World Studies” is urgent. See especially his essay “New World Studies and the Limits of National Literatures” (Stanford Humanities Review, 6:1, 1998), from which I have taken epigraph from Andrade’s "O trovador":
For new world studies the contact zone is not only the literal places of cultural encounter, but the concatenated spaces where worlds—that is, intellectual or spiritual systems represented by versions through which they can be understood or evaluated—move into critical relation with each other; the coming into play of the term and the concept of "world" is vital to the enterprise.
A syncretic poetics of ingenuity and invention, of collage and palimpsest, is averse to the accumulative and developmental model of literature still reigning in the U.S. literary academy (and elsewhere in the Americas). If we think of literature as developing through cross-fertilization and cannibalization, toward the invention of a synthetic indigenous, of new worlds, then we may find it necessary to consider parallel poetries rather than causal poetries: coincidence will become more significant to us than lineage, points of contact more resonant than common origin. Or anyway: a s s i g n i f i c a n t. This is why Ernesto Livon-Grosman’s notation of the synchronicity of New York’s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978-1981) and Buenos Aires’s Xul (1980-1997 so appealing: it makes no claim to influence, to cause and effect; these are simultaneous developments, yet structurally and poetically related, even twined. (See Livon-Grosman’s “The Questioning of the Americas” in 99 Poets/1999: An International Poetics Symposium, which I edited for boundary 2 in1999, which is the starting point for my reflections here.)
The poetics of the Americas that I am imagining is not about comparisons: it is about encounter, and change through the encounter; for if you are the same after such a meeting, then there was no encounter.
The project of America – of the Americas – is a process not yet complete, a process that shall never be finished.
For when it’s finished, it’s over.
Our Americas is still in progress: as a talk, in experiment, an essay. Then again perhaps our Americas is a formal procedure, an hypothesis or conditional, requiring aesthetic intervention, seat-of-the-pants ingenuity, and other-worldly reinvention.
And this is why, it could just be, that we see the possibilities of our Americas most acutely in poetry: our poetics viewed under the sign of our exchange.
New York, May 1, 2007