The Gorky Poems (Poemas a Gorky)

The Gorky Poems (Poemas a Gorky) by Jerome Rothenberg


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    The Gorky Poems (Poemas a Gorky)

    The Gorky Poems / Poemas a Gorky by Jerome Rothenberg, released in 1966, represents a pivotal moment in the career of a major American poet whose investigative, transnational work as a poet, editor, translator, and writer has continued to break new ground and influence readers, writers, and scholars of poetry. It also offers a glimpse into the international and politicized aesthetics of its publisher, El Corno Emplumado (The Plumed Horn), an influential literary magazine and book imprint that provided rare opportunities for innovative writers and artists of different cultures from around the world to discover each other.

    The Gorky Poems was released by the Mexico City–based El Corno Emplumado as a Spanish-English bilingual volume. This book’s dual-language aspect situates it, along with other El Corno publications, as a bridge between the political, social, and literary movements that spanned two hemispheres. Emblematic of the entrepreneurial spirit of the Mimeo Revolution, when poets started their own presses with the self-conscious agenda of working outside of mainstream publishing channels, El Corno was founded in 1962 by American poet Margaret Randall and Mexican poet Sergio Mondragón. El Corno became a preeminent vehicle for global exchange.

    As a translator, proponent of international oral and written traditions, and poet whose work explores issues of diaspora—with a particular interest in his ancestry as the child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants—Jerome Rothenberg is a fitting author for the press. El Corno made a name for itself as a quarterly magazine featuring writing from around the world, including the United States, Latin America, Europe, and beyond. The Gorky Poems is one of El Corno’s single-author books that were published in bilingual editions. The collection was translated from English to Spanish by Mondragón, while Randall worked with Rothenberg on the development of the manuscript.

    The title of the collection references the acclaimed Armenian-American artist Arshile Gorky. After being uprooted by the Armenian genocide and following his mother’s death from starvation, Gorky emigrated to America and eventually settled in New York City in 1924. Influenced by Surrealism, he became a leading early figure of Abstract Expressionism. He committed suicide in 1948. The cover of The Gorky Poems features a painting by the artist, and the collection opens with a quote by him, which references “Mougouch,” his nickname for his second wife, née Agnes Magruder.

    In the acknowledgments at the front of the book, Rothenberg suggests a “diverse and often loose relationship to Gorky’s paintings, titles, poems, or to my ‘sense of Gorky.’” In particular, he notes the “structure of suspension in time & space” in the poems “Sightings (i-ix)” and “Further Sightings” as being related to Gorky’s work, but also asserts his poems “are not about these things.” In remarks made in 2017 (see the video in the Audio/Visual tab), Rothenberg has noted that the Abstract Expressionist painter Milton Resnick encouraged him to look at the paintings of Gorky, who had been Resnick’s friend, because he believed that “all painters should become poets and all poets should become painters.” Though Rothenberg did not ultimately become a painter, he was drawn to the artist’s work as well as to “Gorky’s European-ness, with his having come from the other place, as my parents had before me.”

    In addition to Gorky, modernist poet Gertrude Stein is a significant presence in this work, alongside rabbis, pirates, and other figures, all moving in a realm of dreams, symbols, and archetypes. In this complex poetic landscape, water, voyages, and ice are recurrent motifs alongside implications of violence and diaspora. The poem “The Betrothal” shares its name with the Gorky painting on the cover of the collection and features a watery place, where “boats meet like lovers / in couples, the heart of the diamond, the / cyclotron’s heart, its spaces / cleaving me, leaving me dead.” The “cyclotron” references a particle accelerator, which is used in nuclear technology, and in the poem it unleashes a dance of death and strewn debris, including “[a]n American flag. / A wishbone. / A derrick. / A place. / We called it a place by subtraction.” Throughout the book, poems cycle between themes of lost identity, statelessness, and antinationalist sentiments.

    Mexican poet and critic Heriberto Yépez wrote that “[o]ne can see the gradual change from a Romantic American Deep Image to a post-Romantic plural vision” in the transition from Rothenberg’s early work to The Gorky Poems, referencing two major poetic orientations established by Rothenberg. By the early 60s, Rothenberg had coined, with Robert Kelly, the term “deep image,” signifying a poetic envisioning that calls for (in the words of Rothenberg) “poets to get at the reality of things by turning inward: that the process of self-perception be united as far as possible with our means of perceiving the world around us.” In the second half of that decade, Rothenberg began developing his concept of “ethnopoetics,” which brought together oral poetries and global avant-garde movements and would be unveiled in his landmark anthology Technicians of the Sacred, published in 1968.

    The Gorky Poems is an indispensable touchstone for understanding the sweep of Jerome Rothenberg’s long, ambitious oeuvre, and it displays El Corno Emplumado’s essential role in bringing experimental works of the 1960s to multinational English-language and Spanish-language audiences.

    —Co-written by Suzanne Wise, Staff Writer at Poets House, and Sarah Ruth Jacobs, a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, as part of a joint project with the CUNY Graduate Center.

    Jerome Rothenberg

    A prolific poet, translator, editor, and writer who has produced over 80 books, Jerome Rothenberg's work has expanded poetry, poetics, and poetic histories for audiences and practitioners both within the United States and beyond its borders. He is known especially for his promotion of the oral, performative traditions of various indigenous cultures, a pursuit he came to describe as “ethnopoetics” in the 1960s. He brought these global practices into conversation with international avant-garde poetries through a series of innovative anthologies that grew out of a critique of Western canons and imperialist ideals, such as the veneration of the printed page over oral traditions. The aim was to offer, as he says, “the possibility of opening up the full dimension of what it meant to be totally and meaningfully human.” These investigations have continued to evolve and expand, informing his own groundbreaking, exploratory poetry, from his beginnings as “a pioneer Pan-American writer,” as Mexican poet Heriberto Yépez notes, to the present day.

    Born in 1931 in New York City to Polish Jewish immigrants, Rothenberg completed his undergraduate degree at City College in 1952. He went on to receive a master’s in literature from the University of Michigan and to do graduate work at Columbia University. After serving in the army in Germany from 1953 to 1955, Rothenberg began to publish translations of German poetry in the Hudson Review. With City Lights, he published the first English-language translations of the poetry of Paul Celan and Günter Grass, among others, in the anthology New Young German Poets, which he also edited. In the late 50s, Rothenberg founded Hawk’s Well Press, which released books by such poets as Robert Kelly and Diane Wakoski, as well as Rothenberg’s own first collection White Sun Black Sun in 1960. He also started two magazines, Poems from the Floating World and some/thing, the latter of which was co-founded with David Antin. In this early period of his literary career, Rothenberg promulgated “deep image” poetry, a term he coined with Kelly, who depicted the mode as “a kind of poetry not necessarily dominated by the images, but in which it is the rhythm of images which forms the dominant movement of the poem.”

    Since the mid-1960s, Rothenberg has been developing the field of ethnopoetics, as unveiled in his seminal 1968 anthology Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia & Oceania, which features translations of oral poetry and performance from indigenous cultures, including ritual song, chant, and nonverbal sounds, alongside avant-garde poetry and art. A revised, expanded 50th anniversary third edition was recently released. In 1970, Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock founded the magazine Alcheringa, which was dedicated to ethnopoetic work and included contributions from poets, scholars, and translators. Rothenberg collaboratively produced a number of other ethnopoetic anthologies containing diverse materials and commentaries that he has referred to as “assemblages,” such as Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas. With George Quasha, a poet and sculptor, Rothenberg edited the anthology America a Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present, and with Diane Rothenberg, he edited Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics.

    Jewish history and themes are also prominent in Rothenberg’s work and offer another dimension to his transnational inquiries, seen in collections such as Poland/1931 (1974) and the anthology A Big Jewish Book: Poems & Other Visions of the Jews from Tribal Times to the Present (1977). Of the latter, he has said: “With roots in traditional sources that I could freely re-vision, but with an emphasis throughout on diaspora, my intention here was to smash stereotypes, or sometimes to incorporate them, aiming as far as I could for complexity in its global and temporal reach, and for surprise and puzzlement, both for myself and others.” Poland/1931 would later be gathered with two other works—Khurbn and The Burning Babe—in Triptych (2007).

    Rothenberg’s other significant editorial projects include the multi-volume anthology series Poems for the Millennium. The first two volumes (1995, 1998), co-edited with Pierre Joris, trace 20th-century avant-garde poetry worldwide: from Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Objectivism, Negritude movements, and oral traditions of native cultures through postwar poetry with the Beats, concrete poetry, Language poetry, Chinese Misty Poets, and more. The third volume, edited with Jeffrey C. Robinson, reconsiders Romantic and Post-Romantic poets of the 19th century.

    Concurrent to his anthologies, poetry collections, and critical writing, Rothenberg also pursued his longtime interest in theater and performance by transforming his poems into musical and theatrical events. Poetry from Poland/1931 was performed at the Living Theater in New York. He worked with numerous musicians, most notably Charlie Morrow, an experimental sound artist who collaborated with other poets, including Allen Ginsberg.  

    Jerome Rothenberg continues to tirelessly expand his poetics, recently proposing “omnipoetics,” which operates in opposition to “an upsurge of new nationalisms & racisms” and “tests the range of our threatened humanities wherever found & looks toward an ever greater assemblage of words & thoughts as a singular buttress against those forces that would divide and diminish us.” Later publications include Retrievals: Uncollected & New Poems, 1955–2010; Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader; and The President of Desolation and Other Poems. Rothenberg’s contributions—as a poet, performer, translator, writer, and editor—have broadened the notion of poetry on a global scale, offering a multicultural vision of diversity and interconnection that has reshaped American poetry over the past 50 years.  

    —Co-written by Suzanne Wise, Staff Writer at Poets House, and Sarah Ruth Jacobs, a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, as part of a joint project with the CUNY Graduate Center.

    El Corno Emplumado

    El Corno Emplumado (The Plumed Horn), founded in Mexico City in 1962, was an international journal and publisher of books featuring innovative writing and art from North and Latin America, as well as other regions of the world. Offering bilingual editions of its magazine and books, El Corno brought the work of Spanish-language writers to English-language readers and vice versa, including the first translations into Spanish of works by American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the first translations into English of work by Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal. While other inter-American magazines came into existence during the Mimeo Revolution—such as Miguel Grinberg’s Eco Contemporáneo in Argentina and Richard Greenwell’s Haravec in Peru—none were as successful as El Corno at connecting cultures across borders.

    The name El Corno Emplumado was chosen to evoke the dual American and Mexican influences of the enterprise, which began with a quarterly magazine—that is, both the American “jazz horn” and the “plumes of Quetzalcoatl,” the Mayan god of wind and wisdom, as founding editor Margaret Randall notes. As a young American poet, Randall traveled to Mexico City in 1961, where she met an international circle of writers that gathered regularly at Beat poet Philip Lamantia’s apartment; among these were Sergio Mondragón, a Mexican poet whom she would marry. Together Randall and Mondragón started the journal with another American poet, Harvey Wolin, who left shortly after the project began.

    Under the guidance of Mondragón and Randall, issues of the quarterly grew to 200 or more pages of poetry, prose, visual art, and letters to the editors from writers and artists around the world. The magazine also featured collections of new writing that focused on a single country. These folios included work from Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Guatemala, Finland, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Uruguay, Russia, Venezuela, and other regions.

    Beginning in 1962, El Corno began publishing single-author bilingual books, with the original language of the featured poets alternating between Spanish and English. The first of these books was Marsias & Adila, a collection of poetry by the Catalan poet Agustí Bartra. El Corno would release over a dozen book titles altogether, including Robert Kelly’s Her Body Against Time and Jerome Rothenberg’s The Gorky Poems.

    The editors of El Corno aspired to a pan-Americanism free of the subjugation of one region or people over another. Contributors were representative of contemporaneous political, social, and literary movements in the United States, Latin America, and beyond. As Mondragón has said, “We were experiencing a new human vibration. The Cuban revolution appeared on the horizon like a hopeful dawn (at a time of ferocious military dictatorships throughout Latin America). The whole world was giving birth. It was the energy of the now mythic, horrendous and golden Sixties, dividing the century and our literatures in two.” Randall describes El Corno as part of an individual quest toward becoming “a more spiritual and egalitarian human being, in touch with his or her imagination, unburdened by consumerism, resistant to solving problems through war or other forms of violence, and opposed to the hypocrisy around us.”

    El Corno was monumental in its critical success. Iconic writers such as Thomas Merton, Hermann Hesse, and Henry Miller became fans and submitted their writing. Prominent Spanish-language writers published by the magazine included Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, and Octavio Paz. El Corno also attracted less-established emerging authors, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, Cecilia Vicuña, Diane Wakoski, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In 1964, El Corno hosted the International Gathering of Poets, which welcomed young writers and artists from over a dozen countries for conversations and readings.

    El Corno’s success was aided by the ambitious scope of the magazine’s distribution. Copies of the quarterly magazine could be found from New York to San Francisco; across Latin and South America; and beyond. Meanwhile, the editors tried to balance economic sustainability with a fierce independence from institutions and traditional capitalist business models. Randall writes, “We sold copies in each country for what we were told a young poet there could afford to pay. Mostly this meant $1 a copy, sometimes even less.” Though it was later revoked, the magazine initially received funding from Mexican governmental organizations, as well as from subscribers and individual supporters—including Samuel Beckett and Norman Mailer—and its distribution was aided by the Fondo de Cultura Económica publishing house.

    El Corno Emplumado’s support for the 1968 Mexican Student Movement, which rallied against police violence and state repression, forced the enterprise to cease publishing. Clashes between the movement and the government came to a head on October 2nd, 1968: for several hours, army soldiers shot directly into crowds gathered in the plaza of a housing complex in what is now known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. Issue 28, the last issue of El Corno Emplumado that Mondragón and Randall would edit together, was released that same month and featured editors’ notes that asserted their solidarity with the movement. United States poet Robert Cohen replaced Mondragón on the masthead for the next three issues of the magazine. After its defense of the Mexican Student Movement, El Corno lost financial backing, and print shops became afraid to print the journal. Facing militarized intimidation and the prospect of political reprisals, Randall would be forced to go underground. The 31st and final issue of the magazine was released in 1969.

    Mondragón went on to publish his own poetry and edit anthologies, and in 2010, he was awarded Mexico’s Xavier Villaurrutia Prize. Randall lived in Cuba for eleven years and in Nicaragua for four, then returned to the United States, where she had to fight to reclaim her citzenship; the U.S. government denied her application for a green card and attempted to deport her. Writers from across the country lobbied on her behalf, and she won her court case in 1989. She has distinguished herself as the author or editor of over 100 books and as a human rights activist and feminist thinker. In 2004, she won the PEN New Mexico Dorothy Doyle Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing and Human Rights Activism.

    El Corno Emplumado continues to hold a distinct place in literary history as a bold, exploratory venture that broke new ground in gathering diverse cultures, languages, and artwork in the pages of its publications and in bringing together concerns for global social justice with experimental writing.

    —Co-written by Suzanne Wise, Staff Writer at Poets House, and Sarah Ruth Jacobs, a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, as part of a joint project with the CUNY Graduate Center.


    Jerome Rothenberg reads from The Gorky Poems

    Jerome Rothenberg discusses the genesis of The Gorky Poems and reads a selection of poems from the book at Poets House. Video by Steven "Kush" Kushner, Cloud House, 2017.

    The journey to Mexico and the start of El Corno Emplumado

    Poet, artist, and activist Margaret Randall discusses the founding of Mexico City–based bilingual literary magazine and book publisher El Corno Emplumado (The Plumed Horn), which released Jerome Rothenberg’s The Gorky Poems. Interviewed at Poets House on March 23, 2017. Photo of Milton Resnick, used in the video, courtesy of the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation. Video editing by Jeremy Kaplan.

    Herman Hesse, Beat poets, the Hungryalists & other contributors

    Margaret Randall discusses the international luminaries and emergent avant-garde movements published by El Corno Emplumado and the means by which the press extended its reach worldwide. Interviewed at Poets House on March 23, 2017. Video editing by Jeremy Kaplan.

    On publishing The Gorky Poems

    Examining connections between artist and writers, Margaret Randall recounts how El Corno Emplumado came to publish The Gorky Poems by Jerome Rothenberg. Interviewed at Poets House on March 23, 2017. Video editing by Jeremy Kaplan.

    The Mexican Student Movement and the end of El Corno Emplumado

    Margaret Randall traces the demise of El Corno Emplumado, which was forced to close after its support for the 1968 Mexican Student Movement. Interviewed at Poets House on March 23, 2017. Video editing by Jeremy Kaplan.

    Margaret Randall fights for her American citizenship

    Faced with political reprisals in Mexico, Margaret Randall fled to Cuba, where she lived with her children for eight years before she moved on to Nicaragua. Here, she describes the decision to return to America, the rejection of her application for a green card, and the rallying of support for her cause by the likes of Grace Paley, Arthur Miller, and others. Interviewed at Poets House on March 23, 2017. Video editing by Jeremy Kaplan.