Renowned poet blends anthropology, art
Published: Friday, October 25, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 25, 2013 00:10
The Center for the Humanities at Tufts (CHAT) and the Department of Anthropology yesterday hosted internationally renowned poet, translator and performance artist Jerome Rothenberg at Fung House for an event dedicated to the celebration of his most recent work, “Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader.”
Rothenberg has published over 80 books and 12 works of traditional, translated and avant-garde poetry.
“Eye of Witness,” published this past September, is a culmination of Rothenberg’s long career, surveying his past works and offering new insights into old poetry, according to Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology David Guss.
“It represents a retelling of his whole poetic output over the last 50 years,” Guss said. “It’s an exploration of the various themes and meanings that he’s been involved in in his own development.”
Such themes in Rothenberg’s poems, Guss explained, include ideas about collaboration and community.
“He sees poetry as a communion, a collective process in which people are always working together,” Guss said. “[Rothenberg’s] trying to place the poet right inside of society and inside a community. He’s a community builder, which is important.”
Rothenberg started the presentation by reading a translated Seneca Indian poem from his book “Songs for the Society of Mystic Animals.”
“A song to welcome the animals, the participants, into the ceremony,” Rothenberg said. “On the page it looks like a piece of concrete poetry, but it can also be re-sung, with the translated words and the untranslatable words of the original.”
The poem, which included a chant, a melody and a shaker, revealed the wide range of Rothenberg’s influences, as well as the scope of his creativity, Guss said.
“He’s somebody who is very performative. He’s somebody who has created a lot of new ways of presenting his poetry, bringing in influences from other cultures,” Guss said.
In 1972, Rothenberg moved to the Allegany Indian Reservation in western New York, where he collaborated with the Seneca Native Americans. His poetry draws from these experiences as well as from myriad other cultures.
According to Guss, Rothenberg’s texts reflect a method of recording text called ethnopoetics, a modern advancement in poetry for which Rothenberg has been a major contributor.
“There are probably few American poets who don’t feel touched by Rothenberg in some way, but it’s not just poets,” Guss said. “We’re talking about musicians, painters, writers and anthropologists. That influence across disciplines is rare.”
Rothenberg’s style, which connects countries and performers, was part of the Department of Anthropology’s motive for bringing him to Tufts, according to Guss.
“I see a tremendous connection, a bridge really, between poetry and anthropology,” Guss said. “That’s the kind of bridge Jerry’s created, partly in ethnopoetics.”
Rothenberg’s last poem was a translated horse blessing from the Navajo tradition, which again incorporated chanting. He gave a summary of the poem, originally written by a Navajo leader named Frank Mitchell.
“The hero god enemy-slayer sent by his mother goes from the earth to the house of his father, the sun god, to bring back spirit horses for the Navajo,” Rothenberg said. “And in the 13th horse song, he imagines how beautiful they will be when they change from spirit horses to real horses.”
Guss hopes the event both broadened students’ notions of anthropology and celebrated Rothenberg’s work.
“For Tufts to be the place that launches this book is a privilege,” Guss said. “It’s a great opportunity for Tufts to celebrate his life’s work.”