The Ways of Alcheringa


alcheringa [Arunta of Australia, alcheringa], n. 1. The Eternal Dream Time, The Dreaming of a sacred heroic time long ago when man and nature cam to be, a kind of narrative of things that once happened. 2. A kid of charter of things that still happen. 3. A kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant. v. 1. The act of dreaming, as reality and symbol, by which the artist is inspired to produce a new song. 2. The act by which the mind makes contact with whatever mystery it is that connects the Dreaming and the Here-and-Now.

-- adapted from W.E.H. Stanner

In the first number of the new series of Alcheringa ethnopoetics magazine, the editors—Dennis Tedlock and Jerome Rothenberg—in 1975 renew their intentions to explore "the meaning of tribal cultures for Western urban culture" as the journal set out in 1970—these cultures are represented multifariously:1

    from all over the world, transcriptions and translations of oral poems from living traditions, ancient texts with oral roots, and modern experiments in oral poetry. There will be songs, chants, prayers, visions and dreams, sacred narratives, fictional narratives, histories, ritual scenarios, praises, namings, word games, riddles, proverbs, sermons. These will take the shape of performable scripts (meant to be read aloud rather than silently), experiments in typography, diagrams, and insert disc recordings.2

With characteristic exuberance for an array of ethnopoetics—the term itself coined in 1967 by Rothenberg to describe his work for his groundbreaking 1968 anthology of Technicians of the Sacred: a range of poetries from American, Africa, Asia & Oceania—in 1975, Alcheringa continues this life-long exploration of a "symposium of the whole," the diverse poetic project the irrepressible Rothernberg has been engaged in since the 1958 inception of his small "deep image" magazine Poems from the Floating World.

"From all over the world"—Rothenberg had just published two major anthologies in 1974: Revolution of the Word: A New gathering of American Avant-Garde Poetry 1914-1945—an elaborate, eccentric, web of recuperated modernist weirdos like Abraham Lincoln Gillespie and Harry Crosby mashed-up with poets like Robert Duncan and Charles Olson—and American a Prophecy—a companion volume published with George Quasha, more expansive in scope, "from pre-Columbian times to present," and even more schizophrenic in content, bridging visual and oral modernist poetries and "primitive" ethnopoems. Rothenberg's tactics for these incredible collections worked successfully to challenge the New Critics' history of the Western, and indeed international, poetries through strange collisions of verbal experiments—from tribal chants to Dadaphonics, from Mina Loy to Jackson MacLow—Rothenberg's anthologies are adventurous in experimentation and overwhelming in scope. Telling of the 'counter-poetics' Rothenberg was engaged in (and inscribing his contemporaneous work for Alcheringa), the 'Pre-Face' to Revolution of the Word is worth recounting at some length: "The new groupings appearing in the mid-50s (Black Mountain, Beats, the New York school, deep image, concrete poetry, chance processes, etc.) re-explored the idea of the avant-garde…Poetry was transformative, not only of its present & future, but of its past as well. Primitive & archaic, esoteric & subterranean, non-western & foreign, each has a part to play in a greater 'great tradition' Wrote Gary Snyder: 'We are witnessing a surfacing (in a specifically 'American incarnation) of the Great Subculture which goes back as far perhaps as the late Paleolithic."3 In his anthologies, Rothenberg cultivates his vatic vision of this swelling of a 'Great Subculture'—from the historical avant-garde to the 50s neo-avant-gardes through his involvement with the various offshoots of countercultural postwar poetry.

Additionally, Rothenberg seeks "to challenge the literary-civilized framework by articulating a larger-than-literary/primitive/visionary tradition that shows up again in contemporary experiments with language & structure,"4 this challenge always bears an oral slant, once refered to as the "oral poetry movement," and its accompanying subjective voice.5 In the introduction to Revolution of the Word, Rothernberg writes "The thing was to get off on it, to hear one's mind, learn one's own voice. But the message clear & simple was to move. To change. To create one's self & thus one's poetry."6 In Revolution of the Word as in Alcheringa, the prevalent emphasis is on the "one's own voice," "oral poems… oral poetry," "meant to be read aloud rather than silently."

To this established ethnopoetic oeuvre, Rothenberg adds the following political aims of the new series of Alcheringa:

    To these established topics will be added the problem of the sacred/powerful dimension of language and its possible restoration in English: just as we have desecrated the landscape, so we have carelessly depleted the potent resources of language. In tribal ontologies, cosmologies, and the poetries that present them may be found the answers, or the beginnings of the answers, to both these problems.7

One might view these "problems" with skepticism: how Rothenberg figure we have "depleted" the "potent resources of language"? This environmentalist justification (or, more darkly, a form of 'new resource extraciton' New wave colonialism) to returning to "tribal ontologies, cosmologies, and the poetries that present them," is in any case a new addition to Rothenberg's ethnopoetics. On a superficial level, the problem sounds similar to the impetus for Russian futurist zaum poetic language recovery, however it is not formulated on depletion through political or bureaucratic language, is less rigorously linguistic, and seems motivated more towards a primitive nostalgia driven by ethnographic recuperation. The reason for this addition is in the polemic conclusion, a strange philosophical alignment which constitutes the major reason for a "new series" of Alcheringa:

    Philosophically, ALCHERINGA finds itself close to the hermeneutic phenomenology. In the words of Paul Ricoeur:

      We wish to recharge language, start again from the fullness of language. . . . The same age develops the possibility of emptying language and the possibility of filling it anew. It is therefore no yearning for a sunken Atlantis that urges us on, but the hope of a re-creation of language. Beyond the wasteland of critical thought, we seek to be challenged anew.

    The poets of ALCHERINGA start with the voice. The essayists will look, ultimately, to the very origins of poetry. ALCHERINGA will be radical—that is, going to the center—in approaching the Word."

Thus the 'careless depletion' Alcheringa fears has sapped the English language, it seems, is something like Derridean skepticism, the outcome of the structuralist adventure. However, one also might think of Empty Words, the lettristic play of Cage's text slowly degenerating into mumbled letter fragments, a methodological performance of a language depleting itself. Cage's empty words, however, come a bit late in 1977—and besides, Cage is not a player in the "wasteland of critical thought" that Alcheringa is here positioning itself against. The voice of Alcheringa, as opposed to that of Cage—increasingly drowned out by an impatient European audience—returns, through Ricoeur, to a meaningful recuperation of spoken (capital) Words in a symbolic optimism of the creative semantics of the speech act.8

Indeed, looking back to Vernon V. Gras's influential collection From Existential Phenomenology to Structuralism (1973) can serve to contextualize this "hermeneutic phenomenological" positioning of the editors of Alcheringa. In Gras's otherwise linear historic-philosophical presentation, there are four sections: Existential Phenomenology in 'Theory' and 'Practice' followed by Structuralism in 'Theory' and 'Practice.' Ricoeur's essay "Freud and Philosophy" from 1970—a response to the structuralist project—is provided before the structuralist texts themselves. Thus the structuralist metaphysical destabalization is introduced already recuperated by a phenomenological "post-critical naiveté" thereby preemptively dispelling structuralist methodological practice in favor time-tested mode of pragmatic hermeneutics on metaphysical grounds. This preemptive attack of structuralism through a linear system of French philosophical development seems at the heart of Alcheringa's position.

However, it would be a mistake to reduce all of Alcheringa to this philosophical statement. In fact, many experimental translations, visual transcriptions, and concrete poetry published in the magazine are in no way connected to this credo. Jerome Rothenberg's larger polylinguistic project stands as a good example of how inappropriate this philosophy would be to ethnopoetics at large. Indeed, practically no mention is made of Ricoeur, structuralism, or hermeneutic phenomenology in Rothenberg's multiple books and anthologies from the time. Tedlock's interest in Ricoeur, on the contrary, is voiced multiple times. In Alcheringa issue no. 2, Tedlock continues the philosophical polemic begun in issue no. 1—an essay for the important 1975 Ethnopoetics Symposium at the University of Wisconsin, "The Way of the Word of the Breath" begins with an epitaph by Paul Ricouer:

The same age develops the possibility of emptying language

and the possibility of filling it anew.9

The mystical article that follows seeks the "WORD at the root of words [which] is cognitive and emotional at the same time, abstract and concrete at the same," this all-caps 'WORD' is the "simultaneous act of mind and body, thought carried on the breath that is the movement of life, the movement of the spirit from the heart-and-lungs to the outside…the essence of what it is to be human…the WORD is holy."10 Both stylistically and semantically, these lines echo Olson's famous pronouncement from "Projective Verse":

      the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE

      the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE…11

But Tedlock's argument is much more mystical/radical than Olson's—the WORD, for Tedlock's Alcheringa, lives on in certain American Indian pre-alphabetic cultures, as a 'living' and 'holy' language. 12 From this vantage, Tedlock trashes out violently against formalism's decapitation of the "head of language from its heart-and-lungs" and particularly the "last ten years [of the structural mythologist's] formal vivisection of language"—dissecting "what was already, the moment he began his work, a corpse."13 Tedlock's Zuni transcriptions, by contrast, seek to regenerate the vitality of tribal language, shamanistically "bringing to life" the vital humanist 'WORD'—it is fitting that Tedlock tunes into Ricoeur's faith-based hermeneutics experience: "the post-critical equivalent of the pre-critical hierophany."14

Tedlock expands on his statement for the 1977 special issue of New Literary History devoted to "Oral Cultures and Oral Performance," writing: "[structuralist] dissection does not recapitulate generation. Having spent four volumes paring all the meaning away from hundreds of stories and laying bare their structure, Levi-Strauss writes this final sentence: 'It is nothing.' But Paul Ricoeur says, as if to answer, 'The same age develops the possibility of emptying language and the possibility of filling it anew.'"15 These outbursts against the projected structural enemy of notions like 'vitality' and 'humanism' are symptomatic of wide-scale American philosophical polemics over structuralism in the 70s. Recapitulating the arguments in their banter is does little to further the aims of this project—briefly sketching them as I have done, however, should serve to at least invoke a gist of the inflammatory rhetoric and the geist of a general current active in the philosophical battlegrounds in which poets like Tedlock engaged themselves.

Indeed Tedlock's extreme rhetoric is just one example of the feeling of 'deep image' poetics—the group consisting of Robert Kelly, Jerome Rothenberg, Clayton Eshleman, Paul Blackburn, David Antin, et al.: younger than the poets collected in the Allen anthology, and older than the second-generation New York School or Language poets—whose investigations "existed alongside and resonated with work in translation, performance, and an awareness of earlier avant-gardes and poetry from 'those anonymous tribal & subterranean predecessors.'"16 Along with ethnographic research, deep image anthologists like Rothenberg, Quasha, and Eshleman were interested in important forgotten documents from Dada and Surrealism, which they melded into a rich infusion of the projective fields of Olson, the vitality of the Beat poets, and an intense interest in the potential of tribal and 'primitive' oral traditions. Continuing a certain strand of lyric voice in these works, Rothenberg first declared the aims of deep image in "Why Deep Image?" for Robert Kelly's magazine Trobar (no. 3, 1962): "…we have to try to see the world in all its natural and contemporary detail as if no differences existed between the seer and the things he sees. To see this way—through the self (emotively)—results in certain necessary changes on the material emerging in the poem: a heightened sense of the emotional contours of objects…their free re-association in a manner that would be impossible to descriptive or logical thought…informed with a heightened relevance, a quickened sense of life…the recognition of the poem as a natural structure arising at once from the act of emotive vision."17

This vatic aspiration for an "emotive vision" through the self is exactly oppositional to the sort of poetry Ron Silliman would collect in Alcheringa. Indeed, Language writing would come to most cohesively define itself in direct opposition to the various "emotional" poetries, (as Dworkin has it in The Greenwood Encyclopedia, 2005) from the "raw poetry of the counterculture to the cooked verse of the establishment… Language poetry valued artifice over nature, writing over speech, metonymy over metaphor, and intellect over sentiment." Deep image, in a sense, was the latest incarnation of an emotionally incantatory lyric poetics. Thus, while informed by many of the same poetic sources, (and indeed, through Rothenberg's collections, many important avant-garde writers were recollected to the benefit of the development of Language poetry) the radical break for Language writing followed the structuralist denunciation of the traditional lyric voice of the subjective ego in American poetry.

It is with this backdrop that one must turn the page to Silliman's foundational collection "The Dwelling Place: 9 Poets," strangely sandwiched between Tedlock's mystical-primitivist alignment with the 'post-critical' philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, one of David Antin's famous spoken-word performance-poem speech transcriptions, and Jerome Rothenberg's mini-anthology of Jewish oral and process poetry.