Jerome Rothenberg is an internationally known poet with over eighty books of poetry (POLAND/1931, THAT DADA STRAIN, THE LORCA VARIAITONS, KHURBN, and others) and nine assemblages of traditional and avant-garde poetry such as TECHNICIANS OF THE SACRED, SHAKING THE PUMPKIN, REVOLUTION OF THE WORD, and POEMS FOR THE MILLENNIUM, (volumes 1 and 2, with Pierre Joris).  Since the late 1950s, he has been involved with various aspects of poetry performance, including a theatrical version of his book, POLAND/1931, by Hanon Reznikov and the Living Theater, and a musical version of KHURBN (with composer Charlie Morrow and Japanese novelist Makoto Oda) produced for the Bread & Puppet Theater in 1995. With his anthologies and journals such as ALCHERINGA and NEW WILDERNESS LETTER, Rothenberg has long been a central mover in the development of an ethnopoetics “as a necessary component of any truly innovative poetics,”  and he has also translated from a wide range of poets (Lorca, Gomringer, Schwitters, Picasso, and Nezval, among others). His work in various areas has been recognized with a Guggenheim fellowship, a Wenner-Gren Foundation award for experimental ethnopoetic translation, several awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, two PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Awards for poetry, two PEN Center USA West Awards and one PEN American Center award for translation, an Alfonso el Sabio Translation Award, an American Book Award for his selected writings on poetics, and an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York.  A thirteenth book of poems, TRIPTYCH, was published by New Directions in 2007.  His second collection of literary essays, POETICS & POLEMICS 1980-2005, appeared at the end of 2008, and new books of poems scheduled for 2009 and 2010 include GEMATRIA COMPLETE, CONCEALMENTS & CAPRICHOS, and RETRIEVALS: UNCOLLECTED & NEW POEMS 1955-2010.  He has until recently been a professor of visual arts and literature at the University of California, San Diego. “Poets & Tricksters: Innovation & Disruption In Ritual & Myth” was first presented at the conference “Standing at the Margins-Crossroads of Culture: Poet as Trickster,” the Sapporo University Institute of Cultural Studies, May 14, 2004, Sapporo, Japan and published in POETICS & POLEMICS, 1980-2005 (University of Alabama Press, 2008).
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- by Jerome Rothenberg

The larger context in which I want to speak about the trickster figure involves my developing sense of the innovative and disruptive nature of ancient ritual and myth and of how those enter into contemporary work and thought.  To say that much at the start already implies a relative disinterest in other forms of myth and ritual – forms in which it would be more difficult to place the trickster figure and which would be outside the range of what most interests me in the work – the art and poetry – of my contemporaries and near-contemporaries.  So I will start with what does interest me in the ancient worlds of tricksters and sacred clowns and will move from there to an account of how the trickster as such entered my own work at a crucial point in its development.

Tricksters and clowns, then, are among the elusive (mythopoetic) figures who have appeared increasingly in our poetry and poetics, but in so many different ways and with such varying degrees of both affection and suspicion that I hesitate a little in fear that what I say may confuse as much as clarify.  Now I’m not against confusion – really – and, as you’ll see, what I think of as most essential to myth and ritual is, in a certain sense, a welcoming of contradictory accounts of who we are? and where we came from? and where we’re going?  And more: ritual, which most of us (though not most of us in this room) probably think of as a fixed and invariable, mindlessly repetitive order of (usually religious) events with little room for variation/innovation, was programmed in certain very traditional cultures/religions to promote or consolidate change and to include activities that were open and formless and threw the established/everyday order of things into confusion.  A programmed and fruitful, sometimes terrifying chaos, as the point of departure for the creation of a new order – for the individual, the group, the world.

I’m going to open my presentation, then, by giving some examples of this side of myth and ritual, drawing the examples not from the older classical West (as we sometimes do where I come from) but from mostly American Indian sources – that in itself a matter of some significance as to where many of us as artists position ourselves in relation to the past or the culturally distant.  (I will compare freely as one distanced by culture but related by art.)

The Iroquois – of the American Northeast – had a ceremony/ritual that they called ononharoia: literally, turning-the-brain-upside-down.  This was a large-scale dream feast: a group enactment and fulfillment of individual dreams, often preceded by a variety of dream-guessing ceremonies.  Dreams were viewed as secret desires-of-the-soul, which were dangerous/destructive if left unsatisfied, and their fulfillment in the ononharoia was like a culturally validated psychodrama, some of which I’ve summarized in the following “dream events”:

        After having a dream, let someone else guess what it was.  Then have
        everyone act it out together.

        Have participants run around the center of a village, acting out their dreams & demanding that others guess & satisfy them.

The dream itself was the entry to the other world: the dreamworld/mythworld, as reversal of our own: the place of secret longings, sighted upside down.  The ononharoia – turning-the-mind-upside-down – was an enactment of the dream as myth.

Reversals, then, are a widespread way of getting into, of participating in/enacting myth: that primordial and still-existing state that the Australian aborigines called by names such as alcheringa, “dreamtime.”  Among the Huichol Indians of Mexico, the participants in the annual peyote hunt entered into such a dreamtime and themselves became the dreamtime gods and ancestors (Our Father Sun, First Shaman/Fire, Our Mother Maize, Our Elder Brother Deer, and so on), as they journeyed to Wirikuta, mythic center of the gods and the peyote.  The mara’akame – the shaman/ritual leader – gave them their names and created (literally dreamt) a new language for them to speak, its meanings, its names for things, the reverse of what they knew back in their village.  Thus the shaman Ramón Medina Silva explained to the anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff:

It is the mara’akame who directs everything.  He is the one who listens in his dream, with his power and his knowledge. … Then he says to his companions, … look, now we will change everything, all the meanings, because that is the way it must be with the hikuritámete [the peyote pilgrims]. … Look, the mara’akame says to them, it is when you say good morning, you mean good evening, everything is backwards.  You say goodbye, I’m leaving you, but you are really coming.  You do not shake hands, you shake feet.  You hold out your right foot to be shaken by the foot of your companion.  You say good afternoon, but it is only morning.

So the mara’akame tells them, as he has dreamed it.  He dreams it differently each time.  Every year they change the names of things differently because every year the mara’akame dreams new names.  Even if it is the same mara’akame who leads the journey, he still changes the new names each time differently.

The work of shamans (traditional healers: masters of ecstasy and trance, says Mircea Eliade … technicians of the sacred) is to explore and create the extra-ordinary (the “marvelous” of André Breton and the Surrealists), to explore and to create it by means of trance and by control over language and rhythm, and so on (for he who controls rhythm, wrote someone, controls).  From the perspective of ordinary consciousness, this shaman-work is disorientating, frightening, and the shaman (himself or herself) often experiences it as terror: a terror of death and disease – to cure the terror of death and disease – and madness/psychosis/soul-terror, when it actually afflicts us.  “I did cure death when I was young,” says the Pomo Indian shaman Essie Parrish, and the Eskimo shaman Sanimuinak describes his fourth vision and psychic death as follows:

I went inland to Tasivsak.  Here I cast a stone out into the water, which was thereby thrown into great confusion, like a storm at sea.  As the billows dashed together, their crests flattened out on top, and as they opened, a huge bear was disclosed.  He had a very great black snout, and, swimming ashore, he rested his chin upon the beach, the land gave way under his weight.  He went up on land and circled around me, bit me in the loins, and then ate me.  At first it hurt, but afterwards feeling passed from me; but as long as my heart had not been eaten, I retained consciousness.  But when he bit me in the heart, I lost consciousness and was dead.

In the curing rituals themselves, the terror is renewed, and the regular beat of the shaman’s drum (and heart?) is offset by the frenzy of possession – like the Kirgiz-Tatar shaman, say, who “runs around the tent, springing, roaring, leaping; he barks like a dog, sniffs at the audience, lows like an ox, bellows, cries, bleats like a lamb, grunts like a pig, whinnies, coos, imitating with remarkable accuracy the cries of animals, the songs of birds, the sound of their flight, and so on, all of which greatly impresses the audience.”

At such points of frenzy – frantic dislocation – the shaman closely resembles the traditional sacred clown: a figure both comic and terrifying, who comes into his clown-work, like the shaman¸ through an overwhelming and mind-altering experience.  The Sioux clown, the heyoka, attains his power through a vision of the Thunder Being: a shapeless, winged form, who “lacks feet but has huge talons and is headless but has a large beak; his voice is the thunderclap, the glance of his eye is lightning.”  The clown like the shaman speaks a language of reversals and has license to break the rigid patterns of the established ceremonies, as anyone knows who has seen Pueblo clowns, say, in their counter-movements around the masked Kachina dancers, parodying the sacred.  The Pueblo Indian anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz describes the clowns as anti-ritualists (a term reminiscent of the anti-art of artists in our own world), but they could as easily be described as ritualists of disorder: free and improvisatory in their movements and innovations, at the extremes of a theater a modern ritualist like Artaud once dreamed of.  Thus, Bandelier’s description of sacred clowns in 1880:

… They chased after her, carried her back and threw her down in the center of the plaza; then while one was performing the coitus from behind, another was doing it against her head.  Of course all was simulated and not the real act, as the woman was dressed.  The naked fellow performed masturbation in the center of the plaza or very near it, alternatively with a black rug and his hand.  Everybody laughed.

It is something that the ritual/performative frame makes possible: a (barely) controlled release of wild potential in the human psyche.  The ritualized behavior of the Crow Indian Crazy Dog [Warrior Clown] Society is another example:

1.    Act like a crazy dog.  Wear sashes & other fine clothes, carry a rattle, & dance along the roads singing crazy dog songs after everybody else has gone to bed.
2.    Talk crosswise: say the opposite of what you mean & make others say the opposite of what they mean in return.
3.    Fight like a fool by rushing up to an enemy & offering to be killed.  Dig a hole near an enemy, & when the enemy surrounds it, leap out at them & drive them back.
4.    Paint yourself white, mount a white horse, cover its eyes & make it jump over a steep & rocky bank, until both of you are crushed.

Now, some of this still exists for us in the reversals of Mardi Gras and, in spite of the temptation to trivialize, in the actions of circus and movie clowns, the actions and words of the really great standup comics.  And maybe there’s an even stronger, certainly more deliberate reflection in the work of certain poets and artists: those who create an experimental space to challenge and transform … what?  A limited reality … a lying and deceptive sense of order … the politics of single vision.  From Dada spontaneity and disgust, surrealist invocation of private and collective dreamtimes and black humors, to the avant-gardes of the 1960s and 70s (and beyond), whose public (and private) rituals took shape as happenings, trance dances, sonic meditations, systematic chance, street provocations, Holy Actors, body art and body music, mantric sound-texts, visions, theaters of “cruelty” and of “hysteria,” against the expectations of what was “real” and what was “sane behavior.”  A programmed chaos, in which the brain turns upside down and lets another order come to birth.

So far, then, I’ve stressed rituals of disruption/disorder and of a generally open and innovative form, although these aren’t all the rituals there are (most rituals in fact are very low key: spare and minimal and doggedly, if wildly, repetitive, or boring to the point of madness).  But let’s get over to myth for a little, one view of it sometimes overlooked but which for the myth people among us (as contrasted, say, to the ritual people) may be the heart of the matter.

    We have, many of us, a sense of myth as the story (singular) of that-which-happened (also singular) at a time in the remote past (again: the dreamtime, if you’re into that).  But in oral traditions, word-of-mouth traditions, myths exist in many versions – as the mouthed, individuated accounts of – or speculations on – the fundamentals.  The telling of the myth – i.e. the telling of the telling – is itself a ritual, a cultural performance, and the form of the myth, the thrust behind it, is an implied question or a series of questions.  Thus the Seneca Indian story-teller begins:

        A man who was a crow was traveling.  As he walked along he thought: Who
        am I?  Where did I come from?   Where am I going? #

The answer is the myth, which in its first Greek use meant only telling/talking, then came to be the telling of the fundamentals (i.e. an old-time telling), and only later, a lesser telling in contrast to a second mode, logos, once its synonym.  The source is traditional, the recounting individual, from the mouth of each teller; or, as they used to say, some say this, but others say that.  It is like biblical genesis (the foundation telling for the western world), which only late in its career gets fixed as single vision, logos, word of God – erasing in that act the other versions, equally true, the record of which hasn’t wholly vanished.  Or put another way:

                Some say Elohim – translate it “God” or “the gods” – created the world and man in seven days:  first the animals, then man as male and female in his image
                                THIS IS THE PRIESTLY GENESIS OF BIBLE

                But others say Yahveh [the “name” itself] created man from earth as male before the animals, then made the animals and woman
                                THIS IS THE YAHVIST GENESIS OF BIBLE

                and others say Yahveh, like Babylonian Marduk, stirred the sea called YAM, then in his cunning crushed Rahab [female serpent], by his wind set YAM in net, his hand made holes in the twisty snake
                               THIS IS THE BOOK OF JOB

Still others say that El created Wisdom as a goddess, in her words
        “I came out of El’s mouth     first
             flooded across the earth
         then built my home high
            my seat in cloud pillar
         He made me    starting    before the world”

                THE WISDOM OF BEN SIRA

and others say, in God’s own words:

    I conceived the thought of creation / putting a floor under it / letting everyone see
    / what I had done / the bottom of the dark // I called down to the deep below /   
   “come from the unseen dark / all that eye can see / Ado-il – come” – he came  
    hauling so large / a stone of light it made / his belly a great ball / “explode –  
    Ado-il / push the light out / give it birth” // he blew the stone / light gaping from
    his belly womb / opening all I willed for shape //  light the mother of light / bore
    a great age / the star heaven / which I saw was good


    and others say the creation came through laughter:
    the 7 Laughs of God
    Hha   Hha   Hha   Hha   Hha   Hha   Hha
    Each laugh he gave
    engendered the seven
    god   god   god   god   god   god   god
    the Fore-Appearers
    who clasp everything one
                CALLED “EIGHTH” OR “HOLY”#

Something of this Lévi-Strauss senses, writing of the versions of Oedipus in “The Structural Study of Myth”:

Our method … eliminates a problem which has, so far, been one of the main obstacles in the progress of mythological studies, namely, the quest for the true version or the earlier one.  On the contrary, we define myth as consisting of all its versions; or, to put it otherwise, a myth remains the same as long as it is felt as such. … Therefore, not only Sophocles but Freud himself should be included among the recorded versions of the Oedipus myth on a par with earlier or seemingly more “authentic versions.”#

And, once that process is grasped (not necessarily in Lévi-Strauss’s terms), the mythical past and present open up in a great kaleidoscope of images: a “clash of symbols” (in the words of Paul Ricoeur) which is both natural to mind and forms its one sure hedge against idolatry.

    Every old culture (authentic culture, I wanted to say) had such a treasury of images – concrete/realized speculations, mirrors of the mind – which together projected the imaginal world for the individual and the community.  The experience of such a mythic world is overwhelming: “not an allegory,” wrote Jung, “not just another way of talking (… the description of one thing under the image of another …) but an image presented by the world itself.”  Myth here is the expression/projection of such an image, such a world of images: imaginal geographies, apologies, theologies, whose beings appeared in dream and again and again in ritual … in ritual and again in dream … a constant interplay between them.

Those dreamtime beings that illuminated the old myths and rituals (not static objects but images in motion) live now in our museums: object/ified.  That is: the response to a ritual mask hanging on a museum wall – or on a wall in my living room – will doubtless be to a “beautiful thing” or even (by projection to its original meaning or context) to a powerful or awesome thing.  But all such objects remain stationary, frozen, in contrast to their dynamism, their movement in ritual – when set into motion or brought into contact with moving, dancing bodies, chanting voices, the actuality of drums and bells that truly sound.  And it is at such moments – as anyone who has experienced it will know – that myth comes alive in its enacted beings: like a theater played out for keeps or a theater through which we move also as participants.

    I have most vividly experienced something of this order – what it is to be in a state-of-myth and how ritual (performance and enactment) assists with this – in traditional Yaqui Indian ceremonies in Tucson, Arizona.  I will describe this, not in fact because the ritual, the enactment in question, opened me to something culturally Yaqui (I would feel foolish to make any such claim) but because a coincidence of shared images (and myths) and their emergence in actual ritual time allowed a response on my part that was clearly outside the immediate Yaqui experience though triggered by it.

    The ceremonies – like so much in ritual and religion – are syncretistic: in art terms, a collage of disparate elements fused into a new configuration.  The principal religious images are both Catholic and Yaqui, along with numerous symbols, textures, and sounds drawn from Mexican, European, and popular American sources.  In Yaqui terms – as I understood those from conversations with the anthropologist Edward Spicer and with the Yaqui ceremonial and political leader Anselmo Valencia – the basic intercut is between the world of the village (itself Catholic and sacred) and the Flower World or Enchanted/Etheric World (sea aniya, huya aniya) outside the village: the wilderness from which come the old Yaqui mythic beings, the great Deer Dancer and the sacred clowns.  In the forty-day Easter ceremony the curious emphasis/displacement in the collage is that the costumed and impersonated figures of the Passion play aren’t Jesus and the holy family but only the persecutors and stalkers of Jesus: Roman soldiers and black-veiled pharisees and those weirdly masked non-sacred clowns called chapayekas.  Jesus is a wooden statue or later (in his rebirth) a plastic baby-doll, and the Yaqui Catholic maestros who defend the church lead a strict, text-oriented ceremony; but the pharisees and especially the chapayeka clowns bring the mythic to life and engage in often open, often improvisatory rituals, including a comic mock scourging of Jesus as an egg-headed old man and a zany clown orchestra getting “drunk” and celebrating the crucifixion on the midnight of Good Friday.  

    The myth of Jesus is of course our shared myth, and the divergences from “my own” version are quickly apparent and comprehensible – sometimes themselves astonishing.  Similarly the chapayeka clowns – the principal stalkers of Jesus – tie in by their actions and by their other Yaqui name (fariseos) to the biblical antagonists of Jesus.  They are therefore the “jews” of the story – though scarcely named as such – and their actual appearance is flower worldish, even surreal, with many of the masks representing animals and birds but the human ones including feathered Indians, pirates, Negroes, Arabs, college professors, and so on.  They play their roles persistently, and over the ritual period (for the culminating four or five days of which we were witnesses) they become very real, very familiar, before the climactic battle on Saturday morning: the storming of the church and the defeat of the chapayeka-pharisees in a highly animated ritual drama: both rehearsed (pre-planned) and improvised.  At the end the current masks are burned, and the masks of the following year will never be precisely the same.

    For me the syncretistic/collaged nature of the chapayeka masks became in their enlivening the embodiment of the fantasized Jews of my own poetry as they had come to me through language in Poland/1931.  I had often tried to realize those images in performance, but in 1982 and again in 1983 the curious displacements of the Yaqui ritual opened that to me as never before.  And it was clear to me that the force of the ritual was less in its repetitive, mechanical side (the Latin chanting of the Yaqui-Catholic maestros, though I would scarcely disregard that) than in the generous and quirky and largely unpredictable (but increasingly real) behavior of the chapayekas and the strange meeting of worlds that their presence came to represent.

    This is the poem that came from that – in three sections, including a final one addressed to Anselmo Valencia, in which the (ideological) assertion on my part is that both art and ritual/myth (Dada and Yaqui in my terms) are part of the same human experience:

From YAQUI 1982
the jews of ceremony
dance in the thin sand of
pascua pueblo      in their pinhole
eyes new fires start
watched by ourselves & others
the bright memory of days to come
tomorrow      but the face
back of the mask
is fathomless
the jews march through the night
clack-clack their sticks
speak for them
red & white
the tips like dagger points
& voiceless
they are the purveyors of the death of jesus
they stomp & whip each other
thursdays      the master jew
baldheaded man with droopy eyes
& half-a-beard
fresh crown of thorns over his ears
squats by the cross
black coated
in white jodhpurs
he is the man without the belt
(el viejito)
who seeks the heart of jesus
in a box
with lines of green above
the flat red heart
& silver rays
he look into & sees
a crucifix      a water bottle
flowers & candles
then bangs his sticks
together      in a trance
they lead him with a silky rope
pinned to his shoulders
jew & clowns
how beautifully they walk

the stations of the cross
in yaqui
the plaza stretches to infinity
where the smallest freak is jesus
& the angels sing

It is from this world of disruptions and reversals, of dreams, of sacred clowns and shamans, of the marvelous and surreal, as well as from an old and new understanding of the maximally human, that the trickster emerges for us.  He (or she, for I have also noted female tricksters) is the mythic counterpart of the sacred clown and the bearer of energies that trigger transformation of old worlds and the creation of the new.  But he is all of this in the context of absurdity and perversity, maintaining the clown’s reality in an always comic, sometimes terrifying world.  As I wrote of him some years ago, in one of his American Indian manifestations – that of Old Man Coyote:

Coyote appears throughout the Americas in the familiar role of primordial shit-thrower, cock-erupter, etc., to satisfy the need for all that in the full pantheon of essential beings. … No merely horny version of a Disney character, he is like other tricksters in tribal America (Rabbit, Raven, Spider, Bluejay, Mink, Flint, Glooscap, Saynday, etc.) the product of a profound and comic imagination playing upon the realities of man and nature. … Among the Crow, as in other Indian religions, he appears as the Supreme Trickster but also as the first maker of the earth and all living things. … Thus Old Man Coyote [called elsewhere: “mad Coyote”] is the imperfect (= dangerous) creator of an imperfect (= dangerous) universe – a view which, being more empirical and rational in the first place, presents fewer problems to rationalize than the Christian view, say, of a perfect God and universe, etc.  [Writes the Acoma Indian poet Simon Ortiz]: “Existential man.  Dostoyevsky coyote.”

    Like many of my generation I had first come to Trickster – or, more accurately, to something like Trickster – through the diluted and sanitized images in comic strips and animated movies: Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Krazy Kat, and the later but strikingly derivative figure of Wile E. Coyote (among many others).  Those were images and characters from childhood – “myths” I was tempted to say (and didn’t) – but what came to some of us later and with considerable astonishment was the full-blown figure of the Trickster.  The initial purveyors were the hunter-gatherers of an earlier academic anthropology: Paul Radin foremost with his classic work The Trickster, but notable texts as well from Melville Jacobs, Herbert Spinden, Knud Rasmussen, and others.  These were at my disposal by the time I put together my own first ethnopoetic gatherings – Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin – and as I carried on with this it became clear that the myth of Trickster (the image and the personage) went beyond Coyote and American Indian sources.  For Trickster was, if anything, a near universal figure, resident on every continent in some form or other – so much so that some came to see him as an archetype, a mask, imbedded in every human psyche.

    On one of those occasions (there have been several) when I entered into a life of poetry, I felt myself a part of a lineage that included older poets – forerunners – whose lives and acts resembled those of ancient clowns and tricksters or whose written works, whose texts, incorporated some of them.  In the former instances – the worlds of the poètes maudits and the radical transformers and self-transformers (“chameleon poets” in John Keats’s earlier words) – many of the poets of my time were under the spell of certain key predecessors: Shelley and Keats, Hölderlin and Whitman, Rimbaud and Jarry, Dadas and Surrealists, Artaud and Duchamp, and many others.  (Nakahara Chuya in Japan might be another such example – if we want to bring it closer to where we are, right here.)  Their work, if we took it seriously (and we did), was one of transformation and transgression (sometimes comic, though often not) – renewing or challenging the worlds and selves we think we know or creating new worlds beyond our former knowing.  That they weren’t Trickster in any strict sense didn’t matter, only that we could see them in that guise – and more to our convenience than to theirs.  It was clear as well – and central to their meaning – that if their personas and works resembled those of sacred clowns and tricksters, they operated without the sanction of the larger society, toward which they acted (often but not always) as an avant-garde in opposition.

    Getting closer to our own time, at the end of the Second World War, an oppositional avant-garde again came into prominence, something I’ve described elsewhere as the second great awakening of poetry in the century just ended.  If we connect such an avant-garde with the disruptive work of traditional clowns and tricksters, we can see it as a dominant trend for art and poetry in the times through which we’ve lived.  The goal at its extreme was to turn the mind upside down and to call everything into question – a program that showed up, to one degree or another, in movements and practitioners of poetry on a nearly global scale.  It was something of this kind that I tried to summarize a few years ago in a large two-volume assemblage or anthology of the twentieth-century avant-garde called Poems for the Millennium.  To give you an idea of where my coeditor and I felt the presence of such an oppositional and transformative counterpoetics, I will mention only the movements and groupings to which we gave special attention: the Vienna Group in Austria, the Tammuzi poets in Lebanon and Syria, concrete poetry worldwide, Cobra in western Europe [Copenhagen/Brussels/Amsterdam], the Beat Poets in the U.S., and branching out, the Postwar Poets in Japan, the Misty Poets in China, the Language Poets in the U.S., and unspecified cyberpoets everywhere and nowhere.  (To these of course we could have added a number of others, both international and regionally specific – from the widely dispersed Situationists and Fluxus artists and poets to the early and germinal Gutai Group in Japan.)

In most instances the Trickster comparison is at best suggestive or metaphorical, but for others, like myself, he or she manifests quite explicitly as a being-in-the-poem.  For American poets he comes up most frequently in the guise of Coyote, and certainly this is the case for American Indian poets such as Simon Ortiz or for a non-Indian poet like Gary Snyder in his essay “The Incredible Survival of Coyote” or in the German artist Joseph Beuys’s performance work “I Love America and America Loves Me” (a week spent locked in a cage with a coyote).  Aside from these, other Trickster-related poems include such major works as Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger, David Meltzer’s Hero/Lil, Michael McClure’s Coyote in Chains, and Diane DiPrima’s female-centered Loba.

For myself, then, my work in the late 1960s and early 1970s had included the anthologizing of translations from traditional Trickster narratives.  (These appeared with attendant commentaries in assemblages such as Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin.)  I was simultaneously “exploring ancestral sources of my own in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves, and madmen” – a description of my work that I hoped would call attention to its deliberately transgressive qualities.  From 1972 to 1974 I was living at a Seneca Indian reservation in western New York State, where I finished writing Poland/1931 and began the writing of A Seneca Journal.  The immediate national or international context for this was the war in Vietnam, which was moving into its final phases and had already created public protests many of which involved actions that resembled those rituals of disorder and disruption that had been a central aspect of many traditional cultures.

The culminating poem of Poland/1931 was a short mock epic called Cokboy, and it’s this poem that I want to read from as the final part of my presentation here.  The title when pronounced in English means something like penis-boy, although the spelling (c-o-k-b-o-y) is aberrant – something I picked up from a misspelling or typographical error in a poem by the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, circa 1913, for what he intended as the English word “cowboy.”  Still, from the time I first saw it, it played in my mind as the possible name of an ithyphallic new world trickster.

There is of course no mention of this in the poem, only the spelling of the word itself, which would strike an English reader as rather aberrant.  Also aberrant is the Yiddish accent that I use near the opening of the poem – exaggerated and very far from accurate.  It is one of several voices that I allow myself, the poem shifting unannounced from one voice to another: my own voice (perhaps) as narrator, the voice of a mythopoeic trickster, the voice of a fictitious explorer/conqueror, the voices of ancestral Jews and Indians, and so on.  In the course of it other figures – both historical and contemporary – are called into play: the eighteenth-century Baal Shem (founder of the ecstatic Hasidic cult of orthodox Judaism, wearing a traditional broad brimmed hat called a shtraimel; William Blake, the great English poet and visionary; and iconic American figures such as General Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, and the conservative American senator Barry Goldwater, referred to only as “the senator from Arizona.”

    Having said this much by way of introduction I will go to a reading from Cokboy.  It is my contention in doing so, that Cokboy, like Freud’s Oedipus as viewed by Lévi-Strauss, or like Dorn’s Gunslinger and Ortiz’s Coyote, should be included now among the bona fide versions of the Trickster myth we’ve been discussing.

    But if not, then not.

From COKBOY    

     saddlesore I came
     a jew among
     the indians
     vot em I doink in dis strange place
     mit deez pipple mit strange eyes
     could be it's trouble     
     could be       could be
     (he says) a shadow
     ariseth from his buckwheat
     has tomahawk in hand
     shadow of an axe inside his right eye
     of a fountain pen inside his left
     vot em I doink here
     how vass I lost tzu get here
     am a hundred men
     a hundred fifty different shadows
     jews & gentiles
     who bring the Law to Wilderness
     (he says) this man
     is me     my grandfather
     & other men-of-letters
     men with letters carrying the mail
     lithuanian pony-express riders
     the financially crazed Buffalo Bill
     still riding in the lead
     hours before avenging the death of Custer
     making the first 3-D movie of those wars
     or years before it
     the numbers vanishing in kabbalistic time
     that brings all men together