Celebrating National Poetry Month with Technicians of the Sacred

Borneo, Indonesia; 40,000 BC

Rooting poetry beyond location and historical time, Jerome Rothenberg’s seminal compilation Technicians of the Sacred has educated and inspired poets, artists, musicians, and other readers—from Allen Ginsberg to Nick Cave—for generations, exposing them to the multiple possibilities of poetry throughout the world. A half-century since its original publication, this landmark anthology is more timely than ever, maintaining its vital place in our culture, and we are proud to be publishing the 50th anniversary edition this August. The following excerpts reveal the ongoing histories and intersections of language, land, and community through the lens of poetry.

From his 2017 preface, Rothenberg writes:

Something happened to me, now a full half century in the past, that has shaped my ambition for poetry up until the very present. Not to focus too much on myself, it was a discovery shared with others around me, of the multiple hidden sources & the multiple presences of poetry both far & near. I don’t remember clearly where—or when—it started, but once it got under my skin—our skin, I mean to say—that which we could hope to know as poetry drew in whole worlds we hadn’t previously imagined. Nothing was too low—or high—to be considered, but the imagining mind & voice, once the doors of perception were opened or cleansed, were everywhere we looked.

This also tied in to the search to create new forms of writing & thinking & to bring to light experiences & actions heretofore closed to us: a move that began with an earlier avant-garde & that we now repossessed/ reclaimed as our own. A result of that—from the beginning, I thought— was an expansion of what we could now recognize as poetry, for which our inherited definitions had proven to be inadequate. In that sense that which was traditional in other parts of the world or buried & outcast in our own came across as new & unforeseen when placed within our own still too narrow framework. For myself, the discoveries, once I opened up to them, proved as rich in possibilities as what we & our predecessors had been creating for our own place & time. That so much of this came from an imagined “outside” or from long outcast & subterranean, often brutally repressed traditions was evident even before we named them as such.

Revised and expanded with newly gathered and translated texts from reinvigorated indigenous cultures, this volume brings to the fore the range and depth of what we recognize and read as poetry. From oral tradition and song to the written word and beyond.

Juxtaposing “primitive” and archaic works of art from many cultures with each other and with experimental poetry, Rothenberg contends that literature extends beyond specific temporal and geographic boundaries, and must be understood globally, cutting across space and time. The first poem from the book reads:

Genesis I

Water went they say. Land was not they say. Water only then, mountains were not, they say. Stones were not they say. Trees were not they say. Grass was not they say. Fish were not they say. Deer were not then they say. Elk were not they say. Grizzlies were not they say. Panthers were not they say. Wolves were not they say. Bears were not they say. People were washed away they say. Grizzlies were washed away they say. Panthers were washed away they say. Deer were washed away they say. Coyotes were not then they say. Ravens were not they say. Owls were not they say. Buzzards were not they say. Chicken-hawks were not they say. Robins were not they say. Grouse were not they say. Quails were not they say. Bluejays were not they say. Ducks were not they say. Yellow-hammers were not they say. Condors were not they say. Herons were not they say. Screech-owls were not they say. Woodcocks were not they say. Woodpeckers were not they say. Then meadowlarks were not they say. Then Sparrow-hawks were not they say. Then woodpeckers were not they say. Then seagulls were not they say. Then pelicans were not they say. Orioles were not they say. Then mockingbirds were not they say. Wrens were not they say. Russet-back thrushes, blackbirds were not they say. Then crows were not they say. Then hummingbirds were not they say. Then curlews were not they say. Then mockingbirds were not they say. Swallows were not they say. Sandpipers were not they say.  Then foxes were not they say. Then wildcats were not they say. Then otters were not they say. Then minks were not they say. Then elks were not they say. Then jack-rabbits, grey squirrels were not they say. Then ground squirrels were not they say. Then red squirrels were not they say. Then chipmunks were not they say. Then woodrats were not they say. Then kangaroo-rats were not they say. Then long-eared mice were not they say. Then sapsuckers were not they say. Then pigeons were not they say. Then warblers were not they say. Then geese were not they say. Then cranes were not they say. Then weasels were not they say. Then wind was not they say. Then snow was not they say. Then frost was not they say. Then rain was not they say. Then it didn’t thunder. Then trees were not when it didn’t thunder they say. It didn’t lighten they say. Then clouds were not they say. Fog was not they say. It didn’t appear they say. Stars were not they say. It was very dark.

Cahto [Kato] (Northern California)

Happy National Poetry Month and Happy Reading!


Jerome Rothenberg is a poet and an internationally acclaimed anthologist. His more than fifty books include the anthology Poems for the Millennium, coedited with Pierre Joris. He is Professor Emeritus of Visual Arts and Literature at the University of California, San Diego.

Keep up to date with his poetry and writing on his blog Poems and Poetics.