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Kelly Writer's House on Oct. 15, 2022. Credit: Max Mester

Poet Jerome Rothenberg visited Kelly Writers House on Sept. 29 to read poems from his most recent book, “In the Shadow of a Mad King.”

A mix of Penn students, professors, and members of the Philadelphia community gathered Thursday evening at Kelly Writers House to attend the reading. Additionally, the KWH community celebrated Rothenberg's 90th birthday at the event and recognized Rothenberg for his contributions to the literary community.

Rothenberg is an internationally known poet, translator, anthologist, and performer. “In the Shadow of a Mad King” reflects on contemporary leadership and is the most recent addition to over 90 books he has published.

Penn English professor and faculty director of KWH Al Filreis welcomed Rothenberg, recognizing his contributions to the literary community and reading a quote from his book — Pre-Faces & Other Writings — about the importance of hearing poetry.

“In the poetry of our own time, with its use of an approximate and highly individualized notation, the measure of a poem (and much of its meaning) is likewise only clear when it is being sounded: in this case sounded by its maker,” Filreis read aloud.

Throughout his decades-long career, Rothenberg has aimed to carry on the world's fading oral and written literary legacies into modern literature. He has drawn inspiration from many global cultural movements, including the Dadaism, North American Indian culture, Japanese literature, and personal connections with the Jewish community. He is also well known for his work in ethnopoetics, a field that combines poetry, linguistics, anthropology, and ethnology.

“Jerry writes in all forms. He cares about other poets, the poetry community,” Filreis said. “He cares about his own European origins and the importance of European modernism. And he has all these interesting concerns come out in poetry.”

From “To Dream Infinity” to “Coda,” the poems Rothenberg recited narrowed on a theme of various authoritarian figures of both past and present society, exposing the world of deceit and manipulation that surrounds our world’s leaders. Accompanied with illustrations by granddaughter Sadie Rothenberg, his poems aimed to take listeners on a journey into the mind and operations of a mad king.

Audience members, such as College sophomore Lila Shermeta, said that the imagery and metaphors grabbed hold of them.

Shermeta — who is also an Under the Button staffer — first heard of Rothenberg through the Modern Poetry class and said that she enjoyed hearing his poems in person. Her favorite poem of the night was “The times are never right.” 

“It felt like [the poem] tied everything back together when he was reading about existentialism, fear, and failing democracies. And he brought it back to how we have this anxiety inside ourselves, but that it doesn’t really matter too much because you are here, and so am I,” Shermeta said.  

KWH was founded in 1995 to serve as a home to Penn and Philadelphia writers and organizes dozens of programs and projects every semester.

Filreis said that KWH has been hosting poetry events since its founding, because poetry is at the core of everything KWH and its writers do.

“Poetry is the one form of writing which is almost always concerned more about ‘how’ rather than ‘what.’ Poetry is only interesting because of how it says what it says…The idea of a poem is to encounter a way of saying something and that way is difficult, complicated, open ended. And that’s why we go back to it,” Filreis said.