Thursday, December 22, 2005

Sweet & Sour Jesus and the Birthday Blues

Many thanks to those of you who have continued to check this blog for new posts. They've been few and far between, these last three months, and although I'd love to promise a new, more consistent schedule for the coming year, I'm old enough to be wary of such promises. In fact, I'm about to be one notch older--tomorrow's my birthday, and I'll be 42.


42 down, 23 to go, I can't help but think. My father lived on a 65-year clock, based on everything he knew of his own father's and mother's and grandfather's early deaths. And, alas, he was eerily accurate, dying just a few months shy of his 66th birthday. Of course, I could take after my mother's side of the family, in which case it's 42 down and another 55 to go, and maybe more. My grandmother is still going strong at 97, God bless her, and she's the source of my poetry genes. Still, on this grey Chicago morning, zoned out on Sudafed, it's hard to be as upbeat as she is, or as I'd like to be.


I haven't thought much about Jewish poetry recently, or about things Jewish more generally. Too much competition from other fronts, perhaps? I've been pleasantly busy since Thanksgiving on various Romance Fiction projects--grant proposals, novels to read--to the point where I'm prepared to say, with Keats, that my only religion is the holiness of the heart's affections. Well, those aren't quite his words, a quick Google search tells me. "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination," saith this Preacher. "What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth - whether it existed before or not."

That sounds deeply right to me tonight, and reminds me that whatever else I end up writing on Jewish American poetry this year, I want to muse awhile on the Jewish denomination that no one talks about, much: Jewish Romanticism, or Romantic Judaism, which folds Blake and Keats and Stevens and sometimes even Yeats into its theological rugelach. I'll keep you posted when this gets into print. In fact, you'll probably read it here first.


Here at home, of course, religion is very much in the air. I may have mentioned here before that my wife is Catholic, although we're raising the kids as Jews. Most of the year, this seems a workable arrangement, but every now and then--not always around a holiday, but often enough--the strain of it starts to show. When my first child was born I tried to police things, keep Christian stories and symbols to a minimum around the house, until I saw how sad--not angry, not frustrated, but a lonely sort of sad--this made my wife, for no reason worthy of the pain. (I thought it was pretty funny that my toddler son didn't even know who Santa was, and called each one he saw "Noah" instead.) Over the last six years or so I've tried to lighten up, but I still stiffen and bristle, sometimes consciously, sometimes without knowing it, when Christmas and Easter come to town. Blame it on my youth: too many years of having to sing religious carols in public elementary school, which stuck in my craw despite my parents' shrugs and soothing words. (I was also the kid who crossed his fingers during the Pledge of Allegiance, so they couldn't hold me to it.) Anyway, some tough days recently here, sorting it all out once again.

I don't actually think that it's the specifics of Christian theology that rub me the wrong way, or even the figure--the character? the idea?--of Jesus. Like any number of rebellious Jewish teens, I was obsessed with JC for a while, and I still occasionally find the easy, streamlined personalism of Christianity, the nameable, imaginable Interface-With-Deity it offers, quite inspiring, although I prefer my own mix of multiplicity (lots of titles and nicknames to deploy) and utter mystery (Yo, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named! I'm talking here!). I think it's more what strikes me as a particularly Christian tone: a sweetness, a sincerity of belief--a focus on belief in general, maybe?--which brings out the scoffer and blasphemer in me faster than you can say "Purimspiel." When I see a creche set with an empty cradle, I can't resist the urge to put something silly at the center--or, better yet, to shift the shepherds and Wise Men and Holy Family around until they're having a pleasant cocktail party chat, in little groups, blissfully inattentive to the vigil at hand. (My daughter now has taken up this game, much to my joy and my wife's chagrin.) As a result, no matter how much my wife now tries to educate the kids in Christian doctrine or practice, she knows--with no small regret--that they view it all from the outside, as they do the stories about Hanuman and Krishna that they sometimes hear from me. This year, maybe for the first time, I've gotten a sense of how estranged from the rest of her own family that leaves her, even as we pile up presents and sing carols and the rest.

Intermarriage: not for the faint of heart!


I'd meant to close tonight with one of my favorite Jerome Rothenberg poems, "Visions of Jesus," from Khurbn. Alas, the DePaul library website is down, and I have no copy of it handy. (Ooh! Could this be a sign?) I'm too tired, and a little too glum, to take up Jackie Osherow's new book, The Hoopoe's Crown, which I've read a couple of times in the last two days. It deserves me at my sprightliest--maybe tomorrow, then. Here's a scrap of Reznikoff for inspiration, then, for all of us hard workers at family, at poetry, at anything: Poem 19 from Five Groups of Verse (1927).
After I had worked all day at what I earn my living,
I was tired. Now my own work has lost another day,
I thought, but began slowly,
and slowly my strength came back to me.
Surely, the tide comes in twice a day.
More soon, I promise.


P.S. And the LORD spoke unto me, saying "Check the library website one last time." And lo, I did check, and there it was again, by gum. Seek and ye shall find, knock and the door will open, ask and it shall be given, as they say.

So--here 'tis: Jerry Rothenberg's "Visions of Jesus," from Khurbn and the New and Selected Poems. Enjoy.

Let's say it was Jesus. Who is Jesus? Why should Jesus be the name
now celebrated, entering the poem?
Or let's say it wasn't. That I have the key to make it open
like a sound. Each sound's a rage.
Each page a turning over. I am writing this
the way a preacher speaks the word out on a prairie.
Visions of Jesus everywhere.
Sweet Jesus, says the song, to which the mind says
archly, darkly, "sour Jesus,"
& the poem begins with that.
Pink Jesus. Tiny Jesuses
on every bush, the world of sagebrush now a world of tiny Jesuses.
Soft Jesus maybe. (Is there a sexual aspersion in it
or only another way of saying "tender Jesus"?)
Jesus in Oklahoma
with his beard cut off. A weepy girl
named Jesus. She opens up her breast,
the moon pops out. O menses, colored glass
& papers, birds with messages
of love, tra la, on metal wings. His other name
is Rollo, Baby Winchester
or Baby Love. Jesus with a cow's head
on his shoulders, candles reaching from
his fingertips. Jesus in his one-eyed ford.
Squawk squawk, the preacher cries.
Eyes of the congregation turning white. The pinwheel
shooting sparks against his lap.
Jesus in furs. Jesus in Oklahoma,
growing old.
Hot & glowing Jesus. Jesus on the ace of hearts.
Alfalfa Jesus.
I am writing this the way a gambler cuts his name
into the table. Jesus in formica.
Drinking in the morning, playing coon-can
with his brother James.
Other names of Jesus.
Jesus H. Jones or Jesus in the woodpile.
Tomtom Jesus.
Jesus who aims a bullet down his mouth.
His children hang his body from a cross.
Three Jesuses in Ypsilanti.
Three in Tishimingo.
Jesus buried in Fort Sill.
His suffering has left their bodies
empty. In the night sky past El Reno
Jesus becomes his pain & flies,
aiming to leave his eyes for others.
Mother Jesus.
Her children have forsaken her.
She learns to cry & plays
nightly at mah jong, dropping her tiles
into the bottomless lake.
The man who chews his wrists down to the bone
is also Jesus. Jesus
in a feathered skull cap. Tacking stars
onto his vest, o cockeyed Jesus,
wanderer from Minsk,
he squawks the language of the little merchants,
squatting at their campfire he stirs
their coffee with his tool. How like his grandfather
he has become. Coyote Jesus.
Farting in the sweat lodge, tight
against his buttons
in the bride's room. Ponca City
Jesus. Pawnee Jesus.
He is staring at the eyes of Jesus
staring into his.
Their eyeballs spin around
like planets.
Visions of Jesus everywhere.
Gambler Jesus.
Banker Jesus.
Flatfoot Jesus with a floy floy.
Jesus shuffling.
The soldiers guard his silent fan,
tacked up, beside his rattle.
Jesus on the pavement. Jesus
shot for love, the powpow over,
naked, crawling toward you,
vomit on his beard. His father's milk
is dribbling---plin plin---in the cup
called Jesus. Ghosts
unhook the breast plate, draw
two streams of milk out,
mix them, opening
the mother's womb. No midwife
comes to her, she gives birth
like a man, & holds him
in a dream. Old song
erupting in the gourd dance,
in the storefront church
at night, among the hapless
armies. Two plus two is
Jesus. Five is Jesus.
Jesus in Okarchie,
driving. Jesus in his one-eyed ford,
arriving for the dance in Barefoot.
Visions of Jesus everywhere.
Jesus wrapped up in a woman's shawl.
Jesus in a corner,
stroking his tight body.
Masturbating Jesus.
Jesus sucking on a ball of fat.
There is no language left for him to speak,
only the humming in his chest,
a rush of syllables
like honey. Pouring
from every orifice, the voice
of renegades & preachers
without words.
Pink Jesuses in Oklahoma,
emerging with the spring.
Catfish Jesuses.
A beetle with the face of Jesus
scribbled on its back, squashed flat
against the dance floor.
Jesus squawking with the voice of angels.
I am writing this the way a man speaks without words.
Wordless in the light he pulls
out of his mouth. In the holes he hides in.
Wordless in praises. Wordless in peyote.
Wordless in hellos & hallelujahs.
The freaky Jew slips in beside
his bride, asleep forever, counts up bears
& cadillacs
under a leaky sky.

OK: that's a day's work and then some. Off to bed, and happy erev birthday to me.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

What We Say, What They Hear

This morning, as I hummed a few bars of "Ivdu et HaShem B'Simcha" in the kitchen, my daughter chimed in with the words, then stopped, then laughed "It's like we're praising that guy from the Three Stooges!"

One year of first grade Hebrew School: $400.
TiVo subscription to catch trashy reruns: $13 / month.
Having your daughter picture HaShem as Shemp Howard: priceless.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Nobody Tells Me Anything dept.

Take a look at this:
What does it mean to create Jewish culture and perform Jewish identity in Europe and North America in the twenty-first century? Ranging from the klezmer revival in the clubs of Warsaw to the Lower East Side irreverence of Heeb magazine, the ReJewvenation conference will create a space for scholarly discussion of a Jewish cultural renaissance in the making. This conference will bring together a diverse group of scholars and artists in order to address six major aspects of contemporary Jewish culture: ritual, music, new media, visual arts, literature and performing arts. Some of the questions the conference will address include: What does it mean to be part of a Jewish diaspora culture in a global village? How does twenty-first-century Jewish culture negotiate the ever-shifting boundary between religion and secular life or between culture and religion? How have changing attitudes toward gender roles and homosexuality fundamentally re-shaped Jewish culture? What impact has the internet had on the creation (and reception) of Jewish culture? How does the ongoing dialogue among diaspora Jews about Israeli politics and culture manifest itself in contemporary Jewish culture? To what extent do twentieth-century events – such as East European immigration to North America , the Holocaust, and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union – still have an impact on the creation of Jewish culture in the twenty-first century?
Why didn't I know about this? Where do I sign up to keep up with such things? If you're out there, and plan to go, let me know how it went!

Back to grading. Then off to get the kids. Oy, oy, oy, it's hard to be a Dad. I mean professor. I mean Jew. (Actually, it's not so hard--but if I can't kvetch here, where can I?)

More soon, including a long message from Robert about Jewish American poetry, which has languished in my inbox for a month now. Sorry, Robert! I'll get it up here soon, with responses, I promise!


Friday, October 14, 2005

And on to Sukkot...

And now that Yom Kippur is past, here's a lovely poem for Sukkot, by Nan Cohen, from Rope Bridge.

Festival of Booths

Every house on earth a broken house.
Every city a ruined city
Poughed under by that slow disaster, time.
If ever redeemed to us, then by the same.
Your walls will fall, are falling, have fallen.
Your roof is open to the countless stars.

I count at least three successive echoes in those six lines: to Eliot, to H.D., and to a Japanese poem that Jane Hirschfield translated, whose title and author now escape me. It's as though those poets were the Ushpizin, the guests, she had invited to the poem; I suspect there may be more. Nice work, Nan!

(OK--enough fun. Back to work.)

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Poem for Yom Kippur

The best Jewish poem I know for Yom Kippur--the one that stays with me, anyway, the most richly and beautifully, year after year--is actually two prose paragraphs from Mike Heller's memoir Living Root. Read it and be well this year, all of you out there:
My mother who did not believe in God, who told me this fact when I was only nine as we lolled in the shallow waves off the beach at Lummis Park. My mother who said "I am an atheist" under the clearest of blue skies, when not the merest wisp of haze or cumulus lay in the way between heaven and earth: My mother, who suffered numerous illnesses, a series of different cancers, a bad heart, and finally a death‑dealing stroke, my mother, who yet outlived three of her doctors and led an active and social life, who had closets of dresses, who walked with dignity up steps, taking ten seconds to rest at each landing, this mother was immensely proud of her teeth. In the morning and in the evening, she spent many minutes in the bathroom flossing and brushing; at night, while we children lay in bed, we could hear her gargling. My mother pestered the butcher for soup bones which she would boil up, not for soup, but to chew on. My mother, who was very conscious of her appearance and so dressed smartly and even elegantly on most occasions, would sit by herself at the diningroom table in the late afternoons with a large billowing napkin tucked into the neck of her housedress and gnaw like a dog on those cooked bones. When out having lunch with a friend or with us, she always excused herself at the end of a meal and retired to the ladies' room to brush her teeth. How astonishing her pride in those teeth while the rest of her body was failing her.

On the Day of Atonement, when the litany of Jewish suffering is recited in the synagogue and as a young child, just after the Second World War aware of the Holocaust, and feeling the entire world massed against Jews, feeling my own vulnerability, when the rest of the family engaged in the ritual fasting, in bringing neither liquid nor food to one's lips and mouth, my mother, because of her health, was required to eat, and so, required herself to brush her teeth. In the temple, surrounded by all the fasting relatives and family friends, in a cloud of bad breath, only my mother's mouth as she kissed me had any sweetness.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Pardon my cynicism, everyone--I'm really a very sweet guy!--but after all the hoopla I've been hearing about "God's October Surprise," last weekend's earthquake comes as a pretty low blow from He Who Must Not Be Named.

was the surprise? Gee, thanks. If I'd have known, I'd have spent Rosh Hashanah singing hymns to Shiva.

(I had to say that to someone--and if not you, who?)

On a happier note, last week I was invited to the Poetry Foundation's Pegasus Awards banquet at Millennium Park here in Chicago. Cocktails chatting with Rosellen Brown and Marv Hoffman; dinner on the stage of Pritzker Pavillion (all those empty seats!); and, on every plate, a swellegant, elegant, brand new copy of Samuel Menashe's New and Selected Poems, freshly published by the Library of America as part of the Foundations' "Neglected Master" series, with an introduction by the great British critic Christopher Ricks, he most recently of Dylan's Visions of Sin. (Menashe had another New and Selected published a few years back, called The Niche Narrows, published by Talisman House.)

Menashe is an odd sort of poet. He writes short poems, mostly, whose density of sound reminds me a little of Lorine Niedecker or even my beloved Ronald Johnson, but without the playfulness of either. Instead, he's rather somber, even when protesting his happiness and desire to please. As a Jewish poet, he's also rather odd: willfully prophetic, but in a way that lacks the idiosyncratic dazzle--the sense that this poem needs to be said no matter its strangenessthat you find in, say, Allen Grossman. (This isn't a bad thing, always--I often find Grossman labored, and hard to read at length--but I toss it out as an initial response.) Grace Shulman said somewhere that his Jerusalem poems were no more Jewish than Blake's were. That strikes the right note, I think.

You can find an interview with Menashe here, at the Poetry site, with links to a fistful of poems; an essay on him by Dana Gioia here; and if you want some poems, here's an early, unobjectionable one--the title poem of his first book, but not one of his more satisfying poems, over the long haul, I think--
O Many Named Beloved
Listen to my praise
Various as the seasons
Different as the days
All my treasons cease
When I see your face
and here are a couple of his more recent pieces, which I prefer:

Salt and Pepper

Here and there
White hairs appear
On my chest--
Age seasons me
Gives me zest--
I am a sage
In the making
Sprinkled, shaking

Family Silver

That spoon fell out
Of my mother's mouth
Before I was born,
But I was endowed
With a tuning fork

More soon--be well--E

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Oops. Jampo Audio, I mean.

A note from Norman--the link is only for audio. Sure they're handsome fellers, too! Ah, well.

Here's a two-part number from Shapiro's How Charlie Shavers Died and Other Poems. (I hear tell a Collected Poems is in the works from Wesleyan in January!) Gee, Mom, do you think these count as Jewish poems?
New York Notes

Caught on a side street
in heavy traffic, I said
to the cabbie, I should
have walked. He replied,
I should have been a doctor.

When can I get on the 11:33
I ask the guy in the information booth
at the Atlantic Avenue Station.
When they open the doors, he says.
I am home among my people.
("My people!" How often I use that phrase, and what a pleasure to meet it in a poem.)

Jampo Video

"Jampo," of course, short for "Jewish-American Poetry."

The video in question is another RealVideo link, this one via Norman Finkelstein:
"Harvey Shapiro and I read and discussed the Objectivists at Kelly Writers House at Penn last week. An ineluctably Jewish affair, even when it wasn't, if you know what I mean. You can find the evidence here."
The scary thing is, I do know what he means. So why is it so hard to put into words? Here's hoping that the new collection of essays on my desk, Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer, will shed some light on the subject, even if not one of the essayists--surprise, surprise--is a poet.

Back to grading--gripes on the other blog--E

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Happy New Year!

Hello, everyone. Thanks for checking back in with me--I know it's been a while.

(Help! England Dan & John Ford Coley's "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight" just clicked on in my brain: "Hello. Yeah, it's been a while. / Not much. How 'bout you? / I'm not sure why I called, / I guess I really just wanted / to talk to you," etc. Ah, my misspent youth. )

As I was saying, it's been a while. The wrists have been bugging me, although my new office setup has reduced the carpal tunnel aches & pains. And I've been up to my peyes in unrelated projects: my Romance Novel class, my new and improved--well, my new--Intro to Poetry Class, my graduate Teaching Poetry gig, and the great joy of my life right now, my new oud: a "quality learner oud" made by Haluk Eraydin of Turkey. (Although I'm seriously contemplating stringing it for Arabic tuning. But maybe that's wrong of me. And will it hurt the oud? Many an hour recently over at Mike's Oud Forum sniffing out the answers to such questions.)

Still, with the Hi-Hos upon us--as in, "Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to shul we go"--this blog has been, like the proverbial Mama, on my mind. And although there's no tradition of "new year's resolutions" at Rosh Hashanah time, other than the usual u'tshuvah, u'tefilla, u'tzedakah trio, I'm going to try to get back to regular blogging here, at least some squib every couple of days, whether a poem or a thought or a link. Hmmm... Maybe I'll toss the reflections on oudism here as well, since it was things Jewish that brought me to the instrument. Make a few converts, maybe.

OK: off to get washed clean in the... Oops! Wrong metaphor. Off to engage in a little off-shore sin disposal. It's been quite a year, folks, so if you see a forty-something bearded man in glasses slinging a large pepperoni, thin-crust, frisbee-style out into Lake Michigan, that would be me.

And, since no religion truly satisfies the soul, year in and year out, like the Church of Baseball, let me simply add: Go Sox! (You pick the color.)

Friday, September 09, 2005

Radical Jewish Poetics

I've gotten a couple of emails in response to my lists of questions and my sketches of the various ways that "secular Jewish culture" and "radical poetics" might intersect, and a nice comment from Rachel. I don't have a lot of time, but I want to post them up here, in paraphrase at least, and respond as best I can.

By the way, since it's a mouthful to keep saying "Secular Jewish Culture and Radical Poetics," I hereby declare that the proper phrase, the brand name, the denominational nominative, the shorthand (at least) for the whole shebang will from now on be RADICAL JEWISH POETICS.


So far everyone seems to think that my first broad definition of Radical Jewish Poetics was indeed, too broad and too weak to be useful. Hmmm.. What I said was "In the broadest and weakest sense, the Jewish poet--secular or religious--can write a poem about anything (love, war, wine) that forms a part of the vast secular overlapping between Jewish and non-Jewish culture, and thus write a "secular Jewish poem"; this may be "radical" if the form or language or import of the poem is in some way “radical,” regardless of its Jewish purview or lack thereof." I had in mind here something like those wine songs of Andalusia, or maybe a Yiddish poem about a Japanese garden: that is, a poem where the "Jewishness" could be found, or had to be found, in the poet or in the language he or she wrote in.

It's broad and weak, but I suspect it's the definition that an awful lot of this discussion actually starts with. Then the critic moves on to discover (ta-da!) something "Jewish" in the approach or idea or alientation involved. In other words, to borrow from Rachel's comments, the "Jewish" in "Jewish poet" starts out descriptive--hey! Richard Howard is Jewish? Who knew?--in a way that is, as Rachel says, "pleasant but ultimately not all that useful as a category." It then turns, in a sort of critical shell game, more or less impressive, more or less convincing, into a prescriptive term: here's a Jewish poet, and look, she's doing something Jewish! (I think here of my friend Jonathan B's essays on Maxine Kumin as a Jewish poet, for example.)

Now, Norman also observed that "some poems are definitely Jewish whether or not a reader is looking at them Jewishly or feeling Jewish or what have you," which suggests that there may in fact be some sort of content we agree on in that "Jewish" label, or at least there ought to be. But what might that content be? Can it be faked? That is, does a Jewish poem have to be by a Jew? Certainly a Christian poem doesn't have to be by a Christian. Must an American poem be by an American? Willard Spiegelman says somewhere--I think it's him--that Milton has a better claim to being the "first American poet" than Anne Bradstreet, and I know that I've seen some of Malamud discussed as being deeply Christian fiction, despite Malamud's overt Jewish identification. Grrr...

Finally, about Yona Wallach's "Tefillin," I need to turn up a copy. It's in The Defiant Muse anthology of feminist Hebrew poetry, I know, but I won't have a copy of that until Sunday--I promise I'll post it then, if no one emails it to me sooner. Every version on-line seems to be suddenly unavailable, as though cursed. You don't think....? Nah.

Must run. More soon. E

Friday, September 02, 2005

The Blog of Questions

1. Is my first "intersection" in yesterday's post--the "broadest and weakest"--too broad and too weak to be useful?

2. If Linda Pastan and Edmond Jabes are both Jewish poets, in the same sense that Ron Silliman and Richard Howard are both American poets, what good is the term "Jewish poet"? Is it only useful when you want to round up poets for an anthology, or some (ahem) grimmer fate?

3. Does the category of "Radical Jewish poetry" have potential has anything other than a brand identity, rather like John Zorn's "radical Jewish culture" music series, on which I suspect it has been patterned? (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, a brand name.)

4. Is "Radical Jewish Poetry," or even "Jewish poetry" writ large, really just a project I take up when I want to read poetry and feel Jewish doing it? Do the motives for the term, that is to say, lie in the the poets and poems themselves, or mostly in me, the reader?

5. When someone asks about the relationship between secular Jewish culture and radical poetics, shouldn't we start (in the best Jewish fashion) by asking some questions in response? Questions like "Why do you ask?" Or, better, "Who wants to know?"

6. (From Adam Schonbrun) Is Yonah Wollach masturbating with the straps of the Tefillin also considered "radical Jewish," or only "secular Israeli"? (If you don't know that poem, let me know and I'll post it next week.)

I'm taking a day to mull these over, enjoy my kids, and ease my soul with Norman's An Assembly. Here's one of my old favorites to enjoy in the meantime, from the sly little sequence Hero / Lil (1973) by David Meltzer--a poet who should have come up in these contexts a while ago.
Facing Lily Rashi sees
her wings unfold
block light from his room.

Pink breasts peek through
gold-white swan fans
fluttering like Sally Rand.

Rashi looks up from Torah.
Not good enough for Adam,
not good enough for me.
Out, Lilith. Out.
More soon on many things! --E

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Secular Jewish Poetics: a Revised Outline

Hello, everyone. I've been thrashing out that "12 Gates to the City" map of the intersections between "secular Jewish culture" and "radical poetics" all morning, and although I may have lost sight here and there of the "radical" side of things--a term I'm not altogether comfortable with in any case--I have an outline now that looks both more complete and a bit more useful. Please, please, please--let me know what you think!

What are the various ways that SJC and RP can intersect?

In the broadest and weakest sense, the Jewish poet--secular or religious--can write a poem about anything (love, war, wine) that forms a part of the vast secular overlapping between Jewish and non-Jewish culture, and thus write a "secular Jewish poem"; this may be "radical" if the form or language or import of the poem is in some way “radical,” regardless of its Jewish purview or lack thereof.

In a slightly stronger sense, the Jewish poet can write about some identifiably non-Jewish subject, or in some not-particularly Jewish form, in a way that can plausibly be claimed by readers or critics for secular Jewish culture.

This can be “radical” in the sense that the content expands our sense of what Jewish culture contains or can contain, as in an Andalusian poem drawing on Plato, or a pan-Mediterranean poem by Aharon Shabtai, or one of Armand Schwerner's Tablets.

It can also be “radical” in the way its form challenges or changes what Jewish culture can be from then on (i.e., the use of Arabic meters and topoi in Andalusian poetry, or of modernist free verse, introspection, expressionism, or disjunction in Yiddish modernism).

Finally, it may be “radical” in the ways it uses parody or commentary (implicit or explicit) to mark the poet’s Jewish difference or demurral or refusal or transformation of the non-Jewish cultural material (i.e., Jonathan Barron’s poetics of commentary). This refusal or demurral can be on explicitly Jewish grounds, religious or secular, but it need not be on explicitly Jewish grounds (as in Tzara, say), as long as the act, for whatever reason (even the poet’s ethnicity, weak link though that may be), can be plausibly seen as “Jewish” by the reader.

In another sort of intersection, the Jewish poet can refer to or otherwise draw on some recognizable or identifiable feature of secular Jewish culture.

This can be a formal feature, as when the poet takes an plausibly identifiable secular Jewish verbal practice (i.e. Jewish humor, or the "associative monologue," in David Roskies' term, or Yiddishisms, or even a Jewish "tone") and turn it to poetic ends, either formally or via reference to it. Such identifications are weakest when the poet does not self-identify as a Jew or write of Jewish material elsewhere; they grow stronger the more the poet self-identifies as a Jew, or identifies such practices as Jewish, elsewhere in her or his work.

This can also be a matter of subject matter, as when the poet draws on or alludes to secular Jewish ideas (i.e., philosophy, politics, psychoanalysis) or simply names their thinkers (e.g., Levinas, Derrida, Freud, Benjamin, Scholem); or when the poet draws on secular Jewish cultural artifacts and events (i.e., history, music, art, prior literature), so that the poem's range of reference appears both secular and Jewish. The form and core ideas of such a poem may be fully secular, as in Reznikoff’s Holocaust. They may also end up almost entirely non-Jewish, as in Anthony Hecht's "The Book of Yolek,” as long as the poet may be plausibly claimed to be a Jew.

Finally, a most compelling intersection between secular Jewish culture and radical poetics occurs when the poet returns to and rethinks, revises, restages, or otherwise draws on Jewish religious tradition, turning it to radical poetic ends.

The poet can take a traditional ritual / religious practice or textual / verbal form and use it compositionally. The strongest version of this is when the practice and the poet are both sharply identifiable as Jewish, as in Jerry Rothenberg's Gematria, the rabbis' dialogues in Jabes' Book of Questions, or the mock-Haggadah of Shabtai’s Begin. A weaker version comes when the poet does not strongly self-identify as Jewish, or identify his or her project as Jewish, yet the reader can more-or-less plausibly connect his or her formal methods to something religiously Jewish. (Thinking of Oppen, maybe, here.)

The poet can also take on religious Jewish ideas and find or reveal them to be secular and / or poetic, or to bear poetic fruit. In the strong version of this, the ideas are richly and specifically Judaic, as with “exile” or “halakha”; a somewhat weaker version of this comes when the secular Jewish poet espouses ideas, values, or concerns that the critic or reader wants to identify as "Jewish," like “social justice,” whether or not the poem makes any explicit Jewish cultural reference (e.g., a poem like Rukeyser's "Mediterranean," or much of Philip Levine). Such
claims are least compelling when the poet does not self-identify as a Jew or write of Jewish material elsewhere; they grow more compelling, more persuasive, the more the poet self-identifies as a Jew, or identifies such ideas, values, or concerns as Jewish, elsewhere in her or his work.

Finally, the poet can re-imagine traditional religious figures and narrative material—characters and stories from Torah or classical midrash, holidays and so forth--towards some secular end or starting from secular assumptions. Such assumptions can be explicitly secular (political, psychological, etc.), but they can also be implicitly secular, as in the assumption that poets create our visions of the divine, and thus "all deities reside in the human breast." What seems at first a deeply religious poem, then, by a Jewish author, might well be claimed by readers or critics, or by the poet, to be part of "secular Jewish culture" in the broadest sense of that term.

OK, folks. What do you think? That's the sort of overview I'd hoped someone would provide at the conference last year, but it seems no one did. Dan Morris and Stephen Paul Miller, if you're out there--I think something like this belongs in at least the introduction to your collection, no?

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

JR Jumps In

This by email from Jerry Rothenberg, this afternoon--by addendum, later, he asked me to post it:
Dear Eric --

I was going to drop you a note (not necessarily for publication) to clear up my own thoughts about the secular-religious question, but your quotation today really took care of that for me. What I found most puzzling before this was the idea attributed to me that "secular Jewish culture precedes religious Jewish culture, ontologically and historically, just as poesis always procedes religion." That first part at best sounded cleverly engimatic, let's say, but ultimately incomprehensible, and I couldn't imagine having said it. As to poesis always preceding religion, I would more likely say that poesis (poetry writ large) is closely tied in its origins to the sacred or numinous, therefore to whatever forms of religion are coterminous with that.

Some other thoughts regarding the conference as such:

-- I was disappointed or uncomfortable that I seemed to be the only one at the conference making the linkage to older religiously-derived language practices that are not only crucial to an aspect of my own work but to that of poetic compadres like Celan and Jabes (notably) or, in the American context, Meltzer, Hirschman, Tarn, Berman, Schwerner -- even for that matter non-Jewish poets like Duncan and Kelly -- though I realize that this was at its hottest a couple of decades ago. I suppose too that that titling the conference "secular Jewish culture" encourages a separation of "radical practice" from anything that isn't "secular" in the most obvious sense of that word. And needless to say, almost all of those at the conference (myself included) were unaffiliated or unbelievers when it comes to religion.

-- It also seemed to me, as apparently it did to you, that "Central and Eastern European Jewish and its Yiddish-American offshoots" -- as you put it -- were too much emphasized, though I understand that the contemporary context of the conference made this pretty much unavoidable. This also seemed to narrow itself too much to pop culture, which I've also followed & sometimes appropriated but which I would think of as peripheral rather than central to the poetics in question. And it seemed to me that what was said about all that wasn't in any sense new or radical but what would be expected (at least for people of a certain age) in any pop discussion of growing up Jewish in America.

-- For my own part, Poland/1931 was heavily ashkenazic, as it would have to be, but in A Big Jewish Book and elsewhere, the topography expands greatly and the specifically Yiddish or Yiddish-American or Jewish-American entries are proportionally a very small part of the mix. (Even so, that's one of the places where I come from, & no denying.) My own sense of liberation, in doing this, was precisely to open up the field & overthrow as many stereotypes & prototypes as possible.

-- As for the lack of Israeli reference, which is also true I suppose for A Big Jewish Book, I'm aware of a number of poets in Israel but find them overshadowed by the diaspora figures of the last hundred years or so, those whose radical practice is significant enough (and arguably Jewish enough) to make the central issue of the conference worth taking up in the first place. It strikes me in fact that all of us at the conference were diaspora people and, with the possible exception of Hellerstein, without hostility but with very little commitment, political or cultural, to Israel as such. (But here I may only be speaking for myself.)

-- Also, with regard to diaspora, I remember when A Big Jewish Book appeared that there was some talk of a similar Irish diasporic assemblage (Bob Callahan and Robert Kelly, if memory serves me) and an Italian one. I can think too of African and Chinese possibilities, as well as others that would correspond to the way peoples & languages travel around the world. That seems to me to be part and parcel of what Pierre Joris calls a "nomadic poetics," and Pierre in fact is now beginning work on a Maghrebian anthology with a 2000-year a mix of poetries, largely but not completely Arabic, that should prove to be nothing short of astounding.

I would point out also that Jewish poetry doesn't imply a special grouping, except maybe for conferences like this. In the present diaspora context the groupings to which we may subscribe -- speaking for myself at least -- cut across ethnic and national boundaries, and our closeness to other poets rests on very different grounds. American poetry, say, is for me a much tighter configuration, but even here I feel no closer to American poets than to poets from France or Japan or Mexico or (name it) with whom I've often collaborated in what seems to me to be an effort or a work in common.

In short I'm glad that you've opened this up for discussion in a way that goes well beyond what we should have gotten to at the conference, but didn't.

With thanks for that & warm best wishes,
I won't post my own emails back to Jerry on these matters, multiply interrupted as they were (those pesky kids!), but will compile, condense, improve, and post a reasonable facsimile of them tomorrow--having too much fun to stop--


Rothenberg on SJC

Woke up this morning uneasy that I'd put words into JR's mouth, or at least attributed ideas to him about Secular Jewish Culture that he hadn't actually said, and I thought I'd give you some of the passages from his comments at the conference last year that sparked my reflections yesterday.
I would be willing to construct a connection between aspects of traditional Jewish linguistic practice (much of it religious or mystical rather than secular) and current [modernist] forms of poetic [i.e. language] experimentation. I have in fact done this at some length, along with a proposition that Jewish history has been marked as well by an ongoing and more obvious resistance, by the Great Refusal, as I once put it, to the lie of church and state. [Include here synagogue as well – at least for some of us.] That resistance may not have been secular in the first instance, but it carried the mark of outsider or outrider traditions (to use Anne Waldman’s word); or that was how it felt to me when I first turned to it.


I grew up knowing a little about Jewish religion and lore but almost nothing about Jewish mysticism (the richest source for a poetics, as I later found). What came to me at some time in my teens was what I felt to be a need for poetry and for the intensities and disgust that brought the poetry I knew to life. At a still later point – I don’t know just when – I was surprised to find something like that intensity in the language of religion – more likely in pagan and christian sources than in Jewish ones. It soon seemed to me that I wanted to steal that language and to make it my own. In doing so I meant to shift the field from religion to poetry, while not denying but even emphasizing the origins of what I took as poetry in areas of religious languaging and ritual. The transfer here, as the Dada poet Richard Huelsenbeck once pointed out for his own borrowings and deformations, was from the misbelievers to the disbelievers of religion. I wanted to stand here firmly with the disbelievers.


I saw what I was doing as the continuation of an aborted Jewish/Yiddish poetry in another language (American or English rather than Yiddish) and by every means at my disposal. Once into it I also found that I could draw from procedures and imageries imbedded in traditional Jewish sources. This was true in particular with gematria [traditional Jewish numerology], which I adapted and secularized as a processual form of composition, culminating in the book-length poem Gematria (from Sun & Moon Press) and 14 Stations (gematria turned to memorialization of the Holocaust). But Poland/1931, my first experiment with a constructed Jewish poetry, is also full of fragments (verbal and visual) appropriated from traditional sources.

I’ve been involved, then, with a secularization of the mystical and supernatural, a project which I share with others going back to at least the eighteenth century, but with twists and turns of my own and reflective also of the times in which we’ve lived. What this involves is the transfer of a body of work and language from religion to poetry & from poetry to the domain of Huelsenbeck’s disbelievers. My effort – but hardly mine alone – has been to open the field of poetry into areas of poesis (oral and written, sacred and secular) that have not had an adequate accounting. In so doing it was our intention to hold onto the energy and ferocity/intensity that we found there but without the “mind-forg’d manacles” of orthodox religious thought.
Reading these, I'm struck by one crucial difference between what Rothenberg says and what I said: that is, Jerry focuses here primarily on a secularization of the religious--religious acts, practices, intensities, and so on. I called this, or would call this, a re-secularization, or at least a reclaiming of such practices and intensities for the secular, with the implication that the "areas of poesis" which produced them in the first place belong as much to the secular world of the imagination, broadly considered, as they do to "orthodox religious thought."

comes first, is the matrix of both "poetry" (which remembers its origins) and "religion" (which forgets them). Later, poems can give rise to religion (as when the Song of Songs is allegorized and drawn on as a model of religious experience), and religion can give rise to poetry (as in the case that Rothenberg mentions, and so many others). The real question, then, is whether we take poesis itself to be "secular," or at least appropriatable, able to be claimed, by that world-view. Why shouldn't we?

I think that all these later notions can be found elsewhere in Rothenberg's work--probably in the "Pre-Face" to Exiled in the Word, although I don't have it handy; and I think they're is crucial to understanding the recent work of Norman Finkelstein and Alicia Ostriker, among others, but they arent spelled out, at least not explicitly, here.

OK: conscience clear. Now I can go back to rereading Zakhor.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

SJC: a Responsa (to Ben)

Ben Friedlander asks:
"SJC is the broad category of which 'religious Jewish culture' is the subset, albeit a subset which has, for some twenty centuries, seized most of the institutional power within the Jewish world"

I've been trying to make sense of this and cannot. Could you elaborate?

It would make sense, I think, if you were saying that Judaism is an ethnicity only partly determined by religious practice--but then, secular practice would also be a part only.

I will say this: the secular-religious or worldly-spiritual distinction seems predicated on a very un-Jewish notion of religion. Speaking solely for myself, and as an American of Ashkenazi descent: I consider myself a secular Jew only because I make my life in a society dominated by Christianity; I'm secular because of my acceptance of that society, not because of any rejection of religion.

But I would like to understand Rothenberg's point.
Good question, Ben. What was I trying to say?

You're right that the "secular / religious" distinction isn't a particularly Jewish one. It derives from medieval monasticism--"Of members of the clergy: Living ‘in the world’ and not in monastic seclusion, as distinguished from ‘regular’ and ‘religious,'" says the OED--and more broadly from the medieval church's distinction between the sphere belonging entirely to it, and the civil or civic world in which it also exercised power.

This goes back to Jesus's distinction between God and Caesar, perhaps; certainly it seems quite different from both a pagan notion of "civic religion" and an all-encompassing religious system like Judaism or (I gather) Islam, in which there is by rights no separate "secular" world. (It's a distinction I'm glad I've inherited, frankly: one of That Man's best, most enabling quips. But I digress.)

Thus although there certainly is a powerful distinction in Israel today between the "secular" (hiloni) and the "religious" (datti), the operative distinction in Judaism per se wouldn't be between "secular" and "religious," but between "ordinary" (khol) and "holy" (kadosh)--or maybe a threefold distinction between those two and the "forbidden" (assur). I gather from reading Maeera Shreiber and others (Grossman, especially) that poetry would fall into the "ordinary" category, along with everything else not actually within the "four cubits of halacha."

Anyone out there who knows more of this than I do, please weigh in!

Now, what I've suggested, following Rothenberg, would be a slightly different argument. "Secular Jewish Culture" would mean all of that culture which the Jews as a people (an ethnos, as you have it, or a civilization, as Kaplan puts it: a bunch of people living in any given time in this world) produce: art, literature, music, food, what-have-you. Among those products, as it happens, are the set of texts and practices that we call "Judaism: the Religion," including a literary character called "The Deity Formerly Known as El Shaddai" and a number of His former sidekicks, like "his Asherah," whoever or whatever that was, and "his Memra," who got traded to Christianity for 2000 years of tsuris and a messiah to be named later. (Cf. Daniel Boyarin's Border Lines for an account of that one.)

Rather than say that "Judaism is an ethnicity only partly determined by religious practice--but then, secular practice would also be a part only," then, I'm suggesting that we think of the Jews as a raggedly-defined people (or civilization) which is multiply and always partly determined by a wide range of practices. The whole range may be thought of, and perhaps even practiced, without reference to anything other than this-worldly, which is to say secular, forces, desires, or agents, as long as we include among those forces and agents the human imagination, or poesis itself.

Hmmm... I'm not sure whether this is all out of Jerry, or whether some of it is my own cocktail of William Blake and Mordechai Kaplan, with Ari Elon as the cherry on top. And it may simply amount to saying that "secular Jewish culture" means "Jewish culture, considered secularly." But it will do for now.

Oh, one last thing. When I say that the religious subset of those practices has long controlled institutional power, I mean that for a long swath of Jewish history, Jews let that set of practices define and determine membership in the community-of-the-whole. If you didn't buy the authority of the Two Torahs, Oral and Written, you could be written out of the community, and sometimes whole communites were. (Thinking of the Karaites here.) Now, however, that monopoly has collapsed, not just along denominational lines, but into a fracas of competing religious, political, and ethnic/geneological claims, the likes of which we haven't seen since Roman times. Which, as you know, I think is just grand!

Much more on this in Elon, pp. 28-34, more or less. If I have time, I'll type them up and post them. Does this make sense so far, though?


Monday, August 29, 2005

That "Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetics" Conference

Spent the morning watching, at last, that video of the Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetics conference from last fall. An interesting, but pretty unsatisfying discussion, finally, not least because of the awfully narrow historical windows onto Jewish culture (secular and otherwise) through which the particpants peered. "Jewish" meant Central and Eastern European Jewish and its Yiddish-American offshoots--nothing about Sephardi or Mizrahi Jewish culture, and precious little about Israeli Jewish culture, at least at first, except as an antagonist (Amos Oz negating the diaspora, boo, hiss) and as a political whipping boy ("we all hate Sharon--is that what you want to hear?" Marjorie Perloff quipped at one point).

Katherine Hellerstein spoke up rather plaintively on behalf of secular poetry in Israel, and eventually one or two others chimed in, but no one named names until the closing minutes of the Q & A period, at which point Hellerstein riffed through the names of a half-dozen women poets writing in English in Jerusalem and environs: Shirley Kaufman and Linda Zisquit were the most familiar to me. I don't think I heard the name of a single Israeli poet writing in Hebrew in the full two hours of the conference, although I'm sure that Hellerstein and probably Rothenberg have a few on the tips of their tongues.

I was also a little disappointed by how narrowly most of them took the “secular” part of the phrase "secular Jewish culture." Mostly they seemed to mean by it “non-religious,” and by this either atheistic and / or non-practicing: two concepts which overlap, but do not by any means coincide. (That is, one can believe in God and not engage in many or any Jewish religious practices, and one may perform Jewish practices without belief in God, or with an active disbelief in God, as many at my own synagogue will freely admit they do.)

“Secular Jewish Culture,” then, was that subset of Jewish culture, broadly construed, which resists, rejects, or subverts Judaism as a religion—or, historically speaking, most of that politics, philosophy, aesthetics, or “tone” which has developed among those whom Hitler would have identified as Jews since the first breakings-away from Judaism as a religion by European and European-American Jews during the Haskalah. (Most, but not all: Bundist politics and In Zikhist poetics count, Mahler and Wittgenstein count, "Borsht Riders in the Sky" and "Religion, Inc." count, Zionism and the revival of Hebrew do not.)

The only person whose notion of secular Jewish culture radically differed from this, although he did not stress that difference, was Jerry Rothenberg, whose notion of secular Jewish culture as Jewish poesis stands the "non-religious" definition on its head. To Rothenberg, secular Jewish culture precedes religious Jewish culture, ontologically and historically, just as poesis always procedes religion. It's a romantic (Blakean, Emersonian, which is to say post-Protestant) argument, and one that has profound and exciting consequences, if you think it through.

Secular Jewish culture, from Rothenberg's perspective, is Jewish culture in the broadest sense: certainly it's Jewish culture at its most active, expansive, and vital. Indeed, SJC is the broad category of which "religious Jewish culture" is the subset, albeit a subset which has, for some twenty centuries, seized most of the institutional power within the Jewish world, using that power to reify, ossify, limit, and police its precursor.

The implications of this argument seem to me pretty clear. Not only does religious Jewish culture still control the mass production of Jews, outside of a few isolated sectors--Israel, New York City, a few other population centers, although the battle rages in each of them--it has used that power, consciously and otherwise, to keep that half of the Jewish population who identifythemselves as "secular" in a state of profound ignorance of just how centrally Jewish they really are.

Jewish "radical poetics" might therefore serve as an alternative site and mode of Jewish knowledge, Jewish acculturation, Jewish identification; they are ways of "doing Jewish" and "being Jewish" which have, potentially, as deep a history, as broad a palette of practices, and as gratifying an emotional payoff as anything that religious Jewish culture has to offer. No: deeper, broader, more gratifying, because radical Jewish poetics encompasses, includes, incorporates, and goes beyond, the religious.

What it lacks, alas, as that conference showed, are a clear and capacious sense of its own history, the institutions to promote and disseminate itself effectively, the confidence to articulate its position as more than simply "disbelieving" (it is both disbelieving and make-believing, after all), and the common sense that would let it get over its moral fastidiousness about Israeland build a common agenda with like-minded poets writing Over There, in whatever language.

Some sort of Writers' Workshop might be a place to start, at the production end; how, though, to infiltrate the education system? Hmmm... To be continued, I think.


This Just In

No sooner did I finish the last post than this came across my email transom:

Jerome Rothenberg’s Experimental Poetry and Jewish Tradition

By Christine A. Meilicke

This book examines the Jewish writing of the contemporary experimental poet Jerome Rothenberg. Exploring the interplay of American poetry and American Judaism, it demonstrates ways in which he contributes to the creation of an American Jewish avantgarde poetry and a contemporary Jewish diaspora identity.

The two main parts of this book examine Rothenberg’s reappropriation of Jewish tradition with reference to religion and history. The theme of loss and recovery provides the overall framework for the different chapters. While the first three chapters deal with the poet’s reappropriation of Jewish mysticism, ritual, and magic, the last three examine his evasion of nostalgia in Poland/1931 and his confrontation with the Holocaust in Khurbn

Embracing postmodern experimentation and drawing on heterodox Jewish sources, Rothenberg constructs a contemporary American Jewish identity that does not rely on institutionalized Judaism. His poetry invigorates the American and the American Jewish poetry scene.

About the Author: Christine A. Meilicke has studied history and English literature at the University of Tübingen, Jewish studies at Oxford, and American and comparative literature at the University of Mainz. She has published several articles about Jewish–Christian relations, kabbalistic poetry, and the Jewish counterculture.

Looks promising! Let's all check it out, shall we?

Friday, August 26, 2005

Secular Jewish Culture--from Haaretz

Found this, this morning, in Haaretz. Worth reading. Too much of our "Secular Jewish Culture" discussion (here in America, at least) takes place as if Israel never happened--or, at least, as if Israel were simply an embarassment, at best another Orthodoxy to resist and at worst the "termination of the Jewish dream & possibility set forth in these pages" (as Jerry Rothenberg puts it in the Introduction to Exiled in the Word). One gift of Ari Elon's From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven, at least to me, was its reminder of just how secular and how radical much of Zionist thought once was. Any account of "secular Jewish culture and radical poetics" that doesn't include Israeli poetry--books like Aharon Shabtai's Begin, or even his Love, and Lord knows how many others--begins to look pretty provincial to me.

A Cultural Defeat, Too

By Gideon Samet

The evacuation of Gaza was, of course, a cultural war too. But in this war, the sides spoke in different languages. Their formations were armed with weapons of completely different kinds. Seemingly unbalanced forces: A heritage of thousands of years, with its sacred tools and entire canon, steadfastly facing what religious propaganda describes as a barren field of screwed-up secular culture. But in the cultural terms of the new Israel, the battle was decided before it began. The evacuating majority, even if few among them are able to quote a line from Dalia Rabikovitch, approached the campaign with a cumulative advantage. In the last 30 years, the right has made hardly any contribution to the intellectual elite and Israeli cultural creativity.

It is impossible to name more than a handful of right-wingers and religious individuals who have left their mark on the Israeli cultural expanse during this critical period - not a single significant poet, not a single author of durable value, not a single rock artist with resonance aside from Ariel Zilber. When it comes to songwriting, there was Naomi Shemer. Yosef Ben-Shlomo is perhaps the only philosopher of Judaism whose influence spilled over the cultural boundaries of the orange. The Torah sages garnered support from the depths of the religious community. But which of them, aside from Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook and his son, left a mark outside the high walls of religious faith?

You can read the rest over at Haaretz--along with a few real doozies in the "commentary" talk-back section, like this from a fellow in Pennsylvania: "The only culture that matters is the family culture and its silent, unseen fruit to society. [...] Culture is for people who appreciate other pursuits than tending to their moral responsibilities." (Not that he's reaching for his gun or anything....)

Sneak Preview Preview (Peter Cole)

Following a link from Josh Corey, I visited the inaugural issue of fascicle this morning. only to find a sheaf of new translations by Peter Cole: "Poems on Poetry by Hebrew Poets of Spain and Provence, 12th - 15th Century." It looks like Peter has a new collection of translations coming out from Princeton UP: The Dream of the Poem: Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492, of which this is a sneak preview.

As of 9:10 this morning, the link was down a while--but by the time you read this, it may be back up. Here's a preview of the preview, a little number by Todoros Abulafia of Toledo (1247-sometime after 1300) which proves
that the tradition of the dissing MC goes back at least seven centuries:

Strong Poet, Weak Poet


Your song, friend, is born of a woman,
and the heart of a girl is what it has.
My poems take it daily to bed,
and drive their standards up its ass.


Have you really nothing left to say?
Are your poems' pockets completely empty?
Has a cat suddenly got your tongue?
Mine's a sword, with which I slay.

Come to the threshing floor of my poems;
I'll leave some gleanings for you to take home.
I'll lend you a stanza, or at least a line—
a bed in the corner, a table to write on.

But take this advice as well with the song:
Weaklings like you shouldn't take on the strong.

Yo! Yo! Subliminal! Take it to the bridge.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

How Pleasant to Meet Mr. Finkelstein!

Working on my Norman Finkelstein essay this week, for the Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetics collection. (Hi, Norman!) A tougher job than I'd thought, less because my notes for the essay were lost in a computer crash months ago--although that grates and chafes with every sentence--than because I find I have too much to say about the broad framing topic (SJC/RP), and have to set it aside to get at the poems themselves. I've decided to focus, as is my want, on the pleasures of Norman's poetry--a little off-topic, perhaps, for the volume, but it will probably lead somewhere useful, and we don't have enough talk out there about secular Jewish culture as a source of pleasure, which it surely is: not a falling off from religious Jewish culture, but a category that stands alongside, and maybe even subsumes, its more famous and familiar sibling. I'll have more to say about this once I get ahold of David Biale's Cultures of the Jews this afternoon--a book I learned of while browsing this description of Biale's course on Religious and Secular Jewish Cultures. So much to learn--and the days grow short when you reach September, as Kurt Weill & Maxwell Anderson remind me on the iPod.

Still no comments about my 12 gates to the city (of SJC), & no emails either. Slow days in the blogosphere? Or was I just stating the obvious throughout? Curious.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Dalia Ravikovitch, Z"L

Adam Schonbrun emailed me the news this afternoon: Dalia Ravikovitch, "Israel's Plath / Sexton" (as I've seen her dubbed) has died. Another poet I should have known of, and now I guess I'll get to learning.

I had the Haaretz obit up earlier, but the invaluable members of WOM-PO, the women's poetry discussion list, have turned up this link and also some poems, which I'm passing along. They were translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch. More soon.

by Dahlia Ravikovitch (translated from the Hebrew
by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch)

By the sewage puddles of Sabra and Shatila,
there you transported human beings
in impressive quantities
from the world of the living to the world
of eternal light.

Night after night.
First they shot,
they hanged,
then they slaughtered with their knives.
Terrified women climbed up
on a ramp of earth, frantic:
"They're slaughtering us there,
in Shatila."

A thin crust of moon
over the camps.
Our soldiers lit up the place with searchlights
till it was bright as day.
"Back to the camp,
beat it!" a soldier yelled at
the screaming women from Sabra and Shatila.
He was following orders.
And the children already lying in puddles of filth,
their mouths gaping,
at peace.
No one will harm them.
You can't kill a baby twice.

And the moon grew fuller and fuller
till it became a round loaf of gold.

Our sweet soldiers
wanted nothing for themselves.
All they ever asked
was to come home


by Dahlia Ravikovitch (translated from the Hebrew
by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch)

After they all leave,
I remain alone with the poems,
some poems of mine, some of others.
I prefer poems that others have written.
I remain quiet, and slowly
the knot in my throat dissolves.
I remain.

Sometimes I wish everyone would go away.
Maybe it's nice, after all, to write poems.
You sit in your room and the walls grow taller.
Colors deepen.
A blue kerchief becomes a deep well.

You wish everyone would go away.
You don't know what's the matter with you.
Perhaps you'll think of something.
Then it all passes, and you are pure crystal.

After that, love.
Narcissus was so much in love with himself.
Only a fool doesn't understand
he loved the river, too.

You sit alone.
Your heart aches, but
it won't break.
The faded images wash away one by one.
Then the defects.
A sun sets at midnight. You remember
the dark flowers too.

You wish you were dead or alive or
somebody else.
Isn't there a country you love? A word?
Surely you remember.

Only a fool lets the sun set when it likes.
It always drifts off too early
westward to the islands.

Sun and moon, winter and summer
will come to you,
infinite treasures.

Friday, August 19, 2005

12 Gates to the City

With the kids downstairs a-giggle at the Three Stooges, it seemed an appropriate time to blog for a moment about the conjunction of Secular Jewish Culture and Radical Poetics which so many of us are thinking about--and writing about--these days.

The other night, at my son's ball game, I thrashed out this little list of the ways these two concepts (SJC and RP) might intersect. Figured I'd post it here and see if anyone has any response--including me, once I see it in type and all.

OK--here goes. These two can intersect when
  1. the poet takes a traditional ritual / religious practice or textual / verbal form and turns it to secular / poetic ends, as in Jerry Rothenberg's Gematria or the rabbis' dialogues in Jabes' Book of Questions;
  2. the poet dwells on traditional (religious) Jewish ideas and finds / reveals them to be secular / poetic, or to bear s/p fruit, as with the idea of exile;
  3. the poet re-imagines traditional religious material--stories from Torah or classical midrash, holidays and so forth--to some secular end, starting from secular assumptions, including the echt secular assumption that "all deities reside in the human breast";
  4. (Method 3 obliges us to revise our notion of the "secular" to include Romantic, i.e., post-Protestant, religiosity, but I think we need to by now);
  5. the poet takes an easily identified secular Jewish verbal practice or form (i.e. Jewish humor, or the "associative monologue," in David Roskies' term, or certain Yiddishisms) and turns it to poetic ends, either formally or via reference;
  6. the poet draws on secular Jewish ideas (i.e., philosophy, politics, psychoanalysis) and alludes to them or to their thinkers (Levinas, Derrida, Freud, Benjamin, Scholem);
  7. the poet draws on secular Jewish ideas and uses them formally, so that their Jewish source can be discovered or unveiled by the reader;
  8. the poet draws on secular Jewish cultural artifacts and events (i.e., music, art, history, literature), so that the poem's range of reference appears both secular and Jewish, even if its form or core ideas may be neither (e.g., Anthony Hecht's "The Book of Yolek");
  9. the Jewish poet--secular or religious--can write a poem about anything (love, war, wine) that forms a part of the vast secular overlapping between Jewish and non-Jewish culture, and thus write a "secular Jewish poem"; this may be "radical" if the form or language or import of the poem challenges or changes what Jewish culture can be from then on (i.e., the use of Arabic meters and topoi in Andalusian poetry, or of modernist free verse, introspection, expressionism, or disjunction in Yiddish modernism);
  10. (Method 7 is easiest to identify when the poet writes in a Jewish language, i.e., Hebrew or Yiddish; when he or she writes in English or Russian or French, the reader / critic has to work harder to convince us, no?)
  11. the secular Jewish poet can espouse ideas, values, or concerns that the critic or reader wants to identify as "Jewish," whether or not the poem makes any explicit Jewish cultural reference (e.g., a poem like Rukeyser's "Mediterranean," or much of Philip Levine);
  12. the secular Jewish poet can adopt poetic methods that the reader can more-or-less plausibly connect to something Jewish--secular or religious--whether or not the author had any visible Judaic literacy or project.
Well, that's the list so far. Twelve gates to the city. What's missing? Can we make it a Judaically lucky 13? Any examples of the above you'd like to toss this way? Any poets out there finding themselves or their work on that map--and if not, where shall we place you?

(Where would "The New Colossus" fit in that list? Some further category does feel needed, but what is it?)

Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck. Must run. E--

More "Poems Jews Should Know"

This, from Robert, came by email a few days ago:

Dear Eric,

I cannot come up with my own full definitive list. I feel unqualified because even though I've read a lot, there's so much more I haven't read and because I'm not sure if my tastes should signal what others need to read... Given these caveats, here's what I've partially come up with in no particular order:

- "Spit" (C.K. Williams)- IMHO, this poem is one of the best Holocaust poems, especially one of the best that has allusions to the Bible.
- "Pilpul" (Kamenetz)- Gives a great sense of Jewish study.
- "Behaving Like a Jew" (Stern)- More than just a dead opossum poem.
- "The Hebrew of Your Poets, Zion" (Reznikoff)-- actually, I'd highly recommend the whole _Jerusalem the Golden_, which speaks to the diaspora experience well.
- "The Trumpet Part" (Celan)- short beautiful poem about the language of the Jews
- "Getting the Message" (Kumin)- poem with texture and beauty... "about" language, the prophetic and scholarly ways of being, etc.
Thanks, Robert! Glad to see Celan on there--this doesn't have to be limited to American poems, after all. I need to brush up on my Kumin and Kamenetz--maybe on the whole "K" section of the Jewish poetic alphabet?

Keep 'em coming, everyone--I'm compiling a master list, and will start gathering poems & responses to them in the new year.

New Links!

I've started gathering useful links to Jewish poets--poems, interviews, homepages, etc.--to add to this site. Rather than keep you waiting, I'm going to post them in batches, as I have the chance to glean and edit them. Check out the new Alcalay, Bernstein, and other links on the right sidebar. More to come.

Off to entertain di yunge.


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Kenneth Koch, "To Jewishness"

I screwed up my courage yesterday and emailed Josh Corey about this blog--he knew of the other one--, not least because I want to spend some time here thinking about Secular Jewish Culture, which seems to be on his mind, somewhat more freshly, as well.

Josh not only wrote back; he wrote back, over on his blog--and included a link to this poem, by Kenneth Koch, which I'll post as a sort of holding pattern, while I nosh & gather my thoughts.
To Jewishness

As you were contained in
Or embodied by
Louise Schlossman
When she was a sophomore
At Walnut Hills
High School
In Cincinnati, Ohio,
I salute you
And thank you
For the fact
That she received
My kisses with tolerance
On New Year's Eve
And was not taken aback
As she well might have been
Had she not had you
And had I not, too.
Ah, you!
Dark, complicated you!
Jewishness, you are the tray
On it painted
Moses, David and the Ten
Commandments, the handwriting
On the Wall, Daniel
In the lions' den
On which my childhood
Was served
By a mother
And father
Who took you
To Michigan
Oh the soft smell
Of the pine
Trees of Michigan
And the gentle roar
Of the Lake! Michigan
Or sent you
To Wisconsin
I went to camp there
On vacation, with me
Every year!
My counselors had you
My fellow campers
Had you and "Doc
Ehrenreich" who
Ran the camp had you
We got up in the
Mornings you were there
You were in the canoes
And on the baseball
Diamond, everywhere around.
At home, growing
Taller, you
Thrived, too. Louise had you
And Charles had you
And Jean had you
And her sister Mary
Had you
We all had you
And your Bible
Full of stories
That didn't apply
Or didn't seem to apply
In the soft spring air
Or dancing, or sitting in the cars
To anything we did.
In "religious school"
At the Isaac M. Wise
Synagogue (called "temple")
We studied not you
But Judaism, the one who goes with you
And is your guide, supposedly,
Oddly separated
From you, though there
In the same building, you
In us children, and it
On the blackboards
And in the books Bibles
And books simplified
From the Bible. How
Like a Bible with shoulders
Rabbi Seligmann is!
You kept my parents and me
Out of hotels near Crystal Lake
In Michigan and you resulted, for me,
In insults,
At which I felt
Chagrined but
Was energized by you.
You went with me
Into the army, where
One night in a foxhole
On Leyte a fellow soldier
Said Where are the fuckin Jews?
Back in the PX. I d like to
See one of those bastards
Out here. I d kill him!
I decided to conceal
You, my you, anyway, for a while.
Forgive me for that.
At Harvard you
Landed me in a room
In Kirkland House
With two other students
Who had you. You
Kept me out of the Harvard Clubs
And by this time (I
Was twenty-one) I found
I preferred
Kissing girls who didn t
Have you. Blonde
Hair, blue eyes,
And Christianity (oddly enough) had an
Aphrodisiac effect on me.
And everything that opened
Up to me, of poetry, of painting, of music,
Of architecture in old cities
Didn t have you
I was
Though I knew
Those who had you
Had hardly had the chance
To build cathedrals
Write secular epics
(Like Orlando Furioso)
Or paint Annunciations--"Well
I had David
in the wings." David
Was a Jew, even a Hebrew.
He wasn't Jewish.
You're quite
Something else. I had Mahler,
Einstein, and Freud. I didn't
Want those three (then). I wanted
Shelley, Byron, Keats, Shakespeare,
Mozart, Monet. I wanted
Botticelli and Fra Angelico.
"There you've
Chosen some hard ones
For me to connect to. But
Why not admit that I
Gave you the life
Of the mind as a thing
To aspire to? And
Where did you go
To find your 'freedom'? to
New York, which was
Full of me." I do know
Your good qualities, at least
Good things you did
For me--when I was ten
Years old, how you brought
Judaism in, to give ceremony
To everyday things, surprise and
Symbolism and things beyond
Understanding in the
Synagogue then I
Was excited by you, a rescuer
Of me from the flatness of my life.
But then the flatness got you
And I let it keep you
And, perhaps, of all things known,
That was most ignorant. "You
Sound like Yeats, but
You re not. Well, happy
Voyage home, Kenneth, to
The parking lot
Of understood experience. I'll be
Here if you need me and here
After you don t
Need anything else. HERE is a quality
I have, and have had
For you, and for a lot of others,
Just by being it, since you were born."
I've added a link to that poem, by the way, to the expanded list of links I'm working on, off-line. A fat update to the sidebar coming soon!

Monday, August 15, 2005

Nan Cohen

Still sifting through my email box--a note from Nan Cohen that one of her poems would be on A Writer's Almanac sent me to their archives, and there it was! The whole world is but a narrow bridge, as the Rebbe used to say...

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Girder" by Nan Cohen, from Rope Bridge. © Cherry Grove Collection. Reprinted with permission.


The simplest of bridges, a promise
that you will go forward,

that you can come back.
So you cross over.

It says you can come back.
So you go forward.

But even if you come back
then you must go forward.

I am always either going back
or coming forward. There is always

something I have to carry,
something I leave behind.

I am a figure in a logic problem,
standing on one shore

with the things I cannot leave,
looking across at what I cannot have.

(Nan's an old friend from UCLA days. Hurrah! But when do I get to hear you read it?)

Here's another by Nan, gleaned from the website:

A Newborn Girl at Passover

Consider one apricot in a basket of them.
It is very much like all the other apricots--
an individual already, skin and seed.

Now think of this day. One you will probably forget.
The next breath you take, a long drink of air.
Holiday or not, it doesn't matter.

A child is born and doesn't know what day it is.
The particular joy in my heart she cannot imagine.
The taste of apricots is in store for her.

Links, etc.

I've been catching up on the blogosphere today, inspired by Rachel's comment a few days ago that I should post responses to other blogs to build readership for ABJB. Over at the Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel herself has thoughtful musings (as always) on Tisha B'Av, various Creeds and Credos, and a link to the report on English-language blogs from Israel which she recently posted at Global Voices Online, a compendium of blogs from around the world. I was also moved by the artwork she links to here, the "Twentieth Century Illuminations" project.

Time for me to start listing more sites and such in the sidebar, I think, even if they aren't specifically about poetry. If, that is, I can find the "time for me"!

Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetic Practice

An email from Charles Bernstein sends me this very interesting link: a video of the "Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetic Practice" talks from last September.

Here's the description:
RealMedia video (2:33:47)
[Please note this is a very large dowloadable file.]

Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2004 -- 7pm
Center for Jewish History/American Jewish Historical Society
15 West 16th Street, Manhattan

A public forum with Paul Auster, Charles Bernstein (chair), Kathryn Hellerstein, Stephen Paul Miller, Marjorie Perloff, Jerome Rothenberg

What are the innovations and inventions of American Jewish poets, over the past century? Can we say that there is a distinctly Jewish component to radical modernist and contemporary poetry? What is the relation of Jewish modernist and contemporary poets to the historical avant-garde and to contemporary innovative poetry? How does Jewish cultural life and ethnic and religious forms and traditions manifest themselves in the forms, styles, and approaches to radical American poetry? What role does a distinctly secular approach to Jewishness by poets and other Jewish artists mean for "radical Jewish culture"?
I'll report on what it contains when I've had the chance to view it. Until then, enjoy!

Secular Jewish Culture, part 1

"Kiss me, you fool!"

(Other captions welcome.)

Friday, August 05, 2005

Disengaging (until the 15th)

Sorry, I couldn't resist! No, I'm not pulling out of the blogosphere permanently, but I am going on hiatus for 10 days or so--off to the North Woods for a spell, where I'll miss whatever mischief the Yiddishe Orange Order has in store. While I'm there, I'll mull over where to take this blog next, AND how to spread the word about it, once I'm posting more frequently. If you have any marketing ideas, let me know.

When I get back, I'll post about the poems and other work that Adam Schonbrun was kind enough to send me, as well as about the new books by Nan Cohen and others that are en route as we speak, and on Josh Corey's continuing evolution as a Jewish-American poet-blogger.

For now, as I leave, this poem, by Aharon Shabtai, translated by that handsome fellow in the corner, Peter Cole. It was published in Parnassus not long ago; if you're reading this, the pun throughout on "Hatikva" is probably clear enough to go without mentioning, so I won't mention it. (Grin.) Peter, let me know if you'd like me to take this down when I get back--until then:

It's hopeless, you told me,
waking in the middle of the night--
the moonlight drifting
in through the curtain--
and you looked at your wife,
at her thin, whitening shoulders¶
and dark hair
as she was slowly breathing,
thinking again and again
of all this evil,
the loss amassed in the soured heart
day after day, for two years and more.
It was in Karmei Avdat.
I rose, you said,
and without my glasses
went out barefoot onto the gravel
to a bench we'd moved
against the shed
and sat there in my underwear,
staring out toward the side of the hill.
Along that slope, I told you,
five million stones have been cast:
the stones will always be stones,
no good will ever come
of them or to them--
not in another two years,
and not in a hundred.
But if you shift your eyes
even a meter to the side,
you'll see a plant
with five tomatoes.
That's where you should look.
These vile people
will acquire
plane after plane
and bomb after bomb,
and more will be wounded and killed,
more be ruined and uprooted;
for this is all they are capable of,
and not tomorrow, and not forever,
will any good come
of them or to them,
for evil holds no promise
and possesses neither the life nor yield
contained in a single tomato.
When I think of this land,
love flows through my heart.
When I think of Amira and Neta,
and Rachel in her orange parka--
and not of the pus of the cruel
or their barking,
and their boom boom boom--
but this substance,
this certain serum
that's secreted in me
and throughout the world gives rise
to building, repair, and enlightenment,
counsel and cooperation,
this is the hope
that lends me a place and ground
in which to send out a bold root
there, beyond that heap of stones
at the Mas'ha checkpoint,
at the store run by the old grocer
with the white skullcap
who stands by the door
with plates of labneh
which he takes out of the rickety fridge;
and this is the longing and yearning
to go down into the village groves
and through the breach in the barbed-wire fence,
to cross the ditch--
turning my back
to the land-grabbers' contractor
who, with his guards,
peers out from the jeep
at the burrowing bulldozer--
and like someone in Florence
climbing to the top
of Brunelleschi's dome,
to mount that hill
and, under the tree beside the tent,
to sit with Riziq and Nazeeh,
to look into Nazeeh's face,
at his toenails and black sandal,
to see Riziq's cigarette--
this is hope--
and with Nazeeh and Riziq
to look out far beyond the fence,
beyond the barbarity,
toward the border of humanity.
See you on the 15th, maybe the 16th, then. --E