Thursday, May 19, 2005

Notes on Maeera; or, In the Beginning?

My hard drive crashed last night, so I find myself posting from the basement kids computer, sans a week of lost notes on more topics than I'd like to imagine. Serves me right for poking fun at the idea of "loss" as a sine-qua-non of Jewish poetics, eh?

So about this curriculum. Where should it begin? Not grade-wise--that's for another post--but in terms of the poets and poems to cover?

When I want to think about the origins of Jewish poetry, I always think first of the work of my friend Maeera Shreiber: specifically, about the essay "A Flair for Deviation: the Troublesome Potential of Jewish Poetics," which Maeera contributed to my collection Jewish American Poetry. That piece introduced me to a fistful of ideas I'm still wrestling with five years later, so I dug it up this morning to take another look.

"It is tellingly difficult," says Maeera right at the start, "to determine precisely when 'poetry' emerges as a genre in the history of Jewish discursive forms." Oops. This means, I take it, that what I always think of rather unreflectively as the "poetry" in the Tanakh--the praise-songs, name-songs, chronicles, boasts, and other breakings-into-song in the Torah; the accounts of prophetic visions in Nevi'im; the psalms, wisdom literature, and Song of Songs in K'tuvim--might not have been, in its own time, what we think of as "poetry" today. She cites James Kugel's book The Idea of Biblical Poetry here, "in which he protests the very idea of 'poetry' as a Biblical genre," and also Adele Berlin's Biblical Poetry Through Medieval Eyes, which "notes that in Hebrew literary theory there is a sharp distinction to be made between prophetic and poetic speech--two kinds of discourse that are often viewed as related in Western literature." Whatever the British and American Romantic poets might have testified, then, in this particular Jewish tradition "Prophecy was the word of God, while poetry belonged to the human. Simply put, according to Berlin, 'God does not compose poetry.'"

Hmmm! Any implications here for my JPC (Jewish Poetry Curriculum)? Two, I think:
  1. First, Kugel's argument that "poetry" in the Hebrew Bible isn't really a separate genre, but part of a stylistic continuum, in which speech gets "heightened" by various devices, actually could be very useful, very anxiety-reducing. You don't have to be a Poet to write a psalm or a bit of wisdom lit, let alone a boast or a name-game; you just have to learn some devices--parallelism, chiasmus, pun, etc.--and use them.
  2. Second, conversely, Berlin's argument suggests that IF we teach the prophets as poets, and their words as poetry, we need to own up to what a revolutionary move this is. It's Blake, after all, who says that the "Poet is Prophet,' and that "the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God," and if we teach the prophets as poets, which I don't mind doing at all, we ought perhaps to point out how much this way of reading them differs from how earlier strata of Jewish tradition saw them and their work.
Maeera's piece goes on to talk about later developments, but I think I'll hold with these and see what else I can find to say about Biblical poetry for the JPC--and what you all, dear Readers, think of all this.

(P.S. to Mark Scroggins, Mike Heller, et. al.: doesn't Kugel's argument remind you of Louis Zukofky's poetics as an integral function, as in calculus: "Upper limit music / lower limit speech"? Would the "music" end be song, though, which would still be Jewish, or actual music music, which seems to me more Greek, somehow?)


Norman Finkelstein said...

To further complicate matters in regard to your last post, here is Abraham Joshua Heschel from his book on the Hebrew prophets: “The poet’s inspiration seems . . . to be a subjectless experience, a condition in which no personal agent is apprehended. The source he is exposed to is unknown, devoid of personal identity, and his own role is one of passive receptivity, of being a receptacle, a mere object.” Heschel mentions the impersonality of poetic inspiration, and one is reminded not only of T. S. Eliot and his idea of an impersonal tradition moving through the poet, but Yeats and his wife receiving messages from the spirits, and most recently, Jack Spicer, who insists that poems come from an unknowable outside, from the “Martians.” The poem, coming from beyond, is seeking itself through the poet; it is the form becoming itself that is primary. On the other hand, the prophet is concerned primarily with the message, a message, Heschel reminds us, that comes from God. “In prophetic inspiration . . . the knowledge and presence of Him who imparts the message is the central, staggering fact of awareness. There is the certainty of having experience the impingement of a personal Being, of another I; not an idea coming from nowhere or a nameless source, but always a communication reaching him from the most powerful Subject of all.”

If the prose above sounds formal, it's because it comes from a lecture I gave some years back on Reznikoff and prophecy. But I do think the observations apply. Cheers.

E. M. Selinger said...

Thanks, Norman! Yet I wonder about drawing a distinction between modern poets (Eliot, Yeats, Spicer) and ancient prophets, rather than between the prophets and their equivalents or contemporaries in their own time. Are there really no other examples, from Greece or anywhere else, of poets receiving their words as a communication from a particular source, another "I," as Heschel says? I don't know the field well enough to know, but the secularist in me finds it hard to imagine that this is a uniquely Jewish phenomenon.

Anyone else out there know? (Memo to Jerome Rothenberg, perhaps?)