Monday, June 20, 2005

Poetry and Liturgy: the Introspective Introduction

Sorry I've been so silent for the last few days, everyone. A flurry of posts and arguments over "mystery" and "difficulty" at my teaching poetry blog have kept me busy, even preoccupied, for the last few days. And somehow after every Jewish holiday other than Shabbat, I find myself in a recovery period, settling back into ordinary life. ("After ecstacy, the dishes," as Muriel Rukeyser says somewhere.)

The Jewish poetry topic that's been on my mind these last few days, for all of my silence, has to do with the tension--sometimes dynamic, sometimes just grating--between poetry and liturgy.

The topic came up at the Shavuot study session, where the leader mentioned that the UAHC was trying to find poems--"great poems," he may even have said--for their next siddur. It surfaced earlier that day in a conversation at JRC, about the two current Reconstructionist siddurim: the US version, which I have, and the Canadian edition, which evidently features text by Leonard Cohen. (What, we couldn't get Dylan to kick in south of the border? Lou Reed? Peter Himmelman? Gene Simmons? Paula Abdul? Ooh! I know! The Beastie Boys!) (More options here.)

But seriously, folks, the more I think about this conjunction, the more muddled I get.

I know that there are many folks out there who see no tension at all between these genres, including any number of poets. Marge Piercy writes liturgy, as well as poetry, and a few years back, as I recall, she published simultaneously in the new Reconstructionist haggadah and in The Best American Erotica annual, leading me to muse, when I introduced her at a reading, that the closer we could get these texts to resemble one another, the better. Marcia Falk, in The Book of Blessings, incorporates poems by Zelda, Emma Lazarus, and herself into her revised, non-anthromorphic liturgy; she has written about the similarity, in her mind, between poetry and prayer.

Now, I remember, as a boy, reading poems in the Reform prayerbook and makhzor, by Anthony Hecht and maybe by Rukeyser, too. (If anyone out there has a copy of the books from the late '70s or early '80s, you can fill me in.) I read them, though, as an escape from liturgy, just browsing around--and I must confess, they didn't do much for me. Come to think of it, I have no memory, ever, from any time in my life, of hearing a poem read at a service--from the siddur or as a "reading"--that did do much for me. Why is that?

My gut sense--and perhaps I'll rethink this in the next few days--tells me that when I listen to a poem, I shift gears from devotion to, well, consideration. I start weighing the language, for quality and artistry and such. I step out of character (as supplicant, as celebrant, as pourer-out-of-my-heart) and don my donnish best. No, that's too glib. But the spell is broken. When I read a poem, all by myself--in front of a congregation or alone in my room--I can lose myself in its speaker, its world, but for a number of reasons, I can't do that as part of a crowd or (God forbid) "reading responsively." This may be why poems that have taken root in the liturgy as songs, like "Y'did Nefesh" or "El Adon," don't pose such problems for me. Singing, I can lose myself in the meaning of the words AND the voice of the crowd. The spell stays cast; the song remains the same.

(Leon Wieseltier would probably accuse me of belonging to the "religion of singing," and he'd be right.)

Tomorrow I'll come back to this question from a more scholarly, or at least academic, angle. I need to think about the psalms, about Allen Grossman's sense that poetry and liturgy are inevitably at odds, about the history of this tension (via Maeera Shreiber), and maybe about some actual poems as well. But it seemed fair to start with these more personal reflections, just to get the ball rolling.

Any thoughts?

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