Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Poetry and Liturgy: a Poet weighs in

This just in, as a comment to my last post, from Norman:
...however attractive the idea of liturgical or even synagogue-friendly poetry might be, in either a historical or contemporary context, I for one would prefer not to have my poems used in a religious service, no matter how liberal or innovative. I wouldn't want them appropriated by that form of authority. I hope they are read and appreciated by communities of readers, but I hope that the members of those communities are first and foremost "believers" in poetry. In other words, though I spend a lot of time reading, writing and thinking in the space between religion and literature, it is important to me that this space is left open, at least in regard to my own work.
Fascinating, as Mr. Spock used to say. And illustrative of precisely the tensions I'm interested in here.

I wonder whether we might think about this in Ari Elon's terms. The deployment of any poem in a synagogue service tends, perhaps, to cast a rabbani cloak (tallit?) over the poem. It claims the poem on behalf of--well, not necessarily normative Judaism (whatever that still may be), but on behalf of a desire to be normative. Even in a liberal congregation, and perhaps especially in a liberal congregation, this deployment turns a ribboni project--writing poetry--into a "revisionist-rabbani" project: one that tends, inevitably, to smooth over rough emotional and intellectual edges, to sober up imaginative flights, to tone down the shock and awe of individual poesis ("where the hell did that come from?") and replace it with tones, dulcet or otherwise, which can be spoken by the community as a whole.

And yet, and yet, Dan Cedarbaum of the JRF (and of my own congregation) has spoken of Yehuda Amichai and Leonard Cohen as major liturgical poets of our time. Does this mean that their work is more appropriate? More appropriate-able?

Is this a poetry thing, in other words, or just a Norman thing?

Poets, please respond! (And liturgists, and synagogue-goers, too.)

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Fascinating -- I seem to be diametrically opposed to Norman's stance on this one. I love the idea of my poems being used in liturgical ways; I've written several for that very purpose.

You raise a fair point that by including poetry in religious ritual we run the risk of toning down a poem's ability to shock and awe. Then again, it might be that we derive the added poetic benefit of putting poetry in places where it isn't usually found -- and the added ritual benefit of shaking people into thinking about liturgy in new ways...