Wednesday, August 31, 2005

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.

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