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?