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