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?

1 comment:

Stephen Paul Miller said...

That's a lot to chew on. Do yo think there is a sense in which experimental poetics and secular poetics are not apples and oranges?