Saturday, January 14, 2006

Two-Week Hiatus

I hate to do this, after just getting back on a roll here, but I need to focus all my writing energies on a couple of essays over the next two weeks. Look for me at the end of January, folks!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"A Poem for the Little Shoemakers"

A Poem for the Little Shoemakers

The sunset opens against the horizon
           like a book in which are inscribed
the deeds of a thousand generations
                       —and yet the pages are blank.
           Nothing but sentiment
                       among the hosts of heaven,
           while here on earth
                       the black smoke rises
           as the villages are consumed.

To be scattered among the nations
           and seek through codes of piety
to raise the sparks of creation,
           or to follow some leader
                       into the maw of the abyss:
the choices are dashed on the rocks
           and the rocks are worn into dust.
There is nothing to be learned from patience
           except for the most minute of wonders:
                       toadstools around the door
and moss growing softly in the rafters,
           a halo of clouds around the moon,
                       stars when the moon is new.

And then to turn and worship the invisible,
           creation wrenched once more from a book,
                       an alphabet of living forms.
           Why are we held back, oh Lord?
the cry rising from the corners of the world,
anxious to escape the workshops and kitchens,
           chipped plates, mismatched silverware,
           love weaving itself into a carpet
           as wealth suddenly breeds and thrives,
                       an exile wrought in gold.

                       So lean into the past:
Somewhere is a house that is the navel of the world.
In winter the wolves come down out of the mountains,
and in spring the goats seek the higher pastures,
           but the shoemaker sits at his bench forever
and the people walk back and forth upon the earth.
           For this is merely the story of a passage
                       not from one land to another
                       nor from one world to the next,
            but into the living structure of memory,
                        as that alone must suffice.
The books are submerged in a great repository
                        or consumed by braided flames;
                        the Throne of Justice is vacant
                        as it was always meant to be

--but the sun is warming the shoemaker’s shed
            and his hammer, striking the worn sole,
seems to make the sparks fly up into the light.

--Norman Finkelstein, Restless Messengers

Monday, January 09, 2006

Stray Thoughts and Short Takes

I've spent the morning polishing the introduction to my Piece On Norman [PON, for short, from now on]. I think it's now good enough that I can move on to some actual poems. Huzzah! First stop, the "Poem for the Little Shoemakers," from Restless Messengers. Norman, do I have your permission to post it here?

(And let me just say, for the record, that if you only know Norman as a critic, you're not only missing out on some wonderful poetry--you're missing out on half his thought on any given topic. Or, at least, that's how it strikes me today.)


A lovely email yesterday from Mike, about my last post from "inside the eruv." I hope it's OK to post it here:
Dear Eric,

First many thanks again for posting my words and for the generosity with which you've introduced them. And yes, credit where credit is due, it was your bringing up Ari Elon's book that led me on my path. But, despite your fatigue, please indulge a bit of a response to your final cri de coeur. I'd hope that the thrust of my paper would reinforce the ribboni sense, and, in that wild pitch toward Whitman, Scholem's expression that the secular is sacred (and that therefore the sacred is secular), and that the only thing the poet seeks to do--in my estimation, where he/she most acts like a poet--is in testing and exploring the boundaries drawn by Authority against human freedom or self-realization. Not that the poet gets it right, but as a poet, he forswears the total comforts of the eruv, in order to live into his doubt, to be, as Elon insists for himself, self-authorizing (the message, as I see it, of Jewish ethics and teaching). That's the source and strength of my "inbetween-ness" (of the uncertainty that permeates my essay collection)--it was Yeats's when he said the poet must be at the threshold and not in the building, it is the Buddhists' who, in proclaiming that the world should be considered as the shrine room floor, speak of the very identity of nirvana and samsara, the sacred and the profane.

So yes rest in the eruv, but have a few wild dogs ready to unleash.

Many regards & best,

For what it's worth, I'm not entirely sure that those who say "the secular is sacred" do in fact always mean that "the sacred is secular." Such reversable propositions mark Buddhist thought, certainly, and Yeatsian thought, and James Merrillian, too--but would Rav Kook, say, have agreed?

(Maybe so, but only inasmuch as what we think of as sacred is secular by comparison to the Utterly Sacred nature of the Ein Sof. That's slightly different, no?)

On the other hand--not to say on the Other Side!--I find the shouts out to Yeats and Buddhism, but especially to Yeats, quite useful. More on this anon.


Check this out, by Celia Dropkin (trans. by Kathryn Hellerstein).
I stumbled on it in the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature. I should spend more time with that book.

My Mother

Twenty-two years old,
A widow with two small children,
My mother modestly decided
Not to be anyone's wife again.
Her days and years continued quietly,
As if lit by a meager wax candle.
My mother became wife to no one,
But all the daily,
Yearly, nightly sighs
Of her young and affectionate being,
Of her longing blood
Seeped into me.
I knew them with my child's heart.
And like an underground spring,
My mother's seething, concealed longing
Flowed freely into me.
Now out of me, into the open
Spurts my mother's seething, holy,
Deeply hidden lust.

ca. 1920-1930; pub'd in In heysn vint (In the Hot Wind), 1935

More translations by Hellerstein, a true heroine of Jewish poetry, folks, in this issue of The Drunken Boat. Read and be proud.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

An Interlude from Stevens

I woke from a nap this afternoon with this passage in mind. Somehow it, too, is a part of our SJC / RP conversation.

It's the first canto of the "It Must Be Abstract" section of Stevens' "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction--as relevant a passage, certainly, as the one from Stevens' prose that Vendler cited in my post a few days ago:
Begin, ephebe, by perceiving the idea
Of this invention, this invented world,
The inconceivable idea of the sun.

You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye
And see it clearly in the idea of it.

Never suppose an inventing mind as source
Of this idea nor for that mind compose
A voluminous master folded in his fire.

How clean the sun when seen in its idea,
Washed in the remotest cleanliness of a heaven
That has expelled us and our images . . .

The death of one god is the death of all.
Let purple Phoebus lie in umber harvest,
Let Phoebus slumber and die in autumn umber,

Phoebus is dead, ephebe. But Phoebus was
A name for something that never could be named.
There was a project for the sun and is.

There is a project for the sun. The sun
Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be
In the difficulty of what it is to be.
The last three stanzas are the most on point, here. What would a Jewish poem that thought such thoughts look like, sound like, be like? A Jewish Romantic poem, or Romantic Jewish one. That's my next question to consider, perhaps after another nap.

Two good quotes from Ha'aretz this morning, from a piece about secular Israelis getting together to study & worship & do good deeds with some American Jews from New York. I was struck, first, by the reference to "the spirit of American Judaism" strikes the Israelis, as "naive and sentimental." And, second, by this:
Even inspirational tension requires effort. "It's not straightforward," admitted Rabbi Ofer Shabbat-Beit-Halahmi, who was ordained as a rabbi after visiting BJ at the end of the 1990s and is now active in the Reform community in Tzur Hadassah. He spoke about the issue on the lawn of Kibbutz Tzuba, where 20 leaders of the Israeli communities met last week to discuss this year's visit. "First of all it's a different culture," he said. "A culture that's different from the Jewish perspective as well. The type of Judaism experienced by people like me, who grew up in Israel, is totally different from [that] in the Diaspora."

Shabbat-Beit-Halahmi gave an example connected to the language of prayer. Israelis understand the words of the prayers and so sometimes feel uncomfortable saying liturgical blessings like, "And you are faithful to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are you God, who resuscitates the dead." He said that Bronstein told the Israelis, "You have to find a language that people don't understand in order to pray in it."

"I think that this joke is actually not a joke," said Shabbat-Beit-Halahmi.
Mulling that one over,

Saturday, January 07, 2006

SJC: Some New Perspectives

Still mulling over this sacred / secular business. I hope I'm not boring you!

Some of my new thoughts are sparked by Mike Heller's lovely essay "Remains of the Diaspora: a Personal Meditation": the piece he's written for the upcoming Secular Jewish Culture and Radical Poetics volume, or whatever the book will be called.

Mike starts by framing the relationship between the sacred and secular in spatial terms:
the poet who is in touch—allied in some fashion--with Judaism's speculations on language has as his animating creative goad primarily his awareness of the "between," of the space of the diaspora.

This "between" is, in a sense, foundational. It exists in the relational sphere between the law of religious observance and secular life. Robert Alter, commenting on Walter Benjamin's reading of Kafka, sees it as operative in the decay of "traditional" tradition (if I may use an oxymoron), the loss of Halakic Judaism to Aggadic Judaism. What is left, according to Alter, is "lore in quest of Law, yet so painfully estranged from what it seeks that the pursuit can end in a pounce of destruction, the fictional rending the doctrinal" (H 53). Alter could as well be speaking of the poetic, for Kafka's 'graven' images are imagistic and allegorical constructs, already caught in the "between" of Law and lore, and demanding to be read across the two genres.
A page later, using terms from Ari Elon--was that lead from my blog, Mike? What fun!--the essay gives us again a spatial image of the ribboni [freethinking, self-mastering] poet's task:
The ribboni's mission, Elon implies, is to "turn the Torah of Israel from a source for authority to a source for inspiration" (35). "Law" into "lore." The ribboni must take a walk into or over the void, at which point he or she is suspended between the religious and the secular worlds, but there, according to Elon, the ribboni must try to hang in suspension. The "Shabbat" boundary signifies not only the limits of the theocratic dispensation but is also the edge beyond which labor must continue. If "shabbat" poetics sanctify rules, strategies, even moments where labor is no longer governed by thought (in the sense that it is rule- and precedent- driven), the poetics of the space beyond the Sabbath's broken string boundaries, requires endless questioning and testing. Nothing is established as final. No clean break, no new totalizing embrace. The ribboni is not a new person; rather, he must live with Shabbat memory, the time and space of sanctity that, like a mother's embrace, offered answers and comfort. He is governed by this history, by his textual origins. For the poet of the diaspora, then, all yearnings, even those seeking to recover a lostness, involve, even if only sub rosa, a sense of felt opposition, of yearning against as well as for.
Notice how Mike has carved out a space between the sacred--the realm of "theocratic dispensation"--and a realm so fully secular that the theocratic realm is simply unimagined, neither remembered nor rejected anymore.

At times, later in the essay, this fully secular realm seems equivalent to the realm of "experimental" poetry, at least as this is understood to be poetry that remains "in the realm of 'art,' in the realm of a 'consumerist' culture of planned obsolescence and inflated political claims"--an argument fleshed out at length in Mike's essay "Avant-Garde Propellants of the Machine Made of Words," in Uncertain Poetries. At other points it seems equivalent to the "husks" of language deployed in more perfunctory circumstances. At one point, the fully secular turns out to have (perhaps, at times) a sanctity all its own. Mike quotes Scholem here, and Whitman. I suspect this means a secularity pushed farther than the realm of art or of husks could contain. (Remember Blake's "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise"?) As you might expect, George Oppen's work turns out to serve as an example of this last; indeed, he remains an exemplary figure for Mike, and oneI need to know better.

I had planned to post more on the social circumstances of this whole SJC discussion: that is, on the actual, practical issues that seem to me at stake, which have not been addressed as directly in the essays I've read (for the volume) or the thoughts I have posted here as yet. Too tired, though, to go on with this now--and too vexed by one last question. Why is it that writers and poets always want to find some way to claim that the secular has a spark of the sacred somewhere within in, and no one ever wants to claim that the sacred has a spark of secularity?

Maybe I'm just too much the Reconstructionist, maybe I've just read too much Richard Poirier (and Wallace Stevens, maybe, and William James), maybe I just live too deeply inside the eruv here in Skokie, on a mostly Orthodox block, but I get a little tired of ceding the rhetorical high ground to the Unnamable. Surely most of this talk of "the sacred" really stands for (or masks?) a set of emotional states, social contexts, communal ties, and other secularly definable moods and activities, for which "the sacred" is our too-reverential shorthand. A little Tom Paine chutzpah, please!

More soon,

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Mike, Myshkin, Milosz

This just in from Michael Heller,
Dear Eric,

I done something wrong--tried to use the blog response page and it went blank on me. I probably typed too much. So I'm going the old-fashioned way.

Interested in Myshkin2's invoke of Milosz. This summer I read Donald Davie's little book on him, Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric and found this operative passage, which may key into some of the sacred-secular discussions on ABJB. "...'the sacral,' we might say, so long as it is experienced only in discontinuous moments of illumination, is being short-changed--either it informs the whole of our experience, or else it has no firm purchase on any part of it. The lyrical 'moment' cedes the initiative to that non-lyrical continuum from which it is, confessedly an exception. Milosz will not strike that bargain..." (58) This citation seems to lie athwart the problems of the sacred-secular nexus, the esoteric/exotic use of lore one is not fully committed to in the theological sense, for instance. But it also paradoxically modifies the direction by which what is "sacred" is to be understood (see the essay I just sent you). Anyway, I throw this out to be kicked around.



Exigent Futures: New and Selected Poems (2003) and Uncertain Poetries: Selected Essays (2005)
available from Salt Publishing at and at both regular and online bookstores.
For a survey of work, poems, essays, prose, go to:
Mike also sent me a copy of his piece for the SJC/RP volume, which I'll blog about as soon as I can. Classes started this week--a busy time, as you all know. One thing I notice right off the bat with Mike's piece, though: lots of discussion of Bialik. Very welcome, this: we in the States need to season our discussion of "Jewish poetry" with more Hebraic and Israeli spice. I must say, though, that the more I hear about the way the sacred intersects (or lurks within) the secular, the more I want to reverse the claim, to spot the secular lurking where the sacred claims to be--or, at least, to take a strictly functionalist approach to claims about "the sacred," whatever they might be.

(By which I mean what, you ask? More soon--)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Myshkin in the Mishkan

A lovely comment from Myshkin2 last night, worth bringing above the fold:
I feel a bit awkward (& perhaps presumptuous) entering these unparted waters. But would Milosz be helpful in any ways--as an example of "diasporic & adrift" as well as one who demonstrates Geworfenheit (if that works grammatically)...and as one who actively investigates nostalgia (a poem like "For NN," for example? Also, Milosz as a sacramental poet who is only sometimes Catholic--and then not especially when he's being sacramental.

I'm glad that Hans Jonas was brought in to the discussion, because that clarifies a lot--for someone like me is so far from even imagining what a "return to the law" would be like. Ditto for "writing from the law!" Sorry if I'm lowering the level of discourse here.
Not at all, Myshkin2--there's no lowering in sight! In fact, your comment illuminates two things for me quite vividly. First, it reminds me that I don't know much at all about Milosz; in fact, I haven't read more than a poem or two by him since I was in high school, a generation ago! I'll take a look at his work, now, with these questions in mind.

Second, though--and more important--your post suggests to me that the condition Bloom and Finkelstein describe sounds an awful lot like the Jewish case of a more general post-theological malady. I mean, if Stevens, Keats, Milosz, and Heidegger have the bug, along with Scholem and friends, maybe it's a period phenomenon rather than a specifically Jewish issue, and should be treated accordingly? Perhaps my own restlessness with the discourse of diaspora, "return to the law," etc. derives from a sense that these are very culturally specific metaphors for something that isn't really all that culturally specific, and that more is lost than is gained by insisting on the "Jewishness" of any of them.

I'll have much more to say about all of this later this afternoon, once I've read what looks to be two Very Useful emails, from Mike Heller and from Dan Morris, about the SJC project. Stay tuned!


Monday, January 02, 2006

The Dialogue Continues

This just in, by late-night owl, from Norman:
Klingons aside, Geworfenheit is Heidegger's term for our state of "having been thrown" into existence, which as I understand it (especially via Hans Jonas in The Gnostic Religion) always involves loss and decenteredness. Bloom uses the term in translation, via Jonas, as well.

The kind of Jewishness we've been wrestling with, aside from its gnostic flavoring, certainly is related to that kind of disconnectedness. For Heidegger the solution is opening oneself to Being; perhaps for us, it's returning to the Law, which, as ribboni, we can't manage. So again, our poetry must remain adrift and diasporic. Of course, I'm open to alternatives...

Otherwise, I totally agree with you about investigating nostalgia. I think we can even speak of the uses of nostalgia, which may apply to some of my work. And yes, that's where Keats and Stevens may be too. So am I in good company or what?

Happy trails...
Well, now! What to do with this? I suppose one alternative would be to imagine some third course between "opening oneself to Being" (whatever that means--sounds pleasantly intrusive, in manner of Dan Savage invitation!) and "returning to the Law."

(By the way, is that a metaphorical or metonymic way to refer to "returning to God," in manner of ba'al teshuvim of every denomination, or is it a figure for some more social practice, like returning to the fold whether or not a Shepherd is nearby? Or does it have to do with frames of reference, so that as long as the poem's primary source-text remains canonical--Talmud or Tanakh, let's say--you have "returned" enough not to be "disconnected"?)

Anyway, as I was saying, is there really no such a thing as a secular secularity for Jews, a Jewish version of, say, Frank O'Hara's stance? Or are we now saying that O'Hara is a sacramental, Catholic poet? (Paging Peter O'Leary!)

In any case, I'd like to investigate those "uses of nostalgia" comparatively, posing Norman's work either against itself--it changes, in tone and idea, from poem to poem and often within individual pieces--or against some other texts. Let's see... something from Charles Bernstein? From Arielle Greenberg's My Kafka Century? (More on which anon.) Suggestions would be mighty welcome, folks. Please pass them along.


Norman Responds

A nice note from Norman--caffeine makes me alliterative--about my musings from yesterday.
Since I'm one of the subjects of your latest post, I'm reluctant to say too much in response. Then again, since we do have a history, let me note that the "athletic, exultant" Nietzscheanism which Prof. Vendler poses against Heidegger gives me the willies. Too much muscularity and potential triumphalism there for this diasporic Yid, Eric, so I'll stick to rupture and longing, thanks, not that I can ever shake 'em. Or what Heidegger (no great role model either!) calls Geworfenheit.

Additionally, I don't buy the "overcoming" of nostalgia in Keats or Stevens. They continued to study the nostalgias (as Stevens and Blooms would say) right up to the end. At best, they--and we--can repress the nostalgias for a time. But we all know where that leads...
Hmmm.... Clearly I have some work to do! I don't know what Geworfenheit means, other than perhaps "the state of being like Lieutenant Worf from Star Trek: the Next Generation." (Probably not.)
And I'm not sure, for example, that Vendler actually says that Keats or Stevens "overcomes" nostalgia; in fact, I'm sure she doesn't--that was my fumbling attempt at a verb. Here's what she does say:
Keats, a resolute nonbeliever and political radical, came into a post-Enlightenment world, it is true, but it was still a world which felt some of those pangs of loss later expressed by Heidegger. Keats too felt a religious nostalgia, and it entered into many of his own meditations on the functions of the poet; but he did not confine himself within that framework (116).
Although she does not speak of Stevens later in the essay, I suspect that he, too, would count as a poet who felt nostalgia, but "did not confine himself within that framework." The question would then be, I suppose, whether one can "feel nostalgia" and "study nostalgia" without remaining trapped within it. Whether, indeed, one might indulge nostalgia and investigate nostalgia--even one's own--without fooling oneself that some other state (wholeness, faith, certainty) is actually what one desires.

What do I mean by this? Grrrr.... Let's strip it down to something practical. I know many, many non-Halakhic Jews, both religiously affiliated and utterly on-their-own, and almost of them feel any real nostalgia for "halakhic certainty." None would trade their misbelief, disbelief, or make-believe-belief for any sort of blessed assurance. Does this mean that they do not feel nostalgia? Not necessarily--but what they miss, or feel they miss, might be better understood in purely social and psychological terms than in religious ones. And even here, they're savvy enough to know that the price of what they feel nostalgia for--some version of "community," I suppose--is far higher (in freedom, in modernity, etc.) than they'd ever be willing to pay. And some don't feel that they're missing anything, really, at all. That may not be a Nietzschean confidence, but it's not loss & rupture, either.

Now, it may be that this degree of comfort is inimical to poetry: that to be a poet is to testify, with Emily Dickinson, that "A loss of something ever felt I," whatever that Something might be. But I'm not entirely sure that's true, and I'm not entirely sure that all poetry--even all of your poetry, Norman--really bears it out.

Time to reread Richard Poirier's The Renewal of Poetry, I think, and "A Poem for the Little Shoemakers," from Restless Messengers. Until then, here's the Dickinson to savor:

A loss of something ever felt I --
The first that I could recollect
Bereft I was -- of what I knew not
Too young that any should suspect

A Mourner walked among the children
I notwithstanding went about
As one bemoaning a Dominion
Itself the only Prince cast out --

Elder, Today, a session wiser
And fainter, too, as Wiseness is --
I find myself still softly searching
For my Delinguent Palaces --

And a Suspicion, like a Finger
Touches my Forehead now and then
That I am looking oppositely
For the site of the Kingdom of Heaven --

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Musings--en Route to an Essay, Perhaps?

In her 1987 essay "Keats and the Use of Poetry," Helen Vendler takes issue with the premises of a question posed by Heidegger: "What is the poet for in a destitute time?" The philosopher, she observes, writes in the nostalgic tones of a nineteeth century crisis of faith, "deprived of theological reassurance, seeing emptiness about him, and longing for presence." There are, however, other ways to stage a Gotterdammerung. Among German philosophers, Vendler cites Nietzsche's "athletic and exulting response to the same moment"; from the poets, she recalls a passage from Wallace Stevens's "Two or Three Ideas," which she quotes at length:
To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences. It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they came to nothing . . . It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure, we too had been annihilated . . . At the same time, no man ever muttered a petition in his heart for the restoration of those unreal shapes. There was in every man the increasingly human self, which instead of remaining the observer, the non-participant, the delinquent, became constantly more and more all there was or so it seemed; and whether it was so or merely seemed so still left it for him to resolve life and the world on his own terms.
From Stevens, Vendler pivots to Keats, another "resolute nonbeliever" who triumphed over his own religious nostalgia, and her exemplary instance of the "modern posttheological poet" who explores "the use of secular poetry."

Over the past six months or so--since the question of "Secular Jewish Culture and Radical Poetry" was posed, I suppose--I've kept that passage from Vendler open on my desk. This morning, I realized why. Most of the theoretical discussion I've seen of SJC, and of modern Jewish culture more generally, looks back in reverence to a Tetragrammaton of German (or Germanic) Jewish writers of, roughly speaking, Heidegger's generation: Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Kafka, and Freud, or ShBK-F, for short. (A little joke there, folks: the Shin-Bet-Quof root gives us "to leave" and--via "shavak hayyim"--"to die." One of you serious Hebraists will have to tell me what the F is for.) For these writers, at least as they get cited, the modern Jew lives, like Heidegger's poet, in a "desolate time," a time marked by the loss of Torah and Halakhah and the assurance--theological and communal--that these imply. Listen to Norman Finkelstein in The Ritual of New Creation: Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Literature, a foundational text in these matters:
Regardless of what normative Judaism still has to offer, Walter Benjamin's commentary on Kafka remains paradigmatic for all Jewish intellectuals who cannot accept the old ways. "The gate to justice is learning. And yet Kafka does not dare attach to this learning the promises which tradition has attached to the study of Torah. His assistants are sextons who have lost their house of prayer, his students are pupils who have lost their Holy Writ. Now there is nothing to support them on their 'untrammeled, happy journey" (Illuminations, 139).
Rupture, loss, a longing for "halakhic certainty" (81) a "quest for symbolic substitutions for the Law that has gone beyond their grasp" (82): these mark, for Finkelstein, the rocky terrain that modern Jewish poets must traverse, at least in the Diaspora. A terrain that got mapped, and definitively so, evidently, in central Europe somewhere between seven and eight decades ago.

For any number of reasons--of temperament, of national pride, of non-Orthodox religious ideology, of sheer contrarian chutzpah--I have long found this map deeply inadequate. Indeed, my first exchange of letters with Norman Finkelstein, back in the early 1990s, crossed swords with him over just this issue. "You seem to want me to profess some sort of religious belief," he wrote me, or words to that effect. (I don't have the text handy.) "Marx and Freud pretty much took care of that for me some years ago." "William James pretty much took care of Marx and Freud for me," I responded, or something equally glib. But is it really that hard to turn on ShBK-F the same skeptical gaze that Vendler turns on Heidegger: to see in them the same temperamentally and otherwise limited range of response, and to itch for alternatives? Is there no Jewish poetry that evinces an "athletic, exultant" Nietzschean rising to the challenge of a post-theological Jewish culture, or a Keatsian / Stevensian / Emersonian overcoming of nostalgia? Is there no way to reshuffle ShBK-F ("to leave," plus whatever F will be) into SFK-B ("to clap hands, to suffice," plus whatever B will be)?

That's what's on my mind about this whole debate today. Any input from all of you--my dozen faithful readers!--would be very, very appreciated, here or by email.


Notes on Bloom, part 1

I'm less and less interested in Harold Bloom's mordant judgments on Jewish American literature--on anything, really, these days, except when he's writing about "The American Religion" or defending criticism as an extension of personal idiosyncracy--but whenever I turn back to my piece on "Secular Jewish Culture and Radical Poetry," he springs to mind, in manner of Covering Cherub, no doubt.

By way of exorcism, then, some notes and quotes:

Harold Bloom. Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present. Harvard UP, 1989.

"I myself do not believe that secularization is itself a literary process. The scandal is the stubborn resistance of imaginative literature to the categories of sacred and secular. If you wish, you can insist that all high literature is secular, or, if you should desire it so, then all strong poetry is sacred. What I find incoherent is the judgment that some authentic literary art is more sacred or more secular than some other" (4).

"Just as J's Jacob or J's Tamar is a superb personality, so is J's Yahweh, though 'personality' is a surprising word to employ in this context. Surprise, however, is one of the dominant elements of J's Yahweh. This first Yahweh, so different from his shrunken form in normative Judaism and Christianity, is the crown of J's work, and remains impossible for us to assimilate, at least without a spiritual and cognitive crisis throughout our culture, even among the most secular" (5).

Note, though, that this "personality" isn't exactly human: "Yahweh, who does not have human will and feeling, even in J, is also rather more intense in character than Zeus" (33).

"Longinus and Shelley also imply that the literary sublime is the reader's sublime, which means that the reader must be able to defer pleasure, yielding up easier satisfactions in favor of a more dealyed and difficult reward. That difficulty is an authentic mark of originality, an originality that must seem eccentric until it usurps psychic space and establishes itself as a fresh center" (5).

"J's God was not the God of the sufferers" (19).

"the Yahweh of J, thanks to the reductionists and normative revisionists, continues to be an unknown God, despite his impishness and his imaginative vigor" (33).

"Let us conceive of John Milton as theomorphic, a kind of mortal god, which is how our high Romantic precursors conceived him. The true God of Paradise Lost is the narrator, rather than the Urizenic schoolmaster of souls scolding away on his throne or the Holy Spirit invoked by the Arian Milton, not as part of a Trinity, and not as Milton's muse either, since the muse for Milton is simply his own indwelling power, his interior paramour" (92).

"If I had to construct a scale with literary self-esteem at one end and aeshtetic self-flagellation at the other, then Milton would be at the self-celebratory pole, and Kafka at the extreme of self-punishment" (100).

"Angus Fletcher...emphasized in his seminal book Allegory (1964) that 'the sublime appears to provide a cosmology for the poet.' Taking as his own the Longinian desire to free us from the slavery of pleasure, or of a mere dullness, Fletcher followed Shelley's Longinian Defense of Poetry in / emphasizing that the function of the sublime was to work, by 'difficult ornament' and by heightened ambivalences, so as to make us share in its ago, its ceaseless struggle against the superficial. Weiskel's The Romantic Sublime, like Fletcher's Allegory, shares the deep design upon us of Longinus and Shelley. We are to be persuaded to yield up easier pleasures for more difficult pleasures, or as Weiskel phrases this, we are to move from the egotistical sublime to the negative sublime" (118-119).

"What does growing up mean in and for a poem anyway, except the loss of power?" (119)

"We ought never to forget that psychology, rhetoric, and cosmology are three names for a single entity" (123).

"All strong poets...must ruin the sacred truths to fable and old song, precisely because the essential condition for poetic strength is that the new song, one's own, always must be a song of one's self, whether it be called the Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost, or Milton: A Poem in Two Books. Every sacred truth not one's own becomes a fable, an old song that requires corrective revision" (125).

"Criticism, Oscar Wilde observed, is the only civilized form of autobiography, and Oscar was always right" (130).

"Freud was enchanted by being disenchanted, by the pleasures of ceasing to be deceived" (131).

"Neither Wordsworth nor Freud was an unconscious theologian--yet both sought to replace a / dying god with a new one, the god of the perpetually growing inner self" (131/2).

"The two-part Prelude of 1799 completes the work of Paradise Lost in destroying the distinction between sacred and secular poetry" (139).

"Our own American sublime more frankly exalts poetry over belief, and receives its classical declaration in an audacious moment of Song of Myself, where our own father, Walt Whitman, deliberately turns his back upon Wordsworth and confronts the fearsome sunrise of our evening land" (140). [the passage is this: "Dazzling and tremendous, how quick the sunrise woudl kill me, / If I could not now and always send forth sunlight from myself").

"The theory of repression is coherent only in a psychic cosmos where absolutely everything is meaningful, so that a dream or a joke or a symptom or a transference can sustain a level of interpretive intensity akin to the rabbinical procedures for unpacking Torah" (147).

"What is it to be Jewish? Does one intend the biblical, or the normatively rabbinical, or something more belated by the question? Three thousand and more years of apparent continuity mask astonishing discontinuities,a s many of them ancient as modern. The clearest answer ought to be religious, but the phrase 'the Jewish religion' is itself misleading. Generally, the phrase refers to what the Harvard historian of relgion, George Foot Moore, first named 'normative Judaism': the faith of Akiba and his colleagues in the second century C. E. But they lived perhaps twelve centuries after the Yahwist, greatest and most original of the biblical writers. Between his tales of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, and the rabbis extraordinary modes of interpretation, there had been many interventions, of which the / most decisive was the influx of Greek culture after Alexander's world conquests. The oral Torah, created by the rabbis as a defensive hedge around Scripture, is ultimately Platonic in its function, though not in its ideology. Nothing in the Hebrew Bible proclaims the holiness of study, or sees the Jewish people saving themselves, as a people, by Torah learning. Yet this vision of sanctification through instruction has become so Judaic, even so Jewish, that its Platonic origin now constitues a shock for almost all Jews, however schoalrly. The historical difference beween the Yahwist and Akiba is Plato, and this influx of Athens into Jerusalem saved Judaism and the Jews, from being scattered into oblivion among the nations, by giving the Jews a central formulation of their own culture, but in Greek, the universal language" (147-8).

"The preferred biblical way of representing an object is to explain how it was made" (150).

The Hoopoe's Crown

Happy New Year, everyone! What better way to start things off than with a post here, eh? New Year's resolutions & all that.

I'm on my second or third re-reading (depending on the poem) of Jackie Osherow's new collection, The Hoopoe's Crown. At first go I liked it somewhat less than Dead Men's Praise, her previous book and one of my favorites, but it's growing on me. (Growing in me, I almost typed, and maybe I was right that first time.) I don't have it in me this New Year's morning to write a full-scale review, but let me toss up a sample and a handful of thoughts to develop later.

First, the free sample: the opening poem:

My Version: Medieval Acrostic

Jealousy? Homage? Longing? Superstition?
All I know is, I want to join those guys
Calling God's name, writing their own
Quietly, in steady pieces, as if praise
Unmasks the giver as it goes along,
Existing and singing simultaneous.
Let me in, guys--even if I'm wrong;
I'm not fit for unremitting chaos.
Nudge me when another cornered word
Escapes as firmament the moment it's uttered.

As you'll see from this, Osherow likes to write formal verse--in this case, an acrostic in highly varied, off-rhyming pentameter--whose diction is extremely informal. I'm always a little skeptical about this style at first, and pick little fights as I read. (One "guys" is clever, and the line-end position calls attention to gender as well. Why the second, though?) After a few lines, though, my objections tend to fall away, as I get caught up not only in the tossed-off felicities, but in the casual confidence of the speaker, "Jacqueline," who is clearly Osherow's major creation. (She says that Dickinson is her favorite American poet, but I'm not sure that she's not more Whitmanian in this character-building.)

The poems that follow make some moves familiar from Osherow's previous books: turns to science, textually assured meditations on scripture (notably Nevi'im this time, as Psalms cropped up in the last book), and invocations of the Yiddish modern poets (notably Glatstein) she has written about in prose elsewhere. Other turns are new: to the landscape of Israel (physical more than political, for once!); to Jewish and Moorish and Garcia Lorca-ish Spain. This last poem, "Ri'e Yazmin," is in Osherow's beloved terza rima. Here's the start:

Madinat al-Zahra--wasn't that the name
of my jasmine ruin, my source of jasmine
when, trailing Lorca and the Sephardim,

I'd gone to feast my eyes on Southern Spain?
I was ogling Cordoba, lejana y sola:
its fleets of low white buildings shot with sun,

the mosque disfigured by a Christian cupola,
the synagogue intact, complete with psalms--
but there were rumors from Alf Layla Walaylah

of red-gold stags and falcons dripping gems,
floors, whose leaf motifs, coral and ivory,
embraced tenacious lapis pentagrams.

That tri-cultural tercet, where "Christian cupola" rhymes with Alf Layla Walaylah (the Arabic name for the 1001 Nights), with "psalms" poised between, seems to me just as perfect as James Merrill's rhyme of "T. S. Eliot" with "so what?" in his poem "The Thousand and Second Night." Bravo!

OK: must run. Before I go, though, a plug for the poem that's been "growing in me" since I read this book first a week or so ago, the title poem, "The Hoopoe's Crown." It starts out with typical razzle-dazzle terza rima, but oh, my--as it goes, the tones shift effortlessly, and it ends up as one of the saddest & loveliest pieces Osherow has ever written, worthy of its grace notes from Kohelet. I'll come back to this one. You go read it, first.

(So here's the question: is Osherow a "secular Jewish poet"? Is she part of "secular Jewish culture" when she writes about some topics, and part of "religious Jewish culture" when she writes about others? Stephen & Danny, if you read this, fire up a flare.)